From Mutual Aid to Welfare State: How Fraternal Societies Fought Poverty and Taught Character

Report Political Process

From Mutual Aid to Welfare State: How Fraternal Societies Fought Poverty and Taught Character

July 27, 2000 15 min read
David Beito
Senior Associate Fellow

Mutual aid was one of the cornerstones of social welfare in the United States until the early 20th century. The fraternal society was a leading example. The statistical record of fraternalism was impressive. A conservative estimate is that one-third of adult American males belonged to lodges in 1910. A fraternal analogue existed for virtually every major service of the modern welfare state including orphanages, hospitals, job exchanges, homes for the elderly, and scholarship programs.

But societies also gave benefits that were much less quantifiable. By joining a lodge, an initiate adopted, at least implicitly, a set of survival values.

Societies dedicated themselves to the advancement of mutualism, self-reliance, business training, thrift, leadership skills, self-government, self-control, and good moral character. These values, which can fit under the rubric of social capital, reflected a kind of fraternal consensus that cut across such seemingly intractable divisions as race, sex, and income.

The record of five societies that thrived at or near the turn of the century illustrates the many variants of this system. Each had a distinct membership base. Two of the societies, the Independent Order of Saint Luke and the United Order of True Reformers, were all-black. Both had been founded by ex-slaves after the Civil War and specialized initially in sickness and burial insurance. The other societies had entirely white memberships. The Loyal Order of Moose was an exclusively male society that emphasized sickness and burial benefits. It became best known during the 20th century for its orphanage, Mooseheart, near Aurora, Illinois. The Security Benefit Association (originally the Knights and Ladies of Security) followed in a similar tradition but broke from the mainstream by allowing men and women to join on equal terms. During the 1910s and the 1920s, the Knights and Ladies of Security established a hospital, a home for the elderly, and an orphanage all in a single location near Topeka. The Ladies of the Maccabees was an all-white, all-female society. It provided such health benefits as surgical care. It is worth noting that the women who belonged to these societies, regarded themselves as members of fraternal rather than sororal societies. For them, fraternity, much like liberty and equality, was the common heritage of both men and women. To this end, an official of the Ladies of the Maccabees asserted that "Fraternity in these modern days has been wrested from its original significance and has come to mean a sisterhood, as well as a brotherhood, in the human family."

These five societies, despite their other differences, showed some striking similarities in outlook. With perhaps slight changes in wording, the following statement, penned by a member of the Security Benefit Association, was suitable to each: "Its prime object is to promote the brotherhood of man, teach fidelity to home and loved ones, loyalty to country and respect of law, to establish a system for the care of the widows and orphans, the aged and disabled, and enable every worthy member to protect himself from the ills of life and make substantial provision through co-operation with our members, for those who are nearest and dearest."

Although these societies relied on nearly identical terminology, the interpretations and applications often diverged. Each found creative ways to customize such ideals as thrift, self-reliance, and self-government to suit the special needs and interests of its members. This behavior reached full expression outside of the white-male fraternal mainstream. For example, societies that catered to blacks and women used key credos of the fraternal consensus to overcome disfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination.

Regardless of other distinctions, the theme of the loving and extended family found universal fraternal appeal. According to the ritual of the Independent Order of Saint Luke, all initiates were "members of the same family" pledged to "stand by one another at all hazards." It specified that what we "lack by the sacred ties of blood we make up by a solemn oath-bound obligation, declaring ourselves sisters and brothers, children of the same Father." The Loyal Order of Moose promoted its orphanage by vowing that "this Order comes as a Mother to her children to help them in their hour of trial."

Rituals often relied on the Bible to impart lessons of fraternity. The Independent Order of Saint Luke took its name from the Luke of the Gospels. An initiate vowed to "be true and faithful to the Christian religion" and devote leisure time to "searching the Holy Scriptures, so that I may become useful and true to all mankind." The ritual of the Ladies of the Maccabees drew inspiration from the Old Testament: "Like the Maccabees of old we are marching forward, a mighty army, for the defense of our loved ones and the protection of our homes."

All the societies advocated self-reliance, a hallmark of fraternalism. This objective was a centerpiece of the initiation ceremony of the Independent Order of Saint Luke, which featured a symbolic journey to Jerusalem. To foster humility, it required the candidate to wear a torn white robe. Prior to the journey, a guide foretold what lay ahead: "You may find the road rough and rugged, and you may meet with disappointment and mistrust....You will find no friendly hand extended, or kind advice given you on which to lean." The meaning of the lesson was plain: "This is one of the times that self-reliance must be exerted. You must seek to find the emblem of the cross, with patience and unceasing energy as it is claimed Helena possessed in searching for the cross of Calvary."

Unlike the Independent Order of St. Luke, which admitted men and women on equal terms, the Ladies of the Maccabees barred men from joining. One of the chief defenders of this policy was Bina West, who was Supreme Commander of the organization from 1911 to 1948. She recalled with some amusement how several men from the parallel Knights of the Maccabees had applied as honorary members. She responded that "L.O.T.M., which means Ladies of the Maccabees, may also be construed to mean, Leave Out Those Men."

For the Ladies of the Maccabees, the all-female policy fortified self-reliance, another pillar of the fraternal value consensus. Elizabeth McGowan, a leading defender of male exclusion, asserted that women who participated with the opposite sex in fraternal auxiliaries, such as the Eastern Star of the Masons, often became "timid in the presence of men of superior knowledge." As a result, they "waive their rights and privileges and become reliant and dependent....Thus, woman becomes irresponsible."

She concluded that such a woman would more likely be "courageous and strong in her own meeting hall where only sisterly faces greet her and conscious that she must assume all the responsibilities."

More bluntly, Emma Olds, the Great Commander of Ohio, argued that self-reliance was worthy of the name only if it came from the initiative of women. She approvingly quoted President James A. Garfield that the best lesson for a young man was to be "thrown overboard." For Olds, it "should be equally helpful to character building to women to be thrown upon their own business resources, to be allowed and even compelled to rely upon their own judgment and business sagacity."

The value of thrift ranked high in the fraternal consensus, and the Ladies of the Maccabees was no exception. It advertised the "ways of thrift" as the "ways of pleasantness." Maggie L. Walker, the head of the all-black Independent Order of St. Luke from 1899 to 1934, was much like her counterparts in white societies in singing the praises of frugality. She established thrift clubs for the young and, with a Franklinesque flourish, urged members "to save some part of every dollar you have, and the practice will become a habit--a habit which you will never regret, and of which you will never grow shame."

If self-reliance and thrift were fraternal watchwords, so too was individualism. The word did not entail Epicurean self-gratification or Emersonian contrariness; instead, it was akin to a winnowing out process for the improvement of character. Successful fraternal individualists were to be economically self-reliant as well as proficient in the arts of cooperation and leadership. Although this ideal entailed self-discipline, the ultimate goal was not purely, or even mainly, selfish. For this reason, an official of the all-black United Order of True Reformers rejected any contradiction between opposition to "selfish individualism, intemperance and non-accumulativeness" and support for a program enabling "people to get homes and means upon which they may independently subsist."

A key tenet of fraternal individualism was the need to exercise mastery over the self. As a promotional publication of the all-white Loyal Order of Moose put it, the "kingship of self-control" was the "noblest royalty of a man. The self-control he is taught to observe is the highest and best use of all his faculties, the mastery of his desires, passions and appetites, and the power to withstand temptation to the illegitimate use or prostitution of any part of his being, body, mind, spirit, and will." Self-control meant the power to resist such vices as gluttony, "over-drinking, over-smoking, lack of exercise, bad air, bad conversation, fool books."

But, according to this pan-fraternal philosophy, such qualities were useless unless tempered with civility. Vigilant watch was maintained against those who endangered the harmony of the lodge by indulging in personal attacks. As Mary MacEachern of the Ladies of the Maccabees framed it, the "woman with a grievance is welcome--nowhere." The Independent Order of Saint Luke required that an initiate forswear "slandering a member of this Order or a family of a member."

Nonpartisanship was another component of the fraternal value consensus. The Ladies of the Maccabees was typical in its rule that the organization be "non-sectarian" and "non-political." Societies favored nonpartisanship to achieve harmony and to widen the applicant pool. It was standard practice for aspiring Republican and Democratic politicians to join all the leading lodges in their community. Individuals who were bitter rivals politically could co-exist under a common fraternal banner. The Loyal Order of Moose was not unique when it signed up prominent politicians from both parties--William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Champ Clark.

Although the Ladies of the Maccabees required that members eschew politics, this rule did not preclude support for feminist causes. Many of its leaders played prominent roles in suffrage and temperance organizations, such as Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the League of Women Voters.

Though they too adopted a rule against politics, the Independent Order of St. Luke and the United Order of True Reformers did not ignore the question of race. Both marshaled their resources against discriminatory legislation and lynching. From 1923 until her death, Walker served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and formed common cause with the United Order of True Reformers in protests against the Jim Crow streetcar law of 1904. It was partly because of Walker's efforts that about 80 percent of eligible black voters in Richmond by the 1920s were women.

All five societies prohibited formal distinctions based on income and class. The United Order of True Reformers boasted that it made "capital and labor friends." Similarly, the ritual of the Ladies of the Maccabees called on the initiate to know "no selfish ambitions, no class distinctions." The better-off members were more often leaders, but it was not hard to find examples such as that described by the publicity for the Loyal Order of Moose, of a "modest workingman" directing "the affairs of the lodge, while seated in the meeting is his employer."

While fraternalists disdained partisanship, they zealously promoted patriotism. The newsletter of the Security Benefit Association phrased the matter bluntly: "The Lodge System is the foe of the outlaw and the anarchist, inculcating patriotism and love for country and that to live for one's country is as essential as to die for it." The ritual of the Ladies of the Maccabees required the initiate to "[b]ehold that glorious banner, our Nation's Flag" and featured a group rendition of "Flag of Our Nation." Fraternalists contended that patriotism and good moral character were part of one package. The official historian of the United Order of True Reformers, for instance, defined as "good citizens" those who strived "to obey the laws of the government, and to practice virtue, morality, industry, and economy."

The five societies promoted entrepreneurship among members but each favored a different strategy to achieve this end. Though the Ladies of the Maccabees did not own businesses or grant loans, it endeavored to teach managerial and financial skills. One official boasted that the lodge provided "business training which can be had in no other way" by showing techniques "of handling money, and ordinary business forms." It also taught more intangible skills. The work of the lodge, according to the newsletter of the Ladies of the Maccabees, cultivated habits of "patience, forbearance, perseverance, and practicability."

In contrast to the white societies, however, the United Order of the True Reformers and the Independent Order of St. Luke actually established their own business. In making this departure, the United Order of True Reformers vowed not only to "take care of the sick and bury the dead" but to create an organization "united in finance" as well as "united in brotherhood." The most durable of these black fraternal business enterprises were those of the Independent Order of St. Luke. In 1903, it founded the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank of Richmond, thus making Maggie Walker the first black woman to be a bank president in American history. The Independent Order also established a printing plant, a newspaper called the Saint Luke Herald , and, for a brief time, a department store, the Saint Luke Emporium.

To justify these investments, Maggie Walker argued that blacks could never achieve dignity and first-class citizenship without laying an economic foundation. She stressed the benefits that a black-owned store such as the Saint Luke Emporium would bring to women as consumers, where it would finally be possible to shop without fear of facing disrespectful treatment from white merchants. Walker underscored that this choice would never exist unless blacks created a clientele by kicking their habit of spending paychecks in white stores and white banks.

The heyday of all five societies was during an era when millions of Americans lived on a scale of poverty which would be considered intolerable by today's underclass. Despite this, millions invested their scarce resources in erecting a vast system of fraternal mutual aid. Although insurance gave some protection, those who subscribed to fraternal societies gained access to services not easily guaranteed in a commercial contract. The lodge offered its members the formal and informal components of mutual aid and sought to educate them in a set of values.

The ideals of these societies illustrate the many variants and the breadth of the fraternal value consensus. The United Order of True Reformers and the Independent Order of Saint Luke advanced programs of ethnic self-help; the Ladies of the Maccabees wanted female political and economic emancipation. For the Security Benefit Association and the Loyal Order of Moose, the key goals were to impart life skills and establish social-welfare institutions. There was considerable diversity in the economic profile of the memberships served by these organizations. These differences, however, should not obscure the commonality. All these societies drew from the same basic fraternal pantheon of self-help, individualism, self-government, civility, and mutualism.

By the 1930s, fraternal societies had entered a period of decline from which they never recovered. While this trend was caused by several factors, including increased competition from commercial insurance and the lure of competing forms of entertainment, such as radio and movies, it was fundamentally due to a transformation in the nature of fraternalism. By the 1940s, conviviality and life insurance, instead of mutual aid, became the order of the day. But these inducements were rarely enough to attract and hold members.

One of the earliest reasons for the shift in fraternal priorities can be laid at the doorstep of the medical associations. As early as the 1910s, the profession, increasingly fortified by tighter certification requirements which reduced the supply of doctors, had launched an all-out war against fraternal medical services by imposing manifold sanctions, including denial of licenses against doctors who accepted these contracts. One highly effective method of enforcement was to pressure hospitals to close their doors to fraternal members who used "lodge doctors." By 1914, Dr. Robert Allen in the Journal of the American Medical Association could state, with slight exaggeration, that "there is scarcely a city in the country in which medical societies have not issued edicts against members who accept contracts for lodge practice." Some societies, such as the Security Benefit Association, responded to this pressure by building self-contained hospitals. They too, however, often ran afoul of medical society pressure as well as a federal tax code that discriminated in favor of third-party insurance.

Another factor in fraternal decline, though tracing the exact relationship is difficult, was the rise of the welfare state. The first three decades of the 20th century brought a rapid and unprecedented expansion in the government's social welfare role. The two leading sources of growth were mothers' pensions and workers' compensation. In 1910, no state had either program; by 1931, both were nearly universal. During the 1920s, the number of individuals on the mothers' pension rolls almost doubled.

Certainly, there were more than a few leaders of fraternal societies who predicted that this rising welfare state would eventually undermine mutual aid. As the magazine of the Fraternal Order of Eagles put in 1915, "the State is doing or planning to do for the wage-earner what our Order was a pioneer in doing eighteen years ago. All this is lessening the popular appeal of our beneficial features. With that appeal weakened or gone, we shall have lost a strong argument for joining the Order; for no fraternity can depend entirely on its recreational features to attract members."

During the 1930s, officials of the homes for the elderly and orphans of the SBA cited Social Security and other welfare programs as justification not only for rejecting applicants but for closing down entirely. The Security Benefit Association, for instance, closed its orphanage because of "a lack of demand or need for that form of benevolence attributable to public funds now available for the support of dependent children." It used the same justification to discontinue its home for the elderly several years later. While Mooseheart remained open and even increased capacity, applications fell off rapidly in the decades after the Depression because of a rise in social-welfare alternatives such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Mutual aid was a creature of necessity. Once this necessity ended, so too did the primary reason for the existence of fraternalism. Without a return to this necessity any revival of mutual aid will remain limited. Moreover, fraternal membership, although still heavily working class, no longer includes the very poor who most need social welfare services.

Nevertheless, a reinvigoration of mutual aid (though not necessarily through fraternal societies) is not out of the question in the 21st century. One reform that would encourage such a trend is to repeal or revise laws that subsidize third-party insurance. Perhaps the leading example is legislation enacted during World War II, which exempts employer-provided fringe benefits, such as health insurance, from income tax. According to John C. Goodman, the annual value of this exemption adds up to an enormous $130 billion. For a typical autoworker, for example, it is over $1,200 per year. Federal tax policy has not only tied workers to their jobs but has undermined their incentives to purchase health insurance through non-governmental organizations such as fraternal societies. It has also created a perverse system where workers lose all their benefits when they change jobs or become unemployed. By contrast, if individuals had the same tax incentives to purchase insurance from associations, such as lodges, as they do now from their employer they could still retain full coverage even if they changed jobs.

The shift from mutual aid and self-help to the welfare state was not just a simple bookkeeping transfer of service provisions from one set of institutions to another. As many of the leaders of fraternal societies had feared, much was lost in an exchange that transcended monetary calculations. The old relationships of voluntary reciprocity and autonomy have slowly given way to paternalistic dependency. Instead of mutual aid, the dominant social-welfare arrangements of Americans have increasingly become characterized by impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.

David T. Beito is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and is the author of From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 (University of North Carolina Press).


David Beito

Senior Associate Fellow