Less than ten years after Lawrence became a university, two literary societies for young men were born. The Philalathean society, or “lovers of truth,” was created by students to explore literature, oration, and poetry, among other things. Two months later the Phoenix society came rose from the ashes of a similar group, receiving a charter in 1855. The Phoenicians took the color blue as their emblem while the Philalatheans took white. The Athena society was a like-minded group for women that formed after watching these two blossom.
Both groups had “halls” in the top floor of Main Hall dedicated to their weekly meetings and debates, typically on Friday nights. Music and poetry would be practiced in these halls, with each group having an independent set of society songs learned by members after initiation. Regular annual banquets were held by each society in the winter for all of campus. They competed in these along with almost anything else they could.
These two organizations were rivals and pitted against each other in debates regularly which were publicly available for viewing. Topics for the debates were given beforehand, with a chief debater being chosen each week from both societies and a formal set of rules issued for all such events.
Debates would be one of two possible strains. The first would be current events such as: “Resolved: that it would be the duty of the citizens of the northern states to resist by force of arms the establishment of slavery upon any free territory of the United States” in the thick of north-south slave relation problems. In fact, many Phoenix society members fought in the civil war, with few actually returning. The other type of question would be more abstract like: “Resolved: ignorance is a greater evil than avarice.”
29 years after graduating from Lawrence, Dr. James Arneil gave a toast at an Anniversary Banquet in 1922. “Each society tried to excel the other in the skill and ability of its debaters, orators, and musicians, the scholarship and athletic prowess of its members, the cleverness of its entertainments.” Around the country at this time the creation and respect for such literary societies was common and approved of in college atmospheres. “[They were] the center of the social and literary life of the university. Without them college life would have been very stale and dull indeed.”
However, Arneil attended Lawrence at a time that the membership had opened up considerably. At their founding, the membership was invite-only and restricted to between 13 and 15 men at a time. The constitutions were printed and distributed to members of each society, with new editions being created yearly. By the year 1893, three years after Arneil graduated, Phoenix society membership hit 146.
The idea of these groups was to expand the scope of subjects experienced at school. Before freshman studies and the agreed upon goals of a liberal arts education were in place, these societies helped foster imagination and exploratory interest in various arts. University officials had put a ban on dramatic performances early in the history of Lawrence, but by 1880 the literary societies were pushing for, and succeeding, in creating a dramatic performance community at Lawrence.
These societies were responsible for creating handwritten newspapers starting in 1967 with a joint effort with Athenas called The Collegian. This continued for 11 years until the rivalry split the Philalathean society off. The claim was that it was falling too far under Phoenician control, and subsequently The Neoterian was created. This paper lasted two more years until a merger was required by university authorities. A year later, that paper was reorganized as The Lawrentian.