Before there was a Chautauqua, there was a Teachers’ Retreat. The first meeting was formally named “The National Sunday School Assembly,” and it was held at Fair Point, New York on Lake Chautauqua in August, 1874. In years to come, people would refer to it as the first Chautauqua Assembly; but at the time, no one who attended the modest gathering of Sunday school workers could envision what it would eventually become.
That first assembly was a meeting to talk shop about Sunday schools. Attendees studied a “definitive” course of instruction, heard lectures on “subjects illustrative of the Bible,” and learned teaching skills. At the end of the three-week-long assembly, attendees took a written examination on Bible knowledge and Sunday school work.
In charge of it all was the Honorable Lewis Miller, a Sunday school superintendent from Akron, Ohio and Dr. John Vincent of the Methodist Church.
Dr. Vincent had long held the belief that Sunday school teachers must have appropriate training to be effective in leading their classes. As far back as 1864 he wrote a regular column in the Sunday School Journal, a monthly publication of the Methodist Church, advocating that ideal.
Together Dr. Vincent and Mr. Miller developed a plan to bring together a large group of Sunday school workers to study a proscribed course that included Bible lectures, ancient geography, and educational theory; and issue diplomas to those who passed a written exam based on the course work.
But it was Mr. Miller who is credited with the idea of holding the retreat in the woods, rather than in a city. He chose to convene the gathering in the Fair Point area on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in New York.
The main meeting place was out of doors where a platform had been set up in an open area that would eventually become Miller Park. Someone—maybe Mr. Miller himself—ironically called the gathering area the “auditorium” and the name stuck.
The Assembly opened on Tuesday evening, August 4, 1874, with a brief responsive service of Scripture and song, offered by Dr. Vincent. He later wrote about that memorable first meeting:
“The stars were out and looked down through trembling leaves upon a goodly well-wrapped company, who sat in the grove, filled with wonder and hope. No electric light brought platform and people face to face that night. The old-fashioned pine fires on rude four-legged stands covered with earth, burned with unsteady, flickering flame, now and then breaking into brilliancy by the contact of a resinous stick of the rustic fireman, who knew how to snuff candles and how to turn light on the crowd of campers-out. The white tents around the enclosure were very beautiful in that evening light.”
The tents Dr. Vincent mentioned were erected at each of the four corners of the auditorium where the first Normal classes were held.
The Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut described how the Normal Class was conducted with precision.
“At eight o’clock the teachers of the different section-classes were called together for a conversazione concerning the subjects to be presented to the class. At ten o’clock one session of the Normal class was held for an hour. At 1:30 was a report and review of the morning lessons; and at two o’clock another session of the classes. The classes—for while all studied the same lesson there were four sections—each met in a tent. . . . Students were expected to attend the same tent regularly, but the instructors were changed daily from tent to tent. But, in spite of the rules, students would watch to see where favorite teachers entered, and would follow them.”
The examination was held on the last day of the two-week program. There were fifty written questions: twenty-five on the topics of Sunday school and teaching; and twenty-five on the Bible.
Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut wrote many times about the exam and how tough it was. Those “who passed the examination and received the diploma were not more than a tenth of those who attended the classes.”
The first year over 200 people sat down to take the fifty-question exam. After five hours of wrestling with the questions, 184 people completed the exam; but of those, only 142 actually passed the exam and received diplomas.
In 1875, the second year of the Assembly, 123 passed the exam; and two years later, more than 300 Sunday school workers received diplomas.
Each year the course-work expanded. By 1883 the teachers’ retreat offered lessons in languages, crayon sketching, paint, choir practice, clay modeling, sciences, as well as instruction in teaching different grades. A Ph.D. from Dickinson College delivered several lectures on psychology and taught practical ways teachers could use principles of psychology in their work. Almost every form of instruction for teaching was covered.
The Teachers’ Retreat wasn’t just lectures and class work. Teachers attended concerts, competed in spelling bees, and compared notes while they mingled at receptions.
From year to year the subject matter expanded. By the time the Teachers Retreat celebrated its twentieth anniversary, the original premise of training Sunday school workers had become a small fraction of the Chautauqua University academic program.
In fact, the Teachers’ Retreat had evolved into a meeting of secular school teachers by 1885, as this ad in the Journal of Education shows.
There was a practical reason for the Chautauqua Teachers’ Retreat to expand its offerings as it did. In the nineteenth century, Sunday schools were often the only education many American children received. Children who could not, for one reason or another, attend school, could regularly attend church; and it was there that many received their only instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, in addition to training in the Bible.
As its catalog of academic classes expanded, so did the student body. Enrollment in the teachers’ retreat doubled, then tripled. By 1918 more than 3,000 students were enrolled and the faculty numbered ninety instructors.
Every year thousands of men and women left the Teachers’ Retreat and returned home with a new ideal of Sunday school work and an inspired plan for influencing others. Very quickly, Bishop Vincent’s office was overwhelmed with requests for information about the program and for teachers.
Newspapers helped spread the fame of Chautauqua. Click here to read an article in the New York Times published August 10, 1875, about the second Chautauqua Assembly.
Soon, “daughter” Chautauqua Assemblies were established in different parts of the country so more people could attend. By 1890 there were over 30 active Chautauqua Summer Assemblies, ranging from Southern California to Maine, from Canada to England.
At the heart of each Assembly was the Teachers’ Retreat, where the best teachers learned their craft from Chautauqua’s visionaries and leaders, John Vincent and Lewis Miller.