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Reciprocal Aid: Fraternalism and Early Social Welfare History

Reciprocal Aid: Fraternalism and Early Social Welfare History

Sarah H. Shepherd

May, 2024

Reframing Fraternalism

In 1899, there were six million members of over 300 hundred fraternal organizations in the United States (Stevens, 1899, p. xv). In 1907, there were almost 10.6 million members (Stevens, 1907, p. 114). In 1920, historian David T. Beito (2003) estimated, conservatively in his words, that one in every three adult men belonged to fraternal societies (p. 2). This estimate does not include the women and children who also took part in affiliated auxiliary organizations. Fraternalism was a family affair. Although not as relevant today, fraternal organizations were tremendously powerful in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

First, a definition of fraternalism must be established. Scholars and fraternalists have defined fraternalism in multiple ways. For this essay, I use the definition created by the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, which studies, collects and preserves the history of fraternalism and freemasonry in America. It defines fraternalism as “voluntary membership groups that support charitable activity and which are organized around an initiation ritual and a representative form of governance.” Notably this includes co-ed organizations, women-only organizations, or youth organizations that follow the above parameters. 

Fraternalism fulfilled a crucial role in society. It was a social club as well as an early form of social welfare through the principle of reciprocal aid. In the nineteenth century, if you fell on hard times, you had two choices: relying on charity, mainly religious, or being institutionalized at a poorhouse or almshouse. There was no government-funded, established welfare system. People suffering poverty were villainized as lazy, immoral, and deserving of their plight. Left with few options, people decided to band together—to form a collective—to support each other in their times of need. All members paid dues, and when a member was in need, they would be given support from the organization. As this was reciprocal aid, it was not seen as charity, and therefore shameful, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ harsh morality.

Though fraternalism is generally dismissed as elitist and open only to the wealthy, it was, in reality, a lifeline for lower class families who experienced the greatest benefits from low cost insurance, sick and death benefits, and increased social capital and networking potential. 

Early Fraternalism with sick and death benefits

Freemasonry, arguably the most well known fraternal organization, formed first in England in the early 1700s before spreading to the United States with the British conquest and colonization of the Americas. Freemasonry flourished in the United States, including among the Founding Fathers, and provided early forms of social welfare to its members, such as sick and death benefits. From the beginning, fraternal organizations were segregated, with white lodges refusing Black men membership. This discrimination resulted in the first Black fraternal organization, Prince Hall Freemasonry.

After being refused membership from an American white lodge, Prince Hall, an abolitionist and minister in Boston, Massachusetts, founded African Lodge, No. 459, and was granted a charter from the Grand Lodge of England, in 1776. After Prince Hall’s death, the organization renamed themselves Prince Hall Freemasonry in his honor. Prince Hall Freemasonry thrived in the Black community and provided similar sick and death benefits.

Postcard: Elks Rest (Hollywood Cemetery,) Richmond, Va. Image: Virginia Commonwealth University Digital Collections
“Elks Rest” (Hollywood Cemetery), Richmond, Va.
Image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Digital Collections

In the mid-nineteenth century, many of the fraternal organizations founded auxiliary organizations open to women and children. The Order of Eastern Star, founded in 1850, and the Prince Hall Order of Eastern Star, founded in 1874, were connected to Freemasonry and Prince Hall Freemasonry and provided similar benefits. The second largest fraternal organization in the United States, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, founded in 1819, and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America, a Black organization founded in 1843, also created a women’s auxiliary called Daughters of Rebekah (founded in 1851) and the Household of Ruth (founded in 1858). These auxiliary organizations provided sick and death benefits directly to women.


Insurance specific groups

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a shift in fraternal organizations with the founding of the Ancient Order of United Workmen in 1868, which was the first major national life insurance order. Formed by John Jordan initially as a conservative union, it quickly focused on its popular life insurance program. These fraternal organizations were focused more on insurance and used the fraternal side as an advertisement, as opposed to earlier orders which had sick and death benefits as a side benefit. 

This trend resulted in some short-lived organizations that were basically insurance companies with ritual and degree works such as the Equitable Aid Union. Organized by several Freemasons in 1879, it was open to men and women and sought to embody reciprocal aid and provide an avenue for communities to provide for themselves.

Several life insurance companies today started as fraternal organizations before shifting to be simply life insurance companies. BetterLife insurance was formed from the merger of two fraternal life insurance organizations: Západni Česka Bratrská Jednota (translated as Western Bohemian Fraternal Association), a Czech and Slovakian organization founded in 1897, and the Beavers Reserve Fund Fraternity in 1902.

In Search of Equal Opportunity, Communities Organized

Postcard: St. Luke Bank and Trust building, Richmond, Va.
St. Luke Bank and Trust Co., First and Marshall Streets, Richmond, Va.
Image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Digital Collections

Black fraternal organizations thrived during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a haven and engine for social change in Jim Crow America. The Independent Order of St. Luke, which was founded in 1867 by former enslaved woman Mary Prout, rose to prominence under Maggie L. Walker. The Independent Order of St. Luke served its members not only in sick and death benefits, but also economically through the founding of its own bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. This policy allowed African Americans access to many services that they were barred from in Jim Crow America. The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Independent Order of St. Luke, Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, the United Order of Tents, and many others, were powerful forces in the Black community providing low cost and equitable aid and social welfare. They built orphanages, schools, assisted-living homes for elderly members, and hospitals. They also funded and organized for civil rights and equality.

Ethnic and religious populations also formed fraternal organizations in search of community, opportunity, and greater equality. Two examples include the German Order of Harugari, founded in 1847 in response to anti-German sentiment fanned by the Know-Nothing Party, and B’nai B’rith, a Jewish fraternal organization founded in 1843 to combat antisemitism and provide for the Jewish American community. By 1907, B’nai B’rith had established a free circulating library in New York City, a “home for the aged and infirm” in Yonkers, New York, an orphanage in Cleveland, New Orleans, and Atlanta, and several technical, trade, and religious schools throughout the country. It boasted of having paid almost 100 million dollars in aid directly to its members or other charities (Stevens, 1907, p. 207).  

Care for Children

Caring for children has always been a mission of fraternal organizations. Between 1890 and 1922, 71 orphanages were founded by fraternal organizations such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Sons of Italy, and the Masons (Beito, 2003, p. 63). These homes were occasionally open to widows and their children as well as orphans. 

Postcard: Mooseheart The city of childhood and school that trains for life
Mooseheart. The city of childhood and school that trains for life.
Image: The Newberry Library, Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection on Internet Archive

One of the more famous children’s homes was Mooseheart, owned by the Loyal Order of Moose. The Loyal Order of Moose was founded by Dr. Henry Wilson in 1888. The organization’s inspiration was the saying, “A burden heavy to one is borne lightly by many.” Mooseheart contains 135 permanent buildings on nearly 1,200 acres and provides a home for an average of 1,000 children of deceased Moose members. 

Homes for Elderly Members

From the beginning, fraternal organizations prioritized constructing homes for elderly members. The Grand Lodge of Texas, Knights of Pythias, had only been in operation for five years before it created a fund in 1879 to establish a home for “aged Pythians, their widows…that their retiring years might be ones of security and contentment”  (Witherspoon, p. 17). The Freemasons founded many homes to provide for its members. Likewise, Prince Hall Freemasons started numerous homes for its elderly members who were refused entry to white homes.

Moosehaven, founded by the Loyal Order of Moose, was advertised in a 1950-1960 pamphlet as a “place in the sun–Moosehaven in sunny Florida provides each qualified Moose member and his wife with a feeling of future security. In the beautiful vacation surroundings of Moosehaven they can spend their declining years together…should misfortune come” (Loyal Order of Moose, 1950-1960). 

Postcard: Masonic Home of Virginia, Richmond VA
Masonic Home of Virginia – Richmond, VA.
Image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Digital Collections

With the increase of federal social welfare, retirement homes owned by fraternal organizations became more limited in their selection. According to a 1988 handbook, “admission to Masonic Homes and Hospitals is generally only for the needy or destitute” and requires those admitted to surrender all property, insurance, and income to the institution (Masonic Service Association, p. 1).

Hospitals and care centers

Initially, many fraternal organizations had a doctor on retainer for their constituents. After widespread backlash from the rapidly standardizing medical profession to this so-called lodge practice in the 1910s, fraternal organizations began to establish hospitals.

The largest and most successful hospitals still existing today are the hospitals founded by the Shriners, a branch of Freemasonry. Known today as Shriners Children’s, the first hospital was opened in 1922 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Until recently, the hospitals provided care for children regardless of their ability to pay and have served over 1.5 million children (“The Story of Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children”).

Another well-known hospital was the Taborian Hospital which opened in Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1941. This hospital was funded by the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a Black fraternal organization founded by Moses Dickson, abolitionist, soldier, and clergyman, in 1846 and was re-organized in 1872. Due to Jim Crow laws, discrimination in the South, and lack of affordable health care for Black Southerners, fraternal organizations, such as the Knights and Daughters of Tabor and the United Order of Friendship, established hospitals to fill the need. This push for Black hospitals was part of the larger Black Hospital Movement in the early to mid-twentieth century, which sought to train Black healthcare workers to provide quality care in the Jim Crow era. Nine Black fraternal hospitals opened in the South by 1931, with three more opening after 1940 (Beito, 2003, p. 181).

The Knights of Pythias also provided medical care to its members. A 1928 circular issued by the Supreme Lodge of the Knights of Pythias (founded in Washington, D.C. in 1864) trumpeted the addition that now all members and their families will have access to free health tests and the hiring of a “social welfare worker” that would visit members in the hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, as “it will be his pleasure and privilege to do all he can to serve them in any and every way possible” (Supreme Lodge Knight of Pythias, 1928). 

Fraternal organizations provided essential healthcare to their members, but lodge doctors and fraternal hospitals gradually declined or were sold to private corporations. With the increase of hospital regulations in the 1970s and 1980s, many fraternal hospitals could not keep up with the expensive upgrades, as they were excluded from federal grants given to hospitals for updates. Many hospitals closed. 

Pitfalls of fraternalism as social welfare

Fraternal organizations are, at their heart, exclusive, and they issued clear restrictions on membership. Though these organizations were a vital lifeline for the middle and lower class, they did not provide unconditional aid. In the words of Beito (2003), “fraternal lodges subscribed to many stereotypical middle-class credos, such as temperance and fidelity, and piled on new requirements for achieving worthiness” (p. 62).

The majority of organizations required their members to be of sound mind and body. Some organizations demanded a doctor’s note before joining, as seen in a 1906 letter written by Dr. Eugene T. Butler who testified that J. W. Gee  was “eligible for membership in any order to which he may apply” (Butler, 1906). The letter is written on stationary for the Euclid Lodge, No. 6376, of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, with Butler’s name printed on the top left suggesting that he was a lodge doctor. As insurance companies, these organizations excluded people with disabilities or any preexisting conditions. This restriction resulted in leaving people with disabilities out of an early lifeline of mutual aid, in a time before there was any governmental social welfare, and forcing them to rely on charity if they could not provide for themselves or their families.

In a further example, a Masonic Casualty Company application required the applicant to swear they have not had all manners of sickness or disability such as loss of limb, concluding with this statement in all caps: “I USUALLY HAVE GOOD HEALTH, AM NOW IN GOOD HEALTH, AND NO MATERIAL FACTS REGARDING THE PAST AND PRESENT CONDITION OF MY HEALTH HAVE BEEN OMITTED” (Masonic Casualty Company, 1910).

Fraternal organizations had strict moral codes they required of their members, whether it was requiring temperance, as in the Independent Order of Good Templars, or more generally requiring no infidelity, criminal behavior, or drugs. Members were required to adhere to the highest moral standard to be granted aid. It was not a guarantee. In the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, members were disqualified for benefits if their dues were unpaid, if the member was unemployed, or if “intemperance or immoral conduct had caused his incapacity” (Emery, 2006, p. 484).

However, fraternal organizations were effective at combating the two problems in sickness insurance, “an adverse selection of high-risk customers and moral hazard such as false claims,” thanks to the “intrusive methods of monitoring within the lodge system” (Emery, 2006, p. 497).

The Fall of Fraternalism as a Social Welfare

The decline of fraternalism and its social welfare has many possible explanations: the rise of commercial, state and federal, and employer-based insurance cutting into the market, fraternalism on the whole declining as other social avenues opened up in the early twentieth century, increased state regulation of insurance, and more (Beito, 2003) (Chalupnicek & Dvorak, 2009).

After the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, fraternal organizations questioned how this would affect the existence of fraternally funded retirement communities. Charles H. Johnson, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of New York, gave an address at the 1937 Annual Meetings of Grand Secretaries in Washington, D.C. on the Social Security Law, and recommended a pause on the creation of new institutions “unless such construction should be adaptable for other purposes” (Johnson, 1937, p. 20). Though membership in fraternal organizations gradually declined in the last fifty years, lessening the organizations’ ability to give aid, their long history provides a stark testament to the power of collective action and organization to provide for a chosen community. Fraternal organizations’ commitment to reciprocal aid benefited many Americans’ lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributing to the rich history of community care and welfare history. 


Beito, D. T. (2003). From mutual aid to the welfare state: Fraternal societies and social services, 1890-1967. The University of North Carolina Press.

Butler, E. T. (1906). Medical certification letter for J. W. Gee, 1906 August 26. Arkansas Valley Lodge, No. 21, Prince Hall collection (A2016-088-002). Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, United States.

Chalupnicek, P. & Dvorak, L., (2009). Health Insurance before the Welfare State: the Destruction of Self-Help by State Intervention. The Independent Review, 13(3), 367-387.

Emery, J. C. H. (2006). From Defining characteristic to vitiation of principle: the history of the odd fellows’ stipulated sick benefit and its implications for studying American fraternalism. Social Science History, 30(4), 479-500.

Glenn, B. J. (2001). Fraternal Rhetoric and the Development of the U. S. Welfare State. Studies in American Political Development, 15, 220-233.

Johnson, C. H. (1937). The Social Security Law and the Masonic Fraternity. 

Loyal Order of Moose (1950-1960). Lifetimes of happiness and security for every wife and mother. Loyal Order of Moose pamphlets, 1950-1960 (A2023-117-001). Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, United States.

Masonic Casualty Company (1910). Application signed by Agent Adam M. Ross, 1910 (A2011-037-63). Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, United States. 

Masonic Service Association (1988). Masonic Homes, Hospitals, and Charity Foundations of Forty-nine Grand Jurisdictions of the United States (8th ed.). Masonic Service Association.

Shriners Childrens (n.d.). The Story of Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children. Shriners Children: love to the rescue. Retrieved May 3, 2024, from 

Stevens, A. C. (1899) The cyclopædia of fraternities; A compilation of existing authentic information and the results of original investigation as to more than six hundred secret societies in the United States. Hamilton Printing and Publishing Company.

Stevens, A. C. (1907) The cyclopædia of fraternities; a compilation of existing authentic information and the results of original investigation as to more than six hundred secret societies in the United States (2nd ed.). E. B. Treat. 

Supreme Lodge Knights of Pythias (1928, November 10). Official Bulletin, No. 2. Supreme Lodge Knights of Pythias circulars, 1928-1937 (A2023-161-001). Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, United States.

Wittherspoon, J. B. (1983). Seventy five years of benevolent service: A history of the Knights of Pythias “Castle on the Hill” Weatherford, Texas 1909-1984. Miran Publishers.


For further reading:

Beito, D. (1994 May 1). Lodge Doctors and the Poor. Organized Medicine Destroyed the Vibrant Health-Care Alternative of Lodge Practice. Foundation for Economic Education.

Emery, G. N. (1999). A young man’s benefit : the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and sickness insurance in the United States and Canada, 1860-1929. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Fishback, P. V. M. (2000). A prelude to the welfare state : the origins of workers’ compensation. University of Chicago Press. 

Gamble, V. N. (1996) Making a place for ourselves: The black hospital movement, 1920–1945. Oxford University Press.

Shimberg, E. F. (1996). A heritage of helping: Shriners hospitals. Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Skocpol, T. (2006) What a mighty power we can be : African American fraternal groups and the struggle for racial equality. Princeton University.

Loyal Order of Moose. Mooseheart Child City & Moosehaven Retirement Community. Periscope Films.
This video may also be viewed through the Internet Archive.

Archives and Museums of Freemasonry and Fraternalism

Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, MA

House of the Temple, Scottish Rite, Southern Masonic Jurisdiction, Washington, DC

Rathbone School Museum, Eagle Harbor, MI

Iowa Masonic Library and Museums, Cedar Rapids, IA

Center for Fraternal Collections & Research, Indiana University


Sarah H. Shepherd is the recipient of a 2024 VCU Publishing Research Award.

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