By Michael Greenzeiger
“Some sages predict that this Society of Odd-Fellowship will soon run its career of glory, and sink in darkness, to rise no more. It may be so. If it is not founded in truth, supported and sustained by the principles of Friendship, and Charity, and Benevolence, it ought to fail. As much as I esteem it, at this moment – as firm as my faith is in the purity of its principles – and as positive as our knowledge is that it has done deeds of Love, I say, if the gallant ship changes her streamer, on which Justice floats, for the pirate’s flag, let her sink! If the principles of this Institution are ever prostituted to griping Avarice, groveling Injustice, and deeds of blood – if it shall cease to hush the orphan’s plaintive wail, aid the sick, bury the dead, and sooth the widowed heart – may it go down to the Plutonic realms of silence, and no trumpet-tongue ever sound its resurrection!”
THE ODD-FELLOWS’ TEXT-BOOK by Paschal Donaldson (1878)
Our forebearers in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows knew that the acts of love and compassion we performed were at the center of our collective identity and were the secret to our growth and success. Somehow, though, we have become increasingly distant from these noble ends and our Order has paid the price, becoming a mere shadow of its former self in terms of size and vibrancy. It didn’t happen all at once, but rather bit by bit until we have found ourselves in a place where many members don’t even know what our aims and principles are, let alone work to carry them out in their communities. Our governments and other non-profit organizations have stepped in to play a larger role in providing a social safety net and as they have increasingly let us off the hook, we’ve looked elsewhere for our purpose, focusing primarily on social events and writing checks for charitable donations to other organizations. While these are laudable projects for us to engage in, they cannot be all that we are or we are not truly Odd Fellows.
In my quest to understand what happened to us, I recently read the book “A Young Man’s Benefit” by George Emery and J.C. Herbert Emery (1999), two academics who studied the history of mutual aid in our Order. This book is out-of-print so I will summarize part of what I have learned from it, though I do recommend it for those able to get their hands on a copy. The authors studied records from grand lodges and local lodges primarily in Canada and used statistical methodologies to demonstrate that our system of paid sick benefits remained a viable and compelling option for our members up through the 1920’s. This was true even while we gradually removed these and other benefits from our Order beginning in 1890. In the era before industrial insurance or medical benefits, a major risk for young workers was loss of income due to illness or incapacity. Those young workers rarely had enough savings on hand to cover the loss of their income in those situations. The book powerfully argues that the benefits provided by membership in the Odd Fellows attracted younger members to our Order.
If we had programs that attracted younger members to join us while fulfilling our core mission, why did we eliminate these programs? Here, the authors make a very simple point: though the younger members of our Order were the ones who derived the most benefit from the programs, they were not the members with the power to decide what course we would take. Rather, much like today, it would take many years for an Odd Fellow to move through the chairs and eventually reach the Grand Lodge or Sovereign Grand Lodge level. The members who gained enough seniority to have an influence of our policies were older and had less need of the pecuniary benefits our Order provided. Rather, they saw the social benefits as being the most essential part of their own experiences as Odd Fellows and they were willing to sacrifice anything else that potentially detracted from that focus. I don’t think it’s difficult to see how these diverging interests between our leadership and our regular members brought us to the position we are in today.
I do not believe that the end of this story has been written yet, however. A century has passed and that which was old is new again. Once more, we find ourselves in a time when our society is struggling with the burden of how to support its vulnerable members. Many people today, young and old alike, are living paycheck to paycheck and if they become sick they need to make a difficult choice between continuing to work through their illness or not being able to pay their bills. Some are on the verge of not being able to put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. While we have unemployment insurance and other government programs to help, it’s not enough. People in our communities are suffering and deprivation is all around us. Especially in light of the health and economic catastrophes unleashed by COVID-19 these last few months, the world needs us more than ever.
There are bright spots out there where our Order is pitching in. It has been heart-warming to see the lodges and grand lodges which have banded together to help bring groceries to brothers and sisters unable to safely leave their homes or to give disaster relief grants in some cases. We can definitely do more, however. Obviously, it’s not realistic for us to immediately return to providing guaranteed sick benefits to all lodge members who need them, because those complex programs took years to build up. If we choose to make it a priority, however, we can start down that path.
In the earlier 19th century, our Order’s benefits were dispensed through voluntary collections at our meetings or involuntary assessments levied on the members on an as-needed basis. If we can’t afford to promise every member a set amount, maybe we can at least begin by contributing what we are able to. Some lodges do have sufficient investments to really step in and provide substantial relief to their members and they should consider establishing a Relief Committee to figure out the best way to do this based on their own finances and the needs of the members. There is not one precise formula which will work for everyone, but we at least need to start having the conversation.
Mutual relief shouldn’t just be a term we use when we talk about our past, but also when we talk about the future. If we can find it in ourselves to support each other once again then perhaps we will all merit to hear the trumpet-tongue of resurrection calling us back into the world.