The exact date of the first founding of Odd Fellowship is lost in the fogs of antiquity. Some historians trace its roots back to the Medieval Trade Guilds of the 12th and 13th Centuries. Others estimated that it existed before 1650. What is clear is that there were a number of Odd Fellow groups in England in the 1700.
It is said that the titles of the officers of the Lodge were taken from the “Order of Gregorian’s‚” which met at St. Albans, in May of 1736. Other evidence suggests that our origins were in an organization known as the Ancient Order of Bucks which thrived in England in the 18th Century, and had as its emblem three bucks with their antlers intertwined. These men had as their leader a “Most Noble Grand” and met in club rooms and taverns. One of their principal emblems was “a bundle of sticks,” familiar to modern Odd Fellows as signifying strength in union. In 1745, Daniel De Foe mentions the Society of Odd Fellows, and in the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Odd Fellows’ Lodge is mentioned as “a place where very pleasant and recreative evenings are spent.”
The earliest surviving printed official lodge record is said to be the “Rules of Loyal Aristarchus Lodge No.9” in England dated March 12, 1748. This establishes the fact that this lodge had been operating for some time prior thereto, and its number indicates that at least eight other lodges that are associated with each other had existed up to that time.
The poet James Montgomery wrote a song for a Body of Odd Fellows in 1788. The Odd Fellows’ Keepsake states that the early English Lodges were supported and their members relieved by each member and visitor paying a penny to the Secretary on entering the Lodge. These allusions are sufficient proof of the existence of the Order at the time, but they tell us nothing of its aims, objects and characteristics.
From other sources it is known that the Lodges were originally formed by workingmen for social purposes, and for giving the brethren aid and assisting them to obtain employment when out of work. When a brother could not obtain work he was given a Card and funds enough to carry him to the next Lodge, and if unsuccessful there, that Lodge facilitated his farther progress in the same way. Where he found employment, there he deposited his Card.
At first there was little or no Ritual, and no formal method of conducting the business of the Lodge. These were matters of gradual and slow growth. The English are and were very conservative, and do not readily yield to innovations. Time, however, works wonders, so that in the end many radical and necessary changes were made in the Order.
Even to this day some of the original and characteristic features of the Order are still practiced in the English branch of the fraternity. In the early days of the institution, after the formal business was transacted, conviviality and good fellowship became the order of the night, and the brethren, glass and pipe in hand, made the welkin ring with the melody of their favorite songs:
“When Friendship, Love and Truth abound Among a Band of Brothers,
The cup of joy goes gaily round Each shares the bliss of others.”
“Then let us be social, be generous, be kind,
And let each take his glass and be mellow,
Then we’ll join heart and hand, leave dissensions behind,
And we’ll each prove a hearty Odd Fellow.”
King George the IV of England, while still Prince of Wales, was admitted to membership around 1780. The oldest surviving revised initiation ritual dates back March 12, 1797 under the “Order of Patriotic Odd Fellows”. In 1798, it was mentioned that the original “United Order of Odd Fellows” consisted of a total of 50 lodges in England and its environs.
For a time, fraternal and friendly societies like the Odd Fellows were suppressed in England. Membership became a criminal offence, and such organizations were driven underground and forced to use codes, passwords, special handshakes and similar mechanisms. Fear of revolution was not the sole reason for persecution; Fraternal and Friendly Societies like the Odd Fellows were the predecessors of modern-day trade unions and could facilitate effective local strike action by levying all of their members for additional contributions for their benevolent funds, out of which payments could be made to the families of members who were on strike.
In the early history of the Order each Lodge was the arbiter of its own fate and practically supreme. The doctrine of self-institution prevailed then, as it did afterwards. Secessions from Lodges were frequent and rendered the Lodges less able to fulfill the object of their being. The brethren were slow to learn that “in union there is strength.”
In 1803, the Odd Fellows were revived by an organization called the “London Union Odd Fellows” which later claimed itself as the “Grand Lodge of England” and assumed authority over all Odd Fellow lodges in that country.
In 1810, however, several lodges located in the Manchester area declared themselves as an “Independent Order of Odd Fellows” with the title “Manchester Unity. In 1814, they elected officers and proceeded to standardize degree work of the lodges. With their improved system, they were able to persuade other lodges to join their unity. They also chartered the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in North America.
More early Odd Fellow history can be seen on the Manchester Unity website.
North American Odd Fellows
While several Odd Fellow lodges had existed in New York City sometime in 1806 to 1818, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was officially organized on April 26, 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland, by Thomas Wildey and four other members of the fraternity from England.
In 1828, less than ten years following the 1819 organization of Odd Fellowship in America, lodges in the nation's capital petitioned for and received a charter establishing the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. In the succeeding years the jurisdiction received a charter for a Grand Encampment to oversee patriarchal Odd Fellowship and an Assembly for the oversight of the several Rebekah lodges.
Since then, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows had spread throughout the world where it currently have about 10,000 Lodges located in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Since 2001, The IOOF has been fully co-ed and both genders can join Odd Fellows Lodges.
On September 20, 1851, I.O.O.F. became the first fraternity in the United States to accept women when it adopted the Degree of Rebekah. This was way before the United States government allowed women to vote or run for public office. Brother Schuyler Colfax, U.S. Vice President from 1869 to 1873, was the force behind the movement.