|The Greek Movement|
As liberal arts students at the College of William and Mary in 1776, the founders of Phi Beta Kappa — the first Greek letter society — were required to be well versed in Greek language, culture and history. Consequently, they were aware of the central importance in Greek cultural history of an institution known as the Mysteries.
The Mysteries were spiritual organizations to which only a select few were admitted for rites of initiation, for it was initiation that revealed the central teachings and philosophical wisdom of the ages.
Signs and Symbols
Aspirants to initiation in the Mysteries were led through a series of dramatic presentations meant to raise the participants’ awareness and understanding of their purpose in life, their origin and their ultimate destiny.
The method for transmitting this deep, experiential knowledge included the revelation of secret signs and symbols, which offered an understanding of life’s most profound issues in a way which could not be communicated by words alone.
Seeking Wisdom and Understanding
This ancient practice must have seemed relevant to the students forming Phi Beta Kappa and the Greek fraternity system. It may be presumed that early Greek-letter organizations must have felt, in addition to the facts and figures which their academic studies compelled them to memorize, that there must be a wisdom and understanding that transcends mere facts, a knowledge that would reveal a sense of higher purpose, inspiration and meaning.
By replicating, in their new fraternity, the initiatory method and approach of the ancient Greek Mysteries, Phi Beta Kappa members may well have paid homage to a system that endured for well over 1,000 years in a culture many regard as the pinnacle of Western Civilization.
Another source, which many authorities believe inspired the structure and method of Phi Beta Kappa, was Freemasonry. Although the origin of Freemasonry is hotly debated, one interpretation suggests that Freemasonry is a latter-day effort to revive the methods and approach of the ancient Mysteries.
Like the Mysteries, the candidate for initiation in Freemasonry passes through elaborate ceremonies where certain signs and symbols are revealed in an effort to open the participant’s mind and imagination to a larger understanding of his essential nature, purpose in life, moral principles and destiny.
Many leaders of colonial Virginia were graduates of William and Mary and Freemasons; hence, Freemasonry may have influenced Phi Beta Kappa’s founders. This pattern, drawn from the style and methods of both the Greek Mysteries and its modern day expression, no doubt affected many college fraternities and their approach to initiation as well as to ritual. Certainly this is apparent in Beta Theta Pi.
Why the Greek Language?
It is clear that, by utilizing the Greek language as the source of its hidden principles and values, Beta Theta Pi, too, relied upon the legacy of the ancient Greek Mysteries and its approach to seeking wisdom and personal transformation through initiation.
Speeches of Founder John Reily Knox, Miami 1839, both as a youth and in later years, suggest that he was greatly influenced by Masonic rituals he had obtained. The initiations he found could have been inspired by the medieval Knights Templars who, legendary history suggests, were continuing the tradition of the ancient Mystery teachings.
The Templar tradition also came to be a formative influence on modern Freemasonry. Thus, Beta Theta Pi in its original formulation and constitution, also drew upon the inspiration of the ancient Greek Mysteries, Freemasonry and related elements in the institution of knighthood.
Initiation: a Beginning
The central theme in all of these institutions is the concept of initiation. The word “initiation” refers to “a beginning.” In the context of admittance to a fraternal society with esoteric rituals, initiation is a process whereby the participant is exposed to a series of symbolic teachings, presented in a unique and particular manner, which may help him realize his potential for personal transformation.
The candidate for initiation is entering a new stage in life. He is knocking on the door, seeking entry to a new understanding of himself and his world. By his desire to be admitted, he suggests that he is open to releasing old definitions of himself and desires new insights into his life’s purpose and ultimate destiny.
The Initiatory Process
This mysterious process of initiation is accomplished through time-honored methods. Initiation exposes an individual to certain signs and symbols in a unique context, which may create an opportunity for the participant to temporarily set aside his preconceived ideas and entertain new ways of thinking about who he is, his place in the world and the opportunities offered by this new understanding.
Proper interpretation of these signs and symbols should lead to an understanding that, to progress in life, we often must let old definitions of who we are, and what we are meant to do, give way to a new definition of purpose.
Having had this experience, the candidate is often brought to a new, more lofty initiatory scene. Here symbols suggest growth and new possibilities. If he is properly prepared, this can be life-changing, a source of inspiration and renewal for his entire life.
The candidate for initiation in Beta Theta Pi should be proud and excited. He is being considered for admittance to an initiatory chain that utilizes a process and method which has been a fundamental part of Western Civilization’s pursuit of wisdom, truth and knowledge for thousands of years.
Thus initiation, shrouded in mystery, should be sought with humility, courage and devotion, approached with a fervent desire to seek a deeper understanding of oneself and what one can become through devotion to the principles of the Fraternity.
Throughout Son of the Stars there are illustrations referred to as “Chapter Allegories.” Each depicts mythological scenes or coats of arms. The latter display a variety of mystical symbols and emblems that do not follow the standard method of Beta heraldry.
A chapter allegory can be defined as a composite of symbols and emblems that relate a story or set of themes that teach moral principles and Beta values.
For publication in the 1882 Beta Catalog, Beta chapters were invited to submit original allegorical illustrations that conveyed both the principles of the Fraternity and the lore of the individual chapter.
The resulting allegorical drawings were used as frontispieces for individual chapter entries in the General Fraternity’s catalog. They were also used as teaching tools to convey insights regarding the principles and goals of Beta Theta Pi and its chapters.
Tools to Stimulate Imaginative Thinking
Symbols, such as those used in Beta’s allegories, are tools for stimulating imaginative thinking and reflection. To a Beta initiate, symbols suggest the deeper meaning within the Fraternity’s legends, lore and ritual. An example is the Kenyon chapter allegory known as the “Boy in the Window Seat,” by A.M. Willard, Kenyon 1872. This symbolic allegory depicts a new member in a melancholy mood, pondering the distant Beta Stars.
Reflecting on the symbolism, one can feel and come to know how appealing something can be, even when its true value and meaning are not yet fully understood. The object of our desire can seem very clear but remain, for now, beyond our grasp.
This poignant, allegorical illustration teaches a certain attitude of devotion and longing for the fraternal bond that cannot be conveyed in mere words.
A few chapters have written allegories to accompany their drawings. Some allegories, such as the Centre Dragon and Boston’s Diogenes, have become famous Beta artwork. The Centre Dragon, perhaps the most familiar, was the subject of a stain glass window in the Wooglin-on-Chautauqua clubhouse.
This allegorical teaching method originated in Freemasonry. From the early 1700s, allegorical illustrations — Masonic tracing boards or Master’s carpets — displayed symbols and emblems suggesting the secrets and wisdom of Masonic degrees.
The Interfraternal Movement
William Raimond Baird, Stevens 1878/Columbia 1881, first published his “encyclopedia” about college fraternities in 1879. Today, this authoritative reference, often available in libraries and college student affairs offices, is known as The Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities, 20th Edition.
Brother Baird was surprised to learn that no general repository of college fraternity facts existed, that few fraternity members knew more than the names of fraternities and that most were ignorant of the origin, principles, history and customs of any other fraternity.
Hopefully, enlightened Betas will be more inclined to cooperate interfraternally and to understand the value of fraternities in higher education.
Baird had a dream that an ever-increasing number of students would gain an understanding through experiencing fraternal initiatives of scholarship, leadership development, service to others and fellowship among members. His dream is still alive today.
Like members of other fraternities, Betas believe that membership in Beta Theta Pi is special. In most cases, fraternities are a proven support network for anyone embarking on the collegiate experience. Fraternities provide:
• A group of caring, supportive friends to help members adjust to college and be friends for life
Many graduates serve their fraternities as volunteers because they know firsthand the benefits of their fraternity experience — building positive self-esteem while increasing confidence in their abilities through a variety of chapter activities.
Alumni offer their time, talents, financial support and experience to younger people, fostering needed inter-generational communication and caring friendships like no other collegiate movement.
College fraternities are in demand. More men and women are members of fraternities and sororities in Canada and the U.S. today than ever before.
The Origin of Fraternities
The college fraternity community is as old as the republic it serves: it was in 1776 that the first secret Greek letter society came into existence. It was the custom for students at the College of William and Mary to gather in the Apollo Room of Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Va., to discuss the affairs of the day. On the night of Dec. 5, 1776, five close companions stayed after others had left. When they finally arose to go, Phi Beta Kappa had been born. A secret motto, grip, badge and a ritual were later adopted. Fraternity, morality and literature were symbolized by stars on the silver membership medal.
At the end of the first half-century of existence, Phi Beta Kappa had evolved into an honor society based on scholarship and achievement.
Kappa Alpha Society, established at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1825, is recognized as the oldest non-scholastic fraternity still in existence. In 1827, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi were founded at the same institution, joining Kappa Alpha Society as the Union Triad.
Three other men’s fraternities were founded at Union College, 1833-47. Psi Upsilon, Chi Psi and Theta Delta Chi provided the basis to name Union College the “Mother of Fraternities.”
Fraternities began to spread throughout the east, and from there to the Midwest. Three fraternities were founded at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio: Beta Theta Pi (1839), the first fraternity organized west of the Allegheny Mountains; Phi Delta Theta (1848) and Sigma Chi (1855.) Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity also was founded at Miami in 1906. Miami is known as “The Cradle of Fraternities.”
Today there are in excess of 5,500 chapters of 68 North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) men’s college fraternities on some 800 campuses in North America. Five million men have been initiated, including close to 350,000 collegiate members.
Women’s fraternities and sororities were founded after the Civil War; today there are 26 sororities in the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC.) Four other sororities and five men’s fraternities belong to the traditionally African-American National Pan-Hellenic Council, Inc (NPHC.)
While all of these group’s memberships are open to any student, the growing number of students of racial diversity has fostered the founding of more fraternities and sororities, plus interfraternal associations for Asians, Hispanics and native Americans.
North-American Interfraternity Conference
Four of Beta’s founders — Knox, Marshall, Smith and Hardin — were members of the Union Literary Society whose motto was firman consensus facit (cooperation makes strength.) In later years, Betas took the initiative to establish interfraternal groups.
Willis O. Robb, Ohio Wesleyan 1879, an early editor of The Beta Theta Pi magazine, stimulated interest through correspondence with fellow editors for an interfraternity meeting in 1883, leading to formation of what would become the College Fraternity Editors Association (CFEA.)
In 1909, Francis W. Shepardson, Denison 1882/Brown 1883, was among the first officers of the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), serving as its first secretary. The NIC has brought focus to the men’s interfraternity effort ever since, promoting common interests, providing a forum for discussion, information exchange, liaison and mediation and enhancing cooperative action.
The NIC strives to improve the quality as well as sustain the heritage of the fraternity community. Its member fraternities understand that no one fraternity is stronger than all fraternities combined.
A primary NIC objective is to provide assistance and direction to campus IFCs. A variety of programs and services are available to campus interfraternity leaders from the NIC, including the experiential Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute (UIFI), which equips students with leadership skills needed to visualize a successful interfraternity movement on their campuses and, if necessary, to lead a change process that allows them to realize that vision.
Student leaders will find a wealth of information about the NIC’s educational resources and networking information in the Interfraternity Directory, published by the Conference’s office in Indianapolis, Ind., and available from your campus’ Greek advisor. NIC’s informational and educational resources can be accessed at www.nicindy.org.
Beta Theta Pi is proud of the contributions that many Betas have made to the leadership of NIC over the years. Francis Shepardson was a founding officer and later president of the Conference.
Other Betas who served as president were Harold J. Baily, Amherst 1908; A. Ray Warnock, Illinois 1905; Bertram W. Bennett, Knox ’20, and Peter F. Greiner, Minnesota ’51. Jonathan J. Brant, Miami ’75, was NIC’s executive vice president, 1982-99 and Ronald P. Helman, Miami ’55, served on its Board.
NIC Gold Medals have been presented to G. Herbert Smith, DePauw ’27; Warnock, Brant and Seth R. Brooks, St. Lawrence ’22. John J. Rhodes, Kansas State ’38, and Richard G. Lugar, Denison ’54, have received the NIC Silver Medal.
Beta Theta Pi firmly believes in supporting the interfraternity movement with the time, effort and funding for the larger good of all fraternities.
What will you bring to the interfraternity community on your campus? After graduation? Beta’s philosophy of governance and leadership rests upon a pioneering spirit. If Beta is to be the successful institution its founders envisioned, Beta collegians must play a proactive role in the IFC on each campus.
Leaders, go first; your brothers expect much from you!