NY’s Chautauqua Institution: A Rich History of Learning

Denominational House is home to lectures and worshiping at the Institute. Chautauqua Institute photo
Denominational House is home to lectures and worshiping at the Institute. Chautauqua Institution photo

Your Brain on Vacation at Chautauqua

By Jamie Kimmel

Go West! blueprints
Go West! blueprints

The Chautauqua Institution is a 140-year-old community on the shore of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York that awakens each summer with a unique mix of arts, education, interfaith worship, recreation and youth programs.

During the summer season, more than 100,000 people visit Chautauqua and participate in performing arts, enlightening lectures, religious ceremonies and community events—all within the beautiful setting of a historic lakeside village.

The Institution started in 1874, originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, and was founded as an educational experiment in out of school, vacation learning for Sunday School teachers but grew into a larger center for discussion of both spiritual and secular issues.

Lecturers are the backbone of this center — inspiring thought and exchange amongst the diverse collection of visitors. The many other luxuries offered such as ballets and symphonies do not fall short of stimulating your senses.

The guest lecturers and worship leaders don’t require prayer participation so there is no conversion to expect. Just a taste of what a belief system has to offer.

An open mind and an open heart are the best ways to enjoy the experience of Chautauqua Institution. However, if lectures and religious activities are not quite for you, the lake provides a good space for introspection.

Religion at Chautauqua

A brief excerpt from our other article about Chautauqua:

“Groff’s lecture was engaging and the participation by the class really made it special. The class was held in a small room with about 20 students. When we walked in a quote was written on the blackboard: “Religion is a healing force in a world torn apart by religion.”

This is a quote from Jon Stewart, host Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” It was a fun way to start the class and led to interesting discussions about treating life as a mystery to uncover, rather than as a problem to solve.

Chautauqua provides a wide variety of services of worship and programs that express the Institution’s Christian heritage as well as its interfaith commitment. While founders Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent were Methodists, other Protestant denominations participated from the first year onward, and today Chautauqua continues to be ecumenical — as well as interfaith — in spirit and practice.

Fitness center
Fitness center education

The Mystic Heart Meditation Program provides a full schedule of meditation practice sessions and classes throughout the Chautauqua season. They serve those who seek the mystic experience that lies at the heart of all world religions and great wisdom traditions.

They do not promote any one faith or path but introduce the essential truths and practices of many paths. They are offered side by side, as equally valid approaches to the divine in each of us.

Each week a different Teacher in Residence presides. Guests can find information in advance about these teachers and their practices and when they are leading sessions at Chautauqua.

Chautauqua Art and Music

The concert hall hosts performances by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (which is composed of professional musicians from surrounding areas who come here to play during the summer) and the Music School Festival Orchestra. The Chautauqua Ballet Company also performs here and so do a host of other contemporary performers.

Go West!

Group 1 program for children entering First Grade.
Group 1 program for children entering First Grade.

Go West! is part of the inter-arts program at Chautauqua Institution. The production is a combination of theater, opera, dance, visual arts, symphony and music.

Go West! investigates the American impulse to pioneer. It particularly explores the American impulse to expand our life, whether that be physical travel into unknown territory or an expansion of knowledge, wealth, influence, art, experience.

Historically rooted in an escape from prosecution in Europe or the pursuit of opportunity in rich and unharvested lands, the American spirit came of age in Jefferson’s presidency when the Louisiana Purchase opened the possibility of a broad shouldered nation that from ocean to ocean could stand firmly as a leader in the Enlightenment’s philosophy of the great experiment of liberty.

There is an undeniable, strong ache underlying this drive to expand our horizons: an ache of ambition, hunger, a greater life — an ache of solitude.

Unity and Solitude

America’s history is a mixture of the individual and the community, of unity and solitude, of both light and dark forces and events, and Go West! will explore the complexity of shades created by these polarities.

The purpose of this effort is to illuminate for Chautauquans, for the media, and for art lovers in general the extraordinary artistic capacity of this Institution. They invest in art and in artists.

They believe that art and artists are keys to a society in touch with the human condition, with a capacity for empathy and open to critical reflection. They believe that unlocking imagination is vital to human development and genuine communication and to global development and competition.

Self-Improvement through Lifelong Learning

Self-improvement through lifelong learning was at the heart of the impulse that motivated Americans and founded Chautauqua in 1874. That tradition continues today through a variety of programs aimed at the exploration and exchange of ideas in an atmosphere that encourages civil discourse.

The morning lecture series is Chautauqua’s signature program, welcoming distinguished scientists, authors, educators and other experts in fields such as arts and humanities, foreign affairs and religion, to engage with Chautauqua audiences on matters that shape our world. They had the idea of bringing wise folks together for talks a hundred years before today’s popular TED talks were even conceived!

The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), the oldest continuous book club in America, introduced learning by correspondence and has enrolled over a half-million readers.

Today, CLSC books address critical and ethical issues of the day through a variety of genres, with an author presenting a different book each week of the summer season.

The Chautauqua Writers’ Center brings focus to writing as an art form with nationally recognized authors in residence offering workshops, readings and lectures, as well as an annual preseason Writers’ Festival, to writers at all levels of development.

Each season, Chautauqua Institution Archives also presents its Heritage Lecture Series, which combines the research of Archives staff with notable historians and Chautauqua scholars in order to explore the rich history of Chautauqua and its effect on American culture.


It’s not just brain food at Chautauqua. There are water activities, sports clubs, tennis and fitness centers. Sailing and swimming in the lake are among the most popular for water sports.

Not only does Chautauqua have a youth activities center, there is also a Boys & Girls Club and a nursery school. The Pier Club is an alcohol free building for college age youth. Concerts, guest speakers, a lounge and a coffee house are often conducted for those 17 and up in this area of the Institution.

For more information visit Chautauqua Institution

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One thought on “NY’s Chautauqua Institution: A Rich History of Learning

  1. This article is absolutely wonderful, as I have visited Chautauqua Institution numerous times. I was a College student there in 1974 & have tried to visit every year thereafter. Last year & this year due to COVID wasn’t able to attend, but hopefully 2022. Can’t wait.

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