In the 1800s, fraternities were generally frowned upon. At the time of the founding of Beta Theta Pi, there were 5 Greek fraternities in existence: Kappa Alpha (society), Delta Phi, Sigma Phi, Psi Upsilon, and Alpha Delta Phi. Generally, fraternities had to be secretive at that time because they were thought to be subversive, and members risked expulsion from their respective academic institutions. At the same time, many colleges and universities featured literary societies, which were based in education rather than fraternalism, emphasizing writing and public speaking. It was commonplace at the time for two or more competing literary societies to exist on one campus at the same time.
The Founding of Beta Theta Pi
There were three such literary societies at Miami University, the largest being the Erodelphian Literary Society, then the Union Literary Society, followed by the Miami Hall Literary Society. The founding members of Beta Theta Pi were all members in these societies – four each in Erodelphian and Union.
“At nine o’clock in the evening of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 1839, eight earnest young men, all students at Miami University, held the first meeting of Beta Theta Pi in the Hall of the Union Literary Society, an upper room in the old college building known as Old Main. The eight founders in the order in which their names appear in the minutes were:
John Reily Knox, 1839
Samuel Taylor Marshall, 1840
David Linton, 1839
James George Smith, 1840
Charles Henry Hardin, 1841
John Holt Duncan, 1840
Michael Clarkson Ryan, 1839
Thomas Boston Gordon, 1840
of ever honored memory.”
Creating Beta’s Broad Domain
Over the following years, representatives from what became known as Alpha chapter went out to establish new chapters at other academic institutions. The second chapter formed was at the University of Cincinnati. From almost the very beginning, it was decided that all chapters of Beta Theta Pi would have equal standing in relation to each other. Thus, Alpha would have no special authority just because it was the first chapter. Over the next 164 years, some chapters would fold and in some cases restart (Alpha was one such chapter), but many more would be added. There are currently 126 active chapters and colonies of Beta Theta Pi at academic institutions across the United States and Canada. In recognition of our brothers from Canada (Watling), in is important to note that the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity is known as the General Fraternity, not the National Fraternity.
Beta’s Darkest Hour
As the fraternity was founded in 1839, it faced a terrible test 22 years later as the Civil War broke out. Brother pitted brother as the fraternity and its members spanned the Union and Confederacy. Among the founders, Ryan, Gordon and Duncan met tragic ends due to this terrible conflict. Ryan died fighting for the Union, while Gordon survived but was left with nothing. John Holt Duncan’s story is sad, but is one befitting a true Beta. Fighting for the South, Duncan lost his leg and was left at a local farm house. The Union Army arrived and shot the farmer for helping a confederate. Duncan survived, but spent the rest of his days supporting the family that had sacrificed so much for his safety.
The Toronto Fund
One of the more celebrated incidents of brotherhood in Beta history, the Toronto Fund proved the great strength of Beta Theta Pi. While the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, Canada became involved in 1914. Due to the enlistment of most of its members, the Theta Zeta chapter of Toronto was unable to raise enough funds to keep the house open and run the chapter. The few remaining members asked for aid, and Beta responded, with each member donating one dollar. $3,040 were raised, when only $2,500 was needed, showing the true generosity and fraternalism of Beta Theta Pi.
Beta Theta Pi is known as the “singing fraternity.” Betas have been singing their love for the fraternity since 1847 and there are currently 44 songs published in the Beta songbook. Singing helps to cultivate and cherish the sentimental side of fraternity life and create a common bond between its members.