American college fraternity origins rest in the fascination with early European secret societies. Freemasons, among others, selected few members for initiation who were instructed in the central teachings and philosophical wisdom of the ages. The organizations were so secret that often their members were not known, causing general public anxiety about their aims, objectives and influence on society.
For freemasonry in the United States, this anxiety boiled into outright distrust due to what would be termed the “Morgan Incident.” In 1826, freemasons were rumored to have killed a man named William Morgan, who was intent on publishing their secrets. While never proven to be true, the ensuing hysteria extended to all societies that were secret in nature, eventually pressuring the first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, to become a purely public honorary society in 1831. This general distrust was alive and well at Miami University, and other campuses, where members were often denied access to the prominent literary societies if found to be fraternity members. Many were expelled from school. Thus, when Beta Theta Pi was founded in 1839 and in the subsequent years, there was a very real and significant reason to conduct fraternity business with the utmost secrecy.
Slowly, the tide of public opinion began to change. When the faculty at the University of Michigan forced all fraternity men to give up membership or face expulsion in 1850, the Betas held true to their fraternal commitments. Knowing their association was good in nature they refused to relinquish their membership. Since the expelled men, Betas included, were publicly known to be of high character, the opinion of townspeople and University Board of Visitors eventually swayed and they began to recognize the value of the associations – secret or not. Shortly thereafter, the Lambda Chapter became the first fraternity chapter to secure official recognition from the University of Michigan.
By the late 1870s the role of secrecy in Beta Theta Pi was vigorously debated among members and in The Beta Theta Pi magazine. The prompt for the debate was the radical proposal by Wyllys C. Ransom, Michigan 1848, to publish a public constitution separate from the esoteric Ritual of the Fraternity to demonstrate Beta’s pure aims and relevance to universities and the world.
A March 1879 letter printed in the magazine from the Rho (Northwestern) and Psi (Bethany) chapters opposed the move stating that the issue, “strikes at the very principle in human nature out of which secret societies grow; that desire to know — to be connected with that which no one else knows or understands; to be regarded with a degree of romance by the uninitiated.” It was argued that men would rather join a secret group with the luster of old and the allure of secret aims. Baird recounted the argument in favor of the change in his book, Fraternity Studies, stating, “It was urged that an open constitution would enable the Fraternity to overcome the opposition of college authorities by presenting to them an intelligible statement of the object, aims and scheme of government of the Fraternity; that it would, by being printed and distributed, diffuse a wider and more general knowledge of the foundation principles of the order, and would be a powerful argument in inducing desirable men to become members.”
Looking back on the period in Beta history, Baird remarked, “All the predictions of the committee have since been more than realized, and it is now difficult for us to understand upon what ground was based the intense opposition to the plan.” Baird was indeed correct, considering that successful act of publishing the constitution is now revered as an emphatic example of the Fraternity’s pioneering spirit, the impressive foresight of early Beta leaders and the beginning of a transformation in the fraternity world.