The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Independent Order of Odd Fellows

Bolkcom Cemetery, Rileyville, PA

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) is an international fraternity that traces its roots back to 17th century England, where small groups of working-class people banded together, using some of their wages to create a common fund that they could turn to in times of sickness, loss of a job, or death.  These altruistic groups became known as “odd fellows” since it was then considered odd or peculiar to find people organized for the purpose of giving aid to those in need and pursuing projects for the benefit of all mankind. 

The IOOF came to America in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland.  Thomas Wildey, a British Odd Fellow who immigrated to the New World in 1817, placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, calling for other Odd Fellows to meet him at the Seven Stars Inn.  Four other English Odd Fellows met with Wildey, and the first lodge was formed, Washington Lodge No. 1.  Wildey traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, organizing more English Odd Fellows and others into lodges.   By the Civil War, the IOOF had 200,000 members and by 1915, they numbered 3,400,000.  However, the Great Depression and a lack of interest in fraternal organizations decreased membership; by the 1970’s, less than 250,000 members remained.  But the organization is still in existence and now has members in 25 countries, numbering more than 500,000 members.  

The IOOF became the first national fraternity to include both men and women when it adopted the Rebekah Degree in 1851.  In the Bible, Rebekah came to the well with her pitcher and met Eliezur, a tired and thirsty traveler with tired and thirsty camels.  He asked if he could use her pitcher to draw water, but Rebekah insisted that she minister to him, drawing the water herself and offering it to Eliezur and then watering the camels for him.  Hence, women of the Rebekah order are called to serve others, especially the sick and destitute.

Odd Fellows and Rebekahs were also the first fraternal organization to establish homes for senior members and for orphaned children.  In the 19th century and early 20th century, IOOF lodges also purchased cemetery plots for the use of their members, or in some cases, established entire cemeteries and selling lots to members at modest fees.


The IOOF shares many symbols with the Masons, so many that the IOOF has been called a “poor man’s Freemasonry.”   (The Masons tended to be populated with more of the upper classes, while the Odd Fellows were less, shall we say picky?, in their acceptance of new members.)  The main symbol of the IOOF is the three chain links, sometimes with the letters F, L and T carved inside them, which stand for Friendship, Love, and Truth.  When the three chain links are joined with an axe, the symbol means that truth must persevere and the parts of us that “do not bear good fruit” must be cut down, as an axe fells sickly trees.

The IOOF shares the all-seeing eye symbol with the Masons, as both fraternities require members to believe in a higher being, a deity of some sort, though the specific religion of each member is not dictated by the fraternity.  (Although many of the IOOF symbolism traces the meanings back to Judeo-Christian teachings.)   The all-seeing eye reminds Odd Fellows that God watches them always.  When the all-seeing eye is in the center of the sun, it symbolizes that the blessings of God descend on all of mankind.  When the all-seeing eye is in the center of a cloud, it means God (and we should) see the suffering in the world and be moved to sympathy for human woe.

The bundle of rods symbolizes that in unity, there is strength.  Try breaking a bundle of sticks instead of just one at a time. 

Another symbol that usually signifies the IOOF is a hand, palm facing out, with a heart in the center, signifying “cheerful giving” and benevolence to those in need.  Two shaking hands (grasping each other in a handshake) can also be a symbol of the IOOF as a sign of Friendship, one of their tenets.

A higher order of the IOOF called the Encampment uses the symbols of crossed shepherd’s hooks and/or ancient Middle Eastern-looking tents.  The Encampment branch of the IOOF strives to impart the principles of Faith, Hope and Charity.    The crossed shepherd’s hooks symbolize that the higher order of the IOOF are like the Israelites---shepherds, watching their flocks and keeping them safe.  And the tents are the tents of the wandering Israelites, to remind us we “do not permanently abide here, as we are on a pilgrimage to the grave.”

For Rebekah, the dove symbolizes peace and the lily symbolizes purity.  


Since my interest in history pertains to 1850-1900, I concentrate on tombstones carved and erected in that period.  In the cemeteries I have visited in Eastern Pennsylvania, I am amazed at how many men and women in that time period were members of IOOF and Rebekah.  There were strong and vibrant lodges located in many large cities and small towns of Eastern Pennsylvania.  I do not know any current members of IOOF or Rebekah. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania is still in existence, according to the IOOF website, as well as a state Rebekah Assembly and the Grand Encampment.  Per their website, they raise money for many organizations, continuing the work of the first “odd fellows” who banded together to help one another, back in the 1600’s.

Bethel Methodist Cemetery, Bedford Valley, PA

Dalton Shoemaker Cemetery, Dalton, PA

Dalton Shoemaker Cemetery, Dalton, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

Encampment Symbol, Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA

Equinunk Cemetery, Equinunk, PA

Heart in the Hand (Charity), Salem Cemetery, Hamlin, PA

Hatboro Cemetery, Hatboro, PA

Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA

Madisonville Union Cemetery, Madisonville, PA

Mountainhome Methodist Cemetery, Mountainhome, PA

Newtown Cemetery, Newtown, PA

IOOF Plot Marker, Doylestown Cemetery, Doylestown, PA

Prompton Cemetery, Prompton, Wayne Co.

Rieglesville Cemetery, Riegelsville, PA

St. Michael's Evan. Lutheran Cemetery, Sellersville, PA

St. Peter's Tohickon UCC Cemetery, Keelersville, PA

Sterling Cemetery, Sterling, PA

Tannersville Union Cemetery, Tannersville, PA

Trumbauersville Cemetery, Trumbauersville, PA

Rebekah, Zion Cemetery, Newfoundland, PA

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA

Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, PA

St. Luke Episcopal Cemetery, Newtown, PA

Montrose Cemetery, Montrose, PA

Rebekah, St. Paul's UCC Cemetery, Swiftwater, PA

Bethel Methodist Cemetery, Bedford Valley, PA

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettsyburg, PA

Doylestown Cemetery, Doylestown, PA

Hays Cemetery, Easton, Pa


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your dedicated work. I have learned so much about these symbols I often see on old tombstones around NE PA. Thanks!

Elly Sienkiewicz said...

I happened upon your blog, today. So impressed! A query: I was checking on the "bundle of sticks" in an 1846-47 Baltimore Album Quilt. My concern is whether the woman who stitched it made it in honor of an oddfellow. I know wives of scarlet degree oddfellows could be honorary (ladies' auxiliary)Rebekkahs. But I thought that until they got full privileges in the 1880's they could not use such symbols on their own behalf. Do you know? I found your blog superior! The BAQs are full of Oddfellow symbols. I'm bringing out a 30th Anniversary of 'Spoken Without a Word' [1983]end of this year: Patterns and a Lexicon of Symbols in the BAQS. Thanks! Elly Sienkiewicz

Anonymous said...

Great site and great work! I have a slight disagreement about the origin of meaning of 'OddFellows'. As I understand it, there were many guilds for all kinds of professions, and the OddFellows were for smaller and varied professions that didn't have the large numbers for a guild. So those professions of 'Odd Fellows' banded together to create their own guild.

One recurring theme is that the name "Odd Fellows" arose because, in smaller towns and villages, there were too few Guild "Fellows" in the same trade to form a local Guild. The Fellows from a number of trades therefore joined together to form a local Guild of Fellows from an assortment of different trades, the Odd Fellows.[5] A second recurring theme explains the name as adopted "at a time when the severance into sects and classes was so wide that persons aiming at social union and mutual help were a marked exception to the general rule".[1]