Literary societies are one of the oldest student organizations in America, and are considered the forerunners of modern-day fraternities and sororities. Traditional literary societies were founded to promote scholarship through literary exercises and debate. Modern fraternities and sororities focus on the personal development of their members, often promoting social growth above scholarship.
Centenary College is no exception to this age-old tradition. When the college first opened, its students created four literary societies, one within the institute’s first week! Students named it the Whitney Lyceum in honor of President Whitney. His Friday afternoon declamation exercises challenged students to improve their public speaking skills, which inspired the society. Within months came another society, the Philomathean Society, which merged into the Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Fraternity in 1885. Both were gentlemen only. The ladies had their own societies: Diokosophian was in 1875, and the Evergreen Society (later called Peithosophian) in 1880. Dr. Whitney’s ideas of social training were quickly adopted by all four societies. Utmost in importance to all societies was the inclusion of earnest, purposeful young men and women.
Societies met every Saturday night in their respective meeting room to carry out literary exercises and read their society paper, which contained both serious and humorous articles. They hosted Anniversary Programs, or “Ann’s”, events that consisted of musical numbers, speeches, debates, and dramatic performances. Ann’s were open to the public, and were attended by students, faculty, Hackettstown residents, and alumni! After chapel the audience would visit each society hall to enjoy their presentations and have discussion until dinner was announced. In a way, these programs were informal class reunions. Each society created a motto for itself that was fiercely guarded by its members – other societies could know only the initial letter of each word. Even 50 years after graduating, members refused to divulge their society’s motto.
Amazingly, these societies were completely student controlled. They were not under the direct supervision of the President, nor did they request support from faculty or staff members, yet each ran like a well-oiled machine. Members were expected to behave in an appropriate manner at all times, and could be punished or expelled from their society for irresponsible or foolish behavior. They were respectful of faculty, and earned the respect of the faculty through their professionalism and enthusiasm for learning.
Eventually, students started to spend more time on their societies, Ann’s in particular. Ann’s became such a diversion that in one instance students asked their professors to make exams as light as possible. To alleviate cost and stress, Ann’s were merged – Whitney Lyceum with Diokosophian, and Peithosophian with Alpha Phi. By 1907 all four societies held one combined Ann. In 1910, the college said goodbye to the men and their societies, and hello to a new girl’s society: Callilogian Society. Over the next few decades the objectives of the societies transformed from academic to social. By the time the fourth society, Kappa Psi Delta, was created in 1961, traditional literary societies were almost completely phased out. The trophy contest, in which societies wrote essays in competition for the right to display a statue called “The Lady”, was possibly one of the last traditional academic events held by the societies.
Keep an eye out for upcoming posts to learn more about each literary society!