What does it mean to be an American? Over a century ago, the answer seemed straightforward to Teddy Roosevelt when he called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”1 As we approach the centennial of the most successful third-party presidential candidacy in American history, it is worth pondering what Roosevelt meant about this now fairly obscure phenomenon.
In the election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt stood at Armageddon and battled for the Lord while his followers sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Onward Christian Soldier. This music resonated with those who partook of the Chautauqua experience. Chautauqua was primarily northern Methodist, but appealed to other Protestant denominations as well. Though mostly rural in character and expressive of small-town values, Chautauqua was progressive and expansive in spirit, devoted to education and improvement. It represented the people who had avidly supported Abraham Lincoln and Union. Politically, it was part of the America that elected Republican (and often Methodist) Presidents from 1860 to 1912. Presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Roosevelt attended and participated in the Chautauqua phenomenon, which exemplified the values of rural, white, middle-class Protestant America. Thus to understand Chautauqua is to understand the American political majority in the time of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive era.
But there is more to the story than Roosevelt’s reflections. Chautauqua is also a testament to the ability of one individual to design an experience that perfectly met the needs of the time, at least for this audience. The Chautauqua that John Heyl Vincent created would not work a century later, and could not have worked a century earlier when the lands we call the heartland of America were still a wilderness. For its time, however, Chautauqua was exactly right.
Chautauqua was right because it spoke to basic social needs. We are a storytelling species. We need to congregate, to assemble, to share, to be part of something larger than ourselves. Given the values, technology and geography of its time, Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America. That is what made Chautauqua the most American thing in America to Teddy Roosevelt, and what invites our interest in its origins.Origins
In the waning decades of the 18th century and the dawn of the 19th, Methodist circuit riders transformed a once minor religion in the United States into America’s largest Christian denomination. These circuit riders were renowned as warriors of light amid the darkness of the wilderness. The original venue for their showdowns with the forces of darkness was the camp meeting. Its power and appeal is hard for us today to appreciate, we who find it increasingly...