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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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 restoration, 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.