Life insurance seemingly endangered my grandparents’ eligibility to join the Free Methodist Church.
When my mom’s parents moved to a small town in southeastern Illinois, their Methodist preacher brother-in-law expressed concern about the theology espoused at the two (not Free) Methodist churches in town that were part of his denomination. He suggested they check out the local FM congregation instead. They quickly fell in love with Free Methodism, but a challenge came when they learned that members could not belong to secret societies.
My grandfather confessed that he was a member of the Modern Woodmen of America. However, he didn’t participate in any Woodmen rituals or even attend meetings. He only joined for the insurance.
The Modern Woodmen were discussed in a 2016 Dallas Morning News article titled “Secret societies sold life insurance wrapped in fraternal rituals.” Journalist Lisa Hix reported that the Modern Woodmen and the rival Woodmen of the World now seem like typical insurance agencies, but they initially capitalized on the popularity of groups like the Freemasons. Hix noted that “fraternal-order membership reached its golden age in the United States between 1890 and 1930, with up to one-third of American men belonging to at least one secret society.”
Think about how radical the Free Methodist Church’s stance on secret societies was at that time. The denomination essentially told one-third of potential members: Belong to the church or a secret society, but you can’t be part of both.
Kevin Watson, associate professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, states in his book “Old or New School Methodism?” that Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts (this magazine’s former editor) “consistently opposed secret societies, and was even involved in formal attempts to oppose them, joining the anti-lodge National Christian Association. He spoke at their national meeting in 1874 and was subsequently elected to a one-year term as president.” Roberts insisted, “the god of the lodge is not the God of the Bible.”
Keep reading in this issue to learn more about the National Christian Association in the Connecting Points article by Mindi Grieser Cromwell, whom I’ve known since college days when she upset some of my friends by writing in the campus newspaper about the secret society-like behavior of a “men’s service club” to which I belonged. The (now defunct) club wasn’t quite Yale University’s infamous Skull and Bones society, but initiations and other secret activities didn’t seem to fit with our college’s Free Methodist ethos.
I doubt many of this magazine’s readers are currently in a Christian college knockoff of a “Greek life” fraternity or sorority, but some of us may have lost touch with the reasons for our opposition to secret societies. We may not be joining the Illuminati, but we may get caught up in conspiracy theories or spread gossip about other people via text messages and private social media groups.
This issue of LIGHT + LIFE focuses on living “above board” with a Board of Bishops-authorized position paper in which Bishop Emeritus Matthew A. Thomas discusses how modern Free Methodists can continue our legacy of shunning secrecy. Early Free Methodists might be shocked by the use of the phrase “above board,” which Vital Signs author Alex Davis reveals has roots in the world of gambling, but I think they would appreciate their biblically based principles being applied to the present age. In our Leading Edge section, Bishop Keith Cowart calls for the church to “live in the light” personally, relationally and corporately, and he offers guidance for spiritual discernment and decision-making. This month’s URFM section focuses on Howard Olver who has lived above board while serving for decades in different urban areas of the United States and Canada. In our Viewpoint section, Brett Heintzman shares about the dangerous effects of divisive discourse.
So what happened with my grandparents? They offered to drop their Modern Woodmen insurance and stick with the church, but their pastor decided they weren’t in violation of the restrictions on secret societies because they weren’t involved in secrecy or “religious rites,” which B.T. Roberts called “idolatry” while speaking out against the ceremonies of the Masons and the Odd Fellows.
Are we willing to give up secrecy or idolatry (putting other things or people before God) to belong to the body of Christ? After all, “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:2).
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.