Fraternal Groups Grew From
In 1831, when
the young Frenchman Alexis de Touqueville, toured the United States, he
already noted a national characteristic for forming organizations. "Americans
of all ages, all conditions, in all dispositions," he tells us, "constantly
..If it is
proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the
encouragement of a great example, they form a society."
fascinated by the American experiment with democracy and suspected a close
relationship between the voluntary associations he observed and the system of
democratic government. In "Democracy in America", he states:
Thus the most
democratic country on the face of the year is that in which men have, in our
time, carried to the highest perfection the act of pursuing in common the
object to their common desires and have applied this new science to the
greatest number of purposes. Is this the result of accident, or is there in
reality any necessary connection between the principle of association and that
observer, Toqueville recognized that associations played an important role in
American society of the 1830's. From volunteer fire companies to temperance
organizations, from historical societies to college fraternities, Americans
have continued to form associations to accomplish common goals and to share
common experiences. Among thousands of organizations, none have been more
responsive to changing needs and concerns than the large number of fraternal
societies that date from the 18th century to the present offering members
fellowship, mutual aid, self improvement, and shared values.
Since it opened
in 1975, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of our National Heritage has been
collecting artifacts and written materials dealing with the history of
Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations. Although the museum's main
focus remains American history, a panel of museum directors and prominent
historians who convened for a planning symposium in 1978 urged the museum to
concentrate its collections and research on the subject of fraternal
organizations in America. They felt that the subject was important and one
that had been neglected by museums and scholars.
The research and
collecting that has taken place over the past ten years has confirmed
Toqueville's opinion that "nothing...is more deserving, attention than the
intellectual and moral associations of America.... In the democratic countries
the science of association is the mother of science; the Progress of all the
rest depends upon the progress it has made."
At the time of
Toqueville's visit, fraternal organizations were already a 100-year-old
tradition in America. Beginning in the 1730's with the establishment of lodges
of Freemasons in Philadelphia and Boston, fraternal organizations took root
and prospered on Americans soil. Many with transplanted from Europe, others
developed here, but all patterned themselves after Freemasonry to include
ritual, regalia, and secret passwords. A variety of aims characterize these
organizations – co-operative insurance, social or political change,
patriotism, protection of labor interests, and personal virtue, and public
lodges to Grange halls, all fraternal organizations share basic similarities.
Rituals and degrees borrow exotic titles and dramatic scenarios from ancient
legends, historical incidents, or mythology. Bonds of secrecy held establish
solidarity among members. Regalia provides fantasy and drama; the lodge
provides fellowship; and death and sickness benefits offered a sense of
security prior to Social Security, pension plans, and medical and life
earliest the fraternal organizations established in America was transported
from England in the 1730's as a philosophical society associated with the
liberal ideas of the Enlightenment, yet steeped in the ancient tradition of
the stonemasons' guilds. Early lodges in America and England met in taverns or
private homes. Good fellowship and strong spirits often accompanied the
philosophical discussions of new ideas while the rituals were designed to
educate and improve moral virtues. The symbols of Freemasonry were drawn from
a wide variety of 18th-century sources that included stonemasons' tools,
classical architecture, the beehive of industry, the anchor of hope, mourning
symbols, and heraldry.
An account book
of a Philadelphia Lodge, dated June 24, 1731, is the earliest lived in record
of an American Lodge, although earlier accounts of the British Masonic items
in America suggest that Americans were familiar with Freemasonry before 1731.
American lodges were chartered by the Grand Lodge of England established 1717,
the Grand Lodge of Ireland established 1729, or the Grand Lodge of Scotland,
America grew rapidly and played an important role in the social and political
history of the country. Meeting in public taverns, 18th-century Masonic lodges
provided a vehicle for the popularization and spread of new ideas that
included the equality of man, the power of reason over dogma, and the
existence of natural laws. These radical ideas eventually formed the basis for
American arguments favoring political separation from Great Britain.
Revolutionary Period, Freemasonry served as a unifying influence. Relations
among the American colonies had often been characterized by jealousies,
territorial disputes, and widely diverse ethnic, social and religious groups.
By 1775, Masonic lodges established in each the 13 colonies served as a common
denominator to help bring the divergent groups within the colonies into a
single national entity. At least nine of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence and many of the military leaders of the Revolution were
Freemasons. George Washington's Masonic affiliation was an important
ingredient in his role as military and political leader of the new nation.
Masonic ties and
patriotism were so closely entwined during this period that theyvirtually
merge in popular usage. The ideas of equality, reasons, and brotherhood of
man, inherent in Freemasonry, had been translated into American independent
In searching for
a style that would represent the newly formed United States, American
craftsmen, many of whom were members of the fraternity, quite naturally turned
to the well-known system of symbols that Freemasonry provided.
In America, the
most widespread use of these emblems as decoration dates from the last quarter
of the 18th-century and continues through the 1830's. So many of the
individuals involved in the Revolution were Freemasons the Masonic imagery,
often combined patriotic symbols, can be found on almost every type of
decorated object used in America and can truly be considered a national style
that went beyond the exclusive use of the fraternity of Freemasons. The most
dramatic example is probably the use of the all seeing Eye and pyramid on the
Great Seal the United States, but Federal style furniture, clocks, anglo-American
ceramics, Chinese Export porcelains, glassware's, and textiles, as well as
specific Lodge furnishings and regalia also attest to the prominence of these
symbols in the 18th and 19th-century America.
In addition to
remaining one of the most popular fraternal organizations in America from the
18th century to the present, Freemasonry has also served as a model for the
many other organizations that proliferated in the 19th century. Following the
pattern set by Freemasonry, other American fraternal groups developed a
similar didactic style using symbols to teach democratic principles and
personal virtues in a changing American society, much as Freemasonry taught
its own moral system. Because Freemasons were often involved in establishing
new fraternal orders, many incorporated Masonic symbols in their own rituals.
Thus the square and compasses, beehive, hour-glass, and clasped hands appear
among the symbols of many organizations.
earliest fraternal artifacts are almost exclusively Masonic, by the 19th
century other groups joined Freemasonry with similar types of decoration and
artifacts. The 19th century provides a chronology of fraternal organizations
whose foundings parallel important developments in American social and
originated the England as early as 1745. Similar to Freemasonry, it has
degrees and symbols and teaches moral lessons in its ritual. Thomas Wildey and
other English Odd Fellows who emigrated to America organized the Independent
Order of Odd Fellows beginning with a Lodge in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819.
The main symbols of the order are the three links representing Friendship,
Love and Truth; clasped hands, and heart in hand.
The Odd Fellows
differed from Freemasonry by offering a more specific beneficiary program in
which members systematically contributed to a fund from which sick or
distressed members, their widow, and orphans could be paid.
By the end of
the 19th-century, in part due to its insurance aspects, Odd Fellowship equaled
or even outstripped Freemasonry in membership. Many men belonged to both
organizations. The large membership of Odd Fellows in the mid-19th century is
supported by the number of interesting decorative arts pieces with the symbols
of the organization that are found from this period. The three links, the
heart in hand, and clasped hands of Odd Fellowship became almost as prevalent
as the square and compasses.
marked a new period of growth for fraternal organizations in America. The
Ancient Order of Foresters, based on the legends of Robin Hood, was
established in America in 1832, followed in 1834 by the Improved Order of Red
Men, which drew its inspiration from American Indian legend. In 1835, the
United Ancient Order of Druids, which based its ritual of the Druid traditions
and legends, was established in America from England. All of these
organization were modeled on the lines of Odd Fellowship, offering mutual
benefit in the event of sickness and death in addition to fraternal rituals
and social contract.
The 1830's and
1840's marked the first of the 19th century waves of immigrants from Europe,
and fraternal orders developed in response to these new Americans. In 1820's,
fewer than 6,000 Germans and 54,000 Irish emigrated to America. In each of the
next two decades, those figures jumped to 125,000 and 385,000 German
immigrants and 207,000 and 790,000 Irish immigrants.. The Ancient Order of
Hibernians in America, established in New York in 1836, was devoted to paying
relief and death benefits, the advancement of the Roman Catholic religion, and
promotion of Irish national traditions. Similarly, the Order of the Sons of
Hermann, established 1840, and the German Order of the Harugari in 1847 were
both founded in response to the ethnic prejudice directed against recent
organizations played a particularly important role among German-Jewish
immigrants. Traditional Jewish life had centered around the synagogue and the
village. In America these institutions with disrupted by assimilation,
religious reform, and cultural differences among Sephardic and German Jews.
Jewish relief societies first operated under the auspices of individual
synagogues, but often found their efforts fragmented.
In the 1840's
secular fraternal orders developed: B'nai B'rith in 1843, the Free Sons of
Israel in 1846, and the United Order of True Sisters in 1849. These
organizations provided a way for Jews of various nationalities and sects to
help each other while maintaining their Jewish identity.
Writing in 1878,
Charles Wesolowsky, a Freemason and a member of B'nai B'rith wrote that
"Thanks to Providence B'B Lodge is now the supplement, and no matter where you
are, the same work, the same sign, the same spirit, you are at home and
amongst brothers indeed." The rites, regalia, and mottoes of these
organizations, based on Freemasonry and Odd Fellowship, offered at American
aura that might be denied Jews elsewhere.
offers an interesting example of how a German-Jewish immigrant in the 19th
century viewed fraternal organizations in America. On his tombstone he wanted
the inscription to include his Masonic achievement, "Past Grand High Priest of
Georgia" because it demonstrated "the extent to which an immigrant Jew living
in America could enter into brotherhood with his Gentile neighbours and still
retain his identity as a Jew and pride in his Jewish heritage."
At the same time
that increasing numbers of immigrants were creating their own fraternal orders
to help adapt to their new American Identity, many native-born Americans began
to fear that these new arrivals would corrupt American traditions and take
jobs away from them.
The order of
United American Mechanics, founded in Philadelphia in 1845, became the first
of the Nativist fraternal organizations. Its objectives were to be patriotic,
social and benevolent fraternal order composed of native white male citizens
who would help native-born Americans find employment, protect the public
school system, and aid the widows and orphans of members. It specifically
opposed the immigration of large numbers of German and Irish Roman Catholics
in the 1840's. The organization's emblem incorporated the Masonic square and
compasses with the arm of labor wielding a hammer and the American flag.
The Junior Order
of United American Mechanics, founded in 1853, became a separate society
sharing the same Nativist concerns.
best known of the Nativist fraternal organizations of this period is the Order
of the Star-Spangled Banner, better known as the "Know-Nothings." Members
would reply that they "ken nothing" when asked about the new secret political
group. Drawing from its support from the members of other fraternal
organizations with Nativist sentiments such as the United American Mechanics
and the Brotherhood of the Union, the Know-Nothings won surprising political
victories in elections following its founding in 1852. By 1856, the group was
restructured as a non-secret, national political organization throughout the
1850's and only lost strength in the 1860's when the Civil War overshadowed
concerns about immigration.
Nativism was not
the only burning issue of the 1840's that found expressing in fraternal
organizations. In 1842 the Sons of Temperance organized in New York as a
fraternal benefit society and same year the Independent Order of Rechabites
was brought to the United States from England as a secret fraternal and total
abstinence society. From these organizations a number of groups developed such
as the independent Order of Good Templars and the Templars of Honor and
Temperance. Organized in 1850, the Independent Order of Good Templars offered
no insurance benefits and was one of the first fraternal organizations to
admit both men and women.
The issue of
women's rights was voiced at the First Women's Rights Convention have the
Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. The emerging role of women in America can be seen
in the fraternal organizations of this period. Increasingly organizations like
the Odd Fellows felt they needed to explain why women were not included. An
Odd fellows Monitor and Guide for 1878, for example, explains that "Lodges of
Odd Fellows are formed, and in them men are banded together to do what is
natural for women to do. The leading principles of our Order are but the
innate principles of women's nature."
In fact, the Odd
Fellows became one of the first men's fraternal organizations to establish a
degree for women with the Daughters of Rebekah founded in 1851. Freemasonry
followed in 1857 with the Order of the Eastern Star.
organizations argued that women did not need fraternal organizations, others
felt that they needed women. According to Rosswell Hassam's Readings and
Recittions for Good Templar Lodges published in 1880, the independent Order of
Good Templars proudly proclaimed the reasons for the success by including that
"the Order was fortunate in at once calling to its aid the wonderful help a
woman. No similar institution had ever taken the ste before..."
Jewish women, in
particular, used organizations to play a more prominent role in community
affairs. The United Order of True Sisters, founded by Henrietta in 1846, was
modeled after the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith and became the first
women's fraternal and philanthropic organization in the United States.
Even before the
Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the status of free blacks came
into question in relation to American fraternal organizations. Mirroring the
status of blacks in America society, most fraternal organizations simply
excluded black members. Prince Hall, a free black clergyman serving a
congregation in Cambridge, Mass., was one of 15 black men initiated into
Freemasonry on March 6, 1775, in a British Army lodge whose members were
stationed in Boston. Hall then formed a Masonic Lodge of black man,
subsequently receiving a charter from the Grand Lodge of England when he was
unable to obtain one from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Hall
went on to fight in the American Revolution at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Prince Hall Freemasonry proceeded to form its own Grand Lodges and higher
degrees and has remained an important part of the American black community.
Ogden, a black sailor initiated into Odd Fellowship in England, founded the
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows when the American Independent Order of Odd
Fellows would not grant a charter because the signers were of African descent.
Ogden instead requested a charter through his own lodge in Liverpool, England.
Ruth, a black women's group based of the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, was
started in 1856.
nearly every ethnic group, religion, and race, and both sexes, fraternal
organizations played a critical role in the emergence of American pluralism
from the late 1700's to the Civil War. Freemasonry helped popularize the
Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Most fraternal
organizations taught the secular democratic virtues of friendship, unity,
loyalty, charity and education.
The "Odd Fellows
Text Book" in 1851 states that Odd Fellowship is "genuine republicanism"
because "in the disposition of its government and the bestowment of its
bounties and honors, the people, the members bear the rule and share equal and
organizations helped to assimilate immigrants into America society by
reinforcing democratic values in their rituals and by practicing democratic
rule in their organizational bylaws. They also offered stability through
periods of social and political change – whether in the years of uncertainty
following the American Revolution, or the turmoil of the Civil War.
daguerreotype from the museum's collection shows three men wearing black suits
with one wearing a Masonic apron and another wearing Odd Fellows regalia.
Jewel of the Templars
of Honor and Temperance, founded in 1846.
painted tin sign with symbols of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics
was probably used on a lodge building. symbols of the order include a shield,
arm and hammer, and square and compasses.
Diploma of Improved
Order of Red Men
Sextant case carved
with a variety of Odd Fellows symbols
This is the first of a two-part
series outlining the role of fraternal organizations in America and their
relationship to Freemasonry. Barbara Franco has provided us with the results
of her research while she was preparing for the museum's 10th anniversary
exhibit, "Fraternally Yours: A Decade of Collecting." Part 2, covering the
period from 1860-1920, will appear in the November issue.
Supreme Council, 33rd Degree
Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry
Northern Masonic Jurisdiction
United States of America
PO Box 519
Lexington, Mass. 02173
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