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 ofDamon 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 ofmyrtle (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 over time 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.)
In the early 1920s the Order had nearly a million members, however by 1979 this number had declined to less that 200,000.
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 underprivileged youth and homes for aged members. It has sponsored scholarship funds, blood drives, highway safety programs and the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation.
Other Pythian organizations
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.
The Grand lodge of Ontario was instituted on April 8, 1872. Rowena L Rooks composed “K of P grand march [for piano]”, which was dedicated to Collin H. Rose, Grand Chancellor, the officers and representatives of the Grand Lodge K of P of Ontario, Canada. The march sheet music, which was published in London, Ontario by C. F. Colwell, c 1876, was illustrated with the Knights of Pythias emblem and lATIN motto, ‘Amico Fidus ad Aras’ ‘True friends are a refuge’.
Improved Order, Knights of Pythias
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.
Notable Pythian Knights
- A.A. Ames, Mayor of Minneapolis.
- Hugo Black, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
- Clifford Cleveland Brooks, member of the Louisiana State Senate from 1924 to 1932 from northeast delta parishes
- William Jennings Bryan, U.S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate
- Robert Byrd, U.S. Senator
- Benjamin Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
- Leopold Caspari, member of both houses of the Louisiana State Legislature
- John W. Grabiel, Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas in 1922 and 1924
- Leroy Milton Grider (1854–1919), California real-estate developer
- Warren G. Harding, U.S. President
- Hubert Horatio Humphrey, U.S. Vice President
- Peter T. King, U.S. Congressman
- Richard Irvine Manning III, Governor of South Carolina
- Freddie Martin, musician, band leader
- John Ellis Martineau, Governor of Arkansas, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas
- William McKinley, U.S. President
- Sun Ra, jazz musician, composer, and band leader
- Noble Drew Ali, Prophet and founder of the Moorish Science Temple
- Nelson A. Rockefeller, U.S. Vice President
- Joe Rollins, Texas Attorney General, Houston Asst. City Attorney, prominent private practice attorney
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President, who joined in 1936, during his presidency.
- Charles Schumer, U.S. Senator
- Bob Jones, Sr., founder of Bob Jones University, prominent evangelist
- J. Millard Tawes, Governor of Maryland
- Lee Emmett Thomas, Mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana and Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives
- Lew Wallace, author, Territorial Governor of New Mexico, Major General (U.S. Army), diplomat
- Francis E. Warren, first governor and longtime senator of Wyoming
- Anthony Weiner, U.S. Congressman
- James E. West, first professional Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America
- Frederick Hinde Zimmerman, banker, businessman, and founder of the Grand Rapids Hotel.
- Colton Overcash, the youngest Chancellor Commander to preside over a Pythian Lodge in North Carolina.
Notable Pythian buildings
- (by state then city)
- Knights of Pythias Building (Phoenix, Arizona), NRHP-listed
- Pythian Castle (Arcata, California), in Humboldt County, California, NRHP-listed
- Pythias Lodge Building (San Diego, California), NRHP-listed
- Knights of Pythias Lodge Hall (Weiser, Idaho), NRHP-listed
- Knights of Pythias Building and Theatre, Greensburg, Indiana, NRHP-listed
- Knights of Pythias Lodge (South Bend, Indiana), NRHP-listed
- Knights of Pythias Temple (Louisville, Kentucky), NRHP-listed
- Pythian Opera House, Boothbay Harbor, Maine
- Eagle Harbor Schoolhouse, Eagle Harbor, Michigan, NRHP-listed – where Justus Rathbone developed the idea of the Order
- Pythian Home of Missouri, also known as Pythian Castle
- Knights of Pythias Building (Virginia City, Nevada)
- Pythian Temple (New York City)
- Pythian Temple and James Pythian Theater, Columbus, Ohio
- Pythian Castle (Toledo, Ohio), NRHP-listed in Lucas County
- Knights of Pythias Pavilion, Franklin, Tennessee, NRHP-listed
- Knights of Pythias Temple (Dallas, Texas), also known as the Union Bankers Building
- Knights of Pythias Building (Fort Worth, Texas), also known as Pythian Castle Hall
- Pythian Castle (Portsmouth, Virginia), NRHP-listed
- Pythian Temple (Tacoma, Washington), NRHP-listed
- Pythian Castle Lodge, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, NRHP-listed