The Civil War is often used to divide American history neatly between
its agrarian, colonial, and "new republic" periods and the increasing
industrialization and urbanization that took place in the late 19th
century. Tremendous changes in American society wrought by the war and the
industrial revolution are reflected in the development of an unprecedented
number of fraternal organizations through the 1920's. As one author
described it, "The number of these organizations is increasing with the
growth of civilization and the wants and necessities of mankind." New
organizations were formed to address new problems, and older organizations
adapted to changing conditions.
Freemasonry experienced a dramatic increase in membership in the years
surrounding the Civil War.
Between 1826 and 1832, anti-Masonic sentiment had intensified during
the so-called Morgan affair in Batavia, N.Y., in which William Morgan, a
Mason of dubious standing, mysteriously disappeared after he threatened to
expose Masonic secrets. The Masons of the area were accused of having
The furor over this episode seriously reduced Masonic membership,
particularly in areas of New York and New England. By 1828, it became an
issue of national politics when the newly-formed Anti-Masonic Party
nominated William Wirt for president. By 1832, the anti-Masonic movement
had lost its momentum and Freemasonry gradually regained membership.
During the civil War, the popularity of military lodges as a haven for
soldiers far from home was probably an important factor in the renewed
strength of the fraternity.
The revival of Freemasonry in the second half of the 19th century was
also marked by subtle changes that echoed shifts in American customs and
attitudes. Influenced by the Temperence Movement, Freemasonry ceased to
resemble an 18th-century men's club, and carefully separated its ritual
meeting from banquets and social functions. Still sensitive from the
criticism of clergymen during the anti-Masonic period, the emphasis of
Freemasonry's teachings moved further from the 18th-century Enlightenment
philosophy and deism to more closely parallel established 19th-century
Many new organizations grew directly out of the divisiveness of the
Civil War experience. The Knights of Pythias was organized in 1864 by a
group of federal clerks in Washington, D.C., who felt that the nation
urgently needed to rekindle a brotherly spirit. Justus H. Rathbone
designed the ritual, which is based on the 4th century, B.C., story of the
friendship of Damon and Pythias. Rathbone was a Freemason and a Red
Man, and incorporated aspects of these organizations into his new ritual.
The society's motto is Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence.
Another less altruistic organization also grew out of the turmoil of
the civil War. The Ku-Klux Klan, originally founded by Confederate Army
veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., for amusement and fraternal companionship,
soon became a vehicle for disenfranchised white vigilantes to reassert
their influence during the social and political upheaval of the
Reconstruction era in the South. The name is a corruption of the Greek
word "kuklos", meaning circle. Members, dressed in sheets, rode at night
to intimidate carpetbaggers and former slaves. These activities escalated
to lynchings and floggings. The Klan was formally disbanded in 1869, but
as late as 1871, the Ku-Klux Act empowered the President to use federal
troops to abolish this "conspiracy against the federal government."
The 20th-century revival, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, traces its
inspiration more to the intolerance of Know-Nothingism than the Ku-Klux
Klan of Reconstruction. It was founded in 1915 by William J. Simmons to
foster white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholism. The
organization has gone through a number of cycles of gaining and losing
membership. It was particularly strong in the 1920's, followed by decline
in the 1940's, reviving again in the 1950's in response to civil rights
activities, then declining in the 1960's, and finding new life in the
mid-1970's and 1980's. In 1965, the Committee on Un-American Activities
reported that "the traditional ugly image of the Ku Klux Klan is
essentially valid - preaching love and peace, yet practicing hatred and
violence; claiming fidelity to the Constitution, yet systematically
abrogating the constitutional rights of other citizens."
Following a tour through the post-civil War South for the Bureau of
Agriculture, Oliver Hudson Kelly (himself a Freemason) helped found the
Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, commonly called the Grange, as a
fraternal organization to promote agriculture through cooperation, mutual
benefit, and improvement.
Thanks to Kelly's niece, Caroline Hall, the order was among the first
fraternal organizations to admit women as full-fledged members from its
Meeting places were called granges, and the ritual and degrees were
based on agricultural symbolism. Originally designed as a social,
cooperative, and educational organization, the Grange came to serve as a
powerful political lobby as 19th-century farmers battled with the railroad
monopolies that shipped their produce to market.
The Grange still remains an active organization and its lasting effects
can still be seen in farm cooperatives, scientific farming methods, rural
Free Delivery of mail, and other programs benefiting farmers and their
Many of the organizations dating from the second half of the 19th
century saw themselves as a new type of fraternal organization. In "Pythian
Knighthood", James R. Carnahan stated: "We do not, as does Masonry, have
clustering about our shrine the clinging ivy of centuries' growth, nor is
it yet wreathed about our altars the mysterious legends reaching back into
the dim and musty ages of the long ago. We come with present relief for
man's present necessities."
One of these necessities, reiterated by many organizations, was man's
social nature and the need to find formal ways to meet and associate
despite the more impersonal environment of cities. In an address to the
Knights of Pythias at Fall River, Mass., the Reverend L.V. Price expressed
this growing concern:
Much as man needs this (society), however, there is very little of it
in our day. Men meet in a formal way, are respectful, and in a sense
interested in one another, but there is no great degree of real socialness.
Few, even in the same near neighborhood, meet as friends. All that has in
it most of the real self is concealed beneath a studied politeness, a
cultivated manner. This lack of socialness and the rarity of neighborhood
society, were families meet for genuine, helpful intercourse, is very
marked in our large towns and cities. It is a growing evil of our times.
It is one of the tings widening the gulf between the different elements of
the body politic, working serious harm to our common human life, and
making it more than ever difficult to effect reform or regenerate mankind.
Some fraternal organizations also sought to provide insurance benefits
for members, a growing concern for wage earners whose families would be
left destitute if they were unable to work because of sickness or death.
Beginning with the Ancient Order of United Workmen, founded in 1868, a
large number of fraternal organizations began offering mutual insurance
benefits to members.
John Jordan Upchurch, a Freemason who worked as a mechanic for the
Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, began the Ancient Order of United
Workmen in the hopes of reconciling the conflicting interests of labor and
management. This goal soon gave way to fraternal insurance protection for
members. Although other organizations followed its example, the A.O.u.W.
remained extremely progressive in its approach. Life insurance for
working-men was an innovation in the late 1860's and was still only
generally available to businessmen and manufacturers. The idea of life
insurance was not even universally popular or trusted.
Some religious organizations opposed insurance because it implied lack
of trust in God; and bankruptcies of commercial firms eroded public
confidence. A.O.U.W. leaders were convinced that life insurance would
succeed best in fraternal societies, and many other groups followed their
While Freemasonry deliberately avoided any formal insurance program,
other organizations made it a central part of membership. The Knights of
Pythias introduced a fraternal insurance department in 1877 that later
separated in 1930 to become an independent mutual life insurance company.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks originally began as a group
of actors in New York City who met for lunch and "refreshments," calling
themselves the "Jolly Corks." They soon organized as a secret, social and
benevolent fraternity, adopting the elk as a distinctly American symbol
and broadening the membership beyond entertainers. The Elks incorporated
many Masonic influences, and eventually instituted benefit programs to
"spread the antlers of protection" to its members.
Joseph Cullen root, a physician in Lyons, Iowa, was inspired by a
Sunday sermon describing "the pioneer woodmen clearing the forest to
provide for their families" to organize a fraternal assessment society
that would clear away problems of financial security for members'
families. In 1883 he organized the Modern Woodmen of America with ritual
and symbols mixing "Roman dignity and forest freedom." When the society
was founded, it barred prospective members in hazardous occupations such
as firemen, balloonists, bartenders, and baseball players.
A few years after founding the Modern Woodmen, Root was expelled in a
feud between himself and the head physician. He proceeded to found another
organization, which he called the Woodmen of the World. A member of
several fraternal organizations, Root designed rituals with a distinctly
Masonic tone. The emblem of the society is a sawed-off tree stump and its
motto is "The Family, Fraternity, Protection, Service."
The Loyal Order of Moose was organized in Louisville, Ky., in 1888 by
another physician. The organization did not prosper at first, but in 1906
under the direction of John Henry Wilson, a politician and labor activist,
the group began to expand. In 1911 they decided to acquire property for a
school. A dairy farm in Illinois was purchased and turned into Mooseheart,
an incorporated village that houses the organization's headquarters and
supports children who have lost one or both parents.
Even before the Civil War had ended, the growing problems of labor
began to find expression in fraternal organizations. Railway workers were
among the first to adopt this method of collective bargaining. The
Brotherhood of Locomotive engineers was founded in 1863 by W.D. Robinson
and others as a secret, fraternal, mutual benefit labor organization. The
first goal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was to act as an
intermediary between railway companies and locomotive engineers,
particularly on the issue of wages. Later a plan for the payment of death
benefits was also adopted.
The organization became a model for a number of fraternal societies of
railway employees founded from 1868 to the 1890's. Among them was the
Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen organized in 1883, which based its secret
ceremonies on the work and duties of railway workers.
The Order of Knights of Labor, founded by Uriah Stevens and other
garment workers in Philadelphia in 1869, became the first mass
organization representing the American working class. Stevens, a
Freemason, included many features of Masonry in the ritual. Unlike the
specific trade unions of the period, Stevens visualized an organization
that would bring workers from all trades together in an effort to better
their condition and reform the wage system.
The organization was able to attract large numbers of workers among
Philadelphia artisans in the 1860's, adding miners in the 1870's and
skilled urban tradesmen in the 1880's. The Knights of Labor was also one
of the few post-Civil War labor organizations that welcomed black members.
Some locals were racially mixed, others maintained separate groups.
The statement in its Declaration of Principles that "the alarming
development and aggressiveness of great capitalists and corporations,
unless checked, will inevitably lead to pauperization and hopeless
degration (sic) of the toiling masses" reflected the growing concern that
skilled artisans would disappear in the face of industrialized factories
using unskilled labor.
Many of the demands made by the Knights of Labor have been achieved.
Among other things, they wanted the establishment of a Bureau of Labor
Statistics; measures for health and safety of workers; recognition of
trade unions; payment of workers in lawful money rather than credit;
prohibition of child labor under 15 years of age; equal pay for equal
work; and an eight-hour work day.
The Civil War had interrupted the Nativist movement popularized by the
Know-Nothing Party, but the stresses of large numbers of immigrants
continued to intensify in the second half of the 19th century. Between
1880 and 1920, 40 million immigrants entered American society. Fraternal
organizations helped to assimilate many of them by reinforcing democratic
values and practices in rituals and by creating new social bonds in an
otherwise alien environment. New fraternal organizations were established
with the arrival of each new ethnic group.
In response to the large influx of working-class Jews from eastern
Europe in the 1880's and 1890's, a concerned group met in 1894 to organize
a fraternal benevolent society to help meet the needs of these new
immigrants. The Workmen's Circle became a strong force in educating and
assimilating Jewish Americans by providing insurance and English lessons.
In 1923, the organization offered 15 weeks of sick benefits at $8 per
week, and death insurance from $100 to $1,000. Special benefits were
provided for members suffering from tuberculosis, including nine months of
treatment at the order's sanatorium in Liberty, N.Y. The organization was
a keen advocate of social legislation.
Union St. Jean Baptiste was formed in Woonsocket, R.I., in 1900 "to
unite in a common spirit of brotherhood persons of French origin living in
the United States and to promote their collective individual welfare."
Consisting of many French-Canadians, the organization offers insurance
benefits and supports student aid, patriotic and cultural activities, and
programs for the retarded.
Between 1900 and 1910, the number of Italians who emigrated to America
jumped from 650,000 in the previous decade to more than 2 million. In this
ten-year period, the Italian population in New York City more than
Most Italians did not come to America with a strong tradition of
fraternal mutual benefit societies, although Freemasonry had been an
important factor in Italian unification and nationalism. In Italy,
families traditionally provided aid in time of distress. Transplanted to
the United States, newly-arrived immigrants quickly adopted the American
Of the many small societies providing social activities and benefits,
the Sons of Italy, founded in 1905, became the largest and most
influential. By 1921, it already numbered 125,000 members nationally.
Fraternal societies have been an important force in Ukrainian-American
life. In 1910 a group of men, concerned that Ukrainian immigrants found it
difficult to obtain employment and could not afford good insurance, formed
an association to provide financial protection and inexpensive death
benefits. First organized as the Ruthenian National Union, it later
changed its name to the Ukranian Workingmen's Association and admitted
members without regard to religious or political affiliated. The
organization is open to men and women of Ukrainian descent between the
ages of 16 and 65.
The Knights of Columbus, organized in 1882, departed from a purely
ethnic affiliation and offered Roman Catholic men of varying backgrounds
an acceptable fraternal organization. American Catholics found themselves
unable to participate in the many fraternal organizations that offered
insurance benefits because the Church had condemned so-called "secret
societies." A New Haven, Conn., parish priest, Michael J. McGivney,
organized the Knights of Columbus as an alternative to proscribed
organizations. Closely paralleling the structure of other fraternal groups
with ritual, degrees, and passwords, the motto of "Charity, Unity,
Fraternity and patriotism" accurately reflects the order's goals to
support the church, combat anti-Catholic prejudice, provide assimilation
into American society, and finance benevolent projects and insurance
programs. The choice of Christopher Columbus as the fraternity's symbol
stresses the important role of patriotic Catholics in a New world
democracy. It deliberately downplayed associations with Old World
traditions decried by anti-Catholic Nativists.
Growing ethnic and religious diversity in late 19th-century America was
accompanied by a resurgence of earlier Nativist groups from the
Know-Nothing period. A number of new "patriotic" organizations were
founded in response to this new and even larger wave of immigrants.
One such group, founded in 1895 in Boston by members of the American
Protective Association, was the Order of the Little Red Schoolhouse. It
concentrated on a major concern of Nativists: how to maintain the public
school system against the growing influence of parochial education among
Catholic immigrants. The order sought to inspire greater pride in
America's public school system, which it saw as a major force in
maintaining American values in the face of foreign influence due to
large-scale immigration. Unlike other anti-immigration organizations,
however, it was open to both citizens and non-citizens, regardless of
religion or race. Members were required to take an oath of devotion to the
United States, its flag, and its institutions.
Whether as agents of moral self-improvement, as vehicles for social
reform in the labor movement, or as preservers of the status quo among
Nativist factions, fraternal organizations provided a model for
cooperative action and mutual benefit. Burial expenses and benefits to
widows and orphans offered economic security in the laissez-faire
industrial era prior to social legislation. Self-improvement, stressed by
many organizations, reinforced the social mobility in which Americans took
pride. In 1904, Max Weber, a German sociologist, characterized fraternal
organizations as "typical vehicles of social ascent into the circle of the
entrepreneurial middle class."
The enormous proliferation of fraternal organizations in the past has
helped Americans confront ethnic and religious diversity, immigration,
social reform, and the responsibilities of democracy. While membership in
some organizations has fallen off since public programs replaced their
mutual insurance benefits, other organizations continue to attract members
with the appeal of community and shared fellowship. Some fraternal
organizations founded in the 19th century have substantially altered their
purposes to adapt to changing needs and concerns.
Writing for a time capsule in 1880, John Lindsay Stevenson of Boston, a
member of some 20 organizations himself, suggested that "inasmuch as the
days in the year, nor the hours in a day will not be changed during the
intervening time, that comparison may be fairly instituted between the
capacity of an average man of today (1880) and one of 1980 in the duties
of a Secret Society Man, who all the time conducts his own business with
success while attending calls on his time."