Literary Societies: The Spirit of Baylor University

By Sean Jordan Rollolazo

In the early history of higher education in the United States, institutions encountered an era of conflict between students and faculty. The concept of student life was unexplored, disciplinary action reigned supreme, and students were entrusted with little responsibility—an example found at Harvard College during the eighteenth century (Jackson, 2000).

A century later, as societal involvement tempered student rebellion, Baylor University established literary societies. These student groups provided members with an outlet from the strictly academic schedule assembled by faculty and administration. The opportunities in which students were allowed to participate outside of the classroom were extremely limited during the colonial college era (Thelin, 2004). These “literary societies were among the first extra-curricular activities in the United States” (Amyett, 1963, p. 2) and proved to be a critical segue into student life outside of formal academic development, although some even met in secret because such assemblies were against university policy. Students both discussed and were trained in the topics of composition, oratory, declamation, extempore speaking, dramatics, parliamentary drills, and reading, yet debating was the most common activity of the literary societies (Amyett, 1963).

“Philomathesian Gate”
“Erisophian Gate”
“Calliopean Gate”
“R.C.B. Gate”

 

At Baylor University, these literary societies played a prominent role in the co-curricular—academic and social—development of students, both explicitly and implicitly. The university’s yearbook, The Round Up, states, “the most potent power in Baylor’s existence has always been that of her literary societies” (1909, p. 127). These organizations honed academic-based skills by incorporating practicality, yet also allowed the formation of a social life though society celebrations and oratory victories, reaching their peak around year 1900 (Amyett, 1963). This entry describes the formation and functions of literary societies at Baylor University during the early 1900s, and reveals their impact on student life.

Literary Society section page in The Round Up 1910
Literary Society section page from The Round Up 1920

The Four Literary Societies

Amidst the formation of philosophical and theological societies, the literary societies at Baylor held social prominence. More specifically, four groups (two men’s and two women’s) dominated the extra-curricular realm of the University. Although these four literary societies virtually conducted the same activities, such as debates, parliamentary drills, and open sessions, each had a distinct vibe and culture. The distinctiveness amongst these groups were characterized by their histories, ideals, meeting places, appearance of societal pins, legends and secrets, rituals and yells.

Men’s Literary Societies at Baylor

The Philomathesian Literary Society or “Philos” formed in October 1851, while Baylor was still at its first location in Independence, Texas (Amyett, 1963). Dr. Rufus C. Burleson, along with esteemed faculty with previous experiences at other institutions, introduced the idea of a literary society to these students, and because of his encouragement, the Philomathesian Literary Society became the first to be established in Texas (The Lariat, 1906, July 26, p. 3).

Philo Presidents and Secretaries

The society’s motto was “Esse quam videri malo,” which in Latin means, “to be, rather than seem to be,” and colors were white and blue to represent purity and sincerity, respectively[1](Smyth, n.d.). Smyth reports “Philo love increased and helped to develop that Baylor spirit” (p. 3), and that their camaraderie translated into gentlemanliness, building a positive reputation throughout the university.

Organized at Baylor in 1853, the Erisophian Literary Society or “Sophies” had the motto “Utile dulci,” in Latin meaning “The useful with the pleasant.” During the Civil War, several members fought for the Confederacy, causing a disbandment of the society until 1868 (The Round Up, 1902). Regarding their colors, Smyth (n.d.) writes “red signified bravery and courage… White… stood for purity… Blue was for truth and honesty” (p. 14).

Sophie Presidents

These symbolic values contributed to the desire to create men with a rational personality of noble manhood—an ideal they believe could be attained through the “mental, moral, and social development of its members” (The Round Up, 1902, p. 54).The men’s societies held their meetings in their designated rooms in the Main Building, expanding to multiple adjacent rooms as their membership grew (Amyett, 1963).

Philo Hall

Both the men’s literary societies offered one-year full tuition scholarships to the student member “who wins the first rank in an oratorical contest and whose society and college record is satisfactory” (The Baylor Bulletin, 1901). The Philomathesian Constitution specified that “all questions bordering on immorality, sectarianism or politics [were excluded] from literary compositions or debate” (Amyett, 1963, p. 13), however, there is no record that the Sophies were similarly restricted on issues.

Women’s Literary Societies at Baylor

The Calliopean Literary Society or “Callies” were the first of the women’s societies to be established at Baylor in 1867. Their motto, “Vincet quae se vincet,” in Latin means, “She conquers who conquers herself,” and their colors were white and gold (The Round Up, 1902).

Callie Officers

The Callies sought to develop individual members, as well as the whole society, by providing most of the members with leadership experience. Because of this intentional structural mandate, there was a high turnover in leadership selection, with most officer positions lasting only two months (Smyth, n.d.). The Rufus C. Burleson Society or “R. C. B.’s” was formed about two decades after the Callies in October 1887. The women who established the society’s name chose to the honor Dr. Burleson because during its formation, he “lent much encouragement and assurance for the girls as they struggled for their rightful place in the sight of the older societies” (Smyth, n.d., p. 21).

R. C. B. Officers

Their motto was “Step by step,” which symbolized their patience in climbing toward success amidst a competitive societal environment, and their colors were pink and green. Although much of R. C. B.’s existence during the early twentieth century was characterized as persevering through discouragement when compared to fellow literary societies, they eventually did establish for themselves a settled and thriving membership (The Round Up, 1902). Having established rituals and secret traditions like the other societies, the R. C. B.’s conducted their initiation by rattling chains and creating crashing sounds around their new members (The Lariat, 1920, November 3).

The women held their literary society meetings in their designated rooms in Georgia Burleson Hall. Amyett (1963) describes that the women’s oratorical issues were “more amusing than serious” (p. 74), one example describing the reprimanding of a member who flirted too much with boys. In relation to access and equality, the women’s literary society scholarships provided less monetary assistance in comparison to that of the men (Amyett, 1963).

Because of the enthralling rivalry and showcased competitions between the Philos and Sophies, Mr. N. D. Naman instituted an annual debate between the Callies and R. C. B.’s in the spring of 1917, and rewarded the winner with a fifty-dollar wrist watch every year. The Lariat (1918, August 8) records the Naman debate’s influential nature:

In the unanimous opinion of all, the Naman debate, in its brief history, has been a decided success, and as a permanent institution bids fair to be among the most beneficial of Baylor’s assets. It fosters society spirit, which is so essential to a proper college atmosphere. Friendly rivalry has always existed between the Callies and R. C. B.’s. (p. 1)

Impact on Student Life

Rivalries

With most groups on a college campus, a hint of elitism and exclusivity characterized the literary societies; however, intersocietal rivalry reigned supreme. The political nature of the society pride became such an elevated issue talks of the rivalries were actually banned from the classroom and academic affairs (The Round Up, 1908). Other extra-curricular affairs were affected by societal affiliation, as well; student government waited to conduct elections for Junior officers because there was an even balance in societal representation, resulting in multiple ties” (The Lariat, 1902, February 7, p. 4). As the groups began to gain prominence on campus, the Philomathesians and Calliopeans joined together as brother-sister societies, while the Erisophians and Rufus C. Burleson Society banded together—a mostly repercussive act.

The Lariat (1918) had a special “Philo-Callie Edition” during the summer that showcased anything and everything regarding these two societies, even having an entire article comprised of facts unique to the Philos and Callies.

“Philo-Callie Edition”

In the same issue, the writer emphatically argues against the “Sophie Edition” of The Lariattwo weeks prior, which had a statement that read: “They surpassed their antagonists by far securing more than thirty additions to the societies” (1918, July 25). The writer’s response in the “Philo-Callie Edition” of The Lariat (1918, August 8):  “We are sorry that they did not investigate further because if they had, they would have discovered to their chagrin that the Philos and Callies had received more than fifty additions to their societies. 30—50,[sic] Sophie and R.C.B.—Philo and Callie.”

The author then proceeds to give snide comments about previous false claims that Sophies perpetuated in the student body, greatly affecting the Philos’ reputation. To make his or her point of Philo-Callie superiority even more clear, the writer inserts, “the Calliopeans are twenty-one years older than the R.C. B.’s. Just old enough to vote when the R.C.B.’s were born” (The Lariat, 1918, p. 2).

Recruiting. In an issue of The Lariat (1909, August 21), almost a decade earlier, the writer describes the effect of society spirit on Baylor:

Our two aggressive Literary Societies, the “Philos” and “Sophies” are the backbone and mainstay of the student body of the University and have been ever since their organization. As a result of the healthy, manly rivalry existing between the two bodies, Baylor’s great orators and debaters have been developed and have ever reflected honor and credit on the institution. (p. 5)

He or she then illustrates the shenanigans these societies conducted in an effort to campaign and initiate new members during the fall. Recruiting these individuals was very undignified and seemed to cause more chaos and than it intended, which affected both parents and students.

Our society workers should realize that certain “guardians of the peace” [sic] are quite willing to overlook the hilarious gambolings of some of the strangers within our gates…[and] any slight disturbance caused by those who spend their money here for nine or ten months during each of several consecutive years. (p. 5)

Sophie yell

Although the enthusiasm that surrounded society pride would sometimes come off as obnoxious, especially to those unacquainted with the literary society culture, benefits that came with society membership are explicitly mentioned throughout periodicals in an effort to encourage new students, as seen in The Lariat (1918, July 25):

The spirit of friendly rivalry causes more determined effort on the part of each one and adds variety and zest to college life. The opportunity afforded for training, and the efficiency acquired in leadership more than compensates the busy student for time spent in making the society life worth while. (p. 2)

Intersocietal rivalry was evident throughout the year, especially prevalent during the start of the fall semester, helping to perpetuate society spirit throughout Baylor. Aside from the unpleasant conflicts that arose from the rivalry, this societal pride positively translated into deep brotherhoods and sisterhoods within each group and did not hinder the groups’ efforts to enrich the student experience and contribute to the university as a whole.

Contributions to Peers

Philos saw their fellow students’ need for supplemental reading in the university libraries, which only offered course material. The society took the initiative to raise funds to purchase books, and sought book donations from friends, former members, and other societies. Because the Philos’ independent collections were increasing, storing and securing the materials became an issue. Eventually, the university libraries housed their collections and the responsibility of cataloging the library was put upon the society (Smyth, n.d.). The other literary societies also had the desire to collect literature and publications for student use, independently housing and maintaining these works. To illustrate the enormity of these collections, the Sophies’ library contained 2,000 volumes (The Round Up, 1902). By 1903, all four societies offered their individual libraries to the university libraries in return for scholarship funds (Amyett, 1963). Although their collections proved to be a significant contribution to Baylor, donating them proved to be a social sacrifice because these rooms were to “the societies what the home fireside is to families” (The Lariat, 1902, September 20, p. 2).

The literary societies also provided Baylor its first student publication (Amyett, 1963). Established in 1891, The Literary, was a monthly magazine published by the Philomathesian and Erisophian societies (The Round Up, 1903), yet was later published by students who were not specific members of literary societies (Smyth, n.d.).

The Literary section page in The Round Up in 1910

In 1910, a section in The Round Up praises The Literary because the work “furnishes a medium for the cultivation of literary talent and offers an opportunity for the publication of worthy articles…As a library for short stories, verses, and critical material, The Literary is not to be surpassed by any college magazine” (p. 146). The Literary is a clear example of the literary societies’ initiative to promote learning and intellectual growth outside of the classroom.

Benefits to Members

Debates. The number of oratorical contests offered at Baylor University was much higher than other colleges during the early twentieth century. Intersocietal debates held utmost importance within the university during the academic year, and were essentially milestones to the literary societies, where pep meetings, victory parties, and celebrations were coordinated around its occurrences (Amyett, 1963). Debates ranged within a variety of topics, mostly regarding governmental actions and policies; some of the favorites were “suffrage, women’s equality, national economy, and education” (Amyett, 1963, p. 5.). By the early 1910s, the number of intercollegiate debates increased, “including out-of-state colleges: Ouachita, Arkansas, Wake Forest, and William-Jewel” (Amyett, 1963, p. 98).

Experience in these debates instilled both confidence and competence in these members.  Discussing and formulating an argument around these topics required much more critical thought than the average college student would naturally attain, encouraging intellectual growth by stimulating significant cognitive processes. In addition to this, students were also presented with opportunities to become acquainted with other institutions, which contributed to a broadened perspective. The Round Up provides the result of a society member’s development after four years of involvement: “By means of a society many a boy and girl have been given a chance to display and develop the powers and abilities which otherwise would have lain dormant and stifled for want of a place to assert themselves” (The Round Up, 1910, p. 101).

Callies at Homecoming 1909

Friendships and life-long values. In the early 20th century, literary societies began to be compared to Greek fraternities and sororities, mostly because both types of groups provided a sense of student belonging through brotherhood or sisterhood. A member of the R. C. B. recalls this invaluable benefit in The Lariat, “You choose your friends largely from your Society. You feel a fellowship, a fraternal feeling, for your society brothers and sisters that you never feel for others. Your life is influenced largely by these relations” (1918, July 25, p. 2). Indeed, these life-changing relationships lasted beyond post-graduate life. Much of Baylor’s first Homecoming in 1909 comprised of literary society celebrations for both current members and alumni, emphasizing the legacy of these groups on campus and the significant bond between members. Alumni from these societies have moved beyond Baylor to hold prominent positions in society as judges, teachers, and statesmen (Amyett, 1963).

Aside from the intellectual and oratorical skills, literary society members gained social competence as well from their commitment to an organization that emphasized brotherhood and sisterhood. These groups also instilled and perpetuated Christian values, encouraging their members to pursue and live them out. Involvement in these societies “better equipped [students] to go into the forum of life” (The Lariat, 1906, July 26, p. 3).

Conclusion

By the early 1920s, the presence and prominence of these societies began to fade with the rise of other student life affairs, such as athletics, Chamber of Commerce, and Greek organizations. Although the literary societies of the early twentieth century are now virtually non-existent on college campuses, the spirit and legacy of these organizations are evident in student affairs initiatives. Each society added its unique characteristics to the social atmosphere, and ultimately Baylor University. The literary societies, as a whole, provided students with social development, in addition to the practical exercises that promoted critical thinking and intellectual growth. Instilling and enforcing positive values took priority as well, especially when students considered themselves as representatives of their society. By becoming a Philo, Sophie, Callie, or R. C. B., students gained a sense of identity and purpose by being connected with peers in an extra-curricular setting—the aim of these literary societies are simply put in this quote: “We want to help you. We want you to help us.” (The Lariat, 1918, July 25, p. 2).

References

Amyett, P. D. W. (1963). A history of literary societies at Baylor University (Unpublished master’s thesis). Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Armstrong, A. J. (Ed.). (1918, July 25). The opportunities of an R. C. B. The Lariat, 19(42), p. 2.
Armstrong, A. J. (Ed.). (1918, July 25). To the new student: What literary society shall I join and why? The Lariat, 19(42), p. 2.
Armstrong, A. J. (Ed.). (1918, August 8). History of the Naman debate. The Lariat, 19(44), p. 1.
Armstrong, A. J. (Ed.). (1918, August 8). Passing remarks. The Lariat, 19(44), p. 2.
Armstrong, A. J. (Ed.). (1918, August 8). Philo-Callie facts. The Lariat, 19(44), p. 2.
Brooks, T. D. (Ed.). (1902, September 20.) The donation of society libraries. The Lariat, 3(3), p. 2.
Harrell, J. W. (Ed.). (1906, July 26). The Philomathesian Society. The Lariat, 6(44), p. 3.
Jackson, L. (2000). The rights of man and the rights of youth: Fraternity and riot at eighteenth century Harvard. The American college in the nineteenth century. R. L. Geiger (Ed.). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
Minatra, O. (Ed.). (1910, April 30). Callies entertain. The Lariat, 9(49), p. 1.
Puryear, V. O. (Ed.). (1920, November 3). R. C. B. give impressive ceremony to new girls. The Lariat, 22(11), p. 2.
Smyth, S. B. (n.d.). History of the literary societies in Baylor (Unpublished term paper). Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Strecker, J. K. Jr. (ed.). (1909, August 21). Society spirit. The Lariat, 9(44), p. 5.
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[1] This paper often cites History of the literary societies in Baylor, a term paper written by Sarah Belle Smyth, a former Baylor student. The source does not have a specific year listed; the Texas Collection attributed “19??” as a means of orienting the reader to its timeframe.

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