Odd Fellowship, Religion, and Compromise

The issue of religion in Odd Fellowship pops up often these days. And for those who aren’t Odd Fellows, nearly all members understand The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is NOT a church. In fact we have less religion in our Order than many other fraternal orders. It’s just that many U.S. Odd Fellows want a few things updated to be more in line with 21st century thought.

But let’s be clear about one thing first: During Lodge, we are not allowed to discuss religion or politics. And a reason for this is because we are a product of the Age of Enlightenment.

According to Wikipedia, the Western Age of Enlightenment was during the 1700’s when Odd Fellows began, and included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge. This is not a jettison of religious belief. According to Joseph Campbell, the shakers and movers of the Enlightenment believed that God could best be found and understood through reason. enlightenment

The Enlightenment advanced ideals (for the time period) that we find throughout our ritual and Code such as liberty (see the Initiatory Degree), progress (see the Ax), toleration (See FLT in Third Degree), fraternity (obviously the IOOF), constitutional government (the Code) and separation of church and state (not discussing politics and religion during Lodge). The information in parenthesis makes it very clear that our ideas and who we are as an organization is because of The Enlightenment. 

In case you haven’t thought about it, the Order’s rule about not discussing religion (the church) and politics (the state) in Lodge is in fact a lesson about the issue of church and state. Learn from it what you will…

Some have said that Odd Fellowship had no religion in it during the early days. If one reads early ritual and early accounts of the Order, Odd Fellowship had more in common with the movie Animal House, than it had to the 18th century Anglican Church.


The Victorian Period in the 1800’s put an end to such shenanigans, when much of the religious content in ritual apparently found its way into the Order. Further, some Odd Fellows argue the Code of Laws clearly declares we are nonsectarian. 

Others say it doesn’t matter when religion came into the Order. But since it’s there, it should not be removed. Some have said flat-out we are a Christian Order. Others say we are a religious one. Some justify this by pointing out that ritual refers to and uses the Bible, prayer, and Bible stories, and since they are used, it proves we are a religious organization.

Now– the Code clearly states that the IOOF is a nonsectarian Order, defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary online as “not affiliated with or restricted to a particular religious group.” Admittedly, this seems to be a direct contradiction to what we see in ritual and degree work, and I don’t think that either side of the issue would argue with that. The Code is our law, however. The Ark of the Covenant supports this.

This is important, though: Odd Fellowship is not qualified to spread the message of God’s word. We don’t ordain ministers, save souls, preach sermons, encourage confession of sins, hold Mass, have an altar call, or sing hymns. We have a Chaplain position, yet that position is usually held by someone who isn’t qualified to be one, which by many standards is a violation of Biblical teaching (please don’t be offended if you’re currently a Chaplain). Our job is clear: to relieve the distressed, visit the sick, educate foster children, and bury the dead.

When an Odd Fellow in the United States, most often another Christian, says they’d prefer not to have Christianity/religion in the Order or to have less of it, we usually hear this comment from those who are in favor of religious content: If they don’t like it, perhaps Odd Fellows isn’t right for them. They knew we had Christianity/religion in the Order before they joined.” 

Well no, they didn’t know that.

Officially, we don’t tell them anything about ritual before they join. We require they believe in a Supreme Being, and we tell them that. But what we don’t tell them is how religion is used once they are in the Order. We don’t allow candidates to attend any ritual or degree work before joining so there’s no way they could possibly know if their beliefs align with the few viewpoints of Christianity/religion we have in Odd Fellowship.

When candidates join we require them to take oaths to support the Order. If candidates are not particularly religious but believe in a Supreme Being, they may find themselves between a rock and a hard place: if they don’t like the religious viewpoint in the Order they can quit and feel like they failed their new friends, or they can stay in the Order and feel like they have violated their personal beliefs. So before they even get started, we’ve put some new members in an ethical dilemma over their personal beliefs and their desire to remain in the Order.

group hand fist bump
We’ve got to strike a deal

It is wrong to do this.

Not only that, if someone wanted to get a lawyer over it, they might create as much trouble as what happened recently when the Order was finally forced to create a comprehensive nondiscrimination policy, which should have been done 40 years ago. We need to get ahead of potential lawsuits, not behind them.

History shows that religious viewpoints in the U.S. change every couple of generations, and currently it is undergoing a change in the U.S. As an example, we no longer follow the beliefs of the Puritans who executed people for heresy in Colonial America.

The Salem Witch Trials had more to do with Indian wars and land boundary disputes than witchcraft.

Try Googling the question, “Is the US becoming less religious?,” and you’ll get hits, many from respected research firms showing that yes, the U.S. is becoming less religious. Becoming less religious does not necessarily mean “more atheist,” as some might think. However, it does mean that the idea of “what religion means,” is being reevaluated by the American public. Many of these people may simply be religiously unaffiliated, and if they are, it’s not our job to expose them to religion.

So, does having religious content damage our ability to increase membership? My hunch is yes, although I don’t have any data to support my assumption. Although First, I’d point to the many sites on Google which illustrate that the United States is becoming less religious. Those people right off will probably not join. Second, if you’ve been in the Order for any length of time, you would be familiar with the fear that some people (religious AND nonreligious) are afraid to join because they are afraid we are a cult. Too much religious content simply reinforces that notion. Third, I’d point to the argument made by many members who want to keep religious content: “if members don’t like it they can leave.” Of course they can, and they do– all the time. That’s one reason you’re about to lose your lodge.

“My way or the highway” arguments rarely work to keep people motivated in the Order. This is easily proven by looking at the decline of the Order. We’ve been “our way or the highway” since the early 20th century and it’s done nothing but damage to the Order, and by way of reason, damage to our communities.

So where does all this leave us? It’s simple: it leaves us with the need for compromise. And compromise doesn’t mean “either/or.”  It means finding neutral ground between opinions. There isn’t room for narrow-minded “my side is absolutely right” posturing.

people shaking hands
Compromise is the way forward.

And no, there won’t be a mass departure of members from the Order over it, yet I do believe it will contribute to our continued decline if we don’t remove some of the religious leanings and update some words in ritual.

I’d hate to lose any of our symbolism and stories and degree work that some may tie to religion. Less religion, but not obliterating it, is probably the best approach. Or even allowing a path for Lodges to make their own decisions about such matters. 

SGL needs to handle this issue soon and compromise is THE key.

Scott Moye is author of the book “Think Like An Odd Fellow, Wisdom and Self Improvement in 21st Century Odd Fellowship.” He is an award-winning history educator and collector of Arkansas folklore. He grew up on a cotton farm and is currently a museum worker. Hobbies include: old house 14522791_10157320584235012_6451953840254930674_nrestoration, writing, amateur radio, Irish traditional music, archery, craft beer, old spooky movies, and street performance.  He is a member of Marshall Lodge #1, in Marshall, Arkansas, and a founder of Heart In Hand Blog. He currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas.

9 thoughts on “Odd Fellowship, Religion, and Compromise

  1. Great article. I’m part of the Odd Fellows lodge in Plymouth MI and we’ve been rebuilding our lodge after 1 step from being shut down (down to 6 or 7 members). We’re up to 55 members (45 contributing) and our average age is about 42.

    I’m Jewish and find the overtly Christian aspects a bit off-putting, but focus on the words, not their origin and find my way through it. But we have had prospective members not join because they’ve heard that the rituals were based upon the Christian bible.

    I agree with your thoughts on compromise. And look forward to change.


  2. As a non believer who has been looking for a fraternal society to join, I can say I was disheartened to learn the Odd Fellows (like all other fraternal organizations I have so far researched) require adherence to beliefs that I cannot in good conscience proclaim to hold without being dishonest. I really like a lot of what I have seen in the Odd Fellows locally and read about online, and wish I could apply with my local group, but know it would not be an honest application on my part and thus cannot. That said, I very much respect your organization and your mission and wish you the best!


    1. One of the cornerstones of Odd Fellowship is to not discuss religion or politics in the Lodge. So while we have a centuries old “requirement” to believe in a Supreme Being it is not anyone’s business what that means. It is completely up to your personal interpretation as to what that means. The idea is that members believe in something outside of greater than themselves. It can run from a more “traditional” faith, to a personal philosophy, or even scientific wonderment at the mysteries of the Universe that are just out of reach of human comprehension.

      We have members of all belief systems all over the world. Our current ritual was mostly written in the 1800s and parts are even from the 1700s so there are some Old Testament stories about human nature to illustrate the Degrees. But they are not religious in nature. Many atheist or non-religious members take this as part of what ties us to the historical nature of our Order and simply opt out of the opening and closing non-denominational prayer at the meeting, which is just like what you find with any other civic organization.

      We will never ask you what your personal beliefs or political leanings are. The Lodge breaks down those artificial walls that causes divides in society and gives us a neutral ground to meet together as humans and see past our labels as we work together to improve our communities and become better people.

      In FL&T


      1. One thing that has perplexed me about avoiding politics and religion in Lodge is the after-lodge socializing. I heard a member say that’s an ok time to discuss religion and politics but that seems to still undermine Oddfellowship. So what is it? Even some of the sensitive issues today would be a powderkeg between members and both are totally entitled to their leanings and belief systems.


  3. While we cannot discuss these things “while the regalia is on” during the meeting. Members should still practice FLT and personal control when discussing divisive topics during social times because it’s all too easy to find someone who disagrees to argue with.

    I personally avoid hot topics when I am in any sort of “odd fellows mode” since it is my escape from those things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “since it is my escape from those things.” I think this is very insightful. And doesn’t it seem tacky when we do let it slip in!
      Ainsley, you are a major asset to the IOOF. I’m not sure if you tire of hearing that, but your YT videos, blog posts and art really make the Order interesting again. And of course, the website presence is vitally important and you made that happen. FLT Brother 🤚❤️👁️🤝


  4. I guess technically, you can discuss these things with members after lodge. Once lodge is over,it’s over. But I nearly always, always, avoid discussing politics or religion with members. I’m not perfect at it–sometimes it will slip in, but that’s usually my goal. FLT!

    Liked by 1 person

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