In the 1850s a Beta Chapter existed for ten years at Ohio Wesleyan University and a Gamma Chapter enjoyed a month's existence at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, but both succumbed to the perturbations accompanying the Civil War or to anti-fraternity sentiment among faculty members. There were long discussions about a chapter at Genessee College which never were fruitful. Thereafter, the only chapter was the Alpha Chapter at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
In 1970, the undergraduates broke ranks with their alumni, the primary issue at the time being one of recreational drug use. There is a serious and ongoing question as to whether the current organization is a continuation of the old or not. 1991 Argus letters After a wrenching crisis at the annual meeting of alumni, the alumni severed ties with the undergraduate institution and dissolved the Socratic Literary Society alumni organization, at the same time, the undergraduates abandoned the initiation ceremony and the constitution, women were elected to membership, the name "Phi Nu Theta" was abandoned as sounding too much like a Greek-letter fraternity. At the same time, the alumni closed the Alpha Dining Club, the permanent staff (housekeeper and chef) were let go, and the house was sold to the university. For some, the new organization was entirely different, and any connection to the older organization was utterly severed; for others, the new organization continues the principles and community position of the old. In recent years, the students living in Eclectic have attempted to rebuild connections to the older alumni with events during Homecoming and Family Weekend and Commencement & Reunion Weekend.
Because of the prestige of the older organization, the prominent position played by the current organization in student life, and other factors, the Wesleyan University administration has never fully pushed the issue of whether the old Eclectic and the new Eclectic were two organizations or one, and for 38 years the house has continued on in this state of ambiguity.
The backbone of the early society was the dining club, called the Alpha Club, which survived until 1975.
The original society may not have survived the stresses of the Civil War without the tireless dedication of William North Rice, '65, who later went on to become a Professor at the University for 51 years and also a short term as acting President. He was universally regarded as the guiding spirit of the society through the 1920s.
The alumni organization was incorporated by the Connecticut legislature as the Socratic Literary Society in 1870.
The first permanent house for the society was the construction of a house in 1882 on a site behind the current Campus Center on Cross Street, this had no residential accommodations for undergraduates, and was used primarily for meetings and the dining facilities. The society in 1906 hired Henry Bacon, formerly of the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to design a Doric Greek revival structure at 200 High Street. The house is an exemplary design for group living. Many people see the Eclectic house as a design precursor to Bacon's later Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 1912, at the seventy-fifth reunion of the society, Stephen Henry Olin reported in an address to the society that after a detailed analysis of the academic standing of each college fraternity chapter at every major university in America, Phi Nu Theta then had the highest academic ranking of any chapter of any fraternity in the country.
Noted alumni of the old Phi Nu Theta Eclectic include Chester D. Hubbard, a founder of Eclectic, and his son, member William P. Hubbard, both prominent at the founding convention of the State of West Virginia, Frederick W. Pitkin '58, two-term Governor of Colorado from 1879, the Congressman and banker Fredrick Morgan Davenport,Walter Wriston, who presided over the development of modern consumer banking and the ATM while serving as president and CEO of Citibank, now known as Citicorp. The list also includes several Wesleyan University Presidents, including Joseph Cummings, '40, (former President of Genessee College, later President of Northwestern), Cyrus D. Foss '54, John W. Beach '45, William North Rice '65 (Acting), Stephen Henry Olin,'66 (Acting), John Monroe VanVleck '50 (Acting), and Edwin Deacon Etherington, '48.
Many buildings on Wesleyan University's campus are named after prominent Eclectic members, such as Crowell Concert Hall, Olin Memorial Library (Stephen Henry Olin, '65 and his father), Hall and Atwater Labs, the Zilkha Gallery (Ezra Khedouri Zilka, '46 and his wife), and the Van Vleck Observatory, (Astronomy Professor John Monroe VanVleck).
A history of the society has recently been published by the Wesleyan University Press, called History of The Eclectic Society of Phi Nu Theta, 1837–1970 The author, William B.B. Moody, is a member and an alumnus of the class of 1959.
Alumni of the newer Eclectic include Chris Wink, co-founder of Blue Man Group; Amanda Palmer, songwriter and singer of The Dresden Dolls; ex-child star Jack Johnson of Lost in Space (movie), Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of the electro-indie band MGMT; Jem Cohen, an independent film maker who has worked with R.E.M. and Fugazi, Joss Whedon, creator of such TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and Indiana Reay Neidell, the Grammy-winning Swedish rockstar.
The script for the film PCU was written by Wesleyan students Adam Leff and Zak Penn, (not members but regulars at the house), and is derived from life and characters in that house at the time. The early scenes at the house in PCU refer to the older, formerly prestigious organization.