The Chautauqua Institution is a quintessentially American organization where citizens have been trooping for a century and a half to fire their spirits and refine their souls. Founded in 1874 by a Methodist minister and an inventor/philanthropist named Lewis Miller,
Chautauqua’s original purpose was to educate and train Sunday-school teachers from around the nation so they could more effectively instruct and minister to their charges back home. The original assemblies were in tents pitched thickly along Chautauqua Lake in western New York. Over time, the grounds grew into a seasonal village of beautiful little cottages, outdoor lecture spaces, numerous chapels, several theaters, and recreation areas. The grounds are now listed as a National Historic Landmark.
A century and a half after its start, Americans continue to flock to Chautauqua for religious inspiration, opportunities to improve their minds, and chances to develop their creative talents. All day long, there are lectures, Bible studies, art classes, concerts, dance performances, sports activities, singalongs, and study groups of all sorts. Every evening there is lively conversation around dinner tables and on packed front porches.
The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, which was founded to promote independent learning, particularly among those unable to attend formal schools, is the oldest book club in the United States. The institution has had its own permanent summer orchestra, theater, opera, ballet, and fine-arts programs for decades. Many religious denominations operate houses on the grounds where learning, conversation, fraternity, and daily worship are shared. Much of the instruction at Chautauqua is self-guided, and the animating purpose behind spending a week or a summer at Chautauqua has always been to improve oneself. This earnest do-it-yourself learning caused Teddy Roosevelt to describe the Chautauqua gatherings as “the most American thing in America.”
By the turn of the twentieth century, this upstate New York phenomenon had became so popular and influential it spawned several hundred other “daughter Chautauquas” in locales across the country. The word thus entered the American lexicon to describe any assembly where Americans come together with the goal of re-forming themselves into better people.
- Chautauqua Institution history, ciweb.org/about-us/about-chautauqua/our-history