Many benevolent societies began in Europe as mutual associations for insurance or banking - collectives that offered their members benefits such as social and financial services. Very often, these groups were formed based on religious or professional affiliations and they functioned as cooperatives where everyone contributed and all could benefit. Emigrants to America brought these customs with them and the early settlers incorporated the tenets of these traditional fraternal orders into their new lives.
The American Folk Art Museum is "Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art" a captivating exhibition of fraternal objects that were donated to the museum by collectors Kendra and Allan Daniel. Hand-crafted of various materials, and some over two hundred years old, these pieces range from the practical to the fanciful. What they all have in common is a distinctive decorative element related to the creator's lodge or order. While the abundance of symbolic imagery might be a little off-putting for the uninformed, these sometimes primitive expressions of devotion reflect the values and ideals of the members and present a rare glimpse into the workings of these secretive societies.
The works on view are varied in both purpose and material. Ceremonial objects like these wooden staffs with the "Heart in Hand" finials were used by the Odd Fellows "Conductors" to lead initiates and visitors around the lodge. The symbol represents the values of candor, frankness and sincerity, and the lesson that "whatever the hand finds to do, the heart should go forth in wisdom".
While benevolent societies are still a bit of a mystery in the internet world, this exhibition successfully clarifies and normalizes some of the secrecy surrounding them. One simple but powerful message that anyone can benefit from is posted on this painted Fraternal Shield, not associated with any particular group or lodge, but resonant to us all.