Once the largest fraternal secret society in the world, the Odd Fellows emerged in England sometime before 1700. Documentation concerning the sources of Odd Fellowship and the origins of its quirky name did not survive the first
decades of the nineteenth century, the era of the Unlawful Societies Act, but the sparse evidence suggests that the first Odd Fellows lodges evolved from craft journeymen’s societies in the English Midlands and Yorkshire. The name “Odd Fellow” itself points in this direction, since “Fellow” was a standard English term for guild members of journeyman rank.
Whatever its precise origin, Odd Fellowship had a significant presence in northern and central England by the early years of the eighteenth century, and some Yorkshire lodges founded before 1700 remain active today. They welcomed adult men of every profession and social standing, though the working classes always formed the majority of membership. New members were admitted by way of a single degree, called Making or Initiation, like the “brothering” rituals practiced by apprentices and servants in Scotland during these same years.
The Odd Fellows quickly distinguished itself from the many other clubs and societies of the time by helping its members when they were in financial trouble. At a time when health insurance and social welfare programs were unknown, Odd Fellows lodges collected money to meet the bills of members who became ill, pay for the funerals of those who died, and support their widows and orphans. During the course of the eighteenth century this evolved into a system of regular contributions and benefits; in exchange for paying a small sum into the lodge treasury each week, members could count on fixed weekly sums for sick pay, funeral expenses, and survivor benefits. This system was widely copied by fraternal orders throughout the English-speaking world, and inspired the fraternal benefit societies of the nineteenth century.
With this benefit system in place, Odd Fellowship expanded steadily during the eighteenth century. Organizational stability lagged behind the growth in membership, however. In the early years of the century, each Odd Fellows lodge was effectively independent of all others. As the century went on, many lodges affiliated with one of two national organizations, the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows (which had strong Jacobite leanings) and the Patriotic Order of Odd Fellows (which was staunchly Hanoverian).
The two orders finally united in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in 1802, but problems with the Grand United Order’s leadership structure caused many lodges to break away from its jurisdiction within a few years. Most of those joined another Odd Fellows body, the Manchester Unity, which became the largest Odd Fellows order in Britain by 1820 and has kept that status ever since.
Governed by an Annual Movable Committee, the Manchester Unity managed to negotiate the difficult years of the early nineteenth century with fair success, and expanded steadily in Britain after the ban against secret societies was removed in 1834.
As it disintegrated, the Grand United Order gained an unexpected lease of life due to American racism. In the early 1840s the Philomathean Institute, a social club for free blacks in New York City, recognized the need to provide a welfare safety net for the African-American community. Beneficial fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows had appeared in America during the previous two decades, and the Institute applied to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1843 for a charter, hoping to transform their club into an Odd Fellows lodge.
Their petition was rejected out of hand by the white Odd Fellows on racial grounds. The Institute then applied to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in London, and promptly received a charter. When the Grand United Order finally broke apart in England a few years later, and its surviving English lodges joined the Manchester Unity, the Grand United Order’s American lodges founded their own Grand Lodge and carried on. By the end of the nineteenth century the Grand United Order was one of the largest African-American fraternal orders, and also had a sizeable presence in eastern Canada and the West Indies.
In the meantime, the largest and most influential of the world’s Odd Fellow orders had been launched in America – the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF). In 1819, an English Odd Fellow named Thomas Wildey and four other members from England formed the first successful Odd Fellows lodge in the United States in Baltimore, Maryland. The Odd Fellows system of contributions and benefits proved popular in the new republic, and by 1830 Odd Fellows
lodges existed in all the states of the Atlantic coast. In that year disputes with the Manchester Unity led the American lodges to cut their ties with Britain and found a new order, the IOOF.
The antimasonic movement in America in the 1820s and 1830s helped the new order attract members, as Odd Fellowship had not yet been tarred by the brush applied so lavishly to Freemasonry; when an attempt was made in the late 1840s to launch a similar campaign against Odd Fellowship the Independent Order weathered it easily.
The expansion of white settlement in the West of the country brought Odd Fellowship into a period of explosive growth; as new towns sprang up across the continent Odd Fellows lodges rose with them. By 1880, soaring population growth in America and Britain, together with the founding of IOOF lodges in Australasia and Europe, the steady growth of the Grand United Order among African Americans, and the expansion of the Manchester Unity to eastern Canada, had made Odd Fellowship the largest fraternal secret society in the world.
Paralleling this growth was an expansion of the ritual dimensions of Odd Fellowship. By the middle of the eighteenth century other degrees, many of them strongly influenced by Masonry, had been added to the single degree of the old Odd Fellows lodges. The oldest surviving ritual, dating from 1798, has Initiatory, White, Pink, and Blue Degrees, followed by the degree of the Royal Arch of Titus, modeled on the Royal Arch degree of Masonry. Organizational problems made uniformity between lodges impossible, but other Odd Fellow orders had degree sequences more or less paralleling this.
The most dramatic expansion of degrees took place in the Independent Order. By 1820 IOOF worked the Initiatory Degree; the White or First Degree; the Pink or Covenant Degree; the Royal Blue or Second Degree; the Green or
Remembrance Degree; and the Royal Scarlet or Third Degree. In 1821 a new branch of the order appeared, the Encampment branch, modeled on the Royal Arch Chapter of Freemasonry; it had three further degrees – the Patriarchal, Golden Rule, and Royal Purple degrees – which could be received by Third Degree Odd Fellows. The birth of the first ladies auxiliary of any American fraternal order, the Daughters of Rebekah, took place in 1852, with one degree, the Rebekah Degree, and 1880 saw a major revision of the Odd Fellows Lodge rituals, which were condensed from six to four degrees. In 1885 came a uniformed branch for Odd Fellowship, the Patriarchs Militant, and a ladies auxiliary for the uniformed branch, the Ladies Auxiliary Patriarchs Militant, followed in 1903.
The Independent Order reached its zenith around 1920, with a membership of some 9 million. The years after the First World War proved difficult for the order, however, and membership began to decline. The Great Depression was an unmitigated disaster for the order; many lodges, hoping to expand their benefit funds, invested them in the stock market of the late 1920s and lost everything in the market crash of 1929 and 1930, leaving them without assets at a time when their members needed more help than ever before. The reforms of the American New Deal in the late 1930s weakened the order further as government programs supplanted Odd Fellowship’s benefit system. The 1950s saw a modest recovery, but the cultural revolution of the 1960s began a period of rapid decline as middle-aged and elderly Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, offended by the manners of the younger generation, closed the doors of their lodges against new members. The same patterns were repeated in the Manchester Unity and the Grand United
Order as old customs and cultural expectations turned into barriers few potential members were willing to cross.
A new phase in Odd Fellowship’s history began in 1984, when the Manchester Unity voted to admit women to regular membership in Odd Fellows lodges. After much debate, the Independent Order passed similar measures in 2000. During these same years, much-needed reforms helped encourage an influx of younger members into the Odd Fellow orders, and began to level out the steep declines in membership. At present the Independent Order remains active in the United States, Canada, and 24 other countries; the Grand United Order has lodges in the eastern half of the United States and the former British colonies in the West Indies; and the Manchester Unity has lodges throughout Britain and in eastern Canada. While the immense size and influence held by Odd Fellows a century ago is barely even remembered, all three orders seem likely to survive for the foreseeable future.