The Chautauqua Movement

‘Chautauqua’ began as an educational gathering, originating as an American movement in the late 1800s, providing public lectures, religious programs and concerts during the summer months. It continues today as an exploration and enrichment of life through four pillars of programming: religion, cultural arts recreation and education.

History of the Chautauqua Movement

historic Chautauqua Movement photographIn 1874, John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller rented the site of a Methodist camp meeting to use as a summer school for Sunday school teachers; the site became known as the Chautauqua Institution. This reflected a nation-wide interest in teaching.

Vincent and Miller were very clear that their intent was educational, rather than revivalist. The Chautauqua Institution was never affiliated with any one denomination, like most faith groups today. The mild Protestantism that has informed much of American culture was an underpinning of the Chautauqua Movement.

Within a few years, the scope of the Chautauqua Institution had broadened to include adult education, as well as a correspondence course — the Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle, designed to bring “a college outlook” to working and middle-class people.

Along with the educational offerings (including arts and public affairs), thousands of summer residents attended concerts and social activities. By the last decade of the 19th century, the Chautauqua Institution was nationally known as a center for rather earnest, but high-minded, activities that aimed at intellectual, moral self-improvement and civic involvement.

As members and graduates of the Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle spread the Chautauqua idea, many towns—especially in rural areas where opportunities for secondary education were limited—established “Chautauquas.” These seasonal establishments were influenced as much by the libraries, mechanics’ institutes and lecture series “Back East” as they were by the Chautauqua Institution. It reflected the intense desire for self-improvement through education that has always marked the American striver.

“Chautauqua” had a degree of cachet and became short hand for an organized gathering intended to introduce people to great and new ideas, as well as issues of public concern. “Independent Chautauquas,” those with permanent buildings and staff, could be found throughout North America by 1900, with a concentration in the Midwest.

historic Chautauqua Movement photographAfter 1900, the “Circuit Chautauqua” became the principle expression of the movement. The institutional Chautauquas were somewhat wary of these traveling, tented Chautauquas. Still, at the height of the Chautauqua Movement, about 1915, nearly 12,000 communities had hosted a Chautauqua.

Many of the lecturers and performers were contracted by Chautauqua agencies — the most notable was the Redpath Agency in Iowa — and the quality of the offerings varied from Vassar-educated lectures and Shakespeare to animal acts and vaudeville farce.

Decline of the Chautauqua Movement

The movement had essentially died out by the mid-1930s. Most historians cite the rise of the car, culture, radio and movies as the causes. There were several other important, yet subtle, reasons for the decline. One was the sharp increase in fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity in the 1920s. Many small independent Chautauqua communities essentially became camp meetings or church camps.

Another — seemingly contradictory influence — was the rise of the liberated, educated woman. Chautauquas functioned for many lower- and middle-class women much as the elite women’s colleges did for upper-class women. They were training grounds from which women could launch “real” careers. When professional and educational opportunities increased, interest in Chautauqua’s dwindled. Finally, the Depression itself made Chautauquas economically impossible for organizers and audiences.

Rebirth of the Chautauqua Movement

Chautauqua was a social and cultural phenomenon that permeated rural North America until the mid-1920s. At its height, the Chautauqua Movement attracted millions to hear educators, preachers, explorers, scientists, politicians, singers and bands. Today only a handful of Chautauqua communities survive.

But Chautauqua is experiencing a renaissance. People are discovering that lifelong learning is one of the keys to living a happy, fulfilling life. The demand for authentic cultural experiences is growing quickly. Existing Chautauqua communities are thriving and ones from the past are being resurrected. Visit to learn more about the other Chautauqua communities in North America.

Adapted from content contributed by the Colorado Chautauqua. Photos provided by the Lakeside Heritage Society Museum & Archives.