Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Philermenian Society

The Philermenian Society was called the “Misokosmian Society” when it was first organized by eighteen students in 1794. The object of the association was the promotion of social intercourse and improvement in forensic dispute. The constitution limited membership to twenty, and every inductee had to pledge himself to secrecy about the doings of the society, which would be discussion of appointed questions, either by prepared compositions or extemporaneous speaking. President Jonathan Maxcy, himself a gifted orator, in approving the constitution, recommended that they “accustom themselves to extemporaneous speaking, as nothing will tend to present them to more advantage in any of the learned professions.” In 1798 a new constitution provided for renaming the society the “Philermenian Society,” increasing the membership to 45 (it had earlier been increased to forty), celebrating the society’s anniversary with appropriate literary exercises, and forming a library. The limited membership naturally excluded many students. Also the Philermenian members were inclined to the political views of the Federalists. Both of these facts led in 1806 to the formation of a new “Republican” society named the “United Brothers.” The societies met at first in rooms of students. After the building of Hope College in 1822, rooms on the top floor were provided to the societies for holding meetings and keeping their libraries, which had formerly occupied space in the college library room. The Philermenian Society had 3,224 volumes when a printed catalogue was issued in 1849.

The anniversary celebrations of the societies with student speakers were held in the college chapel until 1811, when the Philermenians first held their celebration at the First Congregational Church and chose graduate members as poet and orator. Beginning in 1841, the two societies held a joint celebration, at which members were distinguished by the wearing of a blue ribbon by the Philermenians and a white ribbon by the United Brothers. The societies traditionally met on Saturday afternoon. A petition to President Wayland in 1851 asking permission to hold meetings in the evening was denied, but was later granted by President Sears.

The rivalry between the Philermenians and the United Brothers for new members was very strong, especially after the advent of the Greek letter societies drew interest away from the literary societies, and sometimes strong measures were taken. Thomas W. Bicknell 1860, who had been “electioneered” by both societies, gave this description of his initiation into the Philermenian Society:

“In the autumn of 1857, a day was selected for initiation into the two open societies and notice was publicly given that on a certain Saturday afternoon in October, at two o’clock, the exercises of initiation and introduction would be held in the rooms of the societies, whose entrance doors were opposite each other at the head of the stairs in the upper hallway. ... With some of my class, I ascended the stairs at the appointed hour, and at the foot of the last flight witnessed the initiatory contest going on at the head of the stairs above. Four or more stalwart men of the upper classes were stationed at each door, facing each other for the expected fray, and each initiate as he reached the landing was seized by the stalwarts of both societies. The pulling, struggling and shouting of ‘Brothers!’ ‘Phils!’ showed the litter-ary contest that was going on. There was no retreat, and up we went to meet the ordeal. I was seized by the stalwarts of both societies. ... Only one thing was in my favor, and that was my will. I wanted to join the ‘Phils’ and I threw the force of my energies towards my friends on the north side of the stairway. After much pulling and hauling, I managed to draw my body across the hall within the desired haven.”
The societies continued to meet regularly until about 1860, but interest in them waned as the number of Greek letter fraternities grew. In an attempt to create interest the Philermenian Society joined the United States Literary League in 1862, becoming Omicron chapter. The last joint celebration of the Philermenians and the United Brothers occurred in 1863, the last initiation of members of new members in 1866. The membership lists disappeared from the Brown Paper, the libraries of the two societies were diminished by unsupervised borrowing from unlocked meeting rooms, and in 1869 the rooms assigned to the societies were made over into dormitory rooms.