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Nearly 185 years of Beta brotherhood

Beta History

Beta Theta Pi has found a home on campuses across the United States and Canada since 1839. Among the oldest of all college fraternities, today Beta’s lifetime membership exceeds 215,000 men of principle. For generations, these brothers have made the Fraternity a leader in promoting brotherhood, personal growth and a sense of home for college-aged men.

The Founding

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Beta Theta Pi, commonly known on campuses across North America simply as Beta, was founded on August 8, 1839, at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. One of the oldest fraternities in existence, it was founded by students who had previously been members of the Erodelphian and Union Literary Societies but had greater aspirations for their own organization. Founder John Reily Knox, Miami 1839, noted at the time:

“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.”

When Beta Theta Pi held its first meeting in the old college building known as “Old Main” (today’s Harrison Hall), eight founders were present to establish an order they believed would embrace the good of their fraternal peers without any of their objectionable features:

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

That night, Beta Theta Pi – the oldest of the three fraternities forming the Miami Triad, along with Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi – was born.

In its nearly 185-year history, the many generations of men who have joined the Beta band have ascribed to the words of Founder Knox:

“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 friendships can carry us from the shrine of idol self.”

“Remember ‘tis virtue and wisdom that gave vitality to friendship”

1850 to 1900

Over the years, Beta Theta Pi became known for its entrepreneurial spirit, adopting the “Pioneering Fraternity” and “Leadership Fraternity” monikers.

Indeed, by 1850 Beta had already racked up several fraternal firsts, including being the first college fraternity founded west of the Allegheny Mountains (1839) and the first to host a General Convention (1848).

During these formative years, many of Beta Theta Pi’s signs, symbols, and traditions begin to take shape, including the creation of the Fraternity’s first badge and coat of arms and the adoption of “delicate shades of pink blue” as its colors.

Most notable during these years, however, is that fraternities (Beta included) frequently faced hostility from college and university authorities and were required to operate sub rosa. This hostility was perceived to be caused by the mistaken belief that college secret societies were formed to interfere with discipline and rules.

In order to instill confidence in its campus partners of the organization’s noble ambitions, in 1879, Beta became the first Fraternity to publish an open constitution for public distribution. Therein, Beta Theta Pi proclaimed its objects, which have held true in the year since:

“It shall be constituted as hereinafter provided and shall have for its objects the promotion of the moral and social culture of its members, the establishment of confidence and friendly relations among the universities and colleges of the United States and Canada, in securing unity of action and sympathy in matters of common interest among them, and the building up of a fraternity that recognizes mutual assistance in the honorable labors and aspirations of life, devotion to the cultivation of the intellect, unsullied friendship, and unfaltering fidelity, as objects worthy of the highest aim and purpose of associated effort.”

Heraldry & Archives

A more complete list of Beta’s signs and symbols can be found on the Heraldry and Archives page, including information on The Great Seal, Beta flag, Loving Cup and the “delicate shades” of pink and blue.
For an even deeper dive into the Fraternity’s past, search through more than 45,000 photos hand-scanned and organized by chapter in the Beta Archive. The gallery contains thousand of never-before-seen treasures, and will continue to advance in functionality over time.
Heraldry & ArchivesBeta Digital Archive

1900 to 1950

This half-century in the Fraternity’s history is best defined as the period of great “Beta Spirit,” which was best described in 1905 by Brother Willis O. Robb, Ohio Wesleyan 1879:

“The Beta is distinguishable and distinguished from all other kinds of fraternity men whatsoever, by just a little warmer and stronger, just a little tenderer and more enduring fraternity feeling than any of them can attain to … The first mark of a Beta will be his Beta spirit.”

There was a great reason to celebrate during this time, from having Betas occupy four out of the nine seats on the United States Supreme Court, to the wonderful centennial celebration and the establishment of the Founders Fund, which has evolved over time into the Beta Theta Pi Foundation and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in scholarships and leadership programming to members.

Of course, two World Wars also made these years tumultuous and often left the future of Beta on many campuses in jeopardy. Such was the case for Theta Zeta Chapter at Toronto, which saw nearly all of its members in battle or preparing to enlist and at risk of losing their chapter house without an influx of $2,500 – the equivalent of $55,000 today – in cash to cover expenses.

After the crisis was announced in a January 1916 edition of The Beta Theta Pi magazine, the Toronto Chapter Fund was established. Less than a year later, more than $3,000 had been collected and the Toronto chapter was saved. The Beta Spirit won out, as it so often does.

“Thus honor shall come to the badge that we wear and every Beta that honor shall share.”

1950 to 2000

The Beta tradition continued to grow and expand during this time, with notable events ranging from the initiation of Beta’s first Black member, Bill Lowry, Kenyon ’56, to the construction of the Fraternity’s current Administrative Office in Oxford, Ohio.

This period saw the establishment of a 2.5 minimum chapter and individual GPA – a standard Beta Theta Pi has continued to raise over the years – and the Beta Leadership Fund, which began what is now a more than 50-year tradition of funding leadership programming for collegiates and volunteers.

Though individual members during this time no doubt enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie afforded them by a fraternity experience, Beta and its interfraternal peers also largely fell victim to an “Animal House” mentality. For the first time, the longevity of our historic association was in doubt.

By the end of the 20th century, however, the stage was set for a renewed commitment to the Beta principles that was born of necessity and nurtured by yet another evolution of young men who yearned for excellence and thrived on brotherhood.

2000 to Present

Realizing a recommitment to Beta Theta Pi’s founding values was necessary, the award-winning Men of Principle Initiative was established. In the years since, the Fraternity has seen significant improvements in the areas of academics, recruitment, risk management and leadership development.

Before Men of Principle, the Fraternity’s average chapter GPA was just above 2.8. Today the Fraternity’s GPA has risen to 3.251, the highest of all fraternities. The average chapter size is 68 men, compared to 48.9 in 1997. In 1998 there was an average of 1.95 volunteer advisors per chapter. Today, an average of eight advisors work with each chapter.

With the Men of Principle initiative, Beta gave a new voice to the enduring values of the Fraternity. The Initiative was more than a program; it was a deep inner philosophy that demanded integrity from every chapter and all members of the Fraternity. Today, as it was back in 1839, Beta Theta Pi is a shining example across North America for all that is good and true when men come together in a brotherhood of purpose, friendship and fidelity.

“There’s a scene where brothers greet, where true kindred hearts do meet…”

The Singing Fraternity

Even before the first decade of the Fraternity’s history ended, Betas raised their voices in a collection of songs. These were printed on a card and included opening and closing odes, a benediction, an initiation song, and a greeting of new members.

So essential was singing in the Fraternity’s founding and growth during the 19th century that many songs and poems emerged from that era, many of them still popular.

Collections of Beta songs appeared periodically until 1902 when the publication became a red hard-cover book with gold leaf imprinted cover — a format that was followed for the next 90 years.

The Fraternity’s song collection has grown to be quite extensive over the years, containing songs written to long-familiar music and a number also set to original tunes. Additions are made from year to year, each new edition of the songbook containing new melodies.

Beta TunesSheet Music
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