A common term for those secret societies that pursue social and charitable aims, such as the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Elks, and Eagles. Freemasonry is usually included among fraternal orders in the English-speaking world, where the political dimensions of European and Latin American Masonry are usually absent. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fraternal orders had an immense influence on the western world and provided the framework on which most other secret societies modeled themselves. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE); Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE); Freemasonry; Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

Freemasonry was a primary source of inspiration for the fraternal orders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though the Odd Fellows and a few others evolved from older guild structures around the same time that Masonry evolved out of the old operative stonemasons’ guilds. Many other fraternal orders founded later claimed older roots, inventing origin stories with as much enthusiasm as Masons did. Still, the amount of Masonry that went into other fraternal orders varied drastically. Some were founded by Masons and borrowed symbolism and procedure from Masonic sources; others merely took a few very general ideas about lodge organization and initiation, and filled in the rest from other sources or their own inventions. See origin stories.

By the nineteenth century, too, other fraternal orders had risen to prominence and inspired imitators of their own. Interesting things happened when members of two or more existing orders took part in founding a new fraternal order; the founders of the Patrons of Husbandry, for example, included Odd Fellows and Freemasons, and the rituals and symbolism of the resulting order drew substantial elements from each. See Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).

The expansion of fraternal orders in the nineteenth century drew much of its force from the benefits they provided to their members. In the absence of government welfare programs, fraternal lodges provided a “social safety net” for working-class and middle-class families. Most nineteenth-century fraternal orders borrowed the system of sick pay and survivor benefits developed by the Odd Fellows; in this system, each member put money into a common fund that provided sick pay for those too ill to work, funeral expenses for those who died, and support for widows and orphans. Many lodges also contracted with physicians, paying a lump sum every month in return for health care for lodge members and their families; “lodge practice” formed a significant part of many physicians’ salaries until the 1940s and 1950s.

With the birth of the welfare state in most western countries during the twentieth century, though, the fraternal orders had their most important function taken away, and struggled to find new reasons for their existence. The vast majority of the smaller orders folded, and even once-giant societies such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows – the largest secret society in the world from 1880 to 1920, surpassing even the Freemasons – saw membership rolls dwindle to a few percent of their peak numbers. Those that survive do so on a vastly reduced scale and the average age of their members is generally well above retirement age. While a trickle of new members have succeeded in keeping a few of the old fraternal orders alive, their chance of surviving long into the twenty-first century seems small as at the time of writing.


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