Richmond College, where Sigma Phi Epsilon was founded in the early 20th century, was at the time attended by a mere 200 students, and perhaps between a third and a half of this number belonged to five fraternities. Kappa Alpha Order had come there in 1870, Phi Kappa Sigma in 1873, Phi Gamma Delta in 1890, Pi Kappa Alpha in 1891, and Kappa Sigma in 1898. Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon also had established chapters there which had expired. The little Baptist college was founded in 1830, and many of its graduates became Baptist ministers.
Most of the national fraternities, as their histories show, have been established simply because they were needed. The hunger for brotherhood was at the bottom of an unrest in young men’s souls. Sigma Phi Epsilon was founded because twelve young collegians hungered for a campus fellowship based on Judeo/Christian ideals that neither the college community nor the fraternity system at the time could offer. Sigma Phi Epsilon was needed. It was founded, moreover, because the leadership which is required for such a project asserted itself in fortunate ways.
Sigma Phi Epsilon Founded
Carter Ashton Jenkens, the 18-year-old son of a minister, had been a student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where he had joined Chi Phi Fraternity. When he transferred to Richmond College in the fall of 1900, his companions were to take the place of the Chi Phi brothers he had left behind at Rutgers. During the course of the term, he found five men who had already been drawn into a bond of an informal fellowship, and he urged them to join him in applying for a charter of Chi Phi at Richmond College. They agreed, and the request for charter was forwarded to Chi Phi only to meet with refusal because Chi Phi felt that Richmond College, as any college with less then 300 students, was too small for the establishment of a Chi Phi chapter.
Wanting to maintain their fellowship, the six men, Jenkens, William Carter, Thomas Wright, William Phillips, Benjamin Gaw, and William Wallace, decided to form their own local fraternity.
Of the six, Jenkens was the only one who really knew what a fraternity was, so the task of drawing the plans for the new fraternity fell to him.
Early records described young Jenkens’ thorough search for a philosophy upon which a new college fraternity could be built. He discovered in the Bible what he called “The Greatest truth the world has ever known.”
A committee of Jenkens, Gaw, and Phillips was appointed to discuss plans with the administration of the college. These men met with the faculty committee, where they requested to present their case.
The fraternity committee was requested to explain:
(1) The need for a new fraternity since chapters of five national fraternities were on the campus and the total enrollment at Richmond College was less than 300.
(2) The wisdom of this attempt to organize a new fraternity with twelve members, of whom seven were seniors.
(3) The right to name the new fraternity Sigma Phi, the name of an already established national fraternity.
The fraternity committee answered along this line: “This fraternity will be different, it will be based on the love of God and the principle of peace through brotherhood. The number of members will be increased from the undergraduate classes. We will change the name to Sigma Phi Epsilon.” Though the discussion lasted some time, the faculty committee was friendly, and permission was granted for the organization of the new fraternity to proceed, provided full responsibility for the consequences would rest on the group of twelve students.
Immediately at the close of the conference with the faculty committee, the fraternity committee rushed to Jenkens’ room to borrow Hugh Carter’s Greek-English Lexicon; convinced themselves that Epsilon had a desirable meaning, and then telegraphed jeweler Eaton in Goldboro, North Carolina, to add an E on the point of each of the twelve badges which were manufactured and ready for shipment. Before the job of adding an E on the badges was complete, eight other students were pledged to join Sig Ep. The purchase order was then increased to twenty badges at $8 each, with the initials of each man engraved on the back of his badge.
These twenty original heart-shaped badges were of yellow gold, with alternating rubies and garnets around the edge of the heart, with the Greek characters SIGMA PHI and a skull and crossbones in gold and black enamel in the center and a black E in gold at the point. (William Hugh Carter’s and Thomas V. “Uncle Tom” McCaul’s original badges are on display at the Zollinger House.)
Founder Lucian Cox reflected on the Brotherhood that had inspired him and his brothers when he wrote in the Sigma Phi Epsilon Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, March, 1904: “As a member of an ideal fraternity, the resources of every member of that body are my resources, the product of their lives is my daily life. The Fraternity is a common storehouse for experience, moral rectitude, and spirituality; the larger and purer the contribution of the individual the greater the resources of each member.”
Five men were pledged before Christmas and were initiated in January, 1902. The last three of the first group of twenty were initiated February 1, 1902, another was initiated in March.
SigEp was founded at Richmond College, now the University of Richmond, on November 1, 1901, based on the cardinal principles of Virtue, Diligence, and Brotherly Love. Today over 255,000 men have joined the fraternity and taken a vow to uphold these values. We have over 14,000 undergraduates on 260 campuses across the United States.
“As the member of an ideal fraternity,” said the first issue of the Journal, “the resources of every member of that body are my resources, the product of their lives is my daily life. The Fraternity is a common storehouse for experience, moral rectitude, and spirituality; the larger contribution of the individual the greater the resources of each member.” Each of the Founders were balanced men who went on to be great men in their own fields. They acted on their ideals and goals and set high standards for all brothers to follow. And remember, they were no older than you when they started SIGMA PHI EPSILON.
Carter Ashton Jenkens, Founder, born Oxford, NC, April 9,1882. His personal philosophy helped shape Sigma Phi Epsilon. He became an evangelist and his inspiring oratories drew the attention of famed evangelist Billy Sunday, who is said to have exclaimed, “If only the Almighty had given me the voice of Carter Jenkens!” Died July 23,1952 in Louisville, KY.
Benjamin Donald Gaw, Founder, born Stuart’s Draft, VA, August 20,1870. Prominent Baptist pastor. Died January 10,1919, at 49, in Washington D.C.
William Hugh Carter, Founder, born Pittsylvania County, VA, February 2,1878. Newspaper editor in his early years, then a much-admired Baptist pastor and field worker for most of his life. Died January 5,1971 at age 92.
William Andrew Wallace, Founder, born Stuart’s Draft, VA, May 7, 1882. Launched Sigma Phi Epsilon’s second chapter, Virginia Beta, at the Medical College of Virginia. A physician in Spartanburg, SC, and one of the best-known practitioners in the state. Died 1929.
Thomas Temple Wright, Founder, born Locust Grove, VA, May 21, 1883. Surveyor, railroad civil engineer, business and community leader. Died February 15, 1958.
William Lazell Phillips, Founder, born Normal, IL, 1873. “Uncle Billy” became the first editor of the Journal in 1904, then went on to devote his life to Sigma Phi Epsilon, including 34 years as Grand Secretary. Died June 20, 1956, leaving his personal estate to the Fraternity. Nationally known as one of the great builders of the American fraternity system.
Lucian Baum Cox, Founder, born Princess Anne County, VA, November 13, 1879. Prominent lawyer in Norfolk, VA, author of law books and draftsman of Sig Ep charters and documents. Died June 10, 1971 at the age of 91.
Richard Spurgeon Owens, Founder, born Hempstead, VA, October 28, 1880. Baptist minister whose interest in education gained him election as a trustee of the University of Richmond and Bluefield College. Died July 6, 1950.
Edgar Lee Allen, Founder, born in Virginia in January 6, 1880. A respected lawyer and judge in Birmingham, AL. Died March 21, 1945.
Robert Alfred McFarland, Founder, born Oxford, NC, January 31, 1876. Held important pastorates in three states and was a trustee of Wake Forest College and Fork Union Military Academy. Died March 14, 1960.
Frank Webb Kerfoot, Founder, born Buckland, VA, October 2, 1876. Baptist minister; in service to his country as a U.S. Army chaplain at the time of his accidental death in August 29, 1918.
Thomas Vaden McCaul, Founder, born Charles City County, VA, November 25, 1878. “Uncle om” was the first president of Virginia Alpha and wrote the Fraternity’s first song. He helped establish Virginia Eta in 1907 and Florida Alpha in 1925. A Baptist minister, he remained active in Sig Ep affairs and attended Conclaves up until a year before his death in November 18, 1972 at age 93.
These are 12 names inscribed in Sigma Phi Epsilon’s Hall of Fame, but these were also 12 young men who formed a chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon – a chapter far different from those of today and yet one noteworthy for its similarities. The first, Jenkins, was a pre-eminent for his vision, his ability to dream grand dreams, and to spellbind with noble words, and the sixth – Phillips – built for the Fraternity even while he slept. There were no drones among the twelve.