Source: NMHS Newsletter, November 1985 


A picture donated to the North Manchester Historical Society of one of the literary societies of Manchester College sparked interest in the story of those unique activities of student life.

The first was the Excelsior Literary Society which existed for a year and one term during the first year of the college, 1895-1896.  Meetings were held on Saturday evenings and, according to a student publication of that year, the “hall is filled to overflowing each meeting by students and citizens of the town.”

By November 1896 it was apparent that two societies were needed.  The catalog for that year lists the Adelphian Literary Society and the Lincoln Fraternity (later know as a society).  These were for “literary culture and improvement in speaking, reading, and the conduct of deliberative bodies.”  Work in these groups was required for graduation.

The Adelphia motto was “Lux et veritas” (Light and truth), and the Lincoln motto was “Usus clavis ad perfectum”  (Practice is the key to perfection.).  Each society had officers consisting of president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, critic, sergeant-at-arms, censor, librarian, and chorister.

In the early days literary productions and vocal music comprised the first part of the program.  Poets, debaters, essayists, and orators were encouraged to produce.  A special point was made to develop talent among the members.  Many bashful freshmen found themselves confronted with the  requirement of participation in these programs, and many of them developed into competent speakers through these experiences.

After the program section of literary and musical productions, a social intermission of 15-20 minutes was enjoyed; this was followed by a strongly contested debate or a thorough drill in parliamentary procedure.  In later years the social intermission was reserved for an after-society get-together, and the debates gave way for the most part to impromptu speeches.  Often a student fearfully awaited the “awe-full” announcement of the impromptu assignments and, again a student was surprised at the stage ease which came to him as a result of this painful phase of literary society training. 

After some years instrumental music, not allowed at first, became a popular addition to the programs.  Reading of both serious and humorous nature, cuttings from historical or literary masterpieces, and mock trials added variety to the weekly productions.  An evaluation of each by an official critic encouraged a high degree of excellence.

Townspeople still attended in large numbers.  Inter-society  debates and oratorical contests added enthusiasm and ardor to the rivalry.  Such statements as the following from the 1911 Aurora  were characteristic of the rivalry:”Although the victory was to the Adelphians, there was great praise for the masterful Lincoln speeches.”

By 1912 the college enrollment had increased so much that two societies did not meet the needs of the students.  Accordingly, Majestica, a new society for students of college standing above  the freshman year was formed.  While this society made a distinct place for itself on campus, it was without a rival, it had no hall of its own, and many of its members had difficulty transferring their loyalties from the former groups.  Majestica dissolved in 1919 and four new societies were formed, two for women, Philomathea and Philolethea, and two for the men, Philorhetoria and Philophronia, each with a membership of approximately 50.  For the next 20 years these were a significant part of student life.

Lincoln and Adelphia continued until 1922-1923, when the Academy enrollment was so low that the two groups united into one, and for a second time the name Excelsior was chosen.  There were only about 35 members holding programs each Saturday morning at 7:30.  This society was short-lived, however, for at the close of that school year the Academy was discontinued.

Pride in one’s literary society and fierce loyalty stimulated sharp rivalry through the years from 1919 to 1939.  Mathea and Rhetoria adopted the motto, “Give to others something, receive something.” While Lethea and Phronia worked under the inspiration of “Strength united is stronger.”  Competition for membership of the incoming freshmen knew no bounds.  Teams from each group vied with each other in meeting trains and buses to sign up new members, some going to Wabash or Warsaw to outwit others.  Friday nights became eventful with their literary and music programs followed by social gatherings around the fountain, on the front campus, in the old social room in the administration building basement, and in the parlors of Oakwood Hall.  Some of the most outstanding social events of the year were the two annual banquets of the joint societies.

Many alumni rank the literary societies very high as factors which contributed most to their personal development on Manchester’s campus.  But times changed and the old literary societies no longer challenged the new youth.  In 1939 the “Old Four” were dropped and three new groups for freshmen only became a compulsory part of student activities.  Each society now included both boys and girls; competitive factors were largely absent and other organizations were constantly forming.  After much experimenting with names and programs, in 1945-1946 the literary societies gave up the struggle for existence and gave way to other activities 50 years after the initial group began.

(Adapted from “Literary Societies,” by A. R. and Gletha Mae Eikenberry, in Manchester College: The First Seventy-Five Years, 1964.)