Justus H. Rathbone
October 29, 1839
Deerfield, New York
Founded Knights of Pythias: Feb 19, 1864
December 9, 1889 at the age of 50
Justus H. Rathbone graduated from Colgate University and attended Carlisle Seminary. He was a music composer and actor. One of his compositions, a Mazurka, was played at President Garfield’s inaugural ball and received high praise among musicians. He was a great Shakespearian scholar and often took part in amateur plays.
In 1863 he moved to Washington D.C. as a government clerk in the United States Treasury Department, where he founded the Knights of Pythias on February 19, 1864. Rathbone based the Knights of Pythias ritual on the mythological friendship of Damon and Pythias, while he was a school teacher at the Eagle Harbor Schoolhouse, in Eagle Harbor, Michigan.
The Drama Influenced The Order
The Order bases its lessons and builds its ritual largely on the familiar story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias. Familiarity with the Banim play encouraged Justus H. Rathbone to organize a fraternal order on the basis of such friendship.
Damon and Pythias
The story of Damon and Pythias is a Greek legend first recorded by Aristoxenus and later Cicero. Many literary works reference this story such as Shakespear's "Hamlet," Louisa M. Alcott's "Little Men" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
The Irish poet and dramatist John Banim wrote a play based on the friendship of Damon and Pythias. It was first seen in London in 1821 and has a great legacy with hundreds of performances.
Damon and Pythias were historical characters living about 412 B.C. They were members The Pythagorean Brotherhood founded Pythagoras the father of Greek philosophy. The Pythagorean Brotherhood required aspiring members to overcome very rigorous tests. Some of these were very similar to the ritualistic work of our order today. The object of the organization was the moral uplifting and purification of society. Strict morality, absolute truthfulness, honor, and integrity were thoroughly inculcated in the minds of its membership. Pythagoras held that the two most excellent things for man were "to speak the truth and to render benefits to each other." However, the outstanding feature of the society was the marvelous friendship and loyalty which bound the brotherhood together with hoops of steel. Damon and Pythias demonstrated these principles in the historical incident which forms the basis of our order.
Damon opposed the rule of the king of Syracuse because he gained the throne through fraudulent means. The Syracuse king then condemned Damon to death for his opposition. Pythias asked that the king grant Damon a stay of execution allowing him to say goodbye to his wife and child. He also volunteered to face execution if Damon did not return. Each was willing to die to save the other's life. Their loyalty to each other, the adventures that beset them, and the outcome of this noble friendship form the basis for one of the most beautiful stories of history as exemplified in our ritual.
Abraham Lincoln and Our Ritual
President Abraham Lincoln, being advised of the contents of the ritual and its teaching, said: "The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be. It breathes the spirit of Friendship, Charity and Benevolence. It is one of the best agencies conceived for the upholding of government, honoring the flag, for the reuniting of our brethren of the North and of the South, for teaching the people to love one another, and portraying the sanctity of the home and loved ones. I would suggest that these great principles by perpetuated and that you go to the Congress of the United States and ask for a charter, and so organize on a great scale throughout this nation, and disseminate this wonderful work that you have so nobly started. I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work."
The suggestion made by the President was adopted. An application was made to Congress for a charter, and the Order of Knights of Pythias was the first American Order ever chartered by an Act of the Congress of the United States.
Knights of Pythias
Justus H. Rathbone worked as a citizen nurse in the United States Hospital in Germantown, PA where he met Robert A. Champion and read to him the ritual of our order. Robert Champion offered to help create the first lodge. On Feb 15, 1864, Brother Rathbone called Robert A. Champion, William H. Burnett, David L. Burnett, Edward S. Kimball together and administered the obligation to them using his pocket Bible which was given to him by his mother. He then performed the ritual which was in manuscript form. Justice H. Rathbone instituted the first lodge of the order as Washington Lodge #1 in Washington D.C. four days later on February 19, 1864, with thirteen charter members. They adopted Brother Rathbone's ritual with only minimal changes.
The next important step in the history of the order was the organization of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia on April 8, 1864. The Supreme Lodge organized on August 11, 1868, after two preliminary meetings.
Its first small group of members took the vows of the new order with their hands placed upon a pocket Bible that had been given Mr. Rathbone by his mother. Many thousands have been privileged to become members using this treasured relic of the Order. A ceremony using this treasured Bible is known as a "Rathbone Bible Class."
The Building where the first K. of P Lodge was Instituted (Marinis Hall 1876)
Every sentence has a meaning, and every paragraph filled with a beautiful and inspiring lesson in the Order's ritualistic work. The flag of the country has an honored place at every meeting. The Holy Bible is the supreme Book of Law. The Order does not seek to shape any man's creed, but Pythianism is the practical application of religious and charitable principles to everyday life. We have a heritage of which we are proud, and our precepts and teachings lead men to higher ideals of life. We invite like-minded men of good character to join us in making these ideals the dominant factor in modern living.
The Order of Knights of Pythias is an international, non-sectarian fraternal order, and was the first fraternal order to be chartered by an Act of Congress.
Today in addition to supporting our military the Order does charitable work, sponsor dances and do fundraising events.