Friendly society

From New World Encyclopedia

A friendly society (sometimes called a mutual aid society, benevolent society or fraternal organization) is a mutual association for insurance-like purposes, and often, especially in the past, serving ceremonial and friendship purposes also. It is a benefit society composed of a body of people who join together for a common financial or social purpose. Before modern insurance, and the welfare state, friendly societies provided social services to individuals, often according to their religious or political affiliations. Unlike guilds, society members do not necessarily share a common profession.

The history of friendly societies is entwined with benefit societies or mutual aid societies, and indeed many friendly societies and benefit societies worked together throughout history. These societies date back centuries and many have emerged in a more contemporary form to keep up with the changing social landscape. In recent times, the insurance aspect of the societies became increasingly important, with some societies developing into government insurance agents or commercial insurance entities. In attempting to define the magnitude of the risk and so determine how much members should contribute, friendly societies developed basic principles of risk assessment that are foundational to insurance practices. In this way, each individual contributes to the larger group, which then takes care of them when the need arises.


A benefit society or mutual aid society is an organization or voluntary association formed to provide mutual aid, benefit or insurance for relief from sundry difficulties. Such organizations may be formally organized with charters and established customs, or may arise ad hoc to meet unique needs of a particular time and place.

Benefit societies can be organized around a shared ethnic background, religion, occupation, geographical region, or other basis. Benefits may include money or assistance for sickness, retirement, education, birth of a baby, funeral and medical expenses, or unemployment. Often benefit societies provide a social or educational framework for members and their families to support each other and contribute to the wider community.

Examples of benefit societies include trade unions, friendly societies, credit unions, self-help groups, and Fraternal organizations such as Freemasons and Oddfellows.[1]

A benefit society can be characterized by all members having an equal say in the organization. People who are part of these societies would have certain benefits. These benefits would include monetary, occupational, and possible legal support. This was especially true in friendly societies, where money would cover medical expenses. There would be a collection of funds on some timely basis to keep the society afloat, and in order to influence others about the society's best interests and traditions.

At the height of their popularity, members of a friendly society typically paid a regular membership fee and went to lodge meetings to take part in ceremonies. If a member became sick they would receive an allowance to help them meet their financial obligations. The society would have a regular doctor whom the member could visit for free. Members of the lodge would visit to provide emotional support (and possibly to check that the sick member was not malingering). When a member died, their funeral would be paid for and the members of their lodge would attend in ceremonial dress—often there was some money left over from the funeral for the widow. Friendly societies also had social functions such as dances, and some had sporting teams for members to participate in. They occasionally became involved in political issues that were of interest to their members.[2]


Examples of benefit societies can be found throughout history, including among secret societies of the Tang Dynasty in China and among African-Americans during the post-revolutionary years, such as those who organized the Free African Society of Philadelphia. Mutual aid was a foundation of social welfare in the United States until the early twentieth century. Early societies not only shared material resources, but often advanced social values related to self-reliance and moral character. Many fraternal organizations were first organized as mutual aid societies.

Medieval guilds were an early basis for many Western benefit societies. A guild charter document from the year 1200 states:

To become a gildsman, …it was necessary to pay certain initiation fees, …(and to take) an oath of fealty to the fraternity, swearing to observe its laws, to uphold its privileges, not to divulge its counsels, to obey its officers, and not to aid any non-gildsman under cover of the newly-acquired 'freedom.'[3]

This charter shows the importance of brotherhood, and the principles of discipline, conviviality, and benevolence. The structure of fraternity in the guild formed the basis for the emerging benefit societies. Joining such an organization, a member gained the "freedom" of the craft; and the exclusive benefits that the organization could confer on members.[4]

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries benefit societies in the form of friendly societies emerged throughout Europe and the United States.[5] These friendly societies were essential in providing social assistance for sickness and unemployment for their members, often improving social conditions for the membership. With the introduction in the early twentieth century of state social welfare programs, and health and welfare regulation, the influence and membership of benefit societies declined in importance.

Each lodge was generally responsible for its own affairs, but it was associated with an order of lodges such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, or the Independent Order of Foresters. There were typically reciprocal agreements between lodges within an order, so that if a member moved to a different city or country they could join a new lodge without having to serve any initiation time. The ceremonies were also fairly uniform throughout an order. Occasionally a lodge might change the order that it was associated with, or a group of lodges would break away from their order and form a new order, or two orders might merge. Consequentially, the history of any particular friendly society is difficult to follow. Often there were unassociated orders with similar names.


Many of the features of benefit societies today have been assimilated into organizations that rely on the corporate and political structures of our time. Insurance companies, religious charities, credit unions, and democratic governments now perform many of the same functions that were once the purview of ethnic or culturally affiliated mutual benefit associations.[6]

New technologies have provided yet more new opportunities for humanity to support itself through mutual aid. In modern Asia rotating credit associations organized within communities or workplaces were widespread through the early twentieth century and continue in our time. Habitat for Humanity in the United States is a leading example of shared credit and labor pooled to help low-income people afford adequate housing.

In post-disaster reactions, formal benefit societies often lend aid to others outside their immediate membership, while ad hoc benefit associations form among neighbors or refugees. Ad hoc mutual aid associations have been seen organized among strangers facing shared challenges at such disparate settings as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in New York in 1969, during the Beijing Tiananmen square protests of 1989, and for neighborhood defense during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.

Before large-scale government and employer health insurance, friendly societies played an important part in many people's lives. Friendly societies covered significant portions of many nations’ populations, and some of these societies still exist today, although in a different form. In some countries, they have been incorporated into the health system and become like insurance companies and lost their ceremonial aspect; in others they have taken on a more charitable or social aspect.

Lists of Societies

Some active, famous friendly societies include:

  • Police Mutual Assurance Society was founded in 1866 in the United Kingdom and still serves as a friendly society for police officers, on the job and retired, as well as their families.
  • Knights of Columbus, founded 1882 in Connecticut still offers mutual aid to the sick, disabled, and needy in several different countries and territories.
  • Liverpool Victoria is the largest friendly society in the United Kingdom and was founded in 1843.
  • Fraternal Forestry|Independent Order of Foresters was founded in 1834 and continues to welcome new members into its society.
  • Independent Order of Odd Fellows was a friendly society founded in the 1700s that expanded to serving different countries throughout the Americas and Europe, as well as Australia.
  • Wesleyan, founded in Birmingham, United Kingdom in 1841, this society continues to aid the sick and ailing.

Some active, famous benefit societies include:


  1. Samuel Bacharach, Peter Bamberger, and William Sonnenstuhl, Mutual Aid and Union Renewal: Cycles of Logics of Action. (Cornell University Press, 2001) ISBN 9780801487347 Retrieved September 5, 2007.
  2. Bob James and Dan Weinbran. "Getting a Grip: the Roles of Friendly Societies in Australia and Britain Reappraised." Labour History (2005). Retrieved September 5, 2007.
  3. Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant: A Contribution to British Municipal History. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. 1890.) Retrieved September 4, 2007.
  4. Bacharach op. cit.
  5. Simon Cordery, British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) ISBN 9780333990315. Retrieved September 4, 2007.
  6. David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. (University of North Carolina Press 2000. ISBN 9780807825310). Retrieved September 5, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bacharach, Samuel, Peter Bamberger, and William Sonnenstuhl. Mutual Aid and Union Renewal: Cycles of Logics of Action. Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0801487347
  • Beito, David. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. University of North Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0807848418
  • Cordery, Simon. British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ISBN 978-0333990315
  • James, Bob, and Dan Weinbran. Getting a Grip: the Roles of Friendly Societies in Australia and Britain Reappraised. Labor History. 2005.


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