Unsurprisingly, the history of Greek life is rich, and it has some seriously interesting beginnings. For current members, it’s definitely understandable to have an interest in Greek life’s origins, especially after the culture has had such a positive impact on your life. Some parts of Greek life’s origins might seem obvious as can be, but others may surprise you.
So, how did Greek life actually kick off? It didn’t involve a barrage of bold sorority shirts and stylish, to-the-point merch. In fact, many of the earliest Greek letter organizations gathered in secret. We’re here to break it all down for you.
The Earliest Origins of Greek Life
Today, students choose to get involved in fraternities and sororities for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe you’re looking to build lifelong friendships. Or, maybe you’re hoping to get more involved on campus, and make whatever positive contributions you can to your college. Maybe you’re even looking to build a professional network. Perhaps, you’re looking for all three? These are all common incentives that modern day college students have, when it comes to getting involved in Greek life for the very first time.
Well, what we now know as the North American sorority and fraternity system didn’t start out with those same goals in mind—at least, not exactly, although that could have certainly been a byproduct. In reality, Greek life began as a secretive way for students to assemble amongst themselves, in order to discuss less-than-acceptable topics. That’s to say, if a debate or discussion was considered inappropriate by the school’s faculty, then students weren’t just going to shut up about it, obviously.
That’s where many of the earliest Greek letter fraternities came into play.
The Precursors to Modern Greek Life
Let’s just take a step back for a second. So, now we know what motivated most early Greek life. But what other kinds of organizations or groups inspired its development? Basically, why were early Greek letter organizations structured and organized the way they were? There’s a reason for that.
The structure of early Greek life was heavily inspired by the fraternities that existed during the American Colonial Period. Before the “United States” (as we now know it) even existed, collegiate fraternal organizations bloomed in the soon-to-be country. The purpose of these organizations was to help promote rhetoric, scholarship, and ethical conduct amongst students. Still, these weren’t initially a wide-spread trend—the earliest, pre-Greek life fraternities existed only at the College of William and Mary, Yale, and The College of New Jersey.
Not too much later, college literary societies began to catch on, growing in popularity and availability. Soon enough, these literary societies (or, more specifically, Latin literary societies) existed in pretty much every college in the United States. From around the post-Colonial Period to the time of the Civil War, college literary societies were thriving. These social organizations are now considered to be the most immediate precursor to modern day Greek letter fraternities and sororities.
Like the name “Latin literary societies” would imply, rather than taking their names from the Greek alphabet, these early organizations based their names around Latin. Most of the time, this involved compound Latinate names.
Unlike the Greek life that’s to come, college literary societies weren’t all about discussion and debate. Sure, this was certainly a big component of these post-Colonial organizations. That much is definitely true. But rather than just discussing various topical issues, college literary societies valued what their name would imply: literature. Whether it be essays, music, poetry, or something else entirely, members were encouraged to present and share these works amongst the group. Actually, many college literary societies even curated their own libraries, full of literary works available to the organization’s members.
Similar to early Greek life, also, was the popularity of controversial topics within literary society discussion and subjects. If the school’s official curriculum was avoiding a topic due to its controversial nature, then college literary societies became an outlet for students to say whatever was really on their minds. These so-called controversial topics often involved social, political, or religious areas of discussion. Yet, after the Civil War, the popularity of college literary societies began to decline, as Greek life began to overtake them in popularity.
Phi Beta Kappa: The First Greek Letter Fraternal Organization
Around the same time that college literary societies were picking up traction, Greek life was first coming into existence. Phi Beta Kappa was established at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and was the first Greek alphabet fraternity in the United States. In fact, it was established in 1776, the very same year as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
For a good number of years, Phi Beta Kappa remained the sole Greek letter organization in the country. Unlike the Greek fraternities to come, Phi Beta Kappa wasn’t especially focused on the “controversial topics” side of the situation. Instead, from what we know, many of their topics of discussion weren’t too far from the university’s approved curriculum.
Instead, the early purpose of Phi Beta Kappa was based around “congeniality” and “promoting good fellowship,” according to the organization’s founders. They also designated “friendship as its basis.” At this point, also, the organization definitely wasn’t a “secret” society, which would be the case for most Greek organizations to follow it. In more than just a couple of ways, Phi Beta Kappa was a bit of an anomaly; at least at the time that it was established, its motivations seemed to be pretty different to the other early Greek fraternities which would soon start popping up.
Also, unlike modern college fraternities, Phi Beta Kappa was pretty much off limits to underclassmen. Actually, around half of its members were faculty, rather than students, and the other half was made up of upperclassmen (typically seniors).
After Phi Beta Kappa: A Shift in the System
The first secret, national, Greek letter fraternity was the Kappa Alpha Society, and it was established at New York State’s Union College. It’s safe to say that college students in the nineteenth century weren’t big fans of the restrictive curriculums they were being given. So, in 1825, John Hart Hunter started the Kappa Alpha Society, hoping to combat this academic censorship.
The faculty at Union College weren’t too happy with the existence of a secret society on their campus. This disagreement eventually reached a point where members of the fraternity could face either general suspension or expulsion. Naturally, rather than lead to the Kappa Alpha Society dissolving, this only drove the fraternity deeper into secrecy.
For several decades, secret Greek letter organizations faced more than a little stigma, particularly from schools themselves. Still, just like today’s fraternities and sororities, they persevered when times got tough. Eventually, Union College was given the title of “Mother of Fraternities,” and not just because of the Kappa Alpha Society. Only two years later, in 1827, both the Sigma Phi Society and Delta Phi were established on their campus.
Interesting as all this history is, we should also mention that, at this time, fraternities were only open to men. College women obviously weren’t too happy with this, leading to the 1851 founding of the Adelphean Society at Wesleyan Female College. This organization, that would later become Alpha Delta Pi, was the country’s first secret society for women. Eventually, this led us to the thriving and diverse sorority system that we have today—Greek life has really come a long way.
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