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Kappa Phi Lambda Fraternity, 1862-1874

By James T. Herron, Jr.

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Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Vol. 16, No. 4, November 1983. Reprinted with the author's permission. The Jefferson College Times is a publication of the Jefferson College Historical Society. Society membership is open to all: Individual $10; student $5; contributing $15; business or institutional $25; sustaining $50; life $150. Send membership requests and fees to Joseph A. Solobay, 514 Craighead Street, Canonsburg, PA 15317.

The secret fraternity has been a significant part of college life for generations of students. Often they were clandestine and contrary to college rules. At Jefferson College, fraternities were not condoned by the administration, but no effort was made to disband them or to interfere with the fraternity movement.

Chapters of ten fraternities were active on the Canonsburg campus of Jefferson College and, from 1865 to 1868, Washington and Jefferson College. Many were secret; one was a non-secret brotherhood, the aim of which was to destroy the secret fraternities. Three of these fraternities were founded at Jefferson College - Phi Gamma Delta, Phi Kappa Psi and Kappa Phi Lambda. The last named fraternity, Kappa Phi Lambda, is the only one that has passed out of existence.

From the records of the fraternities still extant, we know the identities of their members. But, although much of the history of these fraternities is known, the secret fraternities' aims and purposes - their secrets - remain hidden.

The one Jefferson College fraternity that is now extinct, Kappa Phi Lambda, poses a different problem. Its history is, to a great extent, lost; and the names of its members are unknown, since there has been no organization to safeguard this information. But since it is extinct, its secrets are no longer inviolate. Because Kappa Phi Lambda was probably similar to the other fraternities of its time, we can get some idea of the operation of a mid-nineteenth century fraternity.

Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities states that Kappa Phi Lambda was founded at Jefferson College on August 3, 1862 by J.J. Belville. Information about the fraternity is very limited for even when the first edition of Baird's Manual was published in 1879, Kappa Phi Lambda was listed under "Defunct Fraternities" and contained little more than a description of its badge - now called a fraternity pin.

The life of Alpha Chapter at Canonsburg was short. Washington and Jefferson Colleges united in 1865 and the first president of W & J, Jonathan Edwards, was adamantly opposed to fraternities. He destroyed the secret societies on the Canonsburg campus. By the time the college moved to Washington in 1868, Kappa Phi Lambda's Alpha Chapter was no more.

However, the fraternity did not die. Chapters had been formed at other schools - the University of Michigan, Mount Union, Monmouth, Northwestern, Ohio Wesleyan, the University of Virginia, Denison, Western University of Pennsylvania, and Westminster. Extinction for Kappa Phi Lambda as a national fraternity came in 1874 when, for unknown reasons, the ties between the individual chapters were severed. These remaining chapters became isolated and existed as local fraternities until they could join another national fraternity organization - Sigma Chi, Beta Theta Pi, Delta Tau Delta and others. As a chapter of these living national fraternities, some chapters of Kappa Phi Lambda still live today.

Probably the last chapter of Kappa Phi Lambda to exist under its original name was at Westminster College, Pennsylvania. Fraternities were strictly forbidden at Westminster, so Kappa Phi Lambda used a college eating club as a cover. The fraternity existed as a clandestine organization until 1920, when fraternities were at last allowed on campus. In 1948, the chapter joined Sigma Nu fraternity. However, even after its adoption by Sigma Nu, members were initiated into the old Kappa Phi Lambda as well as the national fraternity. (W. Paul Gamble, Westminster College Historian, personal communication, 1977.)


The W & J Historical Collection contains a handwritten copy of the initiation ceremony and the constitution of Kappa Phi Lambda. The manuscript was presented to the college by Robert L. McCarrell in 1932. His father, Lodowick McCarrell, graduated from W & J’s Canonsburg campus in 1867 and had been a member of the fraternity.

Since the Alpha Chapter probably was disbanded during McCarrell's time as an active member, the undated notebook is likely to be a relic of the chapter rather than to have been Lodowick McCarrell's personal property.


The preface to the Kappa Phi Lambda initiation ritual states that an "officer of the fraternity ... and the candidate (were to) retire to a side room." Where the ceremony would have been conducted is a subject for conjecture. There was no such thing as a fraternity house in the l860s. Most of the Jefferson College students lived in rooming houses or private homes; some rented rooms in a college building; those from the immediate vicinity lived at home. Since the meetings and ceremonies of the fraternity were secret, a private home would have been best for their purposes. Fraternity chapters were generally small groups; so they would have needed only modest accommodations.

While the candidate for initiation was in the side room, he was asked specific questions to determine his fitness for membership in the fraternity. The thrust of the questioning is surprising. The first three questions are:

  • "Do you believe there is a God?"

  • "Do you believe the Scripture to be the revealed will of God to man?"

  • "Do you believe in a state of future rewards and punishments?"

The final question was altered after the time it was first put down on paper. It reads, "Do you believe in the Sanctity of an (oath)? affirmation."

The parenthesis and the word affirmation are in handwriting different from the body of the text. It would seem that at some time during the short life of Kappa Phi Lambda at Canonsburg, accommodation was made for at least one candidate whose beliefs did not allow him to take an oath. Quakers, for example, would require such alternative language. This alteration does not necessarily mean that the circumstance arose in the Canonsburg chapter. It might have occurred at any of the chapters of the fraternity. The Alpha (Canonsburg) chapter would have approved the change and the initiation ceremony for all chapters would have been altered.

The following statement, to have been repeated by the candidate, is likewise changed; with certain phrases made optional:


I do solemnly (swear in the presence of Almighty God ) with my hand upon this sacred word that I do not belong to any fraternity or secret association in this College and further-more, I promise (and swear) that I will not reveal any thing that I have seen or may see to transpire in here, (so help me God.)


The candidate was then blindfolded and brought "to the door of the Fraternity Hall" - which was, of course, some commonplace room used by the fraternity for this solemn occasion.

The password was given by the guide and the candidate was led around the room while the president of the chapter (called the M.P.) read the 133rd Psalm, which has only three verses - the first one being: "Behold; how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"


After the fraternity members had been assured that the candidate was indeed acceptable for membership in Kappa Phi Lambda, the following oath was given:


Do you solemnly promise ( and swear ) in the presence of ( Almighty God and ) these witnesses, ( with your hand upon this sacred word ) that you will not reveal any of the secrets of this fraternity or make known any of its mysteries to any one except a regularly initiated member; that you will always endeavor by your conduct and actions to preserve her integrity inviolate; that you will take the part of a brother KPL when assailed in either character or person, to the best of your ability; that you will do everything in your power to promote the interests and welfare of each and every brother and of the KPL fraternity; that you will not initiate or recommend for initiation any one who you think would bring disgrace upon the fraternity or injure any of its members: that should you possess a KPL badge, you will not dispose of it to any one without consent of fraternity ( that you will cheerfully conform to all the established rules and regulations of the Fraternity ) ; that you will vote for a KPL in preference to any other fraternity or neutral man should he be a candidate in either of the Literary Societies of the College; that you will respond to all the calls of the fraternity and all its established signs and grips given by any of its members. Do you promise?


The prescribed response is given in the manuscript as: "I do, (so help me God )."

The new member then had his blindfold removed and he was asked to rise, "Thereupon he (was) saluted as a regular member of Kappa Phi Lambda fraternity."

A significant part of this oath is toward the end where the initiate pledges that he "will vote for a KPL in preference to any other fraternity or neutral man, should he be a candidate in either of the Literary Societies of the College."

This is one of the reasons fraternities were banned from many colleges, including W & J. Probably most fraternities had a similar requirement - that a fraternity member would vote for a brother without exception. The fraternities were, in effect, political parties, and they entered into conspiracies - trading votes with other fraternities - to control the literary societies.

Jefferson College had two rival literary societies, Franklin and Philo. The annual contest between these societies, a highlight of the school year, took place the evening before graduation. Sometime before the event, each literary society held an election to determine its contesters who would perform at the gala exhibition. Many years after graduating, alumni remembered who had performed. In earlier years, judges had selected winners; but by the 1860s the event had become an exhibition rather than a true contest.

Let us look at the effect of politicking as related to the selection of literary society contesters. To simplify the discussion, we will consider only three fraternities which will be called Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Each is about the same size and each has about half its members in each literary society.

Suppose Gamma fraternity had the best orator in each of the literary societies. By collusion, Alpha and Beta would have been able to prevent a Gamma from being elected by agreeing to nominate and elect an Alpha in Franklin and a Beta in Philo. Since there were many more fraternities and three parts to the contest, the scheming and plotting was on a larger and more complex scale.

Was this a fair way to select contesters? There were certainly times when the best orator or debater did not participate because he belonged to a weak fraternity (or coalition of fraternities) or was not a fraternity man at all.

But some good did come out of this system. Since a high proportion of graduates entered government or the ministry, this preparation for the machinations of those political bodies would have been of significant value.


The constitution of Kappa Phi Lambda gives some insight into the workings of a college fraternity of its time. Most of the constitution is concerned with fraternity chapter officers, forming new chapters and communication between the chapters and the Alpha (headquarters) chapter.

The membership requirements of a fraternity would be found in its constitution and often in a chapter's by-laws. Until recent decades, many fraternities had racial and religious stipulations. Kappa Phi Lambda had but one requirement, that only students "of the college to which the chapter belongs" could be members of the fraternity. The by-laws of the Canonsburg chapter make no mention of membership requirements at all. There is not even a statement that all members were to be male. In the fourteen articles of the constitution, a masculine pronoun was used only once, in reference to the treasurer: "his term of office." Perhaps the idea of non-sexist language is not so modern after all.

Two articles shed light on the relationship between the fraternity and the literary societies. The fraternity seems to be the inferior in importance.


ARTICLE 6: The performances in each chapter of this fraternity shall be the same as the regular performances in the literary societies of their respective colleges.

ARTICLE 7: Each member shall be required to deliver all performances before fraternity previous to performing them in the literary society.


These articles demonstrate that the fraternity was a part of the literary endeavors of the college. The major activity at the meetings (Alpha chapter met on alternate Tuesdays at 9 P.M.) would have been the performances prepared for the literary societies. It may be argued that since a performance was delivered before the fraternity before it was used in the literary society, the fraternity was the more important in the minds of the students. However, it is likely that the fraternity performances were considered practice and were critiqued by the audience, thus allowing a better delivery before the literary society. Failure to abide by this rule was not severely punished. The Canonsburg by-laws stipulated a fine of ten cents.


Why did fraternities like Kappa Phi Lambda exist? What niche did they fill on the college campus in the mid-nineteenth century? The initiation oath shows that this fraternity had a political function; the constitution demonstrates a literary nature. But, if this were the sum and substance of fraternity life, all fraternities would be extinct.

The fraternity was (and is) a part of the college experience that helped a student find himself as an individual in what was for most his first separation from his family. The fraternity gave him experience in participation and interaction with his peers; a social necessity more easily learned and practiced in a small closely-knit group than in the classroom or boarding-house. Perhaps, most important of all, the fraternity allowed an individual to feel accepted, needed and important. Just as he was told at his initiation that he must aid his fraternity brothers, so, too, he was given to understand that they were ready to support him.

The preamble to the Kappa Phi Lambda constitution says:


Whereas it is necessary in order to strengthen friendship and secure fidelity ... and, whereas improvement in intellectual and social qualities is highly commendable and ... can be obtained only by mutual assistance, we ... have established this fraternity.


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