A fraternity (Latin frater : "brother") is a brotherhood, though the term sometimes connotes a distinct or formal organization and a secret society.



There are known fraternal organizations which existed as far back as ancient Greece and in the Mithraic Mysteries of ancient Rome. Analogous institutions developed in the late medieval period called confraternities, which were lay organizations allied to the Catholic Church. Some were groups of men and women who were endeavoring to ally themselves more closely with the prayer and activity of the Church. Others were groups of tradesmen, which are more commonly referred to as guilds. These later confraternities evolved into purely secular fraternal societies, while the ones with religious goals continue to be the format of the modern Third Orders affiliated with the mendicant orders.

The development of modern fraternal orders was especially dynamic in the United States, where the freedom to associate outside governmental regulation is expressly sanctioned in law.[1] There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations in the United States, and at the beginning of the 20th century the number of memberships equaled the number of adult males. (Due to multiple memberships, probably only 50% of adult males belonged to any organizations.)[2]

In 1944 Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the phrase "a nation of joiners" to refer to the phenomenon.[3] Alexis de Tocqueville also referred to the American reliance on private organization in the 1830s in Democracy in America.

There are many attributes that fraternities may or may not have, depending on their structure and purpose. Fraternities can have differing degrees of secrecy, some form of initiation or ceremony marking admission, formal codes of behavior, disciplinary procedures, very differing amounts of real property and assets.[2]

Types of fraternities

Kraków's Kur Fraternity during the inauguration of Józef Piłsudski Monument in Kraków

The only true distinction between a fraternity and any other form of social organization is the implication that the members freely associate as equals for a mutually beneficial purpose, rather than because of a religious, governmental, commercial, or familial bond, although there are fraternities dedicated to each of these fields.[2] On most college campuses fraternities are divided into three groups such as social, professional and honorary.

Fraternities can be organized for many purposes, including university education, work skills, ethics, ethnicity, religion, politics, charity, chivalry, other standards of personal conduct, asceticism, service, performing arts, family command of territory, and even crime. There is almost always an explicit goal of mutual support, and while there have been fraternal orders for the well-off there have also been many fraternities for those in the lower ranks of society, especially for national or religious minorities. Trade unions also grew out of fraternities such as the Knights of Labor.

The ability to organize freely, apart from the institutions of government and religion, was a fundamental part of the establishment of the modern world. In Living the Enlightenment, Margaret C. Jacobs showed the development of Jurgen Habermas' 'public space' in 17th century Netherlands was closely related to the establishment of lodges of Freemasons.[4]

College and university fraternities

Fraternities have a long history in colleges and universities, and form a major subsection of the whole range of fraternities.[5] In Europe, students were organized in nations and corporations since the beginnings of the modern university in the late medieval period, but the situation can differ greatly by country.

In the United States, fraternities in colleges date to the 1770s, but did not fully assume an established pattern until the 1820s. Many were strongly influenced by the patterns set by Freemasonry.[2] The main difference between the older European organizations and the American organizations is that the American student societies virtually always include initiations, the formal use of symbolism, and the lodge-based organizational structure (chapters) derived from usages in Freemasonry[2] and other fraternal organizations such as the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias.[6] The oldest active American college fraternity is The Kappa Alpha Society founded in November 1825, at Union College in Schenectady, New York, followed closely by Sigma Phi Society (1827) and Delta Phi Fraternity (1827) at the same school. They are known as the Union Triad. Delta Phi argues that since Kappa Alpha and Sigma Phi went underground for a short time during what turned out to be a temporary banning of all secret societies in the college they should be considered the longest continuously active group though the other two never stopped meeting and Sigma Phi had already established a second chapter. They also claim the longest continuous chapter of any fraternity. Delta Phi's Gamma chapter at New York University has never gone inactive since its founding in 1841. The facts in this case are unclear in the standard reference book on college fraternities, "Baird's Manual.

In Germany the German Student Corps are the oldest academic fraternities. Twenty-eight were founded in the 18th century and two of them still exist.

Trade guilds

The development of fraternities can be traced from guilds that emerged in England as the forerunners of trade unions and friendly societies. These guilds were set up to protect and care for their members at a time when there was no welfare state, trade unions or National Health Service. Various secret signs and handshakes were created to serve as proof of their membership allowing them to visit guilds in distant places that are associated with the guild they belong.

Over the next 300 years or so, the idea of "ordinary" people joining together to improve their situation met with varying degrees of opposition (and persecution) from "People in Power", depending on whether they were seen as a source of revenue (taxes) or a threat to their power. For example, when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church, the guilds were seen by him as supporters of the Pope, and in 1545 all material property of the guilds was confiscated. Elizabeth I took away from the guilds the responsibility for apprenticeships, and by the end of her reign most guilds had been suppressed.

The suppression of these trade guilds removed an important form of social and financial support from ordinary men and women. In London and other major cities, some Guilds (like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows) survived by adapting their roles to a social support function. Eventually, these groups evolved in the early 18th century into more philosophical organizations focused on brotherly love and ethical living. Among guilds that became prosperous are the Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Foresters.

In many instances fraternities are limited to male membership, such as the Dutch Alpinisten Vereniging Gelderland Midden, but this is not always the case, and there are mixed male and female, and even wholly female, fraternities. For example, for general fraternities: the Grande Loge Mixte de France, the Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, the Grande Loge Féminine de France, the various Orders of Odd Fellows, Orange Order, Daughters of Rebekah and the Order of the Eastern Star.

See also


  1. ^ NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 460 (1958)
  2. ^ a b c d e Stevens, Albert C. (1907). Cyclopedia of Fraternities: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origin, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More Than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States. E. B. Treat and Company. 
  3. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur M. (October 1944). "Biography of a Nation of Joiners". American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association) L (1): 1. 
  4. ^ Jacob, Margaret C. (1991). Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 
  5. ^ Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities
  6. ^ Several collegiate fraternal societies were founded by members of Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias,

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Fraternity — Fra*ter ni*ty, n.; pl. {Fraternities}. [F. fraternit[ e], L. fraternitas.] 1. The state or quality of being fraternal or brotherly; brotherhood. [1913 Webster] 2. A body of men associated for their common interest, business, or pleasure; a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • fraternity — [frə tʉr′nə tē] n. pl. fraternities [ME fraternite < OFr fraternité < L fraternitas < fraternus: see FRATERNAL] 1. the state or quality of being brothers; fraternal relationship or spirit; brotherliness 2. a group of men (or, sometimes,… …   English World dictionary

  • fraternity — index coaction, concordance, society, sodality, union (labor organization) Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • fraternity — early 14c., body of men associated by common interest, from O.Fr. fraternité (12c.), from L. fraternitatem (nom. fraternitas) brotherhood, from fraternus brotherly, from frater brother, from PIE *bhrater (see BROTHER (Cf. brother)). Meaning state …   Etymology dictionary

  • fraternity — [n] brotherhood affiliation, camaraderie, club, fellowship, frat*, guild, house, kinship, order, sisterhood, society, sorority; concepts 381,387 Ant. sisterhood, sorority …   New thesaurus

  • fraternity — ► NOUN (pl. fraternities) 1) a group of people sharing a common profession or interests. 2) N. Amer. a male students society in a university or college. 3) a religious or masonic society or guild. 4) friendship and mutual support within a group …   English terms dictionary

  • Fraternity — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Fraternité (homonymie). Demande de traduction …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Fraternity — Dieser Artikel oder Abschnitt ist nicht hinreichend mit Belegen (Literatur, Webseiten oder Einzelnachweisen) versehen. Die fraglichen Angaben werden daher möglicherweise demnächst gelöscht. Hilf Wikipedia, indem du die Angaben recherchierst und… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • fraternity — n. (US) 1) to pledge a fraternity ( to agree to join a fraternity ) 2) a college fraternity (see also sorority) * * * [frə tɜːnɪtɪ] (US) to pledge a fraternity ( to agree to join a fraternity ) a college fraternity (see also sorority) …   Combinatory dictionary

  • fraternity — [[t]frətɜ͟ː(r)nɪti[/t]] fraternities 1) N UNCOUNT Fraternity refers to friendship and support between people who feel they are closely linked to each other. [FORMAL] Bob needs the fraternity of others who share his mission. Syn: comradeship 2) N… …   English dictionary

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