Denison University was established on December 13, 1831, as the Granville Literary and Theological Institute at a ceremony in the uncompleted Granville Baptist Church. Some twenty prospective scholars joined with Ohio Baptist leaders and the principal-soon named president of the institution-The Reverend John Pratt from Massachusetts.
The connection with Massachusetts was very basic. Granville had been founded in 1805 by a group of New Englanders who had grown tired of trying to make a living on their rocky hill-farms in western Massachusetts. Baptists had been moving to the Ohio area ever since the Revolution. The beautiful village of Granville still exhibits much of the character of a New England town and is fondly remembered by Denison alumni.
After a year holding classes in the Baptist Church, the Institute moved to a farm a mile west of Granville, where it faced fiscal trials and tribulations for twenty-two years. Soon its name was changed to Granville College.
In 1854 the trustees decided to move the college from the farm to the hill above the village. The moving from the farm of a large frame building, later called the Old Frame, and the construction of a new brick dormitory-classroom, later named Marsh Hall, were the first steps toward the development of what became the college quadrangle. Then in 1856 the college was renamed Denison University, in honor of William S. Denison of Muskingum County, who had pledged $10,000 toward the endowment of the institution.
Denison University continued to struggle during the late 1850s and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 didn't help matters any. The war hindered hopes of raising additional endowment and operating funds when the budget was incredibly tight. Help came, however in 1863 with the selection of the Reverend Samson Talbot as Denison's president. Under his leadership, finances improved significantly, and $100,000 in endowments was raised by 1867. The trustees undertook the building of a new brick building that year, long called the New Brick, but in 1910 it was renamed Talbot Hall.
After the Civil War, as the student population grew, social life also took on new forms. With no common boarding place for the students, eating clubs formed the genesis for the secret societies formed in the post-war years. However, the college authorities were very hostile to the possible rise of Greek-letter fraternities at Denison.
Fifty years after the establishment of Phi Beta Kappa-at first as a social fraternity-at the College of William and Mary in 1776, a number of fraternities were established in the northeast beginning in1825. With the opening of the "west"-i.e., Ohio and states to the west and northwest-and the significant number of colleges founded to serve the needs of this area, what became three major fraternities were founded at Miami University, Beta Theta Pi in 1839, Phi Gamma Delta in 1848, and Sigma Chi in 1855. Gradually, these and other fraternities began to plant chapters at other Ohio colleges, yet they did not enter the Denison campus until after the Civil War.
By 1867, members of one of the Denison eating clubs applied for a charter from Kappa Phi Lambda Fraternity, and when eight pins of this new chapter appeared on campus that spring, the faculty strongly condemned the act, arousing sympathy from other students for the new fraternity. Five students decided to aid the existing fraternity by establishing another, and in the spring of 1868, Mu Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity was chartered.
When the parent chapter of Kappa Phi Lambda at the University of Michigan died, the Denison members decided to seek admission to another fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. In December 1868, the old Kappa Phi Lambda group became Alpha Eta Chapter of Beta Theta Pi.
Denison University president Samson Talbot maintained that fraternities undercut literary society work, and the spring of 1872, the faculty recommended to the board of trustees a rule forbidding "preps" from joining any college fraternity or secret society and punishing violations by immediate dismissal. At their June 1872 meeting the board of trustees adopted the rule. As a result, the Betas were able to continue secretly for seven years after their last known member graduated, but the Sigma Chis could keep their chapter alive only until 1876.
When Rev. Alfred Owen became Denison's president in the fall of 1879 and became acquainted with the students, they learned that he was a member of Zeta Psi Fraternity and not unfriendly to fraternities. The Betas accelerated their underground activities, and in 1880, Mu Chapter of Sigma Chi was revived sub rosa.
At their annual meeting in June, 1881, they received the faculty's report that the anti-fraternity rule was impractical and "inexpedient to legislate" and unanimously urged the repeal of this rule. The board accepted the faculty's report, but added that no new organization would be permitted unless the object of the society was understood and the consent and approval of the president was obtained.
No sooner was the action of the board made known than ten Betas, nine Sigma Chis, and a few other fraternity men who had transferred to Denison appeared on campus proudly wearing their fraternity pins. The Betas and Sigs acquired rooms in the village for their meetings and entertainments. Fraternities were becoming a regular part of student life at Denison.
In 1885, Phi Gamma Delta established its Lambda Deuteron chapter, but no other national fraternities were established on the campus for over twenty-five years. The percentage of the student body that was affiliated with a fraternity gradually rose, and by 1887, the fraternities were beginning to reach down into Doane Academy, Denison's preparatory school, for some of their members.
Over the years, a number of local fraternities were established at Denison, some lasting only a few years, others becoming rivals of the three national fraternities.
By 1902, the three national fraternities at Denison had become firmly and permanently established. Yet a large majority of the students were not fraternity men.
Early Members of Beta Alpha Delta - Left group: Allen Nettleman, Hugh Hick, Irving Field, Harry Gengnagel. – less–ZoomInfo