Part 2: Fraternal Organizations in America and the Degree of Honor's Early Years

The Degree of Honor Protective Association Building, located at 325 Cedar Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is historically significant under National Register of Historic Places Criterion A as the national headquarters of the Degree of Honor Protective Association, a women’s fraternal benefit society with member lodges throughout the country.[1] This month we are featuring a series of blog posts on the Degree of Honor Building and the organization that commissioned it:

Fraternal Organizations in America[1]

Fraternal organizations, such as the Degree of Honor Protective Association, have long been a part of the American social landscape. The majority of fraternal societies in the United States were formed between the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily in New England. Alvin Schmidt, author of an encyclopedia of fraternal organizations, estimates that by 1927, “there were 800 different fraternal associations in the United States and 30,000,000 of the country’s 60,000,000 citizens [number per the 1920 census] held membership in a fraternal group.[2]

Fraternal organizations are generally divided into two types –secret orders and fraternal benefit societies. Secret orders, such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Shriners are characterized by the emphasis they place on their secret rituals as important vehicles for teaching moral values. Fraternal benefit societies, such as the Sons of Norway and Knights of Columbus, are distinguished by the fact that they provide life insurance for their members. The fraternal benefit societies may also engage in secret rituals and moral teachings. Schmidt describes the difference between the two types of organizations as follows: the fraternal benefit societies are primarily engaged in providing life insurance for their members, whereas insurance as such is not available in the fraternal secret organizations, even though they may provide contributions of charity and benevolence to needy members.[3] Today, that National Fraternal Congress and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners define fraternal benefit societies as “An incorporated society, order or supreme lodge, without capital stock…conducted solely for the benefit of its members and their beneficiaries and not for profit, operated on a lodge system with ritualistic forms of work, having a representative form of government, and which makes provision for the payment of benefits…”[4] The Degree of Honor Protective Association is a fraternal benefit society.

Generally, fraternal organizations conduct their activities at three levels – national, regional, and local. At the local level, member units are frequently referred to as “lodges.” The regional offices then are “grand lodges,” and the national office is the “supreme lodge.” Saint Paul has served as the location of the supreme lodge of the Degree of Honor Protective Association from 1910 through the present. Members of fraternal organizations are able to achieve different levels of leadership and access to the organization’s secret rituals (should they exist). These levels are commonly referred to as “degrees.”

The Ancient Order of United Workmen and Development of the Degree of Honor (1873-1908)

As fraternal organizations gained popularity throughout the country, many experienced growing pains, adding new degrees and sometimes splitting into new organizations. Addressing women’s desire for membership was a particular catalyst for change. As Alvin Schmidt explains:

One of the relatively persistent demands for organizational change was to admit women to the all-male fraternal societies. This change, when it occurred, primarily took place in the fraternal benefit societies. Organizations that accommodated females did so in different ways. Some counted women in the total membership statistics, but still had them serve in auxiliary roles. Others enrolled women in the formerly all-male organization, but had them receive female degrees. Still others, however, accepted females as regular members with no qualifications whatsoever.[5]

The Degree of Honor Protective Association (DOHPA) began as a women’s auxiliary to the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), a men’s fraternal organization with membership composed of working class individuals.[6] At the time of its inception, the Degree of Honor Protective Association was known as the "Degree of Honor" (DOH) and was solely a women’s social component of the AOUW, and not an active “protective association. The formation of the DOH was approved by the AOUW in 1873, at their national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. The DOH was “intended to promote union, sympathy, and friendship among the wives, widows, daughters, mothers, and sisters of members of the AOUW.”[7]

In 1873, the first four DOH lodges were established in Pennsylvania.[8] In 1882, the DOH begin offering its own insurance program to members – this was the organization’s first step toward becoming independent from the AOUW. DOH membership grew steadily, and the first Grand Lodge was formed in Kansas in 1890. A Superior Lodge was formed in Saint Paul in 1896.

During these early years, the DOH established the groundwork for its long-term success as an organization. The DOH set the following six organizational objectives 1) aid members and their families; 2) conduct meetings and ritualistic work; 3) receive, approve, or reject membership applications; 4) suspend members for nonpayment of dues or misconduct; 5) use lodge dues to support the lodge and its members; 6) acquire, own, sell, mortgage, and manage personal property to the benefit of the lodge.[9]

In addition to offering insurance to its members, the DOH was strongly invested in its rituals. The organization took Talitha Cumi as its motto (Talitha Cumi is Aramaic for “maiden arise.” The expression appears in Mark 5:41 of the New Testament). Frances Buell Olson, the DOH’s first national president, is quoted as describing the significance of the organization’s objectives and motto as “by this motto, we try to live our lives, doing charitable work for the needy, and extend our care and sympathy outside our own membership.”[10]

Frances Buell Olson and the Growth of Minnesota’s Own Women’s Fraternal Organization (1908-1953)

In 1908, the DOH voted Saint Paul native Frances Buell Olson into office at the organization’s National President. Olson entered office with two goals in mind – seceding from the AOUW, and adopting the “standard” member rates prescribed by the National Fraternal Congress. Achieving these goals would allow the organization to officially brand itself as a “protective association.” At this time, the AOUW was “in disarray. Many local lodges were withdrawing from the AOUW Supreme Lodge, membership was dropping, and it was evident [to Olson] that if the Degree of Honor was to survive, it must become a separate organization.”[11]

In 1910, Frances Buell Olson realized her goals - the Degree of Honor placed its insurance on legal reserve, completely divorcing itself from the AOUW, and also adopted industry standard membership rates.[12] The same year, the organization officially changed its name to the Degree of Honor Protective Association.

It is important to note that while a significant number of fraternal organizations were creating women’s auxiliaries or adding degrees for female members at this time, the DOHPA was the only women’s fraternal organization to completely divorce itself from the financial and social oversight of its parent organization. Furthermore, the majority of the women’s orders were secret orders rather than fraternal benefit societies and did not offer specialized insurance benefits to their members.[13]

During the decades following the DOHPA’s split from the AOUW, the DOHPA matured significantly as an organization. National president Frances Buell Olson brought recognition to the organization through frequent speaking engagements and by accepting a position as co-president of the National Fraternal Congress of America. By 1924, over 800 DOHPA member lodges had been established throughout the country. Additionally, four Grand Lodges had been established in Michigan, Iowa, Washington, and North Dakota. The organization was also successfully financially, boasting $24,298,200.00 worth of insurance in force in 1924.[14] In 1926, the DOHPA added a second degree for junior members – females under age 18 and men.

Around this time, the organization purchased a building in downtown Saint Paul to house its Supreme Lodge. The new headquarters, known as the Schiffman Building, was a four-story neoclassical building located at 389 Saint Peter Street and was purchased for $150,000.[15]

The DOHPA continued to grow under Buell Olson’s leadership. By 1935, DOHPA lodges were spread through 24 states and Canada. In 1939, the organization reported $59,337,494.33 worth of insurance in force.[16] By the end of the next decade, that number had risen to $71,089,418.00.[17] During 1952, the last year of Buell Olson’s tenure as president, the organization’s insurance in force totaled $75,678.770.00.[18]

[1] Note that scholarship on the topic of fraternal organizations commonly asserts that “fraternal” is not regarded as a gendered term by members of these organizations. In cases of organizations with membership that is primarily or solely female, organization members apply the term “fraternal,” rather than “sororal,” to themselves.

[2] Alvin J. Schmidt, Fraternal Organizations (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980), 3.

[3] Ibid. 4

 [4]National Association of Insurance Commissioners and National Fraternal Congress of America, Uniform Code for Organization and Supervision of Fraternal benefit Societies, 1962, p.1.

[5] Schmidt, 12.

[6] The AOUW was founded in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1868. Its membership was composed of working class men, and it is notable as the first fraternal organization to offer insurance to members – access to insurance was a rarity for working class Americans during this time. By the 1880s, the AOUW membership had grown to one of the largest fraternal organizations in the country, with more than 176,000 members and 3,200 lodges across the country. 

[7] M.W. Sackett, Early History of Fraternal Beneficiary Societies in America, (Meadville, PA: The Tribune Publishing Company, 1914), 111.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Degree of Honor Protective Association, Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, (updated 1977).

[10] Schmidt, 89.

[11] One Hundred Years of Service, (Degree of Honor Protective Association, Saint Paul: 1985), 11-12.

[12] Legal reserve or statutory reserve is the amount of liability that an insurance company is legally required to maintain on its balance sheet with respect to the volume of expected future claims.

[13] Schmidt. A review of the other female fraternal organizations listed in Schmidt’s work lists only the Ladies of the Modern Macabees as a female benefit society. The Ladies of the Modern Macabees put their insurance on legal reserve in 1915 and changed their name to the North American Benefit Association in 1966. The organization’s supreme lodge, known as a Hive, is located in Michigan.

[14] Degree of Honor Review 75, no. 5 (1971).

[15] Preuss, Arthur. A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies, (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1924), 108.

[16] Degree of Honor Review 44, no. 9 (1940).

[17] Degree of Honor Review 53, no. 3 (1949).

[18] Degree of Honor Review 57, no. 9 (1953).

Degree of HonorLaurel Fritz