The beginning of Beta Theta Pi…. by John Riely Knox

The beginning of Beta Theta Pi in the words of Pater Knox:

First: in a letter to Edward Bruce Stevens of the Miami chapter, April 14, 1843:

            “To begin with the beginning, it was the winter session, 1838-1839, that the idea of forming a secret association first suggested itself to my mind. I saw that there were many advantages in such an association, which could not otherwise be enjoyed. Such combinations of individuals are as old as the wants of man and coeval with the growth of literature. The Motto of our own Society, “firmam consensus facit” is but an embodiment of the experience of man in all ages and nations.
            The history of many of these secret associations had always possessed a charm for me. There was an interest about the actions of men who bound themselves together by vows which were never broken, and who pursued the great objects of their association with an energy that never tired, with a zeal which knew not self, and with a devotedness that never counted gold. Men have been found among them who labored “from morn to night, from youth to hoary age,” in one cause and for one object. Revolutions have been accomplished and despots dethrone by the united action of small but daring associations. The great secret of their success consisted not in numbers but in union; not in great strength, but in well-directed and simultaneous exertions. What a few men united in object and effort will to do can be done; and more than that, such associations teach us in their records how far human friendship can carry us from the shrine of idol self…. In some of these societies however, were to be found many objectionable features which rendered them liable to be used as engines of evil and well as instruments of good. Some of these were to be found in the Alpha Delta Phi Society as it was organized at Miami University, and I imagined that an association might be formed which would embrace the good without the ingredient of evil. My attention was drawn more forcibly to this by the dissension then existing in the Union Hall which I conceived originated in the Alpha Society. In some of our conversations on the subject, Taylor Marshall suggested the idea of building up a Society which might unite the benefits without the disadvantages of the Alphas. I told him I had thought of it, but was afraid that we could not succeed. But if you know Marshal, I need not tell you that he is one of the most sanguine men in existence. The idea once started, he would not give it up until I set to work.
            In the first place I got the Greek Lexicon and turned it over several times in search of a name. The present one was finally selected. Then came the badge. This was more difficult that the other. You have seen the first pins that were struck. In place of the crescent we first agreed on clasped hands- but that Taylor had altered when he went to the city to procure the pins…. We then went to work on the constitution. You have seen the draught as it was originally presented. On that I spent my leisure time for a week or more, and many were the long consultations which Taylor and I had over that. Night after night up in “the old wing” we revised and revised until we got it to our satisfaction, though necessarily imperfect; for it was altogether an experiment with me, as I had nothing to go by but imagination, and I believe Taylor was equally inexperienced. The next question was, whom shall we connect with us in this manner? Charles Hardin roomed next to Marshall, so we called him in, and I initiated him and Taylor Marshall.”

            (Some words in the letter are illegible and because of wear due to age.)

Second:  His “Recollections of 1839” prepared for the convention of 1873.

            “It was in January, 1839, when I was in my senior year at Miami University,that the idea first occurred to me of the organization of our society. Circumstances had made me somewhat prominent in a rather bitter fight in the Literary Association of which I was a member against the society of Alpha Delta Pi, and in which though successful I had learned to admire the compact organization and esprit de corps of its members. About the same time, too, I came across an old book, no copy of which I have seen since, and the name of which I have forgotten, giving an account of some of the secret organizations of the Middle Ages. Their knightly vows and pledges were given, and some curious sketches of their inside working and their secret history; and I was, I might say of course, very much interested in these ancient brotherhoods.
            Being, as I have said, already impressed with the force that lies in compact organization, an idea that had been a subject of conversation between two or three of us grew on me, and I went to sketching out a plan, the constitution and obligations for a new society. While engaged in doing this, I had repeated conferences with the gentleman whose name stands second on the roll, S. T. Marshall, now of Iowa. He was considerably my senior, anxious that something of the kind should be got up, and urged on the enterprise. The selection of the name being considered an important matter, several combinations were canvassed. Greek it must be, of course, and while desiring mainly that there should be significance in either the motto or the independent words adopted, we preferred that finally selected as being not only pleasant  to the ear  but reasonably significant of the object of the infant Society. The leading motive of uniting a few choice spirits on closer bonds for improvement in literary exercises and the cultivation of social life, but chiefly the latter, was probably the principal raison d’etre of the new organization. Mutual support and assistance, absolute faith and confidence in each other, and progress in knowledge and scholarship, were the fundamental ideas on which we built. With a view to the cultivation of intimate social relations, it was, for instance, originally provided that no more than nine members should at one time be in attendance at the same college, and, as an illustration of the closeness of the tie which was to bind us, the original obligation taken the neophyte pledged him to this brothers in the Order that, ‘their friends should be his friends, and their enemies his enemies.” But, at a very early day the introduction of a more Christian element into the organization led to a modification of this rather heathenish provision. The number nine, Too, was soon dropped, leaving the Order free to select good fellows where and in whatever number it might find them; and the three stars were no longer indicative of the limited membership (as the root of the mysterious nine) but simply remained as the heavenly representations of the three words of the order….

          The members present at the first meeting of the Order were Brothers Marshall, Linton, Smith, J. G. (poor Leb as good as a fellow as ever lived; he died young), and myself. The meeting was held in a room occupied at the time by Taylor Marshall, in that part of the college buildings at Oxford known as “the old wing”. The venerable pile was abated as a nuisance and reduced to its original elements a few years ago under the active supervision of the chief of the Goths and Vandals, Brother John W. Herron, in his capacity of chairman of the committee on public grounds and buildings of the board of trustees of Miami University. At that meeting I administered the obligation to the members present, but, by inadvertence,  no one qualified me in turn , so that I am scarce able to say, though my name has always been borne on the catalogue that I am entitled to the privileges of those who wear the badge and bear the name of Beta theta Pi.
            Soon after this first meeting Charlie Hardin, John Duncan, and M. 
C. Ryan, good and true fellows, were added to the faithful band, and many a pleasant and profitable meeting we had in the early Spring and on into the Summer of that year of grace, 1839, our commencement at that time being in August, either the first or second Thursday, I am not sure which….
            Though somewhat intimately connected with the early days of our Order that has gone on so prosperously for thirty-five years, half the period of man’s allotted time on earth, yet since then I have had practically but little connection with it, and thus, though largely responsible for its start in life, I can claim on no credit for the magnificent growth it has had. It was only with its small beginnings that I had anything to do. But it is needless to say that I take great pride in the prosperity of Beta and have faith in he future….
            We were a pleasant company, pleasant to each other at least and I should greatly like to meet the survivors again. None of them will be at your festival, brethren. Pray, remember them when you drink to the absent.