A History of Fraternities, Pt. I

Most of the collegiate-based fraternities and sororities in existence today in the United States were founded in the mid-1800s to late-1800s. My sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, will celebrate 143 years this October. But, the history that led up to their Civil War-era founding dates is much further back in history than you might expect.

 Fraternities and sororities are secret societies. We have secret rituals, handshakes, door knocks, passwords and more. Secret societies find their beginnings in ancient Egyptian mystery cults. These cults, which would be popular during the Hellenistic Age (323-330 B.C.) were formed to provide emotional religion that later would be an important part of Greek and Roman life.

One popular festival during the Greek and Roman ages was the Eleusinian. This Athenian religious festival was held in honor of the grain and fertility goddess Demeter, whose Greek name means “spelt mother” (spelt is a variety of wheat). The cult held this important festival in the town of Eleusis.

Fraternal societies found a new home in American colleges with the Social and Benevolent Order of Freemasonry (Masons). Freemasons had already founded several chapters by 1776. They began as an outlet from an otherwise restrictive atmosphere and created an avenue for discussion, thought and social activities. Other fraternal groups that popped up were literary societies and then secret college fraternities.

In 1750, the Flat Hat Society was founded as the first secret society at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. FHC was very similar to literary societies but social activities were also included as part of their intended purpose. Thomas Jefferson is recorded as a member but since 1772 there has been no record of their existence.

In 1776, Phi Beta Kappa was founded, also at the College of William and Mary. Many of their traditions were similar to those of the Masons including an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottos in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handshake. They had their members live together in a lodge and also had new chapters in other locations. In 1831 their secrets were published at Harvard so they then became solely an honor society. Phi Beta Kappa remains the most widely distributed Greek-letter society.

In 1825, eight years after Phi Beta Kappa hit Union College, nine students got together and formed the Kappa Alpha Society, which is now the oldest social fraternity. Two Years later, other Union students started two more of their own fraternities, Sigma Phi Society and Delta Phi. The three are known today as the Union Triad.

In my next post, we will discuss “Era II” fraternities and also discuss the founding of women’s fraternities and sororities. 

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