Merit Degree EmblemSenior Degree Honor Society (1917-1955?)

The Senior Degree Honor Society is the least know of all the Senior Scouting programs.  It was a ritualistic group with fraternal/masonic aspects for older boys aimed at developing leadership, training, and activities for Senior Scouts. It was established in 1917 in Montclair, New Jersey by Scout Executive Frank Gray, when it was known as the Senior Division, BSA.  In November of 1923, it was adopted by the Brooklyn Council, and by 1926, there were chapters in each of the seventeen districts of the Council.  It is also known to have also existed in Westfield, New Jersey, and someplace in Florida.  Membership was limited to boys 15 and older who had earned First Class.  James West, the BSA's Chief Scout Executive, was a member of the group, understandable since the National Office at the time was located in New York City.  This may have been what lead to National Council approving the program on June 1, 1934 and including this as part of Senior Scouting program in 1935.  At some time between 1929 and 1935 it had changed its name to the Senior Degree Honor Society.

It is unclear how large the program got. According to one source, the 1937 Annual Report of the BSA states there were 33 Merit Degree Chapters in NY, NJ, and Florida. Another source states there were approximately 900 members, mainly in the East, with the largest concentration in the Brooklyn Council.  Most likely it was a chapter per district, not one per council, hence the high number of chapters. This was true in Brooklyn Council, so why not elsewhere? Honor Degree Chapter membership was listed as 1102.  Merit Degree and Honor Degree where the two degrees within the program, as these groups meet separately.

When the program ended is also unclear. Perhaps the program ended in favor of the Order of the Arrow.  The OA was one of several camp-based honor societies that came to prominence in the early years of the BSA, and which won over several similar programs to become the sole official program within the BSA.  This happened between 1935 and 1948 when the OA became first an experimental program of the BSA, then finally an official part of it.  Perhaps with the OA becoming an official part of the BSA lead to such programs as the Senior Degree Honor Society ending.  Others have indicated that they no longer see the group mentioned in scout handbooks around 1955.  It had been listed as a local council program for several printings of the Boy Scout Handbook.  It was also given a one line mention in the Adventures for Senior Scouting book as well.

Dave Eby has written a recent article on the Senior Degree Honor Society that has been published in the American Scouter Traders Association's ASTAReport.  Information from that article has been added to this page.  Dave also maintains the Honor Society pages at the USScouting Service Project site.  Please check it out here.  His article on the Senior Degree Honor Society is included with the page on that group.

The below insignia are shown in Jim Clough's Senior Scouting Collectibles.  They were worn on the right arm of the uniform like other Senior Scouting items. The 'Merit Degree' and 'Honor Degree' emblem are for the two degrees within the program.  Merit Degree required that the boy be at least 15 and have earned First Class Scout.  Once inducted into the group, they were made a Merit Degree member.  If they had been a Merit Degree member for one year and atleast 18 years old, they would be eligible for the Honor Degree.  But the Honor Degree is only given if others feel they are worthy. If one did not make Honor Degree by their 21st birthday, they were made an alumni member (non active).  Honor Degree members became alumni at their 25th birthday. Mention is made of four citations given: Third Order, Second Order, First Order, and Theodore Roosevelt Citation, but have no idea if there was any physical items (patches or pins) given to those who received them, or what the requirements were for them.  The Roosevelt Citation could only be received after reaching their 21st birthday.

There are three pins for civilian wear.  The first two were for the Merit Degree and Honor Degree, but what was the third for?  It is assumed it was for either Degree Masters (adults) or those who had earned the Roosevelt Citation.  Pins were made from 10c gold with pearls and jewels.

In addition, most chapters also created their own neckerchiefs to wear.  These were the only chapter specific items known.
Senior Degree Honor Society Emblems
Merit Degree EmblemMerit Degree Honor Degree
Degree Master    NO PICTURE Deputy Degree Master   NO PICTURE

Senior Degree Honor Society Pins
Merit Degree Pin Honor Degree Pin Degree Masters OR Roosevelt Citation (not sure)

Degree Master and Deputy Degree Master are the adult advisors of the Society, similar to OA Lodge Advisors.  Each chapter had a DM and DDM.  There was also a Degree Master General over all the chapters within a council.  It is not clear if these positions were limited to scouting professionals. Adult leaders were suggested to have a minimum age of 30, and adult involvement was kept to a minimum.

Within each chapter were the offices of President, Vice President, Treasurer, Recording Secretary, Corresponding Secretary, and Sergeant-at-Arms.  These officers could also serve as ritual leaders, or there could be a separate set of ritual officers.  In the rituals (at least for the Merit Degree) consisted of Master Banneret, Senior Banneret, and Junior Banneret, which are equivalent to President, First Vice-President, and Second Vice-President respectively, as well as also the offices of Master of Ceremony, Secretary, Treasurer, and two Gate Keepers.

There were apparently inter-chapter organization as well, with similar positions.

Ritual and Symbolism
As with many ritualistic program, the Senior Degree Honor Society had a great deal of symbolism in their ritual and program.

The use of signal flags (called Bannerets) on the insignia tied into the idea that members must "signal their intentions" to lead a proper life.  The symbol on the flags is the "Gate of Decision", which new members must pass through.  The green flag with white gate stands for "Firmness", the white flag with green gate stands for "Purpose".  Each member was expected to have a staff (walking stave) 6'6" long on which he was to carve his personal Scouting history.  They would also make their own banneret as a Merit Degree member, although it apparently wouldn't be used unless they became an Honor Degree member.  This banneret was the same size and shape as patrol flags (11" x 18"), with a green background color (patrol flags from National supply were either white or red), and a design that was symbolic of a worthy ideal. Rank, merit badges, and camp badges could be attached to it.  The Honor Degree member was required to attend rituals with his stave and banneret, and would be barred if he forgot it.

The rituals also contained much symbolism.  Of the Merit Degree ritual, the "Gate of Decision" was there for all to pass through.  The ritual had a "Story of the Stone", which included the use of a rock with a loose fossil and used to illustrate that everything has a purpose in the grand scheme of things.  There was also three "Grand Questions" to be discussed, along with a pledge.  Another part of the ceremony had a candle ceremony called "The New Light" that also had a "Story of the Coins".  At the end, new members received instruction at the "Sign of the Teepee" and the "Sign of the Gate" and received their emblems and manual.

At present, information on the Honor Degree ritual in unknown.  Neither I nor Dave Eby have a copy of this ritual.

Apparently several items were published about and for the Senior Degree Honor Society, however all are exceeding rare and little known.  I only have a photocopy of the Merit Degree Ritual book, so my knowledge on the whole program is limited.  Those listed below were published by the Brooklyn Council, most likely others where published 'unofficially' by the organization itself in the earlier years, and perhaps by other councils.  It is known there were published and copyrighted works in 1925, 1929, and 1937.

The Program of Senior Degree Honor Society, BSA was published by the National Council in 1937 (Brooklyn Council, actually).  This gives basic info on the program.  Uncertain of other printings, or if other councils using the program published editions as well.

The Merit Degree Ritual of the Senior Degree Honor Society, published in 1925 and subsequent (and previous??) years.  This give the ritual ceremonies for the Merit Degree, but not the Honor Degree.  Some information on the program is given.  Mention is made of a Merit Degree Manual, but do not know if it is the above book or an additional one. I assume its a separate book, only because some of the descriptions of this book don't match what I read in the Program book.  The MDM was apparently aimed at the youth, giving information on the citiations, etc, will the Program book seems more aimed at adults.

Mention is made of an Honor Degree Ritual book, but have yet to see a copy.  Assume that like the MDR book, that there are multiple editions from different councils.
Senior Degree Literature
The Program of Senior Degree Honor Society, BSA
  1937, published by National Council (Brooklyn Council actually)
  other editions?
Program of Senior Degree Honor Society
Merit Degree Manual
The Merit Degree Ritual of the Senior Division
  1925, published by Montclair Council, written by Frank Gray 
  1924, published by Brooklyn Council
  1929, published by Brooklyn Council

The Merit Degree Ritual of the Senior Degree Honor Society
  1937, published by Brooklyn Council

  other editions?  published by other councils?
  there are minor differences between the Brooklyn & Montclair editions.

1937 edition, published by Brooklyn Council
The Honor Degree Ritual
    assume existence

Updated: 09/11/2004mrb