The first major labour union in the United States, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by Uriah Stephens, a tailor and labour organizer, along with eight associates. Stephens was a member of several fraternal orders of the time, including the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias, and he drew much of the new order’s structure and symbolism from these sources. See Freemasonry; Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

In its early years, the Knights were a secret society in every sense of the word, with an initiation ceremony, passwords, grips, and recognition signs. In the America of 1869, workers had few rights and most employers would fire anyone suspected of belonging to a labour union. Each Knight thus pledged, on penalty of expulsion, never to reveal the names of members to anyone outside the order. Meetings were held in secret and each Knight had to prove his identity before entering the lodge.

A second degree of initiation, the degree of the Philosopher’s Stone, was created in 1878 but found few takers. By that time, however, labour violence in the Pennsylvania coal country made the use of oaths and secret meetings a political liability for labour unions, and the opposition of the Catholic Church to secret societies of every kind posed a problem at a time when many American manual labourers were immigrants from Catholic countries. In 1882 Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly abolished the rituals and made the Knights of Labor a public labour union. In the process, he opened its doors to women and African-Americans and made it, for a time, the most influential labour union in America. See Roman Catholic Church.

At its height in 1887, the Knights of Labor had approximately a million members, but its pursuit of a moderate line in labour disputes, and Powderly’s unwillingness to support general strikes, sabotage, and violence caused it to lose ground to more radical labour organizations as the century drew to a close. The Knights also, to the embarrassment of many of their liberal supporters, took an active role in fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment, believing that Chinese immigration forced down wages. In 1917, after many years of declining membership, the Kni


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