Thursday, October 28, 2010

Historical Contributions and Achievements of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows

By Louie Blake S. Sarmiento

The Odd Fellows is one of the oldest and largest non-political, non-sectarian fraternal and service organization in the world. Because it existed very long ago "mystery of long-past ages enshrouds the origin of Odd Fellowship” and that the exact date of its first founding is "lost in the mists of antiquity'. Members in the United Kingdom trace its roots back to the Medieval Trade Guilds of the 12th and 13th centuries. Some believe that there are records that will show that Odd Fellows existed before year 1650.

There are many theories about how it first started and got its name but the generally accepted belief is that it emerged in England when a group of working class men who fell outside the established system of trade guilds banded together to form their own labor union. At the time of industrialization in England, ‘Fellows’ from numerous ‘Odd’ trades gathered together and formed a fraternity to protect and care for their members and communities at a time when there was no welfare state, trade unions and National Health Insurance. They would work together to help each other and the unfortunate families back on their feet, aiding each other in times of sickness and distress, whether it was rebuilding a barn that had burned, or putting in a new crop after a devastating season. Such helpers came to be known as “Odd fellows,” so named by the general population who also thought they were “an odd bunch of fellows” who would behave in such a selfless and seemingly impractical fashion. This group then adopted the name.

By year 1700s, there were numerous Odd Fellow organizations in England. In 1810, a number of lodges in the Manchester area organized an “Independent Order of Odd Fellows” with the title “Manchester Unity”. With their improved system, they were able to persuade other Odd Fellow organizations to join their Unity. They also chartered the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in America founded on April 26, 1819 by Thomas Wildey and four other members of the fraternity from England. The American Order then established many branches around the world.

On September 20, 1851, it became the first fraternal organization to accept women when it adopted the Rebekah Degree. It was also the first fraternal organization to establish homes for the elderly and for orphaned children. Many lodges also built and managed cemeteries for a descent burial for the deceased.

The American Odd Fellows was also the first to reunite the North and South after the American Civil War. In 1865, Odd Fellows in America gave an account of the laying of the cornerstone of the Wildey Monument just before the war ended. This event was really the "First Fraternization of the Blue and Gray". Men who had been engaged in the conflict, on both sides, marched side by side as brothers, wearing the regalia of the brotherhood.

During the ‘Golden Age of fraternalism’, the Odd Fellows was the largest fraternal organization in the world. The world Almanac showed that it had over 3.4 Million members in 1915. Although non-political and non-sectarian and contrary to the belief that it is just a working man’s organization, it also claimed many notable members which included about six U.S. Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Warren Harding, as well as many Senators, Governors and community leaders. King George IV, Prime Minister John Macdonald of Canada, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Chief Justice Earl Warren and William Jennings Bryan were also identified as members. Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first female American dentist was also a member of the Order.

The Odd Fellows and Rebekahs also played a very important part in establishing the State of California, Texas and many other states. Law and Order was established by the organization in many localities. Historically, Odd Fellows lodge halls also played a part as sort-of a 'community center' where people would gather and conduct community activities.In many cities, Odd Fellow Lodges were the first organizations of any type and a large number of their lodges have completed their first 100 years of service.

It continues to exist up until today with about 12,000 lodges and nearly 600,000 members in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela and hoping to continue spreading throughout the world.

As an organization, they are dedicated to improving and elevating the character of mankind by imparting the principles of friendship, love and truth and making the world a better place to live by aiding the community, the less fortunate, the youth and the elderly in every way possible.

Locally, nationally and internationally, the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs are involved in various charitable causes and humanitarian endeavors. They spend over $775 million in relief projects annually. Their Educational Foundation gives scholarships and low-interest student loans every year since 1927. They are also regular donors to Arthritis Foundation, Visual Eye Research Foundation, American Heart Association and several other foundations. Their Living Legacy program also planted more than 8 Million trees worldwide. Their United Nations Pilgrimage of the Youth sponsors High School students on a one-week trip to the United Nations since 1949. The organization also manages more than 80 homes for the elderly and orphans and several recreation camps and parks available for the whole family. They also sponsored the S.O.S. Children’s Village which houses orphans and aids victims in Cambodia. They also sponsor a float in the Rose Parade in California every year. They are also the only fraternal organization permitted to conduct a Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and given the honor of bestowing a Grand Decoration of Chivalry Award upon an Unknown Soldier.