John Heyl Vincent: Founder of the Chautauqua Movement

Once the pastor of Rockford’s Court Street Methodist Church and a close friend of Robert Tinker, Vincent spurred the creation of summer schools, correspondence courses and university extension programs, not to mention “Book of the Month” clubs.

John Heyl Vincent was an overachiever 100 years before the word was even in the dictionary. He was born to John and Mary Vincent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Feb. 28, 1832, became a Methodist preacher at age 18, a deacon in 1855, and, at age 25, was ordained an Elder of the Rock River Conference.
Early in his career, he held successive pastorates in Joliet, Ill., Mount Morris, Ill., Galena, Ill., Rockford and Trinity Church in Chicago. Ulysses S. Grant, though not a member of any church, regularly attended Vincent’s church in Galena. A year after Vincent’s ordination, the preacher married Elizabeth Dusenberry of Portville, N.Y., a woman of intellect, extraordinary common sense and kindness. They were married until her death in 1909. He became a Methodist Bishop, founded the Chautauqua Movement, and his influence extends to today, with 39 of his books available online.
In 1861, as the Civil War commenced, Vincent was the minister at Rockford’s Court Street Methodist Church, where he developed and taught a class titled “The Geography of Palestine.” In September 1862, a General Sunday School Conference was to be held in London, with Vincent as one of 13 foreign delegates. He planned a European tour around that event, and especially hoped to visit Palestine. On a visit to Mary Manny, widow of John Manny, the famous reaper inventor, he mentioned his plan for the tour. Mary’s employee and friend, Robert Tinker, also was there and immediately asked if Vincent might like a traveling companion. Vincent said that he would like one very much, and Tinker declared, “I shall go with you!” It would be the Grand Tour of Europe, a must in the education of young American men in the 19th century.
A few weeks later, Tinker arrived in New York, before Vincent, with a Capt. Eli Andrus. It was July Fourth and the city was decorated for the holiday. They took the ferry to Brooklyn, but soon became bored. They dined at five. In his diary, young Tinker wrote:
“While at dinner, Cap’t called my attention to a young lady beside her mother at the same table – her eyes were dropping as mine were and the whole day having been terribly stupid, I laid a wager of $5.00 with the Cap’t that I would attend that young lady to the theatre. He looked in astonishment and wanted to know if it was a bet. I assured him I was in earnest and he of course took me up. How the matter was arranged between a lovely young lady from Virginia (whose name I do not know now) her mother and myself, I will not tell but the Cap’t had the mortification of sitting alone at within a cane’s reach of me and my (believe me) modest companion. I asked him again on meeting him if he thought I was possessed of any ‘brass balls.’ ‘Brass is no name for it!’ he said.”
Vincent arrived the next day at 10 a.m. Now the irrepressible Tinker needed to behave himself! They were booked on the Glasgow, a sailing vessel with no auxiliary steam engine, although some ships at the time did have steam assistance. She made the trip in 11 days. Dr. Vincent had been a bit dismayed when Tinker said he planned to go steerage class, but he went along with the plan. They spent a lot of time on deck, away from the crowded steerage class and discovered that small bribes would make it possible to augment their meals. In this way, they saved a lot of money. In his autobiography, Vincent wrote, “I never really regretted that steerage trip. But crossing the Atlantic 17 times after that I always allowed the steerage experience to be nothing but a memory.”
They arrived at Queenstown, Ireland, on July 16 and immediately began walking through the countryside, so happy, Tinker wrote, that they could scarcely help clapping their hands for joy. The castles and great estates with their manicured lawns and immense flower gardens left them in awe. They visited Blarney Castle and kissed the stone, (though neither of them needed any help with their already persuasive speech).
Tinker was constantly sketching the scenery, including Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway, interlocking hexagonal basaltic rocks that legend says were there to allow the Irish giant, Fin McCoul, to walk to Scotland. In Dublin they saw the Wellington Monument, a stupendous granite obelisk 205 feet high.
In Scotland, they first went to Ayr, to the old stone cottage of Robert Burns, a particular favorite of Tinker, and sang “Bonnie Doone” and all the other songs of Burns that they could recall. They visited a linen manufactory in Belfast and the great cathedral in Glasgow, but mostly they enjoyed the outdoors.
They set out to climb Ben Lomond, clad in rubber suits, but as soon as they reached the top, fog rolled in and spoiled the view. They ran down the mountain in time to catch a boat across a lake and walked 22 miles to an inn where they tried, unsuccessfully, to dry their clothes. This was a typical day – lots of scenery and lots of walking. They got to Stirling Castle, which had the finest view in Scotland, according to Tinker’s diary.
Next day, they toured the former residence of Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford and saw the private desk and chair where Sir Walter wrote most of his works. In Edinburgh Castle, they saw the crown jewels of Scotland and the bedroom of Mary, Queen of Scots, then it was off to England where they visited Kenilworth and Warwick Castles, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and the Crystal Palace, an immense glass building full of everything.
Vincent attended the Sunday School Conference in London on Sept. 2, 1862, and at 6 p.m., in the Egyptian Hall Mansion House, Tinker listened while Vincent gave his speech. “Of course he did himself proud,” Tinker wrote. Before crossing the channel for France, they visited one last castle, Windsor, and of all the castles they had seen, it was the most extensive and imposing.
After taking a steamer across the English Channel, they rode a train to Paris and spent five days sightseeing; stopped in Lyon, Geneva and Chamoiux and climbed the glacier of Mont Blanc, where they stood and lustily sang The Star Spangled Banner. In Switzerland they typically walked more than 30 miles a day, in spite of the mountains, some of which are so high that sunshine does not reach the valleys for two months of the year.
In Milan, they viewed the original mural of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and toured Milan’s great gothic cathedral. They walked among huge flying buttresses and then climbed 480 steps to the roof, where they found themselves amid 4,000 (!) marble steeples, all capped with life-sized statues that could not be seen from below. Next came Verona, Padua and Venice, and wherever they went, Vincent could be counted on to conduct Sunday School. In October, at Bologna, Vincent parted ways from Tinker and toured Rome, Egypt and finally Palestine, to see at last the land he had been describing in his Palestine classes.
Back in Rockford, Vincent and Tinker were fast friends. Vincent established The Sunday School Teacher in 1866. It was a system of Sunday School lessons with “lesson leaves” that were distributed to students each Sunday. At one time those leaves had a circulation of nearly 2.5 million copies. When Vincent told Tinker of his plan to found an institution for the purpose of educating Sunday School teachers, Tinker suggested he locate it near the Tinkers’ hometown of Westfield, N.Y., at the beautiful Chautauqua Lake upstate.
Vincent moved to Chautauqua in 1872, and with help of a wealthy manufacturer, Lewis Miller, opened a 12-day, non-denominational training program for Sunday School teachers in a tent village beside the lake. It quickly expanded into a 345-acre campus with an eight-week program offering courses in religion, education and recreation. Vincent saw it as a means for ordinary people to have access to learning and entertainment apart from the hide-bound traditional universities, at the time when sons of rich men studied Latin, Greek, philosophy, literature, religion and ancient history, but were not offered any courses in mathematics or science. Chautauqua’s popularity was greatly increased in 1875, when Vincent’s old friend from Galena, President U.S. Grant, visited Chautauqua and was greeted by a crowd of 15,000 people. Nine presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, have visited Chautauqua since. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his famous “I hate war” speech there in 1936.
Vincent’s Chautauqua movement gets credit for spurring three important developments in education: summer schools, correspondence courses and university extension programs. The first “Book of the Month” club originated there and its musical concerts, held in an open-sided, 7,000-seat amphitheater, were of the best quality. When a deaf man presented a lecture in the amphitheater, Vincent devised a unique “Chautauqua salute.” He requested that everyone wave a white handkerchief at the end of the lecture. It created an unforgettable tribute to the speaker and remained a tradition for years. Lately there have been audiences who imitate that unique handkerchief tribute but probably have never heard of Vincent or Chautauqua.
The Chautauqua Institution has gone through many changes over the years – at one time it was an accredited university – but still operates on the shores of the lake, in a resort-like setting with accommodations ranging from the luxurious 19th-century Atheneaum Hotel, to picturesque cottages with gingerbread trim and, recently, condominiums. The musical presentations are deservedly famous, ranging from symphonic orchestrations to singers of popular songs. There is a trolley at the front gate to help visitors to navigate the extensive campus.
In 1888, Vincent became a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, stationed at Buffalo, N.Y., and continued to receive many honors throughout his long career. When Vincent was writing his memoirs in 1909, Robert Tinker sent, by American Express, his 1862 journal, sketchbook and joint account book of their European trip to help Vincent in his research. Tinker was upset when, due to Vincent’s failing memory, they were not returned for several months. Vincent’s biographer and nephew, Leon Vincent, said of his uncle, “He remembered more after his memory began to fail than the majority of people remember in a lifetime.” In Vincent’s memoir, published in the July 10, 1910, issue of the Rockford Register Gazette, he wrote:
“I have no words by which adequately to express the interest and profit added to my first journey to Europe by my charming traveling companion, Mr. Tinker … full of humor, with a keen sense of the ludicrous, courageous and venturesome, patient and genial always, with no moods of depression and withal sympathetic, my traveling companion, ‘Rob’ was a treasure to be prized at the time and to be remembered with tenderest affection through all the years.”
Maybe that mollified Tinker, for two years later he organized a card shower of 80 birthday cards to be sent to Vincent on his 80th birthday. Vincent died in Chicago on May 9, 1920, at 88.
Vincent’s legacy in Rockford was confirmed when the late Jon Lundin, who served as Director of Continuing Education at Rock Valley College in the 1970s and 80s, inaugurated The John Heyl Vincent Awards at RVC.
“I wanted to reward our best teachers,” Lundin said in a 1998 interview, “and I named the award after Vincent because I consider him to be the father of continuing education.” Before the awards were discontinued in early 2000, William Kramer, David Johnson and Ruth Lunde were among recipients.