The Founders of Sigma Alpha Epsilon
From left to right: Noble Leslie DeVotie, Nathan Elams Cockrell, Samuel Marion Dennis, John Barratt Rudulph, Abner Edwin Patton, Wade Foster, Thomas Chappell Cook, John Webb Kerr
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity was founded March 9, 1856, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Its founders were eight young men, five of them seniors at the university; the other three were juniors. The leader of the eight was Noble Leslie DeVotie, a young Alabamian of splendid promise. The original idea to found a new Greek-letter fraternity was clearly DeVotie’s, as he had written the Ritual, devised the grip, and chosen the name. His motive was simple: to perpetuate through the organization the warm friendships he and his friends had already formed on the campus of the university.
It is not recorded when DeVotie first conceived the idea of establishing a fraternity, but it is known that during the autumn days of 1855 he talked about it with a few of his closest friends as they walked along the banks of the Black Warrior River that edged the campus. In the months that followed, DeVotie revealed to the other seven his conception of a new fraternity. A few preliminary meetings were held at the Tuscaloosa home of one of them, John Webb Kerr. By late winter their plans matured. So it came about that, in the late hours of a stormy night, the friends met in an old schoolhouse and by the flicker of dripping candles organized SAE.
Eight men founded Sigma Alpha Epsilon. In addition to DeVotie there were John Barratt Rudulph, John Webb Kerr, Nathan Elams Cockrell, and Wade Foster of the Class of 1856, and Abner Edwin Patton, Samuel Marion Dennis, and Thomas Chappell Cook of the Class of 1857.
Minutes of the 1856 Founding
First page of the old Secretary’s Book, recorded in the handwriting of Wade H. Foster, the minutes of the first meeting of the Mother Chapter on March 8/9, 1856. These are proudly displayed on the wall just inside the door of DeVotie Hall in the chapter house.
When the founders met at what was then called the Mansion House on the evening of March 8 it would be the early hours of March 9 before they adjourned only seven men were present. One of them, Thomas C. Cook, had left the University in January to enter Princeton University, but was a few weeks later voted a founding member and sent a ritual that he might initiate himself. He has always been considered one of the founders.
Founded in a time of intense sectional feeling, SAE confined its growth to the southern states. Extension was vigorous, however, and by the end of 1857, the fraternity numbered seven chapters. Its first national convention met in the summer of 1858 at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with four of its eight chapters in attendance. By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, 15 chapters had been established.
The fraternity had fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederacy, and seven fought with the Union forces. Every member of the chapters at Hampden-Sydney, Georgia Military Institute, Kentucky Military Institute, and Oglethorpe University fought for the gray. Members from Columbian College, William & Mary, and Bethel were in both armies. Seventy members of the fraternity lost their lives in the War, including Noble Leslie DeVotie, who is officially the first man on either side to give his life in military service.
The miracle in the history of SAE is that it survived that great sectional conflict. When the smoke of the battle had cleared, only one chapter at tiny Columbian College in Washington, D.C., survived, but it died soon thereafter.
When a few of the young veterans returned to the Georgia Military Institute and found their little college burned to the ground, they decided to go to Athens, Georgia, to enter the state university there. It was the founding of the University of Georgia Chapter and the University of Virginia Chapter at the end of 1865 that led to the fraternity’s revival. Soon, other chapters came back to life and, in 1867, the first post-war convention was held at Nashville, Tennessee, where a half-dozen revived chapters planned the fraternity’s future growth.
The reconstruction years were cruel to the South, and southern colleges and their fraternities shared in the general malaise of the region. In the 1870s and early 1880s, more than a score of new chapters were formed, some of them at exceedingly frail institutions. Older chapters died as fast as new ones were established. By 1886, the fraternity had chartered 49 chapters, but scarcely a dozen could be called active. Two of the 49 were in the North. After much discussion and not a little dissent, the first northern chapter had been established at Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College, in 1883, and a second was placed at Mt. Union College in Ohio two years later.
It was in 1886 that things took a turn for the better. That autumn, a 16-year-old youngster by the name of Harry Bunting entered Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and was initiated into the Tennessee Zeta Chapter, which had previously initiated two of his brothers. In just eight years, under the enthusiastic guidance of Harry Bunting and his younger brother, George, SAE experienced a renaissance. Together they prodded SAE chapters to increase their membership. They wrote encouraging articles in the Fraternity’s quarterly journal, The Record, promoting better chapter standards and, above all, they undertook an almost incredible program of expansion of the fraternity, resurrecting old chapters in the South (including the mother chapter at Alabama which had been dormant for over 30 years) and founding new ones in the North and West. In an explosion of growth, the Buntings were responsible for founding nearly 50 chapters of SAE. When Harry Bunting founded the Northwestern University chapter in 1894, he initiated as a charter member William Collin Levere, a remarkable young man whose enthusiasm for the fraternity matched Bunting’s. To Levere, Bunting passed the torch of leadership, and for the next three decades, it was the spirit of “Billy” Levere that dominated SAE and brought the fraternity to maturity.
Class of the first Leadership School in 1935
Members of the first Leadership School, the first such training school held by a national fraternity, at the grave of Billy Levere in Skokie, Illinois.
When the Supreme Council met regularly in the early 1930s at the Temple, educator John O. Moseley, the fraternity’s national president, lamented that, “We have in the Temple a magnificent school-house. Why can we not have a school?” Accordingly, the economic depression notwithstanding, in the summer of 1935, the fraternity’s first Leadership School was held under the direction of Moseley. The first such workshop in the fraternity world, it was immensely successful, and today nearly every fraternity holds such a school. It was probably John Moseley more than any other whose leadership carried SAE forward during the next 20 years until his untimely death in 1955. The last years of his life he served the Fraternity as its executive secretary, capping a distinguished academic career that had included two college presidencies.
Since World War II, the fraternity has grown much larger, and it has changed in a number of ways, some quite obvious and others quite subtle. Its growth in chapters and membership has been quite spectacular, and its total number of initiates continues to be the highest in the fraternity world.
Qualitative changes in recent decades have been profound. Alongside their colleges, chapters have democratized. Membership today is more heterogeneous than it was a generation ago, as chapters have welcomed increasing numbers of men from religious, ethnic, and racial minorities, enriching chapters with an unprecedented cultural diversity. One has but to peruse the roster of the 600 or so delegates at the annual Leadership School to confirm the dimensions of change.
The fraternity enjoyed the “happy days” of the 1950s, endured to survive the campus revolt of the 1960s and early 1970s, and tried to steer an even course in the turbulence that marked the late 1970s and the 1980s. Together with its fellow collegiate Greek-letter societies, it wrestles today with problems attendant upon risk management, hazing, alcohol abuse, and sexual misconduct rife on our campuses. Never before have the challenges been so great or the opportunities so rich. Accordingly, the fraternity has undertaken a thorough program of reform and rejuvenation, seeking to assist its undergraduate members to make a reaffirmation of faith in their best, most wholesome traditions, while seeking to adapt creatively to a new and invigorating college climate. SAE looks to a future full of promise while it instills values in young men across North America.
Adapted from The Phoenix, Ninth Edition, edited by Joseph W. Walt, and unknown publications by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity Service Center. Adaptations done by Justin M. Harper and Daniel H. Gladding.