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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. Many major financial institutions existing today, particularly some insurance companies, mutual savings banks, and credit unions, can trace their origins back to benefit societies, as can many modern fraternal organizations which are now viewed as being primarily social; the modern legal system essentially requires all such organizations of appreciable size to incorporate as one of these forms or another to continue to exist on an ongoing basis.

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, landsmanshaftn, immigrant hometown societies, fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons and the Oddfellows, coworking communities, and many others. Peter Kropotkin posited early in the 20th century that mutual aid affiliations predate human culture and are as much a factor in evolution as is the "survival of the fittest" concept.

A benefit society can be characterized by

  • members having equivalent opportunity for a say in the organization
  • members having potentially equivalent benefits
  • aid would go to those in need (strong helping the weak)
  • collection fund for payment of benefits
  • educating others about a group's interest
  • preserving cultural traditions
  • mutual deference

History of benefit societies[edit]

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 Philadedelphia.

Philadelphia's first black organization, the Free African Society was established in 1787 by two African American former slaves, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. These two men were Methodist converts from evangelical masters, who gave these men permission to purchase their freedom in the early 1780s.[1]

Mutual aid was a foundation of social welfare in the United States until the early 20th 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 at a when government on the state and local level supplemented private aid societies more than the converse of this being true. In 1890, 112,000 American residents lived in private charitable institutions, while only 73,000 resided in public almshouses. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, public aid was reduced as it was seen as contributing to sloth and dependency while private aid was judiciously provided with greater checks for reform and recovery.[2] Writing in 1890, Jacob Riis, commenting on the extent of private charity, says: "New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help ..."[3]

Medieval guilds were an early basis for many Western benefit societies. A guild charter document from 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.'" (C Gross, The Gild Merchant, (1927))

This charter shows the importance of 'brotherhood', and the principles of discipline, conviviality and benevolence. The structure of fraternity in the guild forms the basis for orders such as Freemasonry and other fraternal orders, friendly societies and modern trade unions. Joining such an organisation a member gained the 'freedom' of the craft, and the exclusive benefits that the organisation could confer on members.

Historically, benefit societies have emphasised the importance of social discipline, in conforming to the rules of the organisation and society, and acting in a morally uplifting and ethical manner. Conviviality and benevolence are important principles. Fraternal societies differed from public and private hierarchical aid organizations by employing an "ethical principle of reciprocity."[4] This removed the stigma of charity.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries benefit societies in the form of friendly societies and trade unions were essential in providing social assistance for sickness and unemployment, and improving social conditions for a large part of the working population. With the introduction in the early twentieth century of state social welfare programs, and industrial, health and welfare regulation, the influence and membership of benefit societies have declined in importance, but remains significant. Nevertheless, in many countries, for example in Europe, mutual benefit societies continue to provide statutory and supplementary healthcare coverage.

Oaths, secret signs and knowledge, and regalia were historically an important part of many benefit societies, but declined in use in most benefit societies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Conversely, signs and ceremony have become the mainstay of fraternal societies that no longer focus as much on mutual aid.

Current benefit societies[edit]

Many of the features of benefit organizations 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 ethnically- or culturally-affiliated mutual benefit associations.

New technologies have provided yet more new opportunities for humanity to support itself through mutual aid. Recent authors have described the networked affiliations that produce collaborative projects.[citation needed] In modern Asia rotating credit associations organized within communities or workplaces were widespread through the early twentieth century and continue in our time.[5] 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 of our time often lend aid to others outside their immediate membership, while ad hoc benefit associations form among neighbors or refugees, generally lasting only as long as the emergency exists. Ad hoc mutual aid associations have been seen organized among strangers facing shared challenges in such disparate settings as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in New York in 1969, during the Beijing Tiananmen square protests of 1989, for neighborhood defense during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, and work of the organization Common Ground Collective which formed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Rainbow Family organizes gatherings in National Forests of the United States each year around age old models of ad hoc mutual aid.

Selected past and present benefit societies[edit]


  1. ^ White, Deborah Gray (2013). Freedom on my Mind: a History of African Americans (Volume 1 ed.). Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-312-64883-1. 
  2. ^ Kelley, David (1998). A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State. Cato Institute. p. 37. ISBN 1-882577-70-1. 
  3. ^ (Olasky 1994, p. 100)
  4. ^ (Beito 2000, p. 3)
  5. ^ "Mutual aid societies Dialog from the H-Asia list, October 1995", Hartford-hwp.com.


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