The Return of the Fraternal Society

A member of the Woodmen of the World with his ceremonial axe from phoenixmasonry.org

Archdruid John Michael Greer, by his own admission, likes to dust off forgotten ideas and give them another chance at life. One of those dusty notions Greer has mention in passing is the fraternal organization. Greer is both a Druid and a Freemason. In this time of economic uncertainty, I suspect that Greer is on to something. It may be time for the revival of the fraternal organization.

Fraternal societies provide a number of benefits:

  • A “third place,” i.e. a gathering spot outside of the home and work.
  • A social safety net.
  • Moral and spiritual guidance.
  • A model for and way to practice self-governance in small groups. 

We have very few non-commercial “third places” in the US. Starbucks calls itself a third place, but you have to pay and follow the company’s rules while you sip your latte. As to our social safety net, our nation’s debt levels call into question the long term survival of things like Social Security and Medicare. And, fraternal groups have a long history of providing a model for how to run a meeting as well as non-sectarian moral and spiritual wisdom.

There is, of course, a downside to fraternal organizations. One need only think of the KKK to recall a long history of racism. But, I believe, fraternal organizations could be revived and reformed along more egalitarian lines. And it might be wise to act soon to get alternative support networks in place should times get worse.

A Very Brief History of Fraternal Organizations

Nineteenth century America had hundreds of different fraternities, everything from the Knights of Pythias to the Order of Owls. The grandaddy of them all is, of course, Freemasonry. Take a look at the rituals of any of these 19th century organizations and you’ll see that most of them are simply offshoots of the Freemasons.

Yes, there are women Freemasons

What we now know as Freemasonry grew out of mason’s guilds sometime in the 16th century, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Women, incidentally, were made Freemasons in France beginning in the early 18th century. In the French, Spanish and Italian speaking parts of the world Freemasonry is co-ed.

Freemasonry in the US lost much of its political, social and spiritual content in the wake of a scandal that took place in the 1820s. From that point on it became what some have called “Rotary with ritual.” That is, just a social club with some strange outfits and, in the case of the Shriners and after-hours “side degrees,” some silly rituals like riding a fake goat or driving around in tiny cars.

The baby boomer generation simply did not join fraternal organizations and membership swiftly declined until just recently. To some extent, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have fulfilled some of the roles fraternal organizations used to play. And women entering the workforce means that there is less time for the after work hijinks of the lodge room.

A new generation of men now reaching middle age is looking into Freemasonry once again, and some of the original values of “the craft” are being revisited (see this article from the LA Times for more on changing Masonic demographics). Freemasonry is also growing in continental Europe and is very important in Spanish speaking immigrant communities in the US (again, continental European and Spanish speaking lodges are sometimes co-ed).

Why is a Homesteading Blog Talking about Fraternal Organizations?

The urban homestead movement is, in part, about forming networks to boost the resilience of our communities. This includes self-help and mutual aid–benefits provided by fraternal societies prior to the New Deal era. It seems risky to assume that our current social safety net will be in place forever. I think we need a backup plan. Religious institutions can be part of that backup plan, but fraternal groups can provide a crucial link between people that cuts across religious, racial and economic divisions.

But if fraternal groups have any hope of success they will, this time around, need to stress racial and gender equality and not repeat the discriminatory errors of the past (and unfortunately the present). Meetup.com is a great tool to develop communities unified by interest, but it does not guarantee that you’ll meet people different (by race, economic class, profession) than yourself. And Facebook is just about making Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Fraternal organizations may or may not be the best vehicle for building community, I’m not entirely sure. But I think we will see their revival soon. I’m very interested in hearing what you think of the idea. Do you belong to a fraternal group? Do you think it’s an idea whose time has returned or something that should be relegated to the dust bin of history?

For more on the dozens of 19th century fraternal groups that used to be active in America see the online Masonic Museum

Kelly chimes in on Erik’s thoughstyling: While I agree that grass-roots based social safety nets may be invaluable in the future, I’m not as sanguine about fraternal organizations as Erik. Why? Because I am female. It seems to me that these organizations would have to be reinvented from the top down to be of use to 50% of the population–and I’m only talking about gender here, not race, which is a complicated issue I’m not as qualified to speak to. And it’s hard to reinvent a living organization full of people who like the organization exactly as it is. Although I’ll admit I’m mostly thinking about American Freemasons when I say this, because I know some other societies have gone co-ed. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a revival, because I like the idea of people of all sorts getting together, sharing ideas (and ideals), sharing face time and helping each other, but…well…I’m skeptical that existing fraternal societies will be the vehicle for that. Maybe with the right leadership. Or perhaps one started from scratch would be more viable. (The Homesteaders? The Canners? The League of Public Transport Aficionados?) Also, I’m also wondering if face-to-face meetings can ever compete with the isolating siren-song of the Internet. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

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37 Comments

  1. Mason have Eastern Star. For younger boys there is DeMolay and for girls it is Rainbow Girls – both under the Mason umbrella. Elks & Moose Lodges both have women members. Most other fraternal organizations have women’s divisions. Would the Grange be considered a ‘third place’.

    In my area all the above organizations do lots of activities that benefit the community besides being a place to meet and socialize.

    In thinking about it, don’t most churches have men’s and women’s organizations that are both social and beneficial?

  2. I don’t see the revival happening. My anecdotle experience is that it is very hard to get younger (age 50 or under) to commit to a group activity that is not purely recreational. Having worked within some trade groups, most potential recruits seem to be primarlily interested in making contacts, and being entertained. Both are fine, but not a great basis for a meaningful organization.

  3. Kelly,
    What about those loose groups devoted to a home craft like quilting or weaving? Seems like the model for women’s organizations is out there, and I, for one, would be happy to let more nurturing souls take over. Look where get-rich good ol’ boy groups have gotten us?
    We need a meeting place too, though many homes are palatial enough to host a gathering. Whatever happened to the Grange network? Must research …

  4. Women are not admitted to the mainstream Freemasons. There is an offshoot, called Co-Masonry, which admits women, but it is not as big and I am not even sure if it survives today.

    The Freemasons have some ladies’ auxiliaries, like the Order of the Eastern Star and Job’s Daughters, but the auxiliaries are not very rewarding for women and treat them very paternalistically.

    Also Freemasonry does not allow black people. In some areas, there is still hostility towards Hispanics as well. African Americans had to form their own lodges, called Prince Hall Masonry. Prince Hall was always a smaller group, and, like Co-Masonry, I am not sure it even still survives today.

    The mainstream Freemasons (the only people you will see who have infrastructure, charity events, march in parades, etc) hate the idea of Co-Masons and Prince Hall Masons and consider them to be breaking their initiatory secrets. Despite declining membership threatening the existence of many Freemasonry lodges, they would rather keep their discriminatory admission policies than allow women and black to join. So it is a strong possibility that Freemasonry will die out as the old-timers die.

    While I agree that we need more ways to foster community in the modern world, I don’t think it is appropriate to whitewash the history of xenophobia and sexism that fraternal organizations have.

    • Co-masonry does still exist. It’s fairly mainstream in French speaking countries and there are even a few in the US.

      American Freemasonry still discriminates against African Americans in some states (mostly the south). Elsewhere they have integrated to some extent. But they have a sorry history to answer to as you point out. Continental European Freemasonry was integrated from the beginning.

  5. The Grange has many votes, it seems! I just looked up the Grange in Greer’s New Encyclopedia of the Occult. Fascinating. Some tidbits:

    Founded in 1897 by 7 Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Unusual among fraternal organizations in that it has admitted women as well as men to equal membership from the beginning. It’s major focus, symbolic as well as practical, is agriculture.

    Although Granges have an open Bible at meetings…Grange symbolism is decidedly Pagan… Three female officers, representing the three Graces Flora, Pomona and Ceres sit in the place usually reserved in lodge design for presiding officers.

    …The seventh and highest Grange degree, the degree of Ceres…(is a) full blown 19th century reconstruction of the Eleusinian Mysteries…it is sufficiently Pagan that many Christian Grange members refuse to take it.

    Holy Cow! I had no idea all this was going on down at the Grange.

  6. hmmm, am going to have to look into the Grange . . . but other than that, while men went off to their lodges, women had their quilting and sewing circles, and related gatherings like the Church Guild. Glad to get the men out of the house for some space, then when the men were home to watch the kids, off they went to their women’s groups. Some of these groups have gone on to become famous for their investing, social work, etc. And sometimes all they did was make sure that the poor in their neighborhood had some warm clothes to wear or quilts for their beds.

  7. I come from a pretty active Masonry family and there is no way a woman would be let into any of the Lodges – that is what the Ladies Auxiliary is for, the Eastern Star, of which my grandmother was a member.

    I’m sure that fraternal organizations are, indeed making a comeback, but if we’re looking for them to be equal, the Freemasons are definitely not going to be among any that I’d ever join. In fact, the very word, “fraternal” indicates a brotherhood and is a poor start in making a gender inclusive environment.

  8. I think our small urban church provides the kind of fraternity you’re talking about. I’m not at all wanting to evangelize, just share my experience. The church is a community of about 150, give or take, and we all take part in decision making. We are very community focused, and support each other in our urban homesteading ventures. We don’t own a building, so we meet in each others homes and share meals, homebrew, gardening & parenting advice, and discuss God/our faith. I think our community incorporates the four benefits of fraternal societies you mentioned:
    A “third place,” i.e. a gathering spot outside of the home and work.
    A social safety net.
    Moral and spiritual guidance.
    A model for and way to practice self-governance in small groups.

    I’ve been going to church since I was a kid, but never in my life have I experienced such close-knit community as I am now. I think size has everything to do with it – the bigger a group gets, the less in touch with each other everyone is. I am so thankful to have a community of kind, generous, open-minded people living all around in my neighborhood. I know if I ever need anything, I have a support group I can call on.

    • We started as a small group (maybe 10 families?) 7 years ago and it has grown steadily since. As I understand it (I joined 2 1/2 years ago), the founding group had grown weary of the church and the politics included and so started their own based on the principals of Micah 6:8 – Acting Justly, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly with God. Right around the time that my husband and I joined, the church was at a turning point and had decided to become a part of the larger Nazarene church. I honestly don’t know the reasons why, and am a bit embarrassed to admit that! I have a feeling it was a financial move? Because we joke around a lot that we “aren’t very good Nazarenes” – dinner together isn’t complete without a bottle of wine, and we sure love dancing! As far as I can tell, nothing has really changed since joining the larger church. Wow, what a long-winded answer to your question! ;)

  9. Mrs. Homegrown,
    Thank you for a more realistic approach to fraternal organizations. Everytime I read “fraternal,” I was on the outside without appropriate equipment for entry. Auxiliaries and co-this and co-that are just satellite organizations meant to serve a sense of self without actual entry for women. “Give the women something to do so they won’t wonder about the fraternal.”

    I am not that easily mollified. I never understood why women were so pleased to be in Eastern Star, held at arm’s length by men, but there to serve.

    None of the fraternal organizations here in the South would not even consider women. Actually, why would I want to be a part of a “fraternal” organization?

    To my knowledge there are no granges here. However, in my mind I think of it as a place of equality, meant for men and women. Maybe I got that idea from movies?

    Additionally, I would never join an organization that did not allow people based on race. Hmmm, I am excluded from some organizations because I am Caucasian.

    The Grange sounds like fun. I think of it as a group of people arguing about water rights and how a well-to-do cattleman/farmer bully will be handled. Movies? I also remember some bits from history studies about Grange halls in the last century.

  10. This post gave me chills. I was a Rainbow Girl. My association with that organization ended when I brought a membership petition for an African-American friend and was threatened with expulsion. I expelled myself. Thereafter, the grandparents on whose Masonry and Eastern Star membership my membership in the RG had depended made it clear to me that I had been, at best, naive. This became the occasion on which I learned how racist my own grandfather was. “Separate and unequal” still applies here in New York to the Masonic “temples” I see. There are no women I have ever known to be in Masonic Orders. Nor are they allowed to be Elks, as my husband was for a brief time until he, too, realized what a homophobic, racist organization that was. Chills, really. What a terrible idea! I’m with whoever it was who said that “exclusive” is the ugliest word in the language–and that is the basis of these organization–that and secrecy. On those bases rides the sense of superiority. We don’t need that to build a better life. We need to free ourselves from it.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences. You and your husband are people of great integrity. I imagine it took a lot of courage to stand up against your own family to do what was right.

  11. Most of my Third Place experience growing up was based on my religious community – being a Swedish Lutheran it was largely white, middle class, but my family chose progressive congregations that were open to addressing issues of civil rights and social justice “at home” first, so to speak, so issues of discrimination were rare on any basis. My dad’s side of the family also often participated in the Pasadena Motorcycle Club events.

    As an adult, I get much of my Third Space time by being secretary of my local beekeeping association. We’re heavily involved with educational activities throughout the county, political awareness at local and state level, and offer member-community support through things like our last meeting raising funds for a deceased member’s family with a raffle. Gender, religion, race, nationality, and language are non-issues with membership, though sadly we lack the manpower to issue publications in anything other than English. Thankfully, our membership is large enough that those with language challenges can often find a fellow member capable of helping out with translation. Mentorship and personal relationships are common offshoots.

    I’ve also recently looked into a local Quaker Meeting to help fill a gap in my spiritual community of late – perhaps the epitome of egalitarian religions.

    My neighborhood still sees heavy community involvement through Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Knights of Columbus, several politically/local issue-based organizations, sobriety groups, a motorcycle club, and various religious groups. I also know of (though haven’t had time for) a couple craft-based community groups like Project Linus. One of my friends has found great kinship with people she’s met through her bicycling groups. Others find community in their shared geekdoms with things like ComiCon/gaming, Ren Faire/SCA/LARPing, Burning Man, foodie gatherings…

    I don’t really see a lack of Third Space options out there. I am curious as to what lack you have in your life that you feel would be filled by a Fraternal Organization.

    • I belonged to a co-ed organization that fell apart in the wake of the 2008 recession. What I miss about it was the contact with people outside of my usual circles. While I love the groups I’m involved with now, they are all organized around narrow interests. I don’t, by the way, have any interest in joining an all male group.

    • Ah, I would then promote something along the lines of Hike The Geek, locally speaking. The variety of interests in the assemblage is wide and varied, and the only “shared interest” focus is getting folk often inclined to sit in front of their computers at home out and moving and socializing with others also so inclined. They do all tend to be in the highly educated, science/tech conversant, somewhat liberal category in my experience. But then I don’t wind up holding political conversations with them all that often.

  12. I agree with Anonymous. The experience I had was similar and did not take place in the South but in SoCA.
    MeetUp get togethers are a completely different animal. Perhaps what you are really looking for is some kind of safty net for the times of uncertainity. I think the only way to find that will be to change the mentality of humanity to one of love and not fear. We are trained to be a fearful country/world. All religions, IMHO, ask us to love and care for our fellow man.

  13. Great post! Thanks for bringing it to the forefront of my consciousness.

    Community is a funny thing in this post-digital age and it feels difficult to actually find one in its physical sense today without a religious affiliation. I suppose after everyone comes down off of the sugar-crash of social networking and still hunger for human interaction, we’ll see more organized communities spring up all over.

  14. I’m active in my church, that’s enough for me. At my church there are women’s groups, men’s groups, activities for kids, co-ed “life groups”, plus of course Sunday morning worship which includes everyone. My church has people of all colors and walks of life. With these people, I can be myself, share spiritual insight, discuss morality, and support each other through the struggles and joys of life. So I guess, no, I don’t think fraternal societies should make a comeback. I think any group that runs based on exclusivity is relevant to today’s society.

  15. Can you draw a Venn diagram between Nirvana and The Grange? Click my name link to learn which Nirvana member is also a Grange officer, and read some of his thoughtstyling on the issue.

  16. There is an LGBT branch of the Lions in San Francisco that is very active. I went to one of their fundraisers. It was held in a leather bar and was a contest for the leather Lion, or something like that. Way fun.

    There’s a strata of the LGBT community that – though loosely woven – works on one another’s projects. People work across organizations for the social connections and people call on each other for support. It has a Little Rascals “Let’s put on a play!” feel about it.

  17. The Society for Creative Anachronism is a good one. It’s gender-balanced, full of self-governance and a very strong social safety net. Oh, and complete with funny outfits and rituals. It is lacking though in racial diversity (95% Caucasian in their 2010 census).

  18. I had a third space for a while, 10-15 years depending on how you defined it. It was a relatively small third space when compared to the groups mentioned above, but it had a definite sense of community among the… I guess you’d call them ‘core’ or ‘inner circle’ members (it wasn’t anything nearly so secretive as “inner circle” suggests, I just can’t think of a better description at the moment). There was a shared purpose/set of interests that joined folks, there were opportunities to do charity work, there were a variety of social events through various facets of the third space, and opportunities to ‘rise in the ranks’ of the social community and in the more structured clubs within this shared interest group. I pulled away a few years ago due to some big family and personal stuff that coincided with my rapidly-growing intolerance for some political infighting and grandstanding that had been going on. I’ve been looking for a replacement for that space for a while. I realize it takes some time to build those kinds of connections, but I just haven’t found anywhere that gives me the same sense of community yet.

  19. There is a British and Commonwealth fraternal organisation with the most fantastic name! The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes is for adult men who are a “true and loyal supporter of the British Crown and Constitution”. I met someone when I was younger who had a certificate of membership on the wall and couldn’t believe it was a serious organisation.

    The other thing that struck me in your post is that I have mentioned in several blog comments that I run a Rainbow unit. In the UK, Rainbows are the most junior Girl Scouts (I think you might call them Daisies?). How many people now have the impression that I’m heavily involved with freemasonry?!

    Actually, I think for many women Guiding/Scouting would be their third place(and similarly men in scouting).
    There are some shared interests, but most Scout leaders are suitably diverse that you could be at an event and the leaders have nothing in common with each other than the fact they run units.
    I don’t know official statistics for diversity, but there is certainly no policy of exclusion, in fact quite the opposite in the UK.

  20. I’m not very familiar with fraternal orders or the work they do or have done. However, service clubs are a wonderful resource for communities to turn to when the government just can’t help enough. The Lions Club I work with has helped with needs within our community and contributed to disaster aid around the world. Also, the Lions Club is 100% open everyone who is ready to push up their sleeves and work. I’m a woman under 40 and I’ve been a member for years. Also, this cracks me up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YGsi8EeC3M

  21. The Transition Towns Movement could provide a third space, because the over-arching goal of Transition is to build community resilience. Skill building, a hallmark of Transition, is meant to prepare folks for life beyond cheap oil (and other carbon-esque forms of energy)and although online videos are great teaching tools,learning new (old) ways of doing things is best done in a group,with lots of friendly support. There are other groups with similar missions – Time Banks, for example, support people to hook up around services and goods exchanging, and the potlucks are super third spaces.

    • Coincidentally, I’m working on a post on the Grange. The California branch has broken away from the national Grange over the issue of GMOs. And the Odd Fellows is another organization I admire.

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