Stand outside the Amphitheater and look in every direction — Chautauqua north, south, east and west. It is an exercise in imagination to think of Chautauqua extending in every direction, going on forever.
But there was a time when it was not so imaginative an effort, when the Chautauqua Movement was reaching its peak around 1907.
“At one time or another, there were well over 250 programs across North America that identified themselves as being chautauquas,” said Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian.
Schmitz will say more about the origin and expansion of the Chautauqua Movement at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. His talk, titled “The Chautauqua Movement: North, South, East, and West,” is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.
In the early 20th century, there was a strong market for Chautauqua talent. But to understand the Chautauqua Idea, “we need to go back to how it all started,” Schmitz wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “because to this day it has more to do with how it started than how it changed and grew.”
Chautauqua growth and popularity had much to do with the 1878 inception of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, a product of co-founder John H. Vincent’s imagination. As the Circles grew, so did the desire to have Chautauqua-like programming closer to home, Schmitz wrote.
“The Chautauqua Movement in the South is particularly interesting since it serves as an indicator of changes in ideas, attitudes and lines of division within the Southern states,” he wrote.
In a post-Civil War era, a time of some uncertainty and change, “Chautauqua provided a place for people to put new and confusing ideas and events into a Christian perspective,” Schmitz wrote.
Vincent and Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller included in the program science, history, literature, the arts, current affairs, recreation, and not just religious and biblical studies.
“To them religion was the vessel of knowledge,” Schmitz wrote. “Without knowledge religion was void and empty; but without religion, knowledge was formless and without meaning, without definition or purpose.”
These ideals, while still in focus, met with obstacles as the 20th century ticked on. By the 1920s, optimism faded. People were told that a war such as World War I would never happen. But it did. After the war, people had thought winning it would begin a new era of peace, “but all they saw was rearmament, anarchy, and the rise of communism and fascism,” Schmitz wrote.
Prohibition was meant to end poverty and crime, woman’s suffrage was meant to end partisan politics and government corruption; the world, it turns out, trespassed against the people within Chautauqua’s harmonious space.
Schmitz wrote that people “did not lose faith in God, but they did lose faith in the world, a world they now saw as progressing the wrong direction and they longed for purposefulness of the past.”
Nonetheless, Chautauqua continues north, south, east and west. Chautauqua can give back to America in the 21st century, Schmitz wrote. Chautauqua can give a sense of place.
“Not a virtual place, but a real physical place where people actually gather together to see and hear the same things,” Schmitz wrote.
Chautauqua can provide a time of rest, not just a time to stop working, but a time to appreciate the completion of work and the perfection of creation.
“This is the Sabbath of the Bible,” Schmitz wrote. “[A]nd this is the Sabbath that Vincent and Miller wished to preserve.”