Progressivism back then was tightly linked with a strong moralism that fought every “vice” and would not have condoned same sex marriage or unlimited abortion or unregulated use of embryos in research. Its simple “black and white” values were reminiscent of Proverbs 11:
The good influence of godly citizens causes a city to prosper, but the moral decay of the wicked drives it downhill. The whole city celebrates a good man’s success -- and also the godless man’s death.
The Wisconsin Idea and the Chautauqua Movement
My long time interest in Progressivism began in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Governor “Fighting Bob” LaFollette found academic experts to brainstorm his broad reform agenda of 1900-1906, which introduced direct primary elections and campaign spending limits, regulations for the railroads and the environment, as well as new civil service and taxation policies. Naturally, U.W. was proud of this tradition.
It was also in Madison, at the First United Methodist Church, where I first learned about the Progressive tradition connected with the Chautauqua Movement. From 1880 - 1930, America was undergoing rapid rural industrialization and a budding middle class was creating a new national culture. Chautauqua contributed an inspiring set of Christian biblical ethics that promoted wholesome living, strong family values and new ideas about social justice. The movement originated in 1874 when Methodist Bishop John Vincent, a leader of the Sunday School movement, set up a summer retreat center (on Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York) for teacher training, supported by his friend Lewis Miller, a businessman who also was the father-in-law of Thomas Edison. (The Edisons spent summers there, hosting VIPs from T.R. to F.D.R.
The Chautauqua Institution in New York became a nation wide movement that brought a new experience of higher culture and awareness of national issues to the isolated small cities and towns springing up across America, through the Midwest and the Dakotas and Nebraska, on to the Northwest. By 1920, there were over 200 local Chautauquas in all but five states, and one-third of Americans had become involved in Chautauqua in some way, through book clubs, local institutes, or traveling “tent Chautauquas.” The reading circles offered a four-year course of home reading, an early form of adult popular education for those who could not go to college.
The traveling shows featured plays and musical entertainers like John Philip Souza along with inspirational speakers. These ran the gamut from ministers and missionaries to politicians like La Follette and William Jennings Bryan, to social reformers such as Booker T. Washington, Carrie Nation and Jane Addams. Junior Chautauqua programs educated youth in citizenship skills and ideals, and helped launch the Boy Scouts. Themes were decidedly upbeat, inspiring moral and intellectual “rearmament” for the “betterment” of self and society. Scholars credit Chautauqua with building a sense of national identity, preparing citizens for the onslaught of modernity, as well as “updating” church-based Christianity by reinventing rural camp revival meetings in a form better suited to a modern, scientific era.
Glen Echo, Maryland is just one of many campgrounds and amusement parks that are former Chautauqua sites. The combination of the Great Depression and radio technology ended this extraordinary chapter of American cultural history and opened up a new era of mass culture based in radio, movies and then television. What was lost was the family participation in small group activity that formed a strong sense of community, some of which lives on in summer camps, college campuses and world fairs.
The original Chautauqua Institution still operates a summer-long program of “arts and issues” today on its idyllic campus, where the original tent cottages have evolved over time into small, colorful and charming Victorian frame cottages. (See www.ciweb.org). Inter-denominational from the start, the Institute’s religion program tends toward liberal theology but always has some inspiring evangelical speakers. In the past decade, I have enjoyed five summer weeks there with family and friends.
Progressivism in China
During the decades around 1900 when the Wisconsin Idea and the Chautauqua Movement thrived, American models were adopted in China, as Chinese joined missionaries as leaders in social service. They pursued a vision of making China a strong, modern nation-state through a renewal of Chinese culture based on reform of the family, moral education, citizenship training, and social reform.*
To illustrate the close connections across the Pacific, let me briefly share some history of the Temperance Movement. Frances Willard, suffragist and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was a speaker at Chautauqua, where the first national prohibition conference was convened. One scholar commented that this was the only topic of discussion at the summer meetings where the opposite point of view wasn’t given a fair hearing.
A young Chinese student at Northwestern University named Wang Liming lived in the student residence set up in Willard’s Evanston home after her death. On return to China in 1920, Wang like Willard became a leader in the movement for woman’s suffrage and other rights. She served as a leader of the national WCTU for thirty years, doubling its membership through nation-wide speaking tours at a time when Chinese women rarely spoke in public.** The WCTU became one of the largest women’s organizations by the 1930s and helped introduce to China the concepts and practice of charity and social mobilization, emphasizing duty to society over self-gratification. To strengthen modern marriage and the nuclear family, it launched campaigns against the vices of alcohol and opium abuse, gambling, prostitution and concubinage (polygamy). The WCTU introduced birth control and sex education in China as a way to deal with the problem of overpopulation and poverty, while hoping to reduce the incidence of abortion.
What might a Chautauqua Movement for the Internet Age Look Like?
The optimistic bubble of earlier Progressivism burst as world war and depression diminished both the confidence and the resources for steady global progress. But I have often thought that both America and China are ripe for a new version of Christian Progressivism, one that no longer assumes progress is inevitable but is confident that it is possible.
The most important elements would be revitalization of moral education and natural forms of “extended family” that allow for community bonding. Perhaps the Purpose Driven Connection -- Saddleback Church’s new journal and social networking websites -- will “take off” as a new kind of interactive Christian community. Perhaps the proliferation of Christian websites in China will continue to strengthen the sense of shared identity within the “emerging” urban house churches. They could then begin to connect people through creative means, possibly including old ideas that would be new in China, like book clubs and summer camps. The new migrant churches might play the role of a bridge between rural and urban culture. (One in Shanghai began in 2001 and already has 5000 members and outreach throughout tri-provincial “greater Shanghai.”) Whatever may occur in this time of great economic uncertainty, we can be confident that God has his ways and his timing for blessing our societies.
*For details on the roots of Progressivism in Anglo-Evangelicalism and its influence on China, see my December 2007 Pathways essay. In my next essay, I will share some critical thoughts from a biblical perspective on the assumptions of “Modernity,” including belief in the inevitability and linearity of progress.
**from research on Wang Liming by my colleague, GCC Associate John Barwick.