The Chautauqua Institution was founded 132 years ago at Lake Chautauqua in New York, 32 miles east of Erie, Pa., just north of the Peek'n Peak ski and golf resort.
The 783-acre education center was initially a place of study for Sunday school teachers founded by two Methodists, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, but quickly expanded its curriculum and became ecumenical in spirit and practice. By 1880, the institution had established itself as a national forum for open discussions of public issues, international relations, literature and science.
Currently, about 7,500 people are in residence each day of the nine-week summer program season, and more than 8,000 students enroll annually in the Schools of Fine and Performing Arts and in Special Studies classes. In addition, numerous employees from the surrounding area work on a full- and part-time basis.
Chautauqua, from its beginning, described itself as a place to recognize the oneness of humanity under one God who is worshipped and honored universally under many names and titles. Early in Chautauqua's history, Jewish rabbis were invited to teach Christians about Judaism, and by 1960 there was a sizable Jewish population at the institute.
In the late 1990s, an effort was made to broaden Chautauqua's ecumenical vision to include Islam, the third religious offspring of Abraham. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three monotheistic religions that historically claim a common ancestor in the patriarch Abraham/Ibra-him.
In 2002, Chautauqua theologian-in-residence, Karen Armstrong, offered a seasonlong series on "Understanding Islam." A broad spectrum of Muslim scholars were invited to present lectures that have since been used by seminaries and congregations around the country as teaching aides and discussion starters.
As the Abrahamic Initiative progressed, a Chautauqua-sponsored conference was held in London during the fall of 2005. During week six (July 31-Aug. 4) of the 2006 summer program, Chautauqua focused on "Belief in America" with speakers from each of the Abrahamic religions.
Funding for six years of the Abrahamic initiative as well as the expenses for the "Belief in America" week was provided by the Helen Boyle foundation. Boyle and her six children are members of the Catholic community at Chautauqua. Her husband, the late Edward Boyle, was well known in the oil and gas industry. Ismaili, Sunni, Shiite and Sufi Muslims made an additional contribution toward expenses.
This Abrahamic initiative attracted the attention of a major national TV network. CBS sent a production crew to Chautauqua during the "Belief in America" program and the show will air in October. This is the first time that a program at Chautauqua spawned a viewing on national television.