|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.