In 1882 a group of Tennessee Sunday school workers organized an assembly patterned after that in Chautauqua, New York, which had been founded in 1873 to train Sunday School teachers during the summer. That fall, a site selection committee accepted an offer from Monteagle, Tennessee, and the Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company to establish an assembly on the Cumberland Plateau. The railroad and John Moffatt, the town's founder, each gave the assembly five-thousand-dollar grants. The railroad also donated approximately eleven hundred acres of land.
The assembly's charter was drawn on October 16, 1882. During the first season in 1883, more than one thousand people attended events. Families either camped in tents erected on the ninety-six-acre grounds or stayed at a hotel in town. Children's activities were held in a tent.
The next year, assembly members began constructing their own cottages on leased lots. Most were one or one and one-half stories high with gable roofs and board and batten, shingle, or weatherboard siding. Today, Monteagle Sunday School Assembly has 161 cottages, most built before 1930.
The first public building erected was an amphitheater, built in 1883. A rough, circular building which seated 2,500, it was replaced in 1901. Today's auditorium, which seats 1,500 people, was built in 1927 after the second auditorium burned. The oldest building still standing is a gymnasium built in 1884. During its early years, the gymnasium housed annual physical education summer schools.
In 1884 the Nashville House was built to provide free lodging for Nashville public school teachers. The Memphis, Alabama, and Mississippi homes opened later in the decade.
Before 1900, a month-long Normal School, free to public and private school teachers, was popular. In 1901 Peabody College held a summer school at Monteagle. Soon, however, Peabody, the University of Tennessee, and the University of the South began offering their own summer classes, curtailing attendance at the assembly's academic schools.
Early in the twentieth century, guest orchestras presented concerts on the mall twice daily. Excursion trains brought music lovers from Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Nashville to attend the heavily publicized events.
The Monteagle Sunday School Assembly's purpose, as stated in its charter, was for “the advancement of Science, Literary Attainment, Sunday School interests, and the promotion of the broadest popular culture in the interest of Christianity, without respect to sect or denomination.” Initially, most members were Baptist or Methodist. Later, more Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and smaller numbers from other Protestant denominations, became members. Traditionally, different ministers come to assembly each week of the season to conduct twilight prayers and preach on Sunday mornings.
The assembly has become increasingly secular since World War II. Almost forgotten are the days when card playing, mixed-sex swimming, alcohol, and dancing were prohibited. The swimming pool and tennis courts are heavily used, and porch parties are popular. The assembly's six-week-long program includes children's activities, twilight prayers, and lectures. Attendees often represent the sixth or seventh generation of families who have been “on the mountain.” Despite changes that have occurred over the more than one hundred years of its existence, Monteagle Sunday School Assembly remains a mecca for young families, whose children find a freedom there often denied them elsewhere.