Some Very Odd Fellows

By Chris Waide
October 16, 2020

Perhaps while browsing available scholarships you stumbled across the one offered by the Odd Fellows, and you wondered what an Odd Fellow might be. Many people seem to have never heard of the fraternity, which has been around for centuries. The Odd Fellows are a social organization, but they’re also a charitable one.

According to some accounts, The International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) trace their roots at least to the twelfth or thirteenth century. Its origins are murky, but the organization has a long history of serving their communities, and over the last several hundred years their ranks have included some of the most well-known and influential people of their time. The IOOF has included senators, comedians, athletes, and even tattoo artists.

According to their website, members live by the command to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, and educate the orphan.” They state their current focus is promoting harmony. They have many charitable ventures, including but not limited to, the educational foundation that funds loans and scholarships. The IOOF also funds research for arthritis and eye ailments. The Pilgrimage for Youth brings young people from all over to learn about government.

Considering current events, the command to “visit the sick” sounds like a dangerous undertaking. Yet, notwithstanding the current pandemic, it was far more dangerous to visit the sick when the group was formed in medieval times. Medical science has improved by leaps and bounds since the aptly named “dark ages,” and our modern understanding of bacteria, viruses, and transmission has enabled medical protective equipment to evolve.

Also, in medieval times the educating of orphans was laughable, unless the child was from a wealthy family. There were no social programs to regulate a child’s treatment or nourishment. There was little to no chance of a peasant having an education to begin with, and it was unlikely that he should get one simply because he was orphaned. If the peasant were a woman, there would be no chance whatsoever. This command of educating the orphan is thought by some to be why they call themselves “Odd Fellows.”

The group was open to all men, with a sister sorority (Daughters of Rebekah) springing up for women, though the groups have now been gender-inclusive for some time. The IOOF strives to be open to as many people as possible and has even taken the step of prohibiting divisive conversations within the lodges. Many of the group members are average, working class people, but their ranks have historically been quite diverse. Figures like Winston Churchill, Red Skelton, Charles Lindbergh, and Charlie Chaplin have graced their ranks.

In short, the IOOF is as they put it, a “non-political and non-sectorial” fraternity that seeks to promote the principles of friendship, truth, and love. Despite some confusion online, they started in medieval Europe and not post-industrial America. They have been around for the better part of a millennium and do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. There are lodges all over the world, with about 12,000 in the U.S. alone.