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Chautauquas celebrate 25 years; founder honored at convention

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–There is debate over its meaning and practically no one can spell it, but “Chautauqua” is now an established term among many Southern Baptist senior adults.

It’s been 25 years since the first conference exclusively for seniors was held at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Baptist Conference Center.

Adelle Carlson, now a senior adult herself, still remembers looking for just the right name for the meeting.

“Young people had ‘youth blasts’ and ‘celebrations.’ I wanted senior adults to have a unique term of their own, one that would make our conference distinct,” Carlson, then a senior adult consultant at the Baptist Sunday School Board, remembered.

Thumbing through an unabridged dictionary, she checked for other meanings of words like “retreat,” “conference” and “assembly.” It was the latter word that triggered the thought of “chautauqua.”

The dictionary explained that “chautauqua” was an institution that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America providing popular education usually combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts or dramatic performances, often presented outdoors or in a tent.

Still another reference book informed her that chautauquas were modeled after summer schools established at Chautauqua, N.Y.

She later learned a frequent speaker at early chautauquas was B.W. Spilman, the man credited with starting the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center.

The name seemed perfect.

“It was so different, it caught on,” said Carlson, now retired and a resident of Mobile, Ala., where she is an active member of Cottage Hill Baptist Church. She was honored for her role in starting Chautauquas April 29 during the third National Senior Adult Convention in Nashville, Tenn. The meeting, which attracted a crowd of 11,000 senior adults, was sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board’s discipleship and family development division.

At the first Chautauqua 25 years ago, Carlson said she had no budget and “sat up half the night putting together table favors with my mom and dad. We weren’t even allowed to use the large auditorium; we had to use a smaller room that only held 400 people. That’s how many people we had.”

From that original one-location event, Chautauquas have spread to sites across the country. Each year, the conferences involve thousands of senior adults in a week of Bible study, morning devotions, preaching, seminars, concerts and singing.

“I wanted it to be spiritual first, but also educational and fun,” Carlson said. “I think we were able to do that and it’s still happening.

“It’s very gratifying and humbling to have played a part in this. It’s good to know that church leaders have been challenged to begin or strengthen senior adult ministry programs because of these meetings.”

So, what does the term “chautauqua” really mean? That’s still in doubt, according to Carlson. Indians, the French and other early Americans had a part in molding it into its present form, she said, adding some define it as “the foggy place” while others say it means “the place high up.”

But exact meaning isn’t important, Carlson said.

“People may have trouble spelling it, but they remember the name. And senior adults enjoy attending these meetings. That’s what counts.”

    About the Author

  • Chip Alford