The Knights of Pythias was the first fraternal organization to receive a charter under an act of the United States Congress. It was founded by Justus H. Rathbone, who had been inspired by a play by the Irish poet John Banim about the legend of Damon and Pythias. This legend illustrates the ideals of loyalty, honor and friendship that are the center of the order.
The order has over 2,000 lodges in the United States and around the world, with a total membership of over 50,000 in 2003. Some lodges meet in structures referred to as Pythian Castles.
Early in the group's history, when a man was inducted into the Knights of Pythias he received a ceremonial sword. Such swords might be given to a Pythian by family members, business associates, or others as a token of esteem. In recent decades, rather than require each member to own a sword, the local chapter maintains a collection of swords for use by its members. Long, narrow swords are generally used in public during parades and drills, while short swords are used in displays.
Markings on swords varied widely. Most swords were inscribed with the acronym "FCB," which stands for the Pythian motto ("Friendship, Charity, Benevolence"). Images on swords were also somewhat common, and included: A man, woman and child (symbolic of Pythias saying good-bye to his family); a man looking out of a building, with a group of people below (symbolic of Damon's pending execution); a man between some pillars, pulling them down (similar to Samson destroying his enemy's temple); or various types of weapons (swords, axes, hammers, etc.). A full Knight of the Pythian order often inscribed his sword with the image of a knight's helmet with a lion on the crest. Many also carried the image of a sprig of myrtle (the Pythian symbol of love) or a falcon (the Pythian symbol of vigilance).
The structure of the Knights of Pythias is three tiered. The local units used to be called "Castles", but overtime came to be called "Subordinate Lodges". State and provincial organizations are called "Grand Lodges" and the national structure is called the "Supreme Lodge" and meets in convention biennially. The officers of the Supreme Lodge include the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Prelate, Secretary, Treasurer, Master at Arms, Inner Guard and Outer Guard.
The Knights of Pythias also has a side degree, the Dramatic Order of the Knights of Khorassan, which itself has a female auxiliary, the Nomads of Avrudaka. Finally, members who have obtained the Knight Degree may join the Uniformed Rank, which participated in parades and other processions. Swords owned by a member of the Uniformed Rank might be inscribed with the acronym, "UR," a dove, or a lily. (The Uniformed Rank was banned in the organization in the 1950s.)
Membership has historically been open to white males in good health, who believe in a Supreme Being. Maimed individuals were not admitted until 1875. Though the whites only clause was officially adopted in 1871, no black members had been admitted since the founding of the Order. The question of repealing the whites only clause came up in the 1964 and 1968 Supreme Lodges, but was not definitively acted upon. The Order remained whites only until at least 1979. Members are accepted by blackball ballot.
In the early 1920s the Order had nearly a million members, however by 1979 this number had declined to less that 200,000.
Once an initiate is accepted, he must go through a mandatory initiation rite. This includes being blindfolded, kneeling before an altar, and swearing a series of oaths. The candidate must also endure a set of tests to measure his honor and character.
The degrees of Pythian Knighthood in a subordinate lodge (or "Castle") are:
In 1877 the Order adopted an optional fourth degree, called the Endowment Rank, which provided fraternal insurance benefits. In 1930 this department split from the Knights of Pythias and became a mutual life insurance company, later known as the American United Insurance Company.
A member must be at least 18 years of age. He cannot be a professional gambler, or involved with illegal drugs or alcohol and he must have a belief in a Supreme Being. The oath taken by members:
I declare upon honor that I believe in a Supreme Being, that I am not a professional gambler, or unlawfully engaged in the wholesale or retail sale of intoxicating liquors or narcotics; and that I believe in the maintenance of the order and the upholding of constituted authority in the government in which I live. Moreover, I declare upon honor that I am not a Communist or Fascist; that I do not advocate nor am I a member of any organization that advocates the overthrow of the Government of the Country of which I am a Citizen, by force or violence or other unlawful means; and that I do not seek by force or violence to deny to other persons their rights under the laws of such country.
The Order provides for "worthy Pythians in distress" and has given aid to victims of national or sectional disasters. It runs camps for underpriviledged youth and homes for aged members. It has sponsored scholarship funds, blood drives, highway safety programs and the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation.
Knights of Pythias of North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa
After a black lodge was denied a charter by the Knights of Pythias' Supreme Lodge meeting in Richmond, Virginia on March 8, 1869, a number of African-Americans who had been initiated into the Order formed their own Pythian group, the Knights of Pythias of North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. By 1897 the KPNSAEAA had 40,000 members, with Grand Lodges in twenty states and other lodges in the West Indies and Central America. It distributed $60,000 worth of benefits annually and had a woman's auxiliary and uniformed rank.
In 1892 the Supreme Lodge ruled that the work of the order would only be conducted in English. This upset some members who were accustomed to using German. After this ruling was reiterated at the Supreme Lodges of 1894 and 1895, a number of German speaking Pythians split off and formed the Improved Order, Knights of Pythias at a convention in Indianapolis in June 1895. The new order was reportedly not very popular, and there was a movement toward reconciliation a few years later.
^Caption: "Friendship, Charity, Benevolence. Knights of Pythias. Founded February 19th, 1864. The Order is founded upon naught but the purest and sincerest motives. Its aim is to alleviate the suffering of a brother, succor the unfortunate, zealously watch at the bedside of the sick, soothe the pillow of the dying, perform the last sad rights at the grave of a brother; offering consolation to the afflicted, and caring, with all a brother's love, for the widow and orphan. Brotherly love and charity are the Pillars on which it rests; Friendship and Truth the bond and surety of its preservation. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men. K. of P. Record. Certificate of Membership. This is to Certify That — was initiated as Page in — Lodge N° — Located at — State of — on the — day of 18 — Charged as Esquire — day of 18 — and proved as Knight — day of 18 — . In memory of brother — born — died — aged — yrs. — ms. — dys. In memory of sister — born — died — aged — yrs. — ms. — dys. Entered according to Act of Congress in the y. 1889 by J. M. Vickeroy, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, D. C. Published by J. M. Vick[e]roy & Co., Terre-Haute, Indiana."
^Carnahan, James R. Pythian Knighthood: Its History and Literature, 2nd Ed, Revised and Enlarged. The Pettibone Manufacturing Company, Fraternity Publishers, Cincinnati, 1892.
^Approved May 5, 1870 [16 Stat. at L. 98, chap. 80]
^Glickman, Lawrence B. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 223.
^Schmidt, Alvin J. Fraternal Organizations Westport, CT; Greenwood Press p. 186