In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fraternal organizations were ubiquitous. Their structure and rituals influenced a wide range of other groups, from the Knights of Labor to the Grange, from the American Protective Association to the Ku Klux Klan. In the last two decades of the 19th century, Americans created almost 500 national beneficiary orders and thousands of local lodges. The enormous membership of fraternal organizations attracted the attention of early sociologists. In this excerpt from an article published in the March 1901 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, B. H. Meyer surveyed “Fraternal Beneficiary Societies in the United States.” Although fraternal organizations like the Masons sometimes crossed class, ethnic, and religious (but almost never racial) lines, they more often reinforced those divisions. African Americans, immigrants, and the working class thus created their own complex of social and fraternal orders.
The social history of the United States cannot be written without taking notice of a system which includes one out of every fifteen of our population, and which involves the expenditure of millions of dollars annually. These societies constitute a complex of organizations which embraces in its scope the most diverse elements with respect to race affinity, material possessions, religious beliefs, political affiliations, intellectual attainment, and social position. The thread of fraternity joins them all in one great round table of equality and democracy.
Fraternal beneficiary societies, as the name suggests, are dual in their nature. Because they are both fraternal and beneficiary, these societies are really composed of two organizations each: a fraternity and an insurance company. The National Fraternal Congress declares the following to be the distinctive features of a fraternal beneficiary society: (1) the lodge system; (2) representative government; (3) ritualistic work; (4) fraternal assistance to living members in sickness and destitution; (5) the payment of benefits to living members for total physical disability; (6) the payment of benefits at the death of members to the families, heirs, blood-relatives, or dependents of such deceased members. In other words, a typical fraternal society rests upon three things: first, voluntary organization on a basis of equality; second, some ritualistic system; and third, a system of benefits. These three are united in different proportions in different societies, and in not a few of them a struggle for predominance is taking place between the first and third. This is the battle between “fraternalism and commercialism.” No such antagonism should exist, for some system of relief is a natural outgrowth of the idea of fraternity. As a matter of fact, it does not exist except where the benefit features are made so prominent that the fraternal element is lost from sight, and the fraternal society becomes an insurance company, perhaps wrapping the fraternal mantle about the decrepit body of a tottering insurance scheme.
The lodge system characteristic of fraternal societies goes hand in hand with the representative form of government. The term “lodge” may be used to designate the lowest unit of organization; in it direct representation is the rule, while indirect representation prevails in the higher lodges, usually termed grand (state) and supreme (national) lodges. Elementary lodges, or lodges of the first degree, have various names in different fraternal societies. There are camps, castles, chapters, clans, colonies, conclaves, divisions, rulings, hives, and tents. Lodges of the higher order generally have the same name, modified by some syllable, word, or phrase; such as high, superior, supreme, grand. Other societies have adopted special terms for their compound lodges. The higher bodies customarily exercise some supervision over the lower, and are legally responsible as principals of the latter.
The highest lodges usually meet biennially, the intermediate ones annually, and the local lodges weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Numerically the biweekly meetings appear to prevail. At the local meetings routine business is transacted in a manner similar to that in which any other society would do its business. Initiations and the granting of degrees are accompanied by ritualistic exercises. The rituals of fraternal societies are based upon sacred as well as secular themes, the latter being rather the exception. Among the former may be mentioned: the story of the cross, the building of the temple, David and Jonathan, Joseph, Maccabaeus, Ben Hur. Facts of United States history, the life of the nomad, the friendship between Damon and Pythias, are employed by other societies for their rituals. It has been said that most rituals are the very quintessence of dryness. In reply it may be urged that rituals are not to be read in one’s study, but that they must be seen and heard in order to be appreciated. The ritual aims to reach the human soul through both the avenues of sight and hearing. By appealing to two senses at the same time the impression is likely to be much more abiding. Ritualism cultivates certain attitudes of mind and leads the participant mentally through scenes and experiences associated with lofty themes. It arouses the imagination and teaches objectively what many a learner through ritual could scarcely acquire through private reading, even if he possessed both ability and time, neither of which is probable. The value of ritualistic exercises can be properly estimated only when we take into consideration the multitudes to whom such ceremonies appeal with all the force of reality. Other features of the programs of fraternal societies are essentially similar to those of literary clubs—readings, essays, debates, musical selections, etc. In addition, fraternal solicitude and the work which grows out of it find a permanent place in these meetings. It is customary in several great orders for the presiding officer to open the meeting with the question, “Does any brother know of a brother or a brother’s family in need?” or words to that effect. Other societies adopt analogous forms. This is a truly beautiful custom, which can hardly fail to teach that in modern society vital relations exist among men, and that, in a sense at least, every man is every other man’s keeper. The unobtrusive manner in which relief is given affords practical illustrations of true charity, in which every piece of silver is accompanied by golden, loving words and more loving deeds.
The relief work of some of the orders is magnificent, as the following statistics, recording the activity of a single society for the last year, will testify: brothers relieved, 87,546; weeks' benefits paid, 568,094; widowed families relieved, 5,685; brothers buried, 8,997; paid for the relief of brothers, $2,111,646.26; paid for the relief of widowed families, $124,836.81; paid for the relief of orphans, $33,130.46; paid for the education of orphans, $6,823.33; paid for burying the dead, $583,556.96; special relief, $259,131.65; total relief, $3,119,125.47. While this order pays small death benefits, it by no means belongs to the insurance type of fraternal societies; yet it is expending nearly $8,500 per day, over $350 per hour, and approximately $6 per minute. Surely this kind of charity is more than “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”
Relief work of this kind is not to be confused with the systems of “benefits” adopted by the great majority of the newer societies, and which differ in name only, but not in substance, from mutual insurance. There exists much opposition among some fraternal societies to the use of such “old-line” terms as “premium,” "policy,“ "reserve,” etc. They prefer the terms “contribution,” "certificate,“ "emergency fund,” etc. Nevertheless, whenever a definite sum of money is promised at the end of a fixed period of time in return for specified contributions, an insurance contract is entered into, and the transaction is insurance. No amount of sophistry can cover an escape from this conclusion, and such a contract must ultimately rest upon the same fundamental principles upon which all other insurance contracts rest. There are fraternal societies whose beneficiary system stands as firm as the pyramids of Egypt, and the fraternal spirit of which has not been dwarfed in consequence. There is no fundamental antagonism between the noblest aspirations of fraternity and the demands for absolute safety and permanency on part of benefit features of fraternal societies; indeed, without the latter the former may become an illusion capable of drawing multitudes into bitter disappointments, if not worse.
There are in the neighborhood of six hundred fraternal beneficiary societies in the United States, with an aggregate membership of five and a half millions, two and a quarter of which are included in the three greatest and oldest and most purely fraternal orders—the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Freemasons, and the Knights of Pythias—two and a half millions in the forty-seven which together form the National Fraternal Congress, and the remaining membership is distributed among the five hundred or more smaller societies. Collectively these societies have an annual income of sixty millions and carry certificates—insurance policies—aggregating nearly five thousand millions of dollars. About 5 per cent of their income is derived from admission fees and other dues, and the remainder is raised by assessments and annual dues. Fees for admission vary from $1 to $50 in different societies, $5 being most common; and annual dues usually range between $2 and $10 and over, depending upon the amount of benefit carried. Only “benefit” members pay all the dues. “Social” members, constituting about 14 per cent of the aggregate membership of the societies in which such a class is maintained, generally pay the regular admission fees, dues, etc., but do not contribute for benefits, except, perhaps, to relief, widows‘ and orphans’, and similar charity funds. “Honorary” and “invited” members are commonly exempt from financial obligations to the society. . . .
Source: B. H. Meyer, “Fraternal Beneficiary Societies in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 6 (March 1901): 646–651.