Mutual aid organization formed voluntarily by individuals to protect members against debts incurred through illness, death, or old age. Friendly societies arose in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and England and became most numerous in the 19th century. They trace their roots to the burial societies of Greek and Roman artisans and the guilds of medieval Europe. In attempting to define the magnitude of the risk against which they guarded and to determine how much members should contribute to meet that risk, friendly societies used what is now the basic principle of insurance.
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A friendly society (sometimes called a mutual 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. Before large-scale government and employer health insurance, friendly societies played an important part in many people's lives. In some countries, half the population was covered by such societies. Many of these societies still exist. 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.
In their heyday, members 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 who 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.
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 cities or countries 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.