The Eumenean and Philanthropic Literary Societies were formed by students in 1837 as the first student organizations on the campus. The Eumenean Society’s constitution proclaimed that the “object of this Society shall be the acquirement of literary knowledge, the promotion of virtue, and the cultivation of social harmony and friendship.” They claimed as their Latin motto: “Pulchrum Est Colere Mentem,” “It is noble to cultivate the mind” and as their Greek motto “Καλόν ή άλήθεια καί μόνιμον.” “Truth is lasting and beautiful.”
The Philanthropic Society’s constitution asserted similar lofty goals with the society’s purpose “to cultivate the arts of elocution and composition, to promote a spirit of subordination to law and order, by engendering a high regard for virtue and truth, and to unite us in closer bonds of friendship and fellow feeling those in whom we feel interested and deem worthy of our esteem.” They took as their motto: “Verite san peur,” “Truth without fear.”
These societies, which were similar to those sprouting in colleges throughout the United States, achieved the goals of personal betterment by biweekly meetings in which the members presented and discussed original compositions, and formally debated topics chosen by the society in the previous meeting. Topics of debate, discussion, and research included, “Ought students to associate with ladies while pursuing their studies?” “Ought the Indians to be driven from the land they occupy?” and, “Can there be a greater knowledge of the country obtained by traveling or by the study of geography?”
Membership and eventual graduation from a literary society were integral parts of a Davidson student’s education in the early years of the college. For all intents and purposes, being a student at Davidson meant being a member of either the Philanthropic or Eumenean Literary Society. In their day, these societies were the social center of student life as the embraced the ideals of brotherhood like a fraternity and provided the only form of student government in the college.
In the early 1840s, the societies decided that they required buildings for use as meeting chambers and as housing for their libraries, as each society had extensive library collections. After nearly a decade of raising funds for the halls, the societies hired craftsmen to build their halls. When the costs of the halls outran the funds raised, the college trustees provided the final $2500 to complete the buildings.
The societies built their halls adjacent to the chapel, which was then the central building on campus. The halls still stand today as two of the oldest buildings on campus and are used for classes, faculty offices and regular Eumenean and Philanthropic Society meetings.
The Eumenean and Philanthropic literary societies have changed a great deal from their original structure of a dignified debating society with a heated rivalry between the two societies into much more relaxed literary discussion groups. In the early years, rules were kept by the officers of the societies with fines of between ten cents and one dollar imposed upon the members for misconduct such as: failure of an officer to report at the proper time, failure to hand an inaugural, an address, a report, a prize essay, or any kind of article that should be filed in the Archives, laughing so as to be heard by the Supervisor, for entering the hall with Hat
On, and smoking, spitting on the floor, reading, eating, chewing, or abusing furniture in the Hall. (Philanthropic Constitution, 1917)
Graduating from the literary society, which was as important as graduating from the college, required that members of the society complete certain requirements such as a number of compositions written and a number of speeches and formal oratories delivered.
By 2000, the meetings of the literary societies took on a much more comfortable tone, with the structure of the old meetings only used in the beginnings when role is called and a bible verse read. After these formalities, the students form a discussion circle and take turns reading pieces written on a chosen topic. The pieces range from essays to creative writing, to all kinds of music.
Before the 1920s, which was when the literary societies began to lose membership as a result of the formation of fraternities and changes in the curriculum, the literary societies took it upon themselves to sponsor numerous activities throughout the academic year, which included speakers from off campus, debating and oration contests, and the college’s commencement ceremony.
The societies continue to sponsor events. In 2003, the Eumenean Society offered a candle-lit tour of campus, a World War I poetry reading, and a cultural night involving an Indian dinner and a theatre performance in Charlotte. The Philanthropic Society also sponsors similar activities, and both societies still hold a small commencement party in their respective halls.
The Halls are also listed as part of the Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project.
Eumenean Society. Constitution. RG 6/14.01. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC
Philanthropic Society. Constitution, 1917. RG 6/14.02. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Author: James Sanchez
Date: December 2003
Cite as: Sanchez, James. “Eumenean and Philanthropic Literary Societies” Davidson Encyclopedia
December 2003. https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/encyclopedia/page/literary-societies