Monday, December 29, 2008

Freemasonry and the Labor Movement: Ancient Order of United Workmen

This Christmas, I was in West Central Minnesota visiting my in-laws. While I was out there, I went to a restaurant in downtown Montevideo. At the restaurant was a poster for the Ancient Order of United Workmen. Here is a video of what I saw:

I have a special affinity towards the labor movement. My Father is a railroad engineer as was my Grandfather, while my Great Grandfather and my Great Great Grandfather were railroad workers. My Father and Grandfather are union members. My maternal Grandfather was a Local 49 crane operator who helped construct Interstate 35W. During my studies in law school, I took a special interest in employment law and labor law and the connections between them. As you can see, my life has been touched by labor from roots to leaf and I find its growth and development to be fascinating.

I have always held the belief that the origin of Masonry did not lie in a supposed relation to the Templar Knights but were more likely related to the stonemasons’ guilds of Europe. These guild members were the builders of the great cathedrals of the era and represented the best craftsmen of their age. These guilds were the precursors of the modern labor movement and contain many of the same values unions express today, namely, brotherly love and relief. Through a series of essays, I will discuss many of the groups that rose out of the labor movement and their connections to Freemasonry. I decided on AOUW as the first group to discuss while I was visiting my in-laws in western Minnesota.

The Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.) was a fraternal organization created by J.J. (John Jordan) Upchurch, a Freemason and railroad worker, in 1868. It was formed during the Golden Age of Fraternity in the United States during the period after the Civil War. Originally, the A.O.U.W. was designed using ritual similar to that used by Masonic lodges but went a step further by offering death benefits for a brother’s family.

By introducing death benefits, the members of A.O.U.W. received an added bonus over and above the ritual and camaraderie that other fraternities offered at the time. The way a brother joined and received benefits was as follows: a brother of the A.O.U.W. would pay $1 to join the insurance policy. If the brother should happen to die while on the job, the heirs would receive $500 from the fund and the members of the local lodge would be assessed a $1 to replenish the fund. The insurance benefit offered by the A.O.U.W. was the first of its kind in the United States by a fraternal organization as there was no discretion by the members on who would receive the largesse of the lodge.

The A.O.U.W. was built on the theory of working men needing protection for their families. At the time, there was little to no protection afforded to the working class, no unemployment benefits, no pensions or retirement plans and only employee-paid insurance plans (employer paid insurance plans did not arrive until 1911). It was the stated mission in the Preamble of A.O.U.W.: “(1) To embrace and give equal protection to all classes and kinds of labor, mental and physical; to strive earnestly to Improve the moral, intellectual, and social condition of Its members; to endeavor, by wholesome precepts, fraternal admonitions, and substantial aid, to Inspire a due appreciation of the stern realities and responsibilities of life. (2) To create a fund for the benefit of its members during sickness or other disability, and, in case of death, to pay stipulated sums to such persons as may be designated by each member; thus enabling him to guaranty his family against want." (quoted from the Nebraska Supreme Court case, Grand Lodge A.O.U.W. v. Brand, 46 N.W. 95)The seeds of the modern labor movement are obvious throughout this Preamble.

In 1896, there were 341,371 members of the A.O.U.W. However, it, like many groups, began to decline. The demise of the A.O.U.W. came as the insurance policies of each Grand Lodge began to consolidate and became less dependent on the national organization (known as the A.O.U.W. Congress). The consolidated business entities either were sold off to other insurance companies or mutualized into new, unrelated insurance companies. Some of these insurance companies including Pioneer Mutual Life Insurance Company based in Indianapolis, IN (now owned by OneAmerica Financial Partners Inc.)

The Minnesota connection to A.O.U.W. can be found in the laws passed by the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota allowed the incorporation of the A.O.U.W. in 1905 under H.F. No. 52 establishing the Grand Lodge and subordinate Lodges as well as the women’s auxiliary group, the Legion of Honor. When I saw the poster in Montevideo, I was at first confused how it got there. However, I have a theory. Montevideo was a hub for rail traffic as it was at the confluence of the Minnesota and Chippewa rivers. There still exists a restored Milwaukee Road depot in Montevideo that is maintained the Milwaukee Road Heritage Center. Therefore, I would assume that there was a Lodge based in Montevideo. I will be contacting the Chippewa County Historical Society regarding the connection the A.O.U.W. had with the city of Montevideo.

This is only a short, cursory look at the A.O.U.W. and doing a full look at this group could fill a book especially in the matter of insurance law (a subject more esoteric than the origins of Freemasonry). I realize that there are some arguments for the connection between Freemasonry and the Knights Templar but I remain unconvinced. The connection between what is the modern union, trade or otherwise, and stonemasons’ guilds seem much more intimately interconnected with its focus on mutual aid. I would extend this connection of Guilds within Freemasonic history. I will continue to explore further the many different labor groups that have a connection with Freemasonry and the Golden Age of Fraternity.

Sources Used:

"Ancient Order of United Workmen", Infomercantile,

Gray, Buckley, "Fraternalism in America (1860-1920)", Phoenix Masonry,

"History of Insurance", Wikipedia,


Still Justa Mason said...

Just a note, Nick, that when Mt. Hermon Lodge moved to Vancouver shortly after the city was incorporated in 1886, it met in the AOUW Hall.

I gather that AOUW is still around but has no fraternal componant.

What's somewhat relevant today is the fact that if you go back into the 19th century, you'll see essays about how Freemasonry should stay as it is and not imitate the numerous fraternal benefit societies which existed in that day. They decried attempts to "modernise" Freemasonry. On the other side, you had people saying Masonry should be seen to be "doing something."

Things don't change an awful lot.


burntloafer said...

OK, I will ask a naive question: Will anyone, save conspiracy buffs, novelists, and screenwriters, really believe that the Masons evolved from a religious sect from the middle ages? It seems frightfully contrived.

I guess it was just as a matter of common sense that I thought the connection to the Operative Masons made a lot more sense.

To me, anyway...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this video. I am a great-great-granddaughter of JJU, and everything I have comes from historical records. I made a phone call and wrote to OneAmerica when I heard from a distant cousin that the organization has (or had) a museum in which some of JJU's artifacts are displayed. I would like to travel to see them, if true. Again, thanks for posting this.

Tim Gilson said...

Interesting info about freemasonry.

tractor-parts-guy said...

I have in front of me a $1000 Beneficiary Certificat #46636 issued by the Grand Order of United Workmen of Minnesota to Brother Joseph S. Drake of Dundas, Mn. Lodge No. 51. ( I assume in Northfield)
Grand Recorder: Chas. E. Larson
Grand Master Workman: A H White
Recorder: W.E. Roberts
Master Workman: Jas. A Cowden
21st day of February one thousand nine hundred and three.

Anonymous said...

I have a dues notice from the Minneapolis Lodge number 12 dated Oct. 6 1884. This notice showed 2 deaths and a 2.00$ debit to the c
member. It also notes who died age and date.

Rick N said...

I have a insurance document of $1000.00 from the Grand Lodge of Maryland AOUW,#1130, dated October 25,1889. It was issued from Lotus Lodge #7

Tawnya Cook said...

My great great great great uncle was O.G.COLLVER. He is accredited to be one of Oregons first pioneers, crossing the plains in 1852. I have some history and have been to his gravesite in central Oregon. He came from Iowa and was an A.O.U.W. member. Any more significant info would be greatly appreciated

Maatkheru said...

Fascinating read. Being a Union official and a member of the Craft, I find this subject extremely interesting. I’ve been looking for connections between early labor movements and Freemasonry. I believe there should be academic research into this subject, unless there already is and I am unaware.