Literary Societies

"We the students of Centre College having entered into an association for our mutual improvement in literature, elocution and morals have formed the following constitution for the regulation of this society." Thus began the constitution for the Chamberlain Literary and Philosophical Society at Centre College. The first literary societies were formed at Yale, beginning in 1753, and by the middle of the nineteenth century there was hardly a college that did not have a pair of competing societies, often invoking memories of classical Greece: Deinologian, Agore Adelphon, Athenaean. Normally established by students, and so viewed with some suspicion by faculty, literary societies "owed their allegiance to reason, and in their debates, disputations, and literary exercises, they imparted a tremendous vitality to the intellectual life of the colleges, creating a remarkable contrast to the ordinary classroom where the recitation of memorized portions of text was regarded as the ultimate intellectual exercise." (Rudolph) The literary society, and not the classroom, was where students faced and argued the issues of the day. At Centre they debated such topics as: Does the nature of our government tend more towards autocracy or democracy? … Should dueling be punished as severely as other species of murder? … Has religion been a temporal benefit? … Ought Senators in Congress obey the instructions of their state legislatures? … Should capital punishment be abolished in the United States? Students understood a point which the faculty failed to acknowledge: that being able to persuasively argue a point could be more useful than the ability to decline Greek verbs. The literary society provided students with the means to hone these skills.

The Chamberlain Philosophical and Literary Society, the first literary society at Centre College, was founded in 1828 and named for Jeremiah Chamberlain, the school’s president from 1822 to 1826. The other main literary society, the Deinologian Literary Society, was founded in 1835 by students who were disenchanted with the Chamberlain Society. Three other societies were established, existed for a short time, and then disappeared. The Athenaean Literary Society was an offshoot of the Deinologian Society. No records exist for the society, but it is listed in programs from 1856 to 1860. The Agore Adelphon Literary Society was established around December 1855, and changed its name early in 1857 to the Philo Logoi Society before dying out around 1858. The 1830 minutes of the Board of Trustees notes permitting the Blackburn Literary Society the use a room in Old Centre until directed otherwise. This entry is the only mention of the society.

The literary societies, especially Chamberlain and Deinologian, competed for members. Names of candidates would be proposed, and a member of the society would approach the individual. If the candidate accepted the offer, he would then be initiated into the society. A student did not request to join. The completion for members by the societies was described by I. Chaplin Bartlett in a November 7, 1858, letter to his parents: "Well, after standing a great many fits of electioneering from the members of the different societies, I Friday night joined my lot with the Chamberlains, the oldest and largest one in the college. They took in 11 members the first meeting. The Atheneum & the Deinologian nine on account of which they are very much disheartened."

Each society held regular meetings. They petitioned the college’s trustees for rooms in Old Centre for their "halls." On March 24, 1845, the trustee minutes include the following: "A petition was presented by the president from the Deinologian Society for the use of the north half of the room, the south half of which had been granted to the Chamberlain Society for the use of its library. The petition was granted."

At the heart of each meeting was a debate on a pre-selected topic framed in the form of a question. Several members would present the affirmative side, while others would present the negative. At the conclusion, the president would select which side had provided the more persuasive argument. The members would then have a chance to vote on which side they felt had "won." The remainder of the meeting would be devoted to ordinary business, including the nomination of new members and the leveling of fines for violations of the society’s rules. Violations included not returning books to the library, iniation fees, nonperformance of duties, and disrespect to the president, but also not rising to address the president, whistling and talking, disorder, throwing "wads," kicking the spittoon, and eating. On occasion an outside speaker would be invited to address the society or the combined societies.

The societies held annual public celebrations of music and speeches, often on George Washington’s birthday and Commencement. Attendees in 1857, for example, heard orations titled Moral principle-the conservator of liberty and empire; The Reformation of the 16th century-the historic origin of American freedom, and; Show thyself a man. Each society would present the faculty with a list of proposed speakers, from which the faculty would then select those to give speeches. The celebrations became so important that the faculty often felt obliged to step in and limit the degree of electioneering that took place to gain a spot on the speaker’s stand. With a sigh of relief, they noted in their minutes of February 23, 1885, that "In view of the general good behavior of the students and the absence of all excitement with reference to the election of 22nd and June speakers, it was resolved that no nominations be made by the faculty this year."

As an outlet for their interest in literature, the societies published several literary magazines. The Centre College Magazine was the earliest, the first issue appearing February 1859. Enjoying faculty support, the magazine contained poetry, short stories, essays, campus news, obituaries, and editorials. The magazine's last issue was April 1861, a victim of the hard times at Centre brought on by the Civil War. The Centre College Courant appeared March 1879. Each issue included lively discussions of college events and happenings, humor, notes on alumni, an occasional literary essay, advertising from local merchants, and news from other colleges. The publication ceased after ten issues in February 1880. The Centre College Cento broke the pattern of rapid mortality suffered by other nineteenth century student publications. First appearing in 1891 as a magazine published by the literary societies, it evolved through several stages into the college newspaper which continues publication today. Good relations between the magazine and the faculty may have contributed to its initial success.

To help support their debates and compositions, the societies maintained their own libraries. Over the years the combined Chamberlain and Deinologian libraries grew to be larger than the college library. The 1870 annual catalog notes that the libraries of the literary societies held 3,500 volumes, while that of the college had only 2,000 volumes.

On most campuses the growth of fraternities was the death knell for literary societies. This wasn’t true of Centre. Although losing much of their prestige and membership, they continued into the twentieth century. The author of the history of the Chamberlain Society in the 1897 yearbook writes "In entering upon its sixty-ninth year, the Society had much to contend with: a scarcity of old members, debt, and oftentimes a woeful lack of interest." The societies reinvented themselves to a degree. No longer were there debates at meetings or orations at public celebrations; the societies now entered college and state oratorical and debate tournaments. But the end was in sight. The Chamberlain Society died out in the late 1920s; the Deinologian about 1940.


Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University, a History. New York: Knopf, 1962. Print.