The Elks are the oldest and largest of the “Big Three” orders that name themselves after assorted wildlife; the other two are the Moose and the Eagles. In addition to the main order, there is an African-American order, and there was once an insurance arm. There are also various related female organizations, not always auxiliaries.
Benevolent and Protective Order Of Elks of America
The B.P.O.E. was founded in 1868 in New York as a drinking club, but later broadened into a fraternal, charitable, and service organization. It is open to male U.S. citizens over 21, of whom some 1,500,000 were Elks in 1994.
According to the organization’s What It Means to Be an Elk, “the animal from which the Order took its name was chosen because a number of its attributes were deemed typical of those to be cultivated by members of the fraternity. The Elk is distinctively an American animal. It habitually lives in herds. The largest of our native quadrupeds, it is yet fleet of foot and graceful in movement. It is quick and keen of perception; and while it is usually gentle and even timorous, it is strong and valiant in defense of its own.”
The origin of the B. P.O.E. lay in an informal drinking society called the Jolly Corks, formed in 1866 to circumvent a New York law that closed saloons on Sundays.
The founders were a group of actors who rented a room first on 14th Street and then on the Bowery, where they could drink in peace of a Sabbath evening. Members carried a cork; failure to do so meant having to buy a round of drinks. Their leader, the aggressive American nationalism of modern Elks notwithstanding, was an English actor called Charles Algemon S. Vivian. It seems likely that he borrowed at least some of the paraphernalia of the Elks from the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo.
As the drinking dub grew in size and popularity, the name (if not the intent) was made more sober; the change was apparently inspired by a stuffed elk’s head on display at Phineas T. Barnum’s museum. According to some accounts, it may actually have been the head of a moose. (The founders were after all actors, not taxonomists.)
By the Elks’ own reckoning, the organization was founded on February 16, 1868, and its aims are the four cardinal virtues of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity; the promotion of the welfare and happiness of their members; the fostering of patriotism; and the cultivation of good fellowship.
To this day, good fellowship ranks very high. Elks Lodges sell good liquor at very reasonable prices, and their breakfasts are an excellent value, if somewhat out of step with a cholesterol-conscious world. If an Elks Lodge is in session at 11:00 p.m., they drink a toast to absent brothers. What Ig Means to Be an Elk says that the fraternity “seeks to draw into its fraternal circle only those who delight in wholesome associations with congenial companions.”
The organization provides very well for Elks fallen on hard times, and for the families of dead brethren. The Elks also contribute a great deal to military veterans’ hospitals, and they are rightly renowned for this and for other charitable works. The Elks National Foundation — the charitable and humanitarian wing — was founded in 1928.
The Elks are also very strong on patriotism. More than 70,000 Elks fought in World War I, and “over one thousand of them made the last supreme sacrifice in that service.” In World War II, on Pearl Harbor Day itself, the Grand Exalted Ruler “telegraphed the President of the United States, placing at the latter’s disposal the full strength of the Order.” In due course, “The Adjutant General asked the Elks for 45,000 recruits; through the efforts of the Lodges 97,000 men were enlisted in record time.”
The Elks who remained at home shipped vast quantities of cigarettes and tobacco to the fighting forces, and for those who came back, their work with veterans (especially wounded and disabled veterans) has always been extensive and enthusiastic. They have also taken pains to look after soldiers’ families; for example, in the summer of 1918, they built a 72-room structure for the families of the 40,000 soldiers stationed at Camp Sherman, Ohio.
The Elks National Memorial Building is a magnificent edifice dedicated on July 14, 1926 and rededicated on September 8, 1946, to take account of World War II. It has subsequently been rededicated again to include “the American patriots of Korea and Vietnam.”
When the organization changed from the Jolly Corks to the B.P.O.E., it borrowed a certain amount from the Masons, including aprons and such terms as “Tyler” for the guardian of a lodge, and “Lodge of Sorrow” (a funeral service for a dead Elk). It also established a governmental structure “Following the general plan of our Federal government,” dividing the organization into Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches.
Although local lodges each raise large sums of money every year, there is also a central fund called the Elks National Foundation, which was established in Miami in 1928, “by amendment of the Constitution of the Grand Lodge,” which immediately donated $100,000 as the nucleus of the fund. This Foundation is charged with furthering the charitable, educational, patriotic, and benevolent activities of the order. It is extremely wealthy.
The Elks National Home, for elderly Elks, was established at Bedford, Virginia, in 1902; it was later rebuilt and dedicated anew on July 8, 1916. The main building (which still stands) is very impressive; there have been a number of additions since.
Membership was for many years limited to “white male citizens of the United States, not under twenty-one years of age, who believe in the existence of God” and who are not “directly or indirectly a member of or in any way connected or affiliated with the Communist party, or who believe in the overthrow of our Government by force.” As long as election to a lodge was still carried out by the old blackball system, entrance to the B.P.O.E. remained subject to these requirements regardless of legislation and public outcry to the contrary, but in 1989 the Grand Lodge changed the rules so that a simple two-thirds majority vote in favor of a candidate was sufficient to ensure admission.
The structure of the B.P.O.E. consists of a Grand Lodge and Subordinate Lodges. A Subordinate Lodge may be established only in a United States city, which has within its corporate limits not less than 5,000 inhabitants; many small cities have taken advantage of this. In larger cities, there may be one Elks lodge for every 500,000 people or substantial fraction thereof, in the absence of special dispensation from the Supreme Lodge. In 1900 there were over 1.5 million members.
Elks can also get plenty of committee experience at the local lodge. Committees include:
Auditing and Accounting Committee
Visiting Committee (visiting the sick)
Relief Committee (aid or relief)
Social and Community Welfare Committee
Lapsation Committee (dues-chasing)
Youth Activities Committee
Committee on Indoctrination (prior to initiation)
Americanism Committee (“implementing . . . patriotic activities”)
Memorial Day Committee
Flag Day Committee
National Service Committee
Government Relations Committee
Public Relations Committee
Investigating Committee (examine applicants)
National Foundation Committee
House Committee (club house)
and Special Committees as necessary
Although the Elks in their own literature say that “The Order questions no man’s religion; nor bars him on account of his creed,” there is a strongly Christian bias, despite the fact that no prayers may be offered in the name of Christ. This slant is made clear during the initiation into the single degree of the B.P.O.E., that of Loyal Knight. In this, the Esquire places a Bible on the altar (which is decorated with an American flag), while the organist plays “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” He declares, “Thir’ is the Bible, the Book of the Law, upon which is founded Justice,” and the members sing,
Great Ruler of the Universe
All-seeing and benign
Look down upon and bless our work
And be all glory Thine
May Charity as taught us here
Be ever born in mind
The Golden Rule our motto true
For days of Auld Lang Syne
“Auld Lang Syne” is effectively the fraternal anthem of the Elks.
The oath that follows includes secrecy (not revealing “the confidential matters of the Order”), obedience to the Elks’ rules, a promise to uphold the Constitution of the United States, never to reveal the name of anyone who has received help from the lodge, and so forth. It is also forbidden to use membership of the lodge for business purposes, or to introduce politics or religion into the lodge meetings. “If I break this oath, may I wander through the world forsaken; may I be pointed out as a being bereft of decency and manhood, unfit to hold communion with true and upright men. And may God help me, and keep me steadfast in this my solemn and binding obligation in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the United States of America. Amen.”
The official Christian reaction to all this varies with the sect. The Catholics leave it up to individual conscience, while some Lutheran and other sects specifically proscribe membership.
Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks
The I.B.P.O.E. was founded in 1897 in Cincinnati, Ohio, in response to the refusal of the established order to admit African Americans.
The Elks were never strong on radical harmony in their early days. In 1912, the (white) Elks even went so far as to seek and obtain an injunction in New York state barring the (black) Improved Elks from using the name. The judge opined that they could choose from “a long list of beasts, birds and fishes which have not yet been appropriated for such a purpose.” The judgment has been ignored.
As well as the obvious fraternal aims lifted from the Elks (whence they also borrowed their rituals), the I.B.P.O.E. also proposed “the expression of ideals, services and leadership in the black struggle for freedom and opportunity”; and in 1926, at the National Convention, it formed a Civil Liberties Department, which the very next year was opposing the segregation of high schools in Gary, Indiana.
Thus provided with clear ideals as well as an agreeable fraternal structure, the I.B.P.O.E. has held its ground as others have declined: 300,000 members in the 1960s and about 450,000 from the late ‘70s to the ‘90s.
The Daughters of the Independent, Benevolent, Protective Order of Elks of the World is the auxiliary, and (unlike its white counterparts) is recognized as such by its menfolk. It has been very active in civil rights as well as in patriotism and good works.
The Antlers was a junior division of the B.P.O.E., who, despite its refusal to countenance official female auxiliaries, seemed happy enough to approve (in the Grand Lodge session of 1927) “organizations of young men under 21 years of age in the manner prescribed by statute.” In fact, the San Francisco Lodge No. 3 had organized a prototypical Antlers lodge as early as 1922.
In 1946, after the Antlers had virtually disappeared as a result of enlistment for World War II, the Grand Lodge Session repealed all references to the Antlers in the constitution and Statutes, and such isolated Antlers lodges as may remain are in much the same position as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Does (below), a sort of semiofficial affiliate in a state of limbo.
Benevolent and Protective Order of the Does
It is not dear whether this attempted auxiliary antedated the prohibition in 1907 by the Elks of all degrees, auxiliaries and insurance aspects. All that can be said is that the Does still exists, apparently without any centralized authority arid even without any fixed ritual, though Schmidt (in Fraternal Organizations) says that Corinthians I:iii is important in at least one version of their ritual, just as it is to the Daughters of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, who are a recognized auxiliary of the African-American Elks.
The Lady Elks operate only at a local level, doing good works and providing fraternal support for one another despite the official indifference or even hostility of some of their menfolk.
In Canada, where the writ against auxiliaries apparently does not run, there is a female auxiliary called the Order of the Royal Purple. It is open to women above 18 who have a close male relative who is an Elk. The ritual is Christian-influenced. An interesting aside is that, traditionally, admission was by blackball, but the “balls” were cubes.
Elks Mutual Benefit Association
The Elks Mutual Benefit Association was a short-lived insurance branch of the Elks, founded in 1878, but finally crushed by the resolution of 1907, which also banned degrees and auxiliaries.
Emblem Club of the United States of America
The Emblem Club of the United States of America was founded in 1926 as a social and fraternal club for female relatives of Elks, aged 18 and over. There were 41,000 members in 1989. It publishes Emblem Topics 10 times a year.
The Emblem Club is effectively (though not officially) a female auxiliary of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Its origins lay in World War I, when a group of Elks’ wives used to meet regularly to roll bandages; they incorporated themselves (in the State of Rhode Island) as the Emblem Club in 1926.
Like their husbands and fathers, the members of the Emblem Clubs are fiercely American and strongly conformist. There are committees on Americanism, Color Guard, and the like. Despite this, there is a ban on discussing religion or politics at Emblem Club meetings.
The good works included a national disaster fund, set up in 1964 after the Alaskan earthquake of that year.
Membership has remained more or less constant for many years. It grew very slightly (by about 2.5 percent) in the 1980s. The rituals were written by Elks and includes a nondenominational prayer and a salute to the American flag.