What makes Odd Fellows unique in the fraternal world? What sets us apart from Pythian Knights, Moose, Elks, and numerous other fraternal orders?
There are, of course, remarkable similarities in the fraternal orders. They all espouse their three or four great principles. Odd Fellows highlight “Friendship, Love and Truth”; Pythians designate “Friendship, Charity, Benevolence”; Elks identify “Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love, Fidelity”; Moose delineate “Fraternity, Benevolence, Charity”. All the fraternal orders operate from the basic community unit of a “Lodge” although the Lodge might be called by a different name (such as “Castle” by the Pythians). All Lodges have a president – albeit with fancier titles such as Noble Grand, or Governor, or Exalted Ruler. And the list of officers is quite similar, including folks who guard the doors so that the secrets of the fraternity are not revealed and non-members are kept out of meetings. And it seems that all fraternal orders have degrees of various kinds.
I have noted two other great similarities between the various fraternal orders. First, all flourished a century ago, but have been declining in membership over the last hundred years. Second, all have recognized the decline and have sought to combat it by evolving over the years in remarkable ways.
There were once literally hundreds of fraternal orders in North America. Today, the list of fraternal orders numbers in the dozens – not the hundreds. Many fraternal orders sprang up, flourished, and then simply faded away. Some fraternal orders once numbered a million members in every state. Today, membership is only a fraction of that million.
And the changes have been substantial. There was a time when fraternal orders admitted only men. Women were excluded. People of color were not admitted. Some fraternities – in their rules and regulations – prohibited membership for people who were disabled, or who worked in the liquor industry, or were professional gamblers. Some fraernities required members to take an oath that they were not Communists or Fascists. For entertainment, some Lodges sponsored Minstrel Shows. Initiations at some Lodges could be humiliating and painful. Thankfully, these practices have become historical footnotes from an age when discrimination was the norm.
But the most serious and dramatic change seen in fraternal orders is the decision to leave the four walls of the Lodge Hall and reach out into the community to do good community and charitable works. I am confident that this change was a direct result of the declining membership and the recognition that fraternities could not attract and inspire new members by hiding away in rooms reciting ritual from a book. They realized thats they had to be visible. And those Lodges that took this to heart found that it was a way to attract new members to the order.
So, this brings us back to my original question: What makes Odd Fellows unique in the fraternal world? If a person is interested in joining a fraternity, why should they join Odd Fellows rather than Elks, or Moose, or the Pythian Knights, or another fraternal order?
Why, it’s as simple as our name. We are “odd” and we should not fail to enjoy our “oddness.” We can certainly have some fun with our “oddness”. In my own Lodge, we have an annual “OddtoberFest”. When we set the time for a meeting or an event, we invariably choose an odd time – such as 8:01 a.m. or 6:59 p.m. Finally, in recognition that while we are all human beings, we are each unique – Odd Fellowship should be a “big tent” open to all men and women of good character, rich or poor, of all colors and beliefs; Odd Fellowship should not be an exclusive club. We should revel in our “oddness.”
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
America is the greatest country in the world. What makes our country so great? Freedom, period. The freedom to go about our lives without fear of reprisals for political or societal beliefs, without hiding our cultural heritage, and, of course, the freedom to practice our own religion.
Almost 200 years ago, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) in America got its beginnings, breaking off from its English fore-bearers due to the Americans wanting more freedom. The basis of many of the early texts, rituals, initiations, and other documents were influenced by Christianity. Of course, the reason for this is clearly because the overwhelming number of early settlers in America were Christians. However, this is no longer the case. Now, America is a multicultural land with religious and philosophical views of all types. A study of religious demographics would show that while Christianity is still predominant, other religious views are becoming popular as well. One of the largest groups, are those who say they believe in some higher power but are unaffiliated. This figure differs by various percentage points on different studies, but in some studies, the figures go as high as a third of the United States. Then, it follows, that religion is encountering a divergent world, just as our order itself is becoming more and more diverse. Therefore, it would be difficult to pigeonhole every person as to their specific belief. Did you know, for example, that there are at least 100 denominations of Christianity alone? Other religions, for example, such as Hinduism, believe in variants of higher powers, in this case, multiple higher powers. Buddhists, of which I know of several in our order, don’t believe in a personal god, only an obtaining of Nirvana. The coded requirement to believe in a higher power is more complex than could be defined here. If anything, I believe that the passage should be modernized to be more relevant to today. Otherwise, many members would need to be removed, if the code is to be taken literally.
And yet, there are still those in our order, even while our overall numbers are receding rapidly, who want to constrict our order even more. Here is a piece of legislation now pending at Sovereign Grand Lodge –
“Reps. Hillberry and Adams of West Virginia and Minnesota presented the following Bill, which was referred to the Committee on Legislation and State of the Order.
Title: A Bill to amend Chapter III, Sec. 1-B (page 111-1) of the Code of General Laws regarding adding of a second sub-section regarding the belief of a Supreme Being.
Be it enacted by The Sovereign Grand Lodge, I.O.O.F.
That Chapter III, Sec. 1-B of the Code of General Laws by amended as follows:
B. (2) Belief in the existence of a Supreme Being who is the Creator and Preserver of the Universe, is an integral requirement to hold membership in the Order. Atheism and Agnosticism, both of which are a denial, disbelief, or inability to believe with certainty in the existence of a Supreme Being as previously mentioned are both incompatible with membership in the Order.
(a) Loss of belief in the existence of a Supreme Being is sufficient cause for the suspension or expulsion of a member who may be tried for such according to the Code of General Laws.”
Wow! So, while most of us (including myself, although that is no one’s business but my own) are indeed believers of a Supreme Being, now we are going to examine, to try them, or even expel members based purely upon their personal beliefs? Who will be the judge and jury in this case? How does one adjudicate another’s religious beliefs? How do we say to a member, that you have been truthful in admitting your uncertainties, now we are forced to expel you? Is this really a moral way to treat anyone?
Are we in the middle ages? Of course, there is the continuing weak argument that we were originally Christian based, but even if we were, that was hundreds of years ago, times have changed, and the outside world has moved on to accept a world comprised of many beliefs. Not only that, but many faiths have now joined the Odd Fellows. Are we saying that we must now proceed with an interrogation of each member? If so, where do I resign? Are the reps who suggest this hoping for a religious-tinged revisit to McCarthyism? At that same time period in the 1840’s, many Odd Fellows may have owned slaves, should we return to that as well? 1840 was a long time ago. In order to attract the living, we must act like we are living in today’s world. Religious zealotry is alive and well in the Odd Fellows. BTW, what words shall we use to test a member’s faith? Will we ask of each member – do you philosophically believe in a higher power or just hope for salvation? Who among you will decide a doubter’s faith and fate? And, if a member expresses a religious questioning, they are to be immediately expelled? That is what the legislation states. Who comprises the judge and jury in each case? Will each member be hooked up to a lie detector, or will we remove them by mere innuendo? Do the members realize that we originally met in taverns? Was that the proper religious venue?
I, for one, honor the idea and the continued premise of freedom in America. The freedom of religion being one of the foundations of America. If our order has decided that even while its membership totals are declining rapidly that now we must question all members as to their religious beliefs, then we are clearly doomed to not only die out but to be dismissed as obsolete and prejudicial to the end. If this is an example of legislation due to come down the pike at Sovereign Grand Lodge, perhaps it is time to question whether our order has lost all relevance to the modern man. A Past Grand Master friend of mine asks – “what if a member after years of being a member, changes his or her beliefs, and becomes an agnostic or atheist? Do we treat that member differently? The member met the qualifications to ‘join’. But this requirement continues after joining? Can we treat one dues paying member differently than another dues paying member?” Good question. I would think that itself would be against anyone’s code of ethics. To remove an otherwise good member for honestly declaring his inner feelings should be abhorrent to most people. Who among you will cast the first stone? And, to be frank, our order has lost more members than almost all other active fraternities still in operation. The Masons, for example, who we used to be larger than, now are approximately 20 times larger than us! What have we done to encourage new members? It’s a primary question. But of course, SGL likes to ignore the membership issue…
Clearly, the authors of this legislation feel that every member must be interrogated as to their religious beliefs, and if that is not discrimination, which supposedly we have all committed to oppose, I’m not sure what is. If the argument is that this is what was meant originally, I can also show the authors racist and misogynistic test from that time period as well. Why not just revert to the horse and buggy? Let’s wake up!
In F., L., & T., Rick Boyles
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
The Constitution of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Chapter 1, Article 1, Section 1. A. states in pertinent part that our Order “is, and shall forever continue to be, bound to charitable and beneficent works, in visiting the sick, relieving the distressed, burying the dead, and educating the orphan . . . .” This seems to be the highest calling of our Order as it is stated right in the very first chapter, first article, first section and first paragraph of our Constitution. Yet, if ever there were an example of why Odd Fellowship is linked to a 19th Century view that is at odds with a 21st Century world – this “admonition” certainly reveals it. And the decline of our membership in Lodges and jurisdictions is inevitable to the extent that we continue to parrot anachronistic phrases such as this one. They just don’t ring true to men and women in 2020.
This is not to say that “visiting the sick, relieving the distressed, burying the dead, and educating the orphan” were not worthy enterprises for Odd Fellowship in the sunrise of our Order. The 19th Century was surely a terrible place to be if one were poor. There were no social services to speak of. Hence, the rise of fraternal orders. Fraternal Orders, like Odd Fellows, helped take care of members when they were sick. It was the responsibility of the Noble Grand and the Visiting Committee to actually visit the home of a sick member, and bring friendship, companionship, food, some money or whatever was needed to help. When members died, the fraternity was there to provide Odd Fellow death services, including death benefits and burials at Odd Fellows cemeteries. And, in the days when Odd Fellowship included only men, the fraternity was also there to help the widows and the orphans of deceased members. Odd Fellows even ran orphanages in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We live in quite a different time now. People in the 21st Century generally have insurance. Government provides an array of social services to help folks who are old or sick or infirm. The phrase “educating the orphan” has little resonance today. We don’t really have many “orphans” in 2020 in North America. We certainly have foster children, but there is an entire array of government protections and services for them. Education for children in the 21st Century is free. And phrases like “burying the dead” seem macabre, at best, to young men and women who might be contemplating joining Odd Fellows. Odd Fellows Cemeteries are few and far between today.
When was the last time that your Lodge Visiting Committee actually visited an ill member? When was the last time the Lodge buried a member in an Odd Fellows Cemetery? When was the last time the Lodge cared for the widow of a deceased member or sent the child of a such a member to an orphanage?
The continued repetition of admonitions like “burying the dead” and “educating the orphan” makes no sense in today’s world. It speaks of the age of barn raising, buggy building, and butter churning. If Odd Fellowship doesn’t wish to go the way of hundreds of other fraternal orders that emerged, thrived and then faded away, we need to modernize and move on from historical platitudes. We need to bring 21st Century men and women into our Order. Our ancient admonitions need to be transformed to admonitions that will resonate today. How about helping the homeless? Or standing against discrimination? Or protecting the environment? Or combating child abuse? Or feeding the hungry? There is no lack of modern needs, modern causes, and modern challenges for this Order to consider.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
Odd Fellows and Odd Fellows Lodges in North America go back to the Nineteenth Century. We certainly lived in a different world and a different society in that century. There were no cars, or airplanes, or radio, or television, or computers, or social media. In the 1800’s fraternal orders like the Odd Fellows were a growing – in fact, booming – phenomenon. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be a member of the Odd Fellows, or Masons, or Knights of Pythias, or Moose, or Foresters, or Hibernians, or a pantheon of other fraternities. Odd Fellowship was growing by dramatic leaps and expanding across North America, to every state and province. There were thousands of Lodges with hundreds of thousands of members.
We live in quite a different time now in the 21st Century. So, is Odd Fellowship still relevant to the men and women of this new century?
I believe that it is.
How can I say this when there are Lodges that are are consolidating or giving up their charters year after year? How can I say this when there are Lodges and jurisdictions that are losing members? I base my belief on the fact that in spite of the declines, there are Lodges around the United States and Canada that are growing and expanding, and have been for years. I understand that most of our Lodges are declining in membership, and that is a sad state of affairs. But the fact that some Lodges are burgeoning says to me that Odd Fellowship remains relevant and vibrant if we can only collect and bottle the ingredients that make for success in those growing Lodges. Those bottle of ingredients must be made available to all Lodges.
So, what are the ingredients of success in the 21st Century?
I’ve studied this issue for the past decade, and I have come to the conclusion that there are five vital ingredients to the successful Lodge.
Leadership. One cannot escape the truth that every successful Lodge, ultimately, has at least one dynamic leader who has shaped the culture of that Lodge. To thrive, a Lodge needs direction, organization, and follow-through. Only strong leadership can provide that. And as important as leadership is to a Lodge, equally important is the need for that Lodge leader to develop the next generation of leadership. Without passing the torch to that next generation, all good plans and intentions will inevitably come to an end.
Friendship, Love and Truth. There are many things in Odd Fellowship that are a throwback to another age and simply do not resonate in the 21st Century. For example, the admonition to “educate the orphan” is ingrained in our psyche, but has little relevance in this Century. The same is true with “bury the dead” – while this was a primal responsibility of Lodges in the 1800’s, there are few Odd Fellows Cemeteries in existence today, and the funding of burials by Lodges is a rarity. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the one thing that continues to shine through the decades and centuries is the concept of “Friendship, Love and Truth.” If Lodge members truly put these words into practice, the Lodge experience will be dramatically enhanced.
Community Involvement. There was a time in the history of our Order that the fraternal experience encompassed attendance at closed, secret, ritual meetings. The quest was to memorize the ritual, and conduct the perfect by-the-book meeting. (Of course, memorizing the ritual was a necessity for most Lodges during a time when many members could not read.) In the 21st Century, new members in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (the future of this Order) disdain a fraternity that does little more than sit in a closed room reading in rote from a little red book. Folks in this new Century are interested in reaching out into the community and trying to do good works. And every community has needs, ranging from the environment to homelessness and everything in between. Doing good works in the community can be a huge draw for new members and can enhance the fraternal experience for all members.
Social Activities. Simply put: it’s important to just have fun. When Odd Fellowship originated in the pubs of England, much of the fraternal experience involved having a good meal, enjoying a libation, and having some quality social time. Somehow, many Lodges have lost that. There is nothing wrong with polling the membership to determine what good fellowship activities they wish to have during their Lodge experience. Such social events can run a wide gamut, depending on the community – and what is right for Lodge X may not work for Lodge Z. But if a Lodge fails to provide a fun social environment for members, it is leaving out an important component of fraternal life. It is also ignoring the desires of new and younger members.
Dress for Success. It is unlikely that a Lodge will attract a new generation of applicants in the 2020’s when the Lodge members are pictured in the attire of the 1920’s. How many potential members in their 20’s and 30’s and 40’s will be interested in joining a fraternal order where the septuagenarian women are cloaked in long white dresses and the octogenarian men are wearing tuxedos and cummerbunds? When many offices (including government offices) allow employees to wear jeans and sweatshirts, it makes little sense to require a formality of dress in the Lodge Hall that makes folks uncomfortable. I still remember the days when female Lodge members were castigated for wearing slacks or dresses that didn’t go mid-calf, and male Lodge members were criticized for wearing jeans. We are a fraternal order, not the fashion police.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
What Membership Problem?
Two-fifths. Where I come from two-fifths is almost half. What does two-fifths signify in our order? Simply this – two-fifths of the U.S. jurisdictions (states and provinces in North America) have less than 200 members! Below the proverbial Mendoza line, a 200 average, the level of futility in baseball, where even if your defense is great, the batting average is too low to be acceptable in the Major Leagues. Yet these jurisdictions all get 2 voting reps each. Of course, these jurisdictions weren’t always comprised of just 200 members. They have sunk to this level. Obviously, a state that has lost members for many years will not level off at 200 members, it will surely decline to zero. No membership problem there.
Three-Fifths. Almost 60% of the U.S. Jurisdictions are below 300 members. These states also have sunk to new lows. No state in the Union even 20 years ago was at these levels. The general perception is that this membership decline is just a slow ebbing, but obviously that is not true when membership is undergoing such a precipitous decline. We are nearing a fatal tipping point. Some may say that we are already there. And yet, many resist discussing membership issues even now, or the popular answer is to set up the 337th five-year committee to study the issue. Many states may not have five years left.
Four-Fifths. 80% of the membership within the U.S. are now over the age of 65. In many jurisdictions the average age is much higher. Herein is the basic issue. If all your jurisdiction’s members are over 65, and life expectancy is 75, then your jurisdiction is already on a quickly deteriorating slide. Of course, the goal should be to attract the young, and the working class, but many jurisdictions seem to resist this. Some lodges meet during working hours, others spend much more time discussing the sick and distressed than anything else. Others devote their time to having events and other ritual behaviors seemingly based in the 1800s! To verify this, look at the outfits many still wear, period costumes from the 1920’s, formal wear now only rarely worn outside our order (although to paraphrase Billy Crystal – “you all look mahvelous!”), and pushing ideas that are abhorrent to much of the public who otherwise might consider joining.
Five-Fifths. 100% of our jurisdictions are tiny. Even California, which is double the populace of every other jurisdiction, is small, with only 4,200 members, yet, it is larger than the smallest 20 states combined! But ye in the smaller jurisdictions fear not, because your votes are 20 times more powerful than ours in California! Conversely, the Masons, who also have a membership decline but on a different scale, are many times larger. This is the other question. At one time, the Odd Fellows were doing at least as well as the Masons, what has made The Odd Fellows, in particular, decline so quickly? Let me suggest a few reasons for our decline:
- We are all elderly therefore we only attract the elderly. Attracting the young means we should try and be attractive to the young. My younger daughter, a psychology major, has attended only once and couldn’t stop giggling.
- We act as though we are a secret order, yet when we were a big group, everyone knew about us. We need to announce ourselves every way we can. Oddly enough, cold dark buildings look the same to everyone. Lighten up!
- We still think we are philosophically based in 1840. Many deny that anyone non-Christian can join. Why is this, exactly? Do we really think this is logical in today’s world?
- We run our meetings basically by reading tired documents littered with idiotic questions! The Noble Grand feels belittled if he/she has not read every word as mandated by SGL. Here again, time to lighten up! Of course, there are still 12 purists left in our order that demand rote memory recitals, but this truly looks and sounds insipid. Ask any new member or watch our videos. Truly onerous deadly boring flat speech. No wonder half the membership nods off at our meetings. I have seen many members in my own jurisdiction attend one or two meetings at their lodge, and never attend again. Why is this?
- Plenty of mean people in our order. Protecting their turf. Turning off outsiders. Earning their livings within the order without regard of the order at large. This is not what the order originally meant. Friendship, Love, and Truth, remember?
- Guilt Trippers. Many of us like to guilt trip our fellow members. Many lodges demand you keep up with each other. Of course, this is ludicrous. Every person is different! Some people even have jobs! Remember when you had a job?
- Tired events done to death. Some lodges have had the same tired events for 20 years and more. Yet, if you study attendance logs, the attendance sooner or later begins dropping. Time to shake things up. No one bobs for apples or pins the tail on the donkey, anymore, or maybe your lodge still does.
Just a few ideas. But something must be done and soon, or the states with 200 members will be gone, and the premise of ignoring membership issues believing they will go away will no longer hold water. If you’re angered by these ideas, let’s try the approach as suggested by SGL – first let’s verify everyone’s religious beliefs, second let’s circulate hate speech that may have been acceptable in 1840, third let’s promote droning on and on reciting 200 year old mantras, fourth let’s ignore new ideas, and lastly let’s set up five year plans to study issues that are already crystal clear to those who care to see them…
In F., L., & T., Rick Boyles