The Rise of the College Fraternity in the United States: Greeks Amongst Americans


Paul Rich University of the Americas

Guillermo De Los Reyes University of Pennsylvania





College fraternities are the subject of much misinformation, the target of film fun as well as deserved criticism for low intellectual standards, panty raids, and brutal hazing. Evidently things have not changed much as The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the ritual initiations of Kappa Sigma at Eastern universities, a fraternity which includes as members Robert Redford and Bob Dole. Student candidates were urinated on and covered with molasses.

Fraternities and sororities are part of a larger group that can be described secret and ritualistic societies, many of which trace their origins to Freemasonry. The history of secret and ritualistic organizations is confusing has never received the attention that the subject deserves. Although the subdivisions within the secret and ritualistic category are numerous and the influence of such groups has been and continues to be considerable, they are seldom considered collectively or an effort made to explain the differences between individual societies.

The differences are considerable. The fraternities, affable lodges such as the Elks and Moose, religions such as the Mormons and Black Islam which had part of their beginnings in Masonry, religious secret groups such as the Knights of Columbus, and sinister organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan: - obviusly the purposes of these organizations differ greatly.

Social history is replete with associations whose members are enjoined to be tight-lipped about the initiations and about the modes of recognition. Despite the manifest differences between all the branches of this fascinating group, their attraction to members, which we think partly relies on secret ritual, has a commonality whose consideration has been neglected and the research problems they present for scholars have similarities.

Our research convinces us that secrecy and ritualism often go together, although for many societies the secrecy is no longer as strong as it once was. However, ritual remains one of the major characteristics, making the organizations that fall into the secret and ritualistic category distinct from a large number of other groups that may have a few ceremonies such as passing along the chair's gavel or investing new members with lapel pins but which are chiefly issue-oriented. By this definition, Rotary and Lions are not rally part of the category.

Fraternities and sororities are and have existed in the United States since the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in the eighteenth century. They can be considered in two major groupings, the honor or recognition societies, and the so-called Greeks or social fraternities that are so characteristic of a portion of academia. This separation into honorary and social fraternities did not at first exist. At the very start the ritualistic element rather than the academic or social element loomed large:

In their decision to expand the society, as well as in the development of their ritual, the Phi Beta Kappa leaders were acting at least partially under the influence of Masonry. A Masonic lodge had existed in Williamsburg as early as in the 1750s, and in 1773 it received a charter from the grand lodge in England. In 1778, as citizens of an independent commonwealth, the Masons of Virginia set up their own grand lodge, with authority to charter other lodges within the state. Eventually Masons in other states did the same. John Heath himself [the fifteen-year old founder of Phi Beta Kappa] was not a Mason while a student at William and Mary, but Thomas Smith belonged to the Williamsburg lodge before joining Heath as one of the five Phi Beta Kappa founders. Smith served as the first clerk of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and became its president on May 3, 1777. Nine other members of the society joined the Masonic lodge during the next year. At least a dozen of the fifty men admitted to Phi Beta Kappa during these first four years were associated with both groups at one time or another.


There is little to Phi Beta Kappa's activities today which suggest its ties with ritual or with purely social affairs. Today the honorary fraternities devoted to scholarship, which have done so much to foster intellectual activity on campuses, stand in peculiar contrast to their cousins, the social fraternities. Arguably some of the social fraternities have done as much damage to intellectual life with their Lord of the Flies initiations as the honorary fraternities have done in the way of encouragement.

The honorary fraternities retain ritualistic features but it is not their focus.It is the social fraternities that often have kept elaborate ceremoniess, many of which are suggestive of Masonry. how did this division occur? The metamorphsis of some of the Grek societies into purely social organizations is sometimes blamed on their acquisition of property in the nineteenth century: "It is tempting to see the arrival of the fraternity chapter house as the closing of the fraternity's intellectual, moral, and cultural 'golden age'. When a fraternity got together only once a week or so for a chapter meeting, the occasion was extraordinary. Gathering in a rented hall or classroom, fraternity brothers could invest their time together with a sense of special purpose. Whether they met to discuss a passage from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or Erasmus's Agagia or the Missouri Compromise, they could engage each topic, serious, or not, with undistracted freedom." The rituals also allegedly changed:

Spectacle and mystery, rather than humane learning and ancient wisdom, came to prevail. Primeval myths, powerful in austerity, were distorted into gorgeous but ludicrous pageants. What the Greeks of old may have inspired, latterday vulgarians did their damndest to obscure and confuse. Coffins and hooded robes, burning crosses and stakes, swords and armor, cauldrons and grails, lions and dragons, terrifyiing oaths and incantations, the regalia of crusaders, cavaliers, feudal knights, holy pilgrims and sainted martyrs, stage machinery and special effects - all these were elevated into the mythical means that transformed lowly pledges into bonded brothers. What light and truth may have failed to accomplish, sensation dared to attempt.



It is curious that Phi Beta Kappa was forced to jettison rather than embellish its cryptic ritualistic traditions in the early 1800s at the same time that other Greek fraternities were being established with many of the same objectional features. The society's members found themselves being lumped with the Freemasons and the Illuminati as evil-worshippers and infidels. Some chapters reacted by closing down, but at Harvard the brethren coolly responded: "Animated by a consciousness of right, the noble mind rises superior to opposition. Should it be our fate then to be traduced, let us as individuals boldly profess our attachment to our society: - let us declare to teeth of clamor, that it is not only harmless, but virtuous in its objects, & useful in its effects: - that the circumstances of its origin here [whatever the circumstances of its origin at William and Mary!] indicated, not a design to sow infidelity with sedition, but a benevolent wish to enlarge the heart & improve the mind; & that our initials are only expressive of a submission to true wisdom from a love to true virtue. Should we meet the rude shock of persecution let us stand firm & undaunted, steady in our resolutions, & more energetic in our exertions."

One indication of whether an organization has retained more than a pro forma interest in ritualism is the offering to the alrady initiated of additional initiations or degrees. Many of the social fraternities confer additional honors or awards, often to alumni, while the honorary fraternities are content with their basic induction ceremonies. Phi Beta Kappa never acquired a complex hnors system like that of Freemasonry, although such a suggestion was made on at least one occasion. A partisan of giving additional honors wrote, "Why do you suppose that there are 32nd degree Masons? Because the Masonic system is adapted to human nature. Then why not 64th degree Phi Beta Kappas? Why not a scheme of honors for intellectual attainments - so many points for a scholarly book, so many for a course of reading, a task of memory, the points to be awarded by democratically organized graduate chapters?"

Perhaps fortunately, that proposal came to naught, and there are no 64th degree Phi Betas Kappas. However, honor societies encouraging scholastic excellence patterned on Phi Beta Kappa multiplied. Tau Beta Pi for engineering started in 1885, and Sigma Xi for scientists began in 1886. Depending on whether one counts professional societies which admit students on the basis of interest rather magna grades along with the more academic honor societies, there were at least 100 by the time the tenth edition of Baird's Manual of Greek College Fraternities appeared in 1923.

The gulf that developed between the honorary Greeks and the social Greeks has remained and even deepened. There has been no successful repetition of the early nineteenth century fraternity with intellectual and social aspiration. Why this has proved impossible deserves research. Indeed, considering how widespread that secret and ritualistic societies and their progeny became, not just on college campuses but for all kinds of people and in every village and town - recalling, for example, the Redmen, Odd Fellows, the Pythians, Moose, Eagles, Elks and others - social scientists might give more attention to this aspect of popular culture. The international aspects of these groups are even more neglected than their American domestic effects. An intriguing question is why fraternal groups such as the Knights of Columbus or Odd Fellows spread around the world but the Greeks never did.

The general quesiton of the place of secret ritualtistic movements in history remains equally undeveloped. One possible explanation as to why general histories of America, or for that matter of most countries, give scant attention to secret and ritualistic societies is that they do not present an open door to inquisitive non-members. The Freemasons are an excellent example of this. Yet they are especially important because an understanding of their history is necessary to any serious research into fraternities or into other secret and ritualistic organizations in general.

Few public or university libraries take seriously the collecting of material on the Masons, so the serious researcher must get permission to use Masonic archives and libraries. The accessibility of these collections varies enormously. Occasionally, the scholar will be given every courtesy although not a member. In other cases, members themselves do not get a cordial welcome. So the first hurtle, that of getting access to the material, on occasion may be an insurmountable one. This is especially a possibility if details of who belonged or belongs are sought, although prosopographical studies of members of private societies can be extremely difficult, but rewarding.

An equally serious problem is understanding the special language and usages that fraternities employ. The more ritualistic the society, the more arcane will be the terminology found in papers. (As an example, a considerable problem for the researcher is the dating system used by different Masonic bodies. Ordinary Craft or blue lodge Masons who have taken the first three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason use the Anno Lucis system, adding 4000 years and giving the year as dated from the Creation. Thus a blue lodge Masonic document of 1995 would be 5995. Royal Arch Masons begin the calendar with the start of work on the Second Temple at Jerusalem in 530 B.C., so that this is the year 2525. Royal and Select Masters number the years from the completion of the original King Solomon's Temple in 1000 B.C. making this the year 2995. Masonic Knights Templar date documents from the founding of the Order in 1118 and hence this is 877.) On occasion the researcher will face documents that have been rendered into cipher or have had critical words removed. He or she will also encounter vast amounts of allegory and metaphor, so that without an advance immersion in the rituals the text will be unintelligible. The symbolism of fraternal orders requires the researcher to be thoroughly prepared before confronting archives. Still another difficulty frequently encountered is that friends and enemies of these societies have been guilty of fabrications and falsifications to advance their claims. Ambrose Bierce wrote:

An order [sic]...which originating in the reign of Charles II, among the working artisans of London, has now been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until it now embraces all the genrations on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of the Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confuscius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs, of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids - always by a Freemason.



Ironically, the enemies of secret societies are often willing to accept outlandish claims of their longstanding influence. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club and CBN fame is one of the more recent recruits to the conspiracy theories which make the study of such societies so difficult: his book The New World Order is replete with references to the Illuminati, the Masons, and the

idea that a cabal has been behind the French Revolution and assassination of Lincoln. So emotive is the subject, of secret societies that the literature is often little more than propaganda and sometimes deliberately misleading.

However, having called attention to the difficulties of this sort of research, the surprising variety and amount of materials which are encompassed by this field should be stressed.

Most of the established fraternities and sororities have long runs of journals and at least one lengthy if boring history. Depending on the packrat mentality of individual branches, there can be treasure troves of menus, sheet music, visiting cards, membership applications, and of course minutes by the ton.These organizations offer interesting opportunities for social historians. Studies of international relationships within and between such movements are waiting to be done, as well as research into the way in which these movements served specific ethnic and religious groups.

The success of these gorups is partly becaus eof their ritualistic features and it is no accident that the honor fraternities have not entirely lost their Greekness and Masonic heritage, although often the line of descent has become tenuous. The profane world has intruded into the Greek temple, even into the Phi Beta Kappa temple.

In the early 1950s the Bates Shoe Company began advertising a line of Phi Bates, but the attorneys for Phi Beta Kappa advised against bringing suit. Upsetting were the Fybate Lecture Notes, a commercial venture of cram outlines that enabled students to pass exams without taking classes. Equally annoying was a line of Phi Beta panties and brassieres that was introduced in 1963. A letter of complaint from Phi Beta Kappa was dismissed with the company's reply that "I am sure you will agree, however, that there was no trade mark infringement involved because of the dissimilarities of the goods and services involved." Max Factor makeup followed with an eye makeup promoted as Eye Beta Kappa and Bloomingdale's opened boutiques in its stores under the name of Phi Beta Caper.

When Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California, started an honor society named Phi Beta Cap, Phi Beta Kappa protests fell on deaf ears. The school's attorneys replied that "In reviewing the law on this matter we have concluded that the letters Phi Beta, being of common usage, are not the sole property of any organization or fraternity...The question then resolves as to whether the terms 'Cap' and 'Kappa' are the same or similar enough to be misleading. In our humble opinion, they are not." So Capuchino High School students still join Phi Beta Cap. Is there honor among honor societies?

Of course the Masons, who started it all, so far as is known, have never greatly protested over fraternities filching their format. While the frat house on the local campus or the graduation ceremony awarding Phi Beta Kappa keys are far removed from Freemasons meeting in Virginia taverns in the eighteenth century, they nevertheless are descendants, and we strongly suspect that on at least some occasions the conviviality if not the ritual might recall those distant forbearers.