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CTC Blog: Behind the Curtain

History of Faith at Chautauqua Institution

Pictured: A map of the Burned-over District. Counties in red are part of the district.

It should surprise no Chautauquan that Western New York has a long, rich history of cultural activity and intellectual, interfaith dialogue. Chautauqua Institution embodies these values, which appeared to emerge with the arrival of various religious sects to the area. Western New York earned the name “the Burned-Over District” for the way it was spiritually transformed — set ablaze, one might say — by the religious movements that swept across it from the 1790s through the following century.

  • Prior to the 17th century, six Native tribes in Western New York (known collectively amongst themselves as the Haudenosaunee, though they are commonly referred to as the Iriquois) maintained spiritual practices that were centered on pacifism and stewardship of the natural world. Their faith involved multiple deities, the most important of which was known as the Great Spirit.
    • “Chautauqua” is a Haudenosaunee word meaning “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together.” The town of Chautauqua earned its name for the shape of its lake, which appears to be cinched in the middle.
  • In the 1790s, following the forced removal of these Native tribes, young settlers moved into western New York, to the lands made available along the Indian Mohawk Trail. New ways of life were established by these young settlers, who hailed largely from Puritanical New England and brought with them a Protestant work ethic that would in time be shaped by the influx of members of other Christian faith communities (and later Jewish, Hindu, Buddhust, Muslim, and others).
    • In this interdenominational melting pot — including Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, and more
      — new ways of life and ideas about the world flourished. Western New York became home to anti-slavery and temperance attitudes.
  • In 1848, Western New York hosted the country’s first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention.
  • In 1874, Chautauqua Institution was founded, inspired by the region’s cross-cultural intellectual curiosity and thirst for spiritual knowledge. Its founders Lewis Miller, an inventor, and John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist bishop, originally named the institution the “Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.” It initially served as an educational summer camp for Sunday school teachers--an experiment in “vacation learning.”
  • Chautauqua Institution’s mission quickly expanded to encompass physical education, music, and art, among other subjects. The assembly uniquely enabled women, who were often barred from other opportunities for higher education, to gain vocational training--another testament to the social progressiveness of the region.
  • 1904-1932: “Circuit Chautauquas” or “Tent Chautauquas” — tours of lectures and discussions across the country, like traveling circuses — made their way across the country.
  • By about 1915, some 12,000 communities across the country had hosted a chautauqua.

Religion remains one of Chautauqua Institution’s Four Pillars (the other three being Arts, Education, and Recreation), and today, Chautauqua Institution has 19 different faith-based organizations and 11 Denominational Houses. These include the African American Denominational House, Baha’i Faith, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish and Reform Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Chautauqua Institution’s own Motet Choir, made up of fifty-five voices, is featured in The Christians. Two different groups of 22 singers alternate performances. The group performs daily worship services on the Institution’s grounds, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, the Organist and Coordinator of Worship and Sacred Music. This summer is Jacobsen’s sixtieth at Chautauqua Institution.

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