Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

College Fraternities

A class of student societies peculiar to the colleges and universities of the United States and Canada, with certain common characteristics, and mostly named from two or three letters of the Greek alphabet; hence they are frequently called "Greek Letter Societies." They are organized on the lodge system, and each fraternity comprises a number of affiliated lodges of which only one of any one fraternity is connected with the same institution. The lodges, called "chapters," in memory of the convocations of monks of medieval times, are usually designated by Greek letters also. They are nominally secret, with one exception (Delta Upsilon). Each chapter admits members from the lowest or freshman class, and of course loses its members as the students depart from college, consequently each chapter has in it at the same time members of all the four college classes and frequently those pursuing postgraduate studies. Where the attendance at a college is large the material from which fraternity members may be drawn is correspondingly abundant, and in some of the large colleges (e.g. at Cornell University and the University of Michigan) there are chapters of over twenty fraternities. All the fraternities aim to be select and to pick their members from the mass of incoming students. Where, however, the material to select from is not abundant and the rival fraternities are numerous, care in selection is impossible, and the chapters at any one college are apt to secure much the same general type of men. Many of the fraternities have, however, on account of a persistent selection of men of about the same tastes at different colleges, acquired a distinct character and individuality; for instance, Alpha Delta Phi is literary.

The first of these fraternities was the Phi Beta Kappa, founded at the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1776. It was a little social club of five students: John Heath, Richard Booker, Thomas Smith, Armistead Smith and John Jones. Its badge was a square silver medal displaying the Greek letters of its name and a few symbols. In 1779 it authorized Elisha Parmelee, one of its members, to establish "meetings" or chapters at Yale and Harvard, these chapters being authorized to establish subordinate branches in their respective states. In 1781 the College of William and Mary was closed, its buildings being occupied in turn by the British, French and American troops, and the society ceased to exist. The two branches, however, were established - that at Yale in 1780 and that at Harvard in 1781. Chapters were established at Dartmouth in r 787, at Union in 1817, at Bowdoin in 1824 and at Brown in 1830. This society changed its character in 1826 and became non-secret and purely honorary in character, admitting to membership a certain proportion of the scholars of highest standing in each class (only in classical courses, usually and with few exceptions only in graduating classes). More recent honorary societies of similar character among schools of science and engineering are Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. In 1825, at Union College, Kappa Alpha was organized, copying in style of badge, membership restrictions and the like, its predecessor. In 1827 two other similar societies, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi, were founded at the same place. In 1831 Sigma Phi placed a branch at Hamilton College and in 1832 Alpha Delta Phi originated there. In 1833 Psi Upsilon, a fourth society, was organized at Union. In 1835 Alpha Delta Phi placed a chapter at Miami University, and in 1839 Beta Theta Pi originated there, and so the system spread. These fraternities, it will be observed, were all undergraduate societies among the male students. In 1910 the total number of men's general fraternities was 32, with 1068 living chapters, and owning property worth many millions of dollars. In 1864 Theta Xi, the first professional fraternity restricting its membership to students intending to engage in the same profession, was organized. There were in 1910 about 50 of these organizations with some 400 chapters. In addition there are about 100 local societies or chapters acting as independent units. Some of the older of these, such as Kappa Kappa Kappa at Dartmouth, IKA at Trinity, Phi Nu Theta at Wesleyan and Delta Psi at Vermont, are permanent in character, but the majority of them are purely temporary, designed to maintain an organization until the society becomes a chapter of one of the general fraternities. In 1870 the first women's society or "sorority," the Kappa Alpha Theta, was organized at De Pauw University. There were in 1910, 17 general sororities with some 300 active chapters.

It is no exaggeration to say that these apparently insignificant organizations of irresponsible students have modified the college life of America and ave had a wide influence. Members join in the impressionable years of their youth; they retain for their organizations a peculiar loyalty and affection, and freely contribute with money and influence to their advancement.

Almost universally the members of any particular chapter (or part of them) live together in a lodge or chapter house. The men's fraternities own hundreds of houses and rent as many more. The fraternities form a little aristocracy within the college community. Sometimes the line of separation is invisible, sometimes sharply marked. Sometimes this condition militates against the college discipline and sometimes it assists it. Conflicts not infrequently occur between the fraternity and nonfraternity element in a college.

It can readily be understood how young men living together in the intimate relationship of daily contact in the same house, having much the same tastes, culture and aspirations would form among themselves enduring friendships. In addition each fraternity has a reputation to maintain, and this engenders an esprit du corps which at times places loyalty to fraternity interests above loyalty to college interest or the real advantage of the individual. At commencements and upon other occasions the former members of the chapters return to their chapter houses and help to foster the pride and loyalty of the undergraduates. The chapter houses are commonly owned by corporations made up of the alumni. This brings the undergraduates into contact with men of mature age and often of national fame, who treat their membership as a serious privilege.

The development of this collegiate aristocracy has led to jealousy and bitter animosity among those not selected for membership. Some of the states, notably South Carolina and Arkansas, have by legislation, either abolished the fraternities at state-controlled institutions or seriously limited the privileges of their members. The constitutionality of such legislation has never been tested. Litigation has occasionally arisen out of attempts on the part of college authorities to prohibit the fraternities at their several institutions. This, it has been held, may lawfully be done at a college maintained by private endowment but not at an institution supported by public funds. In the latter case all classes of the public are equally entitled to the same educational privileges and members of the fraternities may not be discriminated against.

The fraternities are admirably organized. The usual system comprises a legislative body made up of delegates from the different chapters and an executive or administrative body elected by the delegates. Few of the fraternities have any judiciary. None is needed. The financial systems are sound, and the conventions of delegates meet in various parts of the United States, several hundred in number, spend thousands of dollars in travel and entertainment, and attract much public attention. Most of the fraternities have an inspection system by which chapters are periodically visited and kept up to a certain level of excellence.

The leading fraternities publish journals usually from four to eight times during the college year. The earliest of these was the Beta Theta Pi, first issued in 1872. All publish catalogues of their members and the most prosperous have issued histories. They also publish song books, music and many ephemeral and local publications.

The alumni of the fraternities are organized into clubs or associations having headquarters at centres of population. These organizations are somewhat loose, but nevertheless are capable of much exertion and influence should occasion arise.

The college fraternity system has no parallel among the students of colleges outside of America. One of the curious things about it, however, is that while it is practically uniform throughout the United States, at the three prominent universities of Harvard, Yale and Princeton it differs in many respects from its character elsewhere. At Harvard, although there are chapters of a few of the fraternities, their influence is insignificant, their place being taken by a group of local societies, some of them class organizations. At Yale, the regular system of fraternities obtains in the engineering or technical department (the Sheffield Scientific School), but in the classical department the fraternity chapters are called "junior" societies, because they limit their membership to the three upper classes and allow the juniors each year practically to control the chapter affairs. Certain senior societies, of which the oldest is the Skull and Bones, which are inter-fraternity societies admitting freely members of the fraternities, are more prominent at Yale than the fraternities themselves. Princeton has two (secret) literary and fraternal societies, the American Whig and the Cliosophic, and various local social clubs, with no relationship to organizations in other colleges and not having Greek letter names.

At a few universities (for instance, Michigan, Cornell and Virginia), senior societies or other inter-fraternity societies exert great influence and have modified the strength of the fraternity system.

Of late years, numerous societies bearing Greek names and imitating the externals of the college fraternities have sprung up in the high schools and academies of the country, but have excited the earnest and apparently united opposition of the authorities of such schools.

See William Raimond Baird, American College Fraternities (6th ed., New York, 1905); Albert C. Stevens, Cyclopedia of Fraternities (Paterson, N. J., 1899); Henry D. Sheldon, Student Life and Customs (New York, 1901); Homer L. Patterson, Patterson's College and School Directory (Chicago, 1904); H. K. Kellogg, College Secret Societies (Chicago, 1874); Albert P. Jacobs, Greek Letter Societies (Detroit, 1879). (W. R. B.*)

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'College Fraternities'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry