This article was published in the November 1, 1996 edition of The Phoenix.
It was written by Elizabeth Weber.

The Strange History of the Temple of the Book and Key

For most of the first half of this century, at seven minutes to seven each Thursday night, seven senior men in dark suits and garnet ties would arise from dinner and walk side by side to a small Egyptian-style temple at the end of Whittier Place. This temple was the meeting house of Swarthmore's own secret honor society, Book and Key.

Photo Courtesy Friends' Library

While Book and Key was active, only its members ever saw the inside of the windowless temple. Its four stained glass windows (a book, a key, the scales of justice, and the number 232) were illuminated from behind. The first floor contained a meeting room, with a lectern holding a large copy of the Bible (which is currently stored in Friends' Library). The benches just outside the Admissions office are also from the temple.

Book and Key members first saw the inside of the temple in May of their Junior year. As the March 28, 1966 Delco Times describes, "Selection for the Book and Key was a ritual. At a gathering of junior classmen, one would be tapped for membership every seven minutes until seven new members were selected. Tap night was on the first Thursday in May--at seven minutes before 7 p.m....The first visit to the Book and Key meeting House the following Thursday night was also a ritualistic affair. Every three minutes, a new member presented himself at the door--where he waited. Suddenly a 'ghost' hand would reach out the door and yank the new member inside, where initiation rites and a welcome dinner--cooked in a basement kitchen--awaited." In some years, the new initiates would not emerge from the temple until the next morning.

In a history of the Society written as a tribute to Morris Clothier '90, a founder of the society, Howard Cooper Johnson recalled, "There were immense crowds of students, alumni and townsfolk at the College to witness tap night, as well as the entry into this hall at the time of the annual initiation. The research of some of our professors living in the neighborhood was interrupted by the terrific racket and ringing of the gong on the roof at initiations and compelled the Society to cancel this frivolity."

The text of several versions of the initiation ritual itself can be found in the numerous files on Book and Key in Friends' Library. One version reads, in part, "Do you realize that our action in choosing you has changed your standing from one of the rank and file of the Junior class of Swarthmore College to that of a distinguished member of the Senior class? For we consider that no honor which has been conferred upon you in your college career equals that of being one of the chosen...we have watched you carefully during the past year; have studied your character, noted your actions, and weighed you carefully. After a careful comparison of the results you have been unanimously approved. Had there been one dissenting voice your chance of becoming one of us would have been forever lost...

...After the dialogue incident to your examination, and the proper alarms, you were for the first time admitted to this room, into which none but the chosen may enter. Under the guidance of your companions you were safely conducted past and over obstacles of various kinds which are intended to represent your surmounting all the difficulties which beset your freshman year.

Having reached symbolically the end of your freshman year, you were halted and a dialogue ensued. You were presented with the Book of Knowledge, which you now know is the Holy bible, and we conjoin you that you cherish it and reverence it, not only during your senior year, but throughout your life. It is our firm belief and trust that you will always be guided by its precepts, and hat the manner of its reception by you to-night but adds to your already high regard for it as the proper monitor of the student and of the upright man.

After this interruption, you were conducted once again around the room, meeting with but few obstruction, indicative of the comparative ease of your sophomore year.

Having completed this circuit, you were again halted,, and after an appropriate dialogue, you were presented with the Mystic Key, which we know explain to you symbolizes the virtue and importance of study which opens to the earnest student the secrets of the Universe.

Your third circuit of the room, unobstructed by any obstacles, was symbolic of your Junior year, and brought you to this alter,m where you assumed the solemn obligation which binds you forever to be true--first to yourself and the promptings of your good conscience; then to the fellow members of this Society and their welfare; but above all to your and our dear Alma Mater, Swarthmore College, for whose best interests you will ever strive, whose fair name shall ever be as dear to you as your own, and whose escutcheon you will never suffer to be tarnished by word of deed, if it is within your power to prevent it.

As a fully obligated member of this Society, you are entitled to certain rights and privileges, which I have authority now to give to you. They consist first of a knowledge of the grip; the secret word; the password; and certain signs and knocks which have their true significance...

...until daybreak you will maintain your vigil here, and at not at any time during the silent watches of the night must less that three of you be awake. This is required as indicating you self-denying assumption of the obligations we impose on you, and it is expected that you will improve this early opportunity of becoming acquainted with this building, its uses and appointments; and that you will study our constitution, by-laws and ritual, as you will find them recorded in volumes and documents which will be duly turned over to your safe keeping...

...The instant that this pin passes from out possession into yours, the obligations of your vow regarding it becomes operative. You will wear it pinned on your vest, or a similar article of apparel, on your left side, just over the seventh rib

...Seniors, the time to say Good Night approaches.

Within these walls, all is brightness, and our hearts warm with feelings of brotherly love and affection borne of our new compact. Without, Night spreads her sable mantle over the campus and collage halls.

May peace be in your hearts. May the sentiments of loyalty to which you have listened, grow upon you. May love of your Alma Mater increase as the night wears on, and may the morning find you bound to each other, to us, and to your Alma Mater, with ties of deathless affection."

Book and Key was largely the creation of alumni. As Johnson related, "Shortly after 1900, Morris Clothier and I conferred about the establishment at Swarthmore of a Senior Honor Society based on the plan of the Yale Societies. We visited, from the outside, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Book and Snake, and others and gathered bits and pieces of information from various sources and together planned the building and its furnishing. For practically all of this, Morris paid. In the meantime, we drew upon the experience of Herbert J. Tiley in drafting the Initiation Ritual...In Morris' mind, secrecy was very important. In 1906 the building was completed and the first undergraduate class initiated."

Alumni continued to play an active role in the selection of students for initiation, and in the general supervision of Book and Key, through the Temple Trust Association, an organization of Books and Key's founders and Book and Key alumni. The Temple Trust Association met yearly, and invitations were issued to all members, signed with the phrase"Yours in 232". The power that the Temple Trust Association had over the undergraduate members of Book and Key was especially evident in 1922, when it became apparent that the senior members of Book and Key had consumed substantial quantities of alchohol in the Temple one Thursday evening. "After earnest and thoughtful consideration it was pointed our that the seniors had violated the provisions of the By-Laws of the Society, and had also been guilty of misconduct tending to tarnish the fair name of their Alma-Mater, and it was on motion, duly made, seconded, and unanimously carried, Resolved that the Board of Directors recommend to the general membership of the Temple Trust Association that the 1922 suspended indefinitely, that they not be admitted to the Temple, and that they should surrender their pins." The seniors were reinstated as members after they had graduated.

Members of Book and Key were selected because of their activity in college organizations and their perceived commitment to the college. Most were captains of sports teams, student council members, fraternity officers, or leaders in other student organizations. For years, only those alumni who had been Book and Key members became members of the college administration. A 1957 Phoenix article explains one reason why: "With student government lacking in function, the significant undergraduate decisions were worked out in the secrecy of the Temple, the presented tactfully but emphatically to the College through the members of the Society. It was inevitable that, through the feeling of shared responsibility for the community, there evolved a group solidarity among members unequalled by any other ties on campus." Book and Key members discussed such things as whether Swarthmore should adopt an honor system (they didn't think so), whether the college should grant "distinction in course" to non-honors students (they thought it should), and whether a picture directory of the freshmen class should be published (they thought so).

Yet Johnson felt that the commitment of Book and Key members to Swarthmore had been uneven. "Some Senior classes have cooperated with the College administration and have contributed much to undergraduate understanding of the Society," he wrote. "Some classes, less interested and active, have contributed little towards advancing the standing of Book & Key. The several waves of anti-fraternity, anti-tradition, alumni-know-nothing spirit which from time to time have swept American colleges, have caused us heartburnings and at times almost despair."

In the 1930s, several of the rituals of the society, including the Thursday evening procession to the temple were dropped. Later, most of the secrecy surrounding the organization was also dropped. Selection of members for Book and Key became increasingly based on the recommendations of fellow students, and the Temple Trust Association began inviting alumni who had made substantial contributions to Swarthmore but not been Book and Key members in their undergraduate days to join the Association.

By the time of Morris Clothier's death in 1949, the initiation ritual remained somewhat intact, but many of the other trappings of the organization had disappeared. The activities of Book and Key that year included sponsoring a play contest, organizing a shoe drive for European refugees, organizing a faculty-student quiz program, organizing college open houses for high school boys, organizing freshman orientation, ushering at lectures, and selecting members for the following year.

Within a decade, Book and Key was gone. J. Lawrence Shane '56, chair of the Board of Managers was selected for Book and Key in the spring of 1955. "It was very low key. It had sort of run its course by the '50s" he said. "All the pomp and circumstance was not a part of it. It wasn't all that active...I remember going to one meeting in the Temple...the whole thing was to be a positive influence in a very quiet way"

While the organization was becoming less active, student opposition to any sort of campus "elite" was growing. The senior members of Book and Key decided not to initiate any junior men in the spring of 1957. Temple Trust Association members were upset, but the news of Book and Key's demise merited only a news brief in The Phoenix.

In 1965, the Temple Trust Association gave up all hope of reestablishing Book and Key, and donated their remaining funds and the Temple to the college. At the same time, they donated most of their records to Friends' Library.

The following year, The Phoenix reported, "Equipping the building to meet legal requirements would have cost and estimated 35-30 thousand dollars. Unused for over ten years, the heating system, plumbing, wiring, and roof needed major repairs. An additional exit and a fire escape would have been needed also. The cost figure did not include the installation of windows in the once inscrutable building. No permanent specific uses for Book and Key were judged worthy of such an expenditure. As a permanent location for music practice rooms or an art gallery, the building seemed inadequate."

In 1967, the building was razed. The Book and Key Scholarship Fund, established with the funds from the organization, is still in existence. According to the Bulletin, it is "awarded at the discretion of the college."

Note: There are several opinion pieces relating to the controversy over the continued existence of Book and Key in issues of The Phoenix published in the Spring of 1953.

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