The Odd Fellows
By Worshipful Brother Mark A. Tabbert, 33º
Director of Collections George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association
First published in December2003 on “The Northern Light”,
Scottish Rite Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA
“There’s Nothing Odd about these Fellows.”
“What’s so Odd about the Odd Fellows? Nothing.”
What was the largest fraternal organization during the so-called “Golden Age of Fraternalism” (1870-1910)? You may be surprised to know it was not Freemasonry but the Odd Fellows. In 1890 Freemasonry had 609,000 brothers while the Odd Fellows had over 672 000. You may also be surprised to know the Scottish Rite Masonic National Heritage Museum probably holds the largest public collection of Odd Fellows artefacts, and materials in the county; some 700 items.
Just as many men joined both the Craft and the Odd Fellows, so our museum collections both Masonic and other American fraternal history. Indeed the relationship between the Freemasonry and Odd Fellowship was quite similar and often truly fraternal.
As with Freemasonry, the Odd Fellows is a British institution. They began in England in the late 1700s as a “friendly society” for working class men and artisans. Meeting in taverns to socialize they also pooled their recourses to help each other in times of need and for burial fees. That such an “odd” assortment of men would organize for such benevolent purposes was considered “odd” for the times and from which perhaps their name sprang. That they also practiced such broad charity may have also caused these fellows to be considered “odd.”
Whatever the origin of the name, the first lodge proudly adopted the title and have continued to care for each other for well over 200 years. Like Freemasonry there were individual Odd Fellows in the United States prior to the first lodge forming in 1819. The revered founder and first “Grand Sire” of the American Odd Fellows is Thomas Wildey (1782-1861). A coach-spring maker, he became an Odd Fellow in London before immigrating to America in 1817. Through his efforts he organized the first lodge in Baltimore and received a charter from the English Grand Lodge to spread the fraternity in the United States. Blessed by boundless energy and a dedication to help those in distress between 1819 and 1840 he started 155 lodges in 14 states that initiated over 11 000 brothers. Its great national Grand Secretary Thomas Ridgely who served the fraternity from 1833 to 1880 further supported Wildey’s fledgling order.
So successful was American Odd Fellowship that it came in conflict with the Odd Fellow’s “world headquarters” or the Grand Lodge of England. After the separation in 1843 they changed their name to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and within ten years the number of lodges leaped to 2 941 in 33 states and a total of 193 000 brothers.
Similar to Prince Hall Freemasonry, African Americans have their own Odd Fellows lodges. In 1842 the English Odd Fellow Grand Lodges issued a warrant to black sailor named Peter Ogden from New York City. Unlike Wildey however, Ogden never separated his lodges from England and to this day it remains part of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.
When Ogden died in 1852 there were 32 lodges, by 1863 there were 50 and by 1900, 2 253 with 70 000 members. The GUOOF continues to this day and are headquartered in Philadelphia. Although heavily influenced by Freemasonry’s rituals, symbols and tenets, a large measure of the Odd Fellows’ success came from its dedication to serve its members.
Its three secret ritual initiations taught the “three links” of fraternity as “Friendship, Love and Truth” and commanded its brothers to “Visit the Sick, Relieve the Distressed, Bury the Dead, Care for the Widow, and Educate the Orphan.”
In the forty years between the founding of Wildey’s first American lodge and his death in 1861, Odd Fellow’s paid out nearly $9 million in relief. After the Civil War State grand Lodges began building homes for widows and orphans. With the first opening in Meadville, PA in 1872 by 1927 there were 62 home in the United States. Between 1830 and 1936 the fraternity had paid out over $247 million in relief. In other ways the Odd Fellows innovated before Freemasonry.
Before the Order of the Eastern Star for female relatives of Masons the Odd Fellows started the first women’s auxiliary. Called the Daughters of Rebekah it was begun by future Vice President of the United States (and Freemason) Schuley Colfax in 1851. The Rebekahs have one initiation degree based on the wife of the Hebrew patriarch Isaac. Within 50 years of its founding it had over 340 000 daughters and it membership peaked in 1925 at just over one million. In 1932 Rebekahs formed their girls’ youth group called Theta Rho.
Similar to the Masonic Royal Arch Degrees of the York Rite, the Odd Fellows established “higher” degrees in the Encampment. Containing three degrees, the Patriarchal, the Golden Rule and the Royal Purple they originated in England and were first performed in the United States in the 1820s. Like the Royal Arch the Encampment had its own state and national hierarchy but ultimately remain subordinate to state and national grand lodges.
Building upon the success of the Encampment, in the 1870s and 80s the Odd Fellows established their own Masonic Knights Templar-like order. Called the Patriarch Militant it officially became part of the Order in 1886. Rather than commanderies, the Patriarch militants met in Cantons. Individual members were titled chevaliers and within three years of its organization it had over 12,073 members in 356 cantons. The Militants' mottos are “Justitia Universalis” (Universal Justice) and “Pax aut Bellum” (Peace or War) and its insignia is the crossed crock and sword with crown. Several factors led to the Militants success; a love of marching and military music after the Civil War, a fear of labour unrest and riots after 1877 and a huge war surplus of uniforms and swords.
The Odd Fellows even created their own Shriner’s in the early 1900s. Several different groups were attempted, called the Order of Muscovites, Prophets of Bagdad and the Knights of Oriental Splendour. The successor of these and most successful were the Ancient Mystic Order of Samaritans or AMOS who wore red fezs with the motto “We Never Sleep.”
The Odd Fellows membership peaked in 1920 at 1.7 million brothers. While still strong during the Roaring ’20 the Great Depression nearly bankrupted the fraternity. The Stock market crash caused families to drop their membership, lodges to fail to meet their mortgages and homes to lose donations. The advent of social security, welfare, private health insurance and other forms of relief made most of the Odd Fellows’ charity obsolete.
The popularity of radio, movies, and later TV and other forms of leisure all help to erode Odd Fellow, and most other fraternal orders’ membership. By 1960 the Odd fellows had half the members they did in 1920. Today there are still many active Odd Fellow lodges across the country, mostly in small town and rural communities, yet firmly linked by “Friendship, Love and Truth.”
Theodore A. Ross, The History and Manual of Odd Fellowship.
M.W. Hazen Co. 1900. Album of Odd Fellow Homes Ida F. Wolfe, editor.
Minneapolis, MN: the Joseph M. Wolfe Co., 12th edt., 1927
Schmidt, Alvin J. Fraternal Organizations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1966. .