July 21, 2023

Secret Passwords & Handshakes: Looking Back at Fraternal Initiations

While becoming a member of BetterLife today is as simple as purchasing a life insurance policy or annuity, traditionally, becoming a member of a fraternal organization involved a bit more pomp and circumstance. In fraternal organizations of the 19th and 20th centuries, initiation rituals were commonplace for new members looking to join a fraternal society. These rituals not only promoted secrecy but also supported the exclusivity of these organizations. Where did these rituals originate? Some Slovak scholars have worked to establish a link between medieval artisan guilds in Bohemia and immigrant fraternals in the US (a lodge leader in Pittsburgh was even known to conduct meetings along the lines of guild rituals)* but initiation rituals were commonplace in member societies for centuries, including BetterLife’s legacy organizations National Mutual Benefit (NMB) and Western Fraternal Life Association (WFL).

In the early days of NMB, branches were known as beaver colonies. These colonies met regularly, and members were only admitted by mentioning a secret password and handshake given to the Worthy Trapper who guarded the meeting room door. Meetings were conducted according to a specific ritual outlined in a hard-cover manual, and new members were not an exception to these rituals and rules. To become a member of a Beaver Colony, a petition of membership had to be signed by the petitioner and a current member of the colony who recommended their membership. The colony membership would vote on admitting the new member and, if passed, begin the process of being initiated into the colony.

The initiation ritual focused on the new member pledging to adhere to the organization’s values. The ritual would begin with a “tempter” representing “greed and selfishness,” encouraging the member to go with them to only spend “money on a good time” and not life insurance. After facing this initial confrontation, the new member walked along a figure-eight representing “life’s winding pathway.” They were then addressed by the Most Worthy Beaver (a lodge officer), explaining the significance of the figure-eight and the expectations of the new member to practice the virtues of “faith, charity, and love for humanity.” After this step of the ritual, the new member would take the pledge, promising to “promote the growth of this fraternity and the happiness of its members… guarding the good reputation of its members, never speaking evil of a member, but maintaining a discreet silence when words of commendation cannot be truthfully spoken.” Lectures were then given by the Worthy Counselor, who told the lessons of George Washington, the Most Worthy Queen, who told the cardinal virtues of the life of Zenobia, Queen of the East, and the Queen of Love, who spoke about Joan of Arc, Eva Booth, and Florence Nightingale. To close the ritual, the Most Worthy Beaver would review the lessons learned and give a final statement on the importance of insurance and “the fraternal spirit.”

Map showing early NMB initiation ritual

Map showing early NMB initiation ritual

While this may seem excessive for the admittance of a single member, the author of The Benefit Story notes that these rituals “originated at a time where there was little else that people could do for recreation.” Not only did this ritual express the importance of the organization’s values, but it also served as entertainment for its members.

There are many similarities between NMB’s and WFL’s initiation rituals, though WFL’s practice evolved to be much simpler over time due to the volume of members being admitted. Mass initiations were common, and the initiation rites were altered situationally. Mary Pernicka Fridrich of Lodge No. 46 reminisces on her initiation into the lodge in the Fraternal Herald centennial issue, stating, “There was a large group initiated… Before we could enter the meeting, the guard taught us the handshake and the password. We then entered the meeting, and one by one greeted President Bill Bartodej with the handshake and password. He gave us our certificates and pins, and we were officially members.”

The initiation ceremony was based on the association’s motto, “Truth, Love, and Loyalty,” and often involved initiation drill teams which performed for the new members.

Western Bohemian Fraternal Association Book of Rites from 1937

As outlined in the 1935 Book of Rites, the ceremony would begin with the lodge president addressing the new membership candidates, explaining the rights and privileges of being a member. The “Past President” would further explain the benefits of membership and introduce the motto. In longer initiations, three poems, “Truth,” “Love,” and “Loyalty,” would be recited. In shorter initiations, a summary would be recited by the Past President. Candidates would then face the Vice President and take the membership pledge. After the pledge, the President would give instructions on attending meetings and using the secret knock, password, membership sign, and handshake. This would conclude the initiation, and new members were handed their certificates and pins, and given time to meet other members.

While initiation rituals are no longer used today, the value of being a BetterLife member remains unchanged. We still offer exclusive member benefits, and values such as charity and community remain central to BetterLife’s culture. Today we’re proud to say that it’s easy to become a member at BetterLife, no initiation ritual required.

*Bodnar, John ”Ethnic Fraternal Benefit Associations: Their Historical Development, Character, and Significance” 1981
Wenger, William J. “The Benefit Story 1902-1992: A 90-Year History of National Mutual Benefit” 1993
Fraternal Herald, Vol. 100, No. 7, Centennial Issue, July 1997

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