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“In the Beginning . . .”: A Knight’s Sacred Oath

The Knights of Labor, a nineteenth-century labor union, employed elaborate rituals and symbols in their local assembly meetings. The initiation ceremony for new members, for example, relied heavily on religious imagery and language. It also drew on the rituals of other fraternal organizations like the Masons and the Odd Fellows, that had many working-class members. The ceremony emphasized that all that was valuable and worthy in society derived from human labor. New Knights agreed to commit themselves to improve the conditions of all working people. Hundreds of thousands of workers in the 1880s were “baptized” in a Knights of Labor initiation ceremony that required the following promises.

In the beginning, God ordained that man should labor, not as a curse, but as a blessing; not as a punishment, but as means of development, physically, mentally, morally, and has set thereunto his seal of approval in the rich increase and reward. By labor is brought forward the kindly fruits of the earth in rich abundance for our sustenance and comfort; by labor (not exhaustive) is promoted health of the body and strength of mind, labor garners the priceless stores of wisdom and knowledge. It is the “Philosopher’s Stone,” everything it touches turns to wealth. “Labor is noble and holy.” To glorify God in its exercise, to defend it from degradation, to divest it of the evils to body, mind, and estate, which ignorance and greed have imposed; to rescue the toiler from the grasp of the selfish is a work worthy of the noblest and best of our race.

You have been selected from among your associates for that exalted purpose. Are you willing to accept the responsibility, and, trusting in the support of pledged true Knights, labor, with what ability you possess, for the triumph of these principles among men?

Source: Illustrated “Adelphon Kruptos”: The Secret Work of the Knights of Labor as quoted in Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 135.