Updated: August 30, 2021
I pass along to you an article just written by one of the preeminent Odd Fellows historians – Peter Sellars. Peter has served this Order as a Grand Master and currently serves as a member of the California Grand Lodge Board of Directors and one of the two representatives from California to Sovereign Grand Lodge. Not only is he a recognized and respected historian of Odd Fellowship, but he is the curator of the remarkable Odd Fellows Museum located at the Historic San Francisco Odd Fellows Temple. He has written several books about our fraternal order, exploring the historic underpinnings and the historic record of IOOF.
Brother Peter has just returned to California after attending the 2021 Sovereign Grand Lodge sessions. I think you will find the following article both enlightening, troubling, and provocative.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Jurisdiction of California
A step backwards for and organization that should be moving forward
By Peter V. Sellars
I have never seen a group so intent on finding ways to eliminate its membership or keep people out! The Independent Order of Odd Fellows in America, from its beginnings have set self-imposed limits on who shall be admitted to join its ranks and who shall not be permitted. The Order set its bar early on by stating on its application that a member would have to be of “white blood.” Personally, I have only seen red blood, never white. So, the level of ignorance started very early on in the Order.
In California, an open-minded Grand Master, in 1853, asked the Grand Sire if Chinese would be allowed to join. The Grand Sire did not see any problem with California allowing Chinese to join the Order. Word quickly spread around the country and there was an uproar. At the 1855 session of the Grand Lodge of the United States, one of the representatives from another state, drafted and presented a five-page document detailing who was “white” and who was not. Thus, this description, written in response to the Grand Sire permitting California to allow Chinese to join the Order, quickly eliminated them.
Blacks, along with others who were not “of white blood” could not join the Order. Slavery in the South kept blacks out; discrimination in the North did the same. In the early 1840’s when some blacks in the North sought to become members of the Order, they applied to Manchester to become chartered as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, thus starting their own Order. The “white Odd Fellows” had the opportunity to include them, but turned that opportunity away.
It was not only African-American and Asian-Americans that the Order blocked, it was any person who owned a bar or sold liquor. Women could not join the Odd Fellows either. Those who did not believe in a “Supreme Intelligent Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe” were prevented from membership as well. It goes without saying, juveniles could not join. The reasons for keeping people out extended beyond those listed here. The Odd Fellows were not seeking good characters, good people, but created an exclusive club, when the standard of membership should have been the decency of the person, rather than the person’s skin color, religious belief, and gender. The Order has made numerous changes throughout the years to remove some negative terms. The “red race” was removed from the Golden Rule Degree a hundred years ago. Of course, there are one or two sentences which should still be removed from this degree.
Those good ‘ol boys as we like to call them still exist today. Since I have been a member, I have witnessed biases over the years. In 2000, when women were finally permitted to join Odd Fellows Lodges, men complained and threatened to quit. I quietly told them, “good-bye” and good riddance. I was not a member in 1971, when blacks and others were permitted to join, but I imagine the backlash was worse than when women were permitted. I will not discuss the things I have witnessed over the years, but racism, bigotry, and gender bias was certainly around. Those barriers have slowly been eroded by a group of dedicated members, who have been labelled, “not true Odd Fellows” or those who want to “destroy the Order” by the good ‘ol boys. In point of fact, it is these members who are seeking inclusiveness and modernization of the Order, who sponsor the most new applicants by far! These good ‘ol boys should be getting down on their knees to thank those who have kept the life blood of the Odd Fellows flowing.
For years, the requirement of believing in a Supreme Being has been interpreted in different ways in order to allow good people to join the Order. We have ended up with people of vast beliefs, some of which do not seem to be aligned with the good ‘ol boys definition of this Being. They would have you believe it is strictly Christian based. They would even argue the matter until their heads exploded. I say, as many members do, the lodge is not a church. Leave your religious beliefs at the door. This idea is supported by the Internal Revenue Service, as we are a 501c(8) and not a 501c(3).
In this year of 2021, there was legislation at Sovereign Grand Lodge to remove all agnostic and atheist members from the Order. It also included a provision to remove those who have a “loss of faith” a change in their belief after initially meeting the requirement to join the Order. In short, by defining terms such as these, or stating anything about a loss of faith, the Order is entering the realm of religion. This would violate our non-discrimination policy which prohibits such discrimination against someone solely on religion. Of course, during the course of debate, the usual statement made by the good ‘ol boys is that if we do not like the Order the way it is, then do not join it. They would do and say anything to hold onto the exclusive club they still have in some parts of the country. In the end, the good ‘ol boys won out this year, by the new language, that a loss of belief after joining would be considered conduct unbecoming an Odd Fellow. I say, good luck with that code passage, as it violates current discrimination policy and could be considered like an ex post facto law. The point being, the Order keeps seeking ways to keep good people out – and now – to actually remove good members. We are witnessing an organization kill itself from the inside and outside, For those of us who are “real” Odd Fellows, its hurtful.
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