Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW)

This organization was formed by John Jordan Upchurch in 1868 in Meadsville, Pennsylvania. Upchurch, a mechanic who worked for the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad (now the Erie Railroad), was prompted to organize the AOUW largely because he was dissatisfied with the League of Friendship of the Mechanical Order of the Sun. He wanted an organization that would be more responsive to the needs of its members. When the AOUW was founded, Upchurch had hoped to form an order that would unite the conflicting interests of labor and management. This goal, however, soon (in 1869) gave way to providing benevolent insurance protection for its members’ widows and orphans.
The word “Workmen” was chosen as part of the new order’s name because its purpose was to serve and attract men in the mechanical trades. Only two years after the AOUW was formed, however, the order broadened its membership requirements to permit other occupations as well.
Through Upchurch, a Freemason, the AOUW took on a number of Masonic features. Its ritual was secret; the square and compass and the all-seeing eye were organizational symbols. At first there were four degrees, but in 1871 the ritual was revised to work only three degrees. The Bible, as in Masonry, also was an important symbol.

Although most scholars and historians of fraternal insurance credit the AOUW as being the first fraternal group that introduced fraternal insurance at the time of its founding in 1868, the society really did not enter the insurance effort seriously until October 1869. During the society’s first year or existence there was as much emphasis on ameliorating unfavorable conditions for workingmen as there was on its insurance fund, which allowed no more than $500 to be paid to the “legal heirs of a deceased member.” The real emphasis on fraternal insurance began with Upchurch amending the founding article on insurance on October 6, 1869. The amended article stipulated that each initiated new member pay $1.00 to the insurance fund. After a member died, his beneficiaries received $2,000. Depleted funds were to be restored by each member contributing another $1.00. This procedure was to be repeated each time the fund required restoration. This method was known as the post-mortem plan or the assessment-as-needed plan. If any member failed to pay his $1.00 fee in thirty days, he forfeited his membership in the order. If a subordinate lodge failed to forward the amount of the insurance fund in twenty days, it lost its charter. The change made on October 6, 1869, was approved by the Provisional Grand Lodge.
To offer workingmen life insurance was indeed a novel innovation in the late 1860s, especially when the idea of American insurance was less than twenty years old at that time. Heretofore life insurance really had been available only to businessmen and manufacturers. In addition, other factors made life insurance something less than popular. Religious groups opposed insurance as being sinful and not trusting in God. Then, too, there were numerous bankruptcies of commercial life insurance firms. Ironically, it was the latter that convinced AOUW leaders that life insurance would succeed only in fraternal societies, where overhead expenses would be extremely small.
It should be noted that there is some question whether the AOUW really was the first American fraternal insurance society, primarily because some societies were founded before 1868 which later also had types of insurance programs for their members. The point to be remembered, however, is that while such organizations were formed before 1868, they did not sell insurance until after 1868.

The AOUW, compared to numerous other fraternal benefit societies, was quite progressive in its orientation. It was not only the harbinger of fraternal life insurance, but it also took the initiative of calling together a number of fraternal benefit societies in 1886. This action caused sixteen fraternal benefit groups to form the National Fraternal Congress in that same year. This cooperative association sought to establish uniformity and sound insurance practices among all fraternal benefit societies. The National Fraternal Congress is still in existence today with 121 member societies.

Being the progressively minded organization that it was, the society revised its ritual a number of times. Every revision sought to take into account the changes adopted by the society so that the ritual and the order’s objectives would be in harmony. The religious qualities of the ritual were deleted from the revision of 1932.
The watchwords of the AOUW are “Charity, Hope, and Protection.” The order, because of its insurance, has always taken great pride in the latter watchword, for having been the pioneer in fraternal insurance, providing protection to its members’ widows and orphans in a novel and distinctive manner.
The AOUW, which by 1885 was the largest fraternal benefit society in America, discontinued its supreme lodge structure in 1929. A congress was established in place of the supreme authority. In 1952 the AOUW dissolved or merged with various state societies. Washington is the only state where the society has continued to exist. In other states the order frequently merged or converted to mutual insurance companies. For example, in Massachusetts the AOUW merged with New England Order of Protection. In North Dakota the society converted to a mutual and changed its name to Pioneer Mutual Life Insurance company. In Texas the order went into receivership. Additional changes could be cited.
When the AOUW first was organized, its constitution stated that non-whites were never to join the order.