The first and one of the most popular of the insurance lodges of nineteenth-century America, the Ancient Order of United Workmen got into the insurance business almost by accident. Its founder, John Upchurch, hoped to create an organization to help mediate the growing disagreements between business and labor in late nineteenth-century America. As an incentive for workers to join his order, he set up an insurance plan into which each member put $1 on joining and another $1 any time a member died. Out of that fund, an insurance payment of at least $500 went to the surviving family of each deceased member. The order never had much impact on labor disputes, but the insurance benefit proved extremely popular and made the AOUW an immediate success. See fraternal benefit societies.

Upchurch was a Freemason, and the symbols and rituals of his order were heavily influenced by Masonry. Even the Masonic square and compasses found a place in AOUW symbolism. See Freemasonry.

By 1895, when the order was at its peak, it had nearly 320,000 members and lodges all over the United States and Canada. By that time its insurance benefit had been copied by many other orders, and its original aim of managing disputes between business and labor had helped inspire the labor union movement. The twentieth century saw the AOUW share in the decline of most fraternal orders, however, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century it counted only a few hundred members in a handful of lodges in Washington State. See labor unions.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006