On December 5, 1776, a group of five young men, students at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, violated college rules by meeting in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, where they formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Alexis de Toqueville observed early in our country’s history that this is a nation where, when something matters to people, they form a voluntary society, and these young men wanted a society dedicated to the life of the mind and to moral formation.
In the next five years, chapters were established at Yale and Harvard. In the next fifty years four more chapters were founded: at Dartmouth in 1787, at Union in 1817, at Bowdoin in 1825 and at Brown in 1830. By the mid nineteenth century, having swelled to twenty-five chapters, the need for closer unity led to the organization of the national body, now called the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At present there are over 270 chapters at colleges and universities nationwide, with a membership of over half a million.
In 1875, the Society extended membership to women. In 1926, to mark the 150th anniversary, the Society began to raise an endowment fund and to explore ways to encourage scholarship in the educational institutions of the country. The Society has joined in the defense of freedom of teaching and inquiry and it is a leading advocate of the liberal ideal in education. At Luther College we are glad to be beneficiaries of the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar program, which has brought distinguished lecturers to our campus almost every year since our Chapter was founded.
The original organization at William and Mary was a secret society, but in the 1830's most of the branches repealed the injunction to secrecy. They kept, however, the medal or key with its symbolic engraving, and the interpretation of these symbols has continued to be part of the initiation ceremony.
The present key, except for its smaller size and for the lower stem added by the branch at Yale, is almost the same as the original medal of the Alpha of Virginia. On one side the key bears the Greek letters Phi Beta Kappa, the initials of the words "Philosophis Biou Kubernetes—love of wisdom is the helmsman of life". In the upper left corner three stars symbolize the aims of the Society: Friendship, Morality, Literature. A pointing hand in the lower corner symbolizes aspiration. On the reverse side the letters SP represent the second motto of the Society, Societas Philosophiae. Below them is engraved the historic date, December 5, 1776: and above them the name of the member.