By James Leach

Shortly after our founding, students formed missionary and religious training, inquiry, and literary societies as well as the precursor to the Student Government Association.

Title page of records of the Philomathesian Society
Title page of records of the Philomathesian Society

Title page of Records of the Philomathesian Society of Hamilton Theological Seminary — Colgate’s very first student organization (Book I, of the Recording Secretary, 1821. Authored by the Philomathesian Society)

A look at early student societies begs some context.

Many of the societies presented here were formed during the first 25 years of an institution that was founded to prepare young men to enter the Baptist ministry. During that period, the student population grew from a handful to just more than 200. Many of those young men were supported by — and accountable to — their home churches. Their average age was about 25; which is to say they were relatively focused, serious, and mature.

The faculty was correspondingly small, beginning with Daniel Hascall and Nathaniel Kendrick and growing gradually in proportion with the student body. Most professors, some of whom were involved in the founding of various student organizations, also came from a religious tradition.

Title page of records of the Philomathesian Society

Title page of records of the Philomathesian Society

Philomathesian Society

A year after the institution commenced as the Baptist Education Society of the State of New York, students founded the Philomathesian Society in August 1821. In his History of Colgate University (the source for most of this accounting), Howard Williams ’30 reports that the society maintained a library, corresponded with missionaries and with similar societies at other institutions, and hosted weekly meetings where members delivered sermons and practiced their public speaking.

Missionary Society

The institution’s first alumni, Jonathan Wade and Eugenio Kincaid (both Class of 1822), became celebrated missionaries in Burma. Their work inspired students in 1824 to form the Missionary Society, which was dedicated to the religious training of its members, the support of missions, and the study of conditions affecting the establishment of missions in other countries.

The Missionary Society absorbed the Philomathesian Society in 1831, and in 1832 changed its name to the Society for Inquiry.

Society for Inquiry

As at Andover and other American colleges, the Society for Inquiry was a strong campus influence, reflecting what professor and university archivist Williams called “the widespread and fervent missionary spirit of the age.” 

Describing the society in a letter to a similar group at Rutgers, a student wrote in 1837: “Our Society is founded strictly on [c]atholic principles, and it holds correspondence with Institutions of every Evangelical denomination. We are engaged in the same glorious enterprise, though belonging to different wings of the great army.”

Given the makeup and aspirations of the student body, the Society for Inquiry maintained an important campus presence through the mid–19th century, although its influence diminished as the student body became more secular. The campus chapter of the YMCA is said to have taken over many of the society’s functions beginning in the 1880s, and the society dissolved in 1893.

Eastern and Western associations

The same spirit that inspired the Society for Inquiry spawned two other early student societies founded in 1831: the Eastern Association and the Western Association. The Eastern Association was composed of students whose interests centered on missions to Eastern countries. When alumnus Jonathan Wade returned to campus in 1833 to recruit for his mission in Burma, four members of the nascent Eastern Association responded. Another of the association’s founding members, William Dean ’33, went on to a celebrated career in China.

At roughly the same time, students who aspired to preach in the Mississippi Valley founded the Western Association to explore opportunities to serve in their own expanding nation.

Musical societies

Students started the Musical Society in the early 1830s to foster vocal music. By 1835, the Philomelpian Society seems to have succeeded the Musical Society in promoting singing on campus, a role that appears to have passed to the Sacred Music Society by 1837. 

Literary societies

Williams credits Gamma Phi (1833) and Pi Delta (1834) as the institution’s first literary societies. The “ephemeral” Lyceum Society, about which Williams wrote “little is known,” made a brief appearance about the same time. Both Gamma Phi and Pi Delta dissolved about 1840 as the Adelphian and Aeonian Societies emerged with similar aspirations and attracted greater student interest. 

Society of Alumni and Friends

Daniel Hascall led an effort to organize the Society of Alumni and Friends — which, although not technically a student organization, held its inaugural meeting in Utica in 1825. Open to anyone who paid the membership fee of $10 per year or $50 for life, the society was forebear to the Alumni Association and later (beginning at the Centennial in 1919) the Alumni Corporation, which continues to this day.

Student antislavery societies

In a reflection of tensions that engulfed a nation dealing with issues of slavery, faculty members on three occasions (1834, 1837, and 1841) abolished student antislavery societies. The faculty action was grounded in concern for the stability and future of the young institution, having seen how disruptive antislavery debates had been at colleges such as Hamilton, Amherst, and Colby. Williams quotes the diary of student Isaac Brownson, who wrote: “[Professors] wished to compel no one’s conscience or restrain liberty in any respect save this: the society was noxious to the best interests of the institution and must be dissolved.” 

Faculty resistance to student antislavery societies should not be misinterpreted as support for slavery interests; the faculty allowed for debate on the issue but sought to supervise the discussion. Interestingly, the celebrated abolitionist Gerrit Smith from nearby Peterboro was an early financial supporter of the institution and served as first vice president of the aforementioned Society of Alumni and Friends. 

Students Association

Formed in 1835, the Students Association was the first iteration of the body that oversees the organization of student activities on campus to this day. Keeping in mind the background and goals of students of that era, Williams reports the association “fostered a sense of personal discipline and ‘esprit de corps’ which stressed ‘close study, and religious culture,’” while providing for such essentials as mail delivery and maintenance. 

The scope of the Students Association would expand in proportion to the size and composition of the student body, of course. Among the many students to preside over the association over the years was Harry Emerson Fosdick, Class of 1900, who would become one of the nation’s best-known ministers and teachers.

Adelphian and Aeonian Societies

Formed about 1840, the Adelphian and Aeonian Societies were the successors to the first literary societies Gamma Phi and Pi Delta. Early activities of both the Adelphians and Aeonians focused on the presentation of original student work, and Williams reports that the “faculty considered that both groups stimulated the development of oral and written expression, which were phases of the curriculum badly in need of expansion.”

The history of both the Adelphians and Aeonians intertwines with the emergence of fraternities, beginning as early as 1843, when the faculty first denied a student petition to form a secret society. There’s much more to that story than can be related in this brief format, so we will end here our accounting of the institution’s earliest student organizations.

Notes & Sources

Williams, Howard D., A History of Colgate University 1819–1969. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969

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