02 November 2013

Benevolent, Friendly or Both?


Which one was it?

Two of the common terms used to describe a particular kind of fraternal society are benevolent and friendly. What were these organizations, how did they differ from other fraternal groups (or did they?), and are they really two different things? 
Let's start with a definition; according to dictionary.com: 
  • Benevolent: adj. 1: marked by or disposed to doing good. 2: organized for the purpose of doing good. 3: marked by or suggestive of goodwill. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/benevolent)
  • Friendly: adj. 1: acting like a friend : kind and helpful. 2: having or showing the feelings that friends have for each other. 3: showing support or approval.
But that doesn't really help us much. How do we put these two terms into context? 

Let's try using a source that was created around the study of fraternal societies to begin with:  The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders.1  This text describes a Friendly society as one that is British in origin, and act primarily as financial mutual aid organizations. The term “Friendly,” is used largely in Britain, and the history of friendly societies intertwines with Acts of Parliament in relation to insurance and general welfare programs provided by the government.

Benevolent organizations are those that are “set up to do good, rather than merely to be enjoyable.” The concept described in this text is similar to the definition seen above.2

Keep. It. Simple.

What is the difference between Benevolent and Friendly? It would seem there are two significant points:
  1. Friendly societies help their members financially, versus just helping their members.
  2. Friendly societies originate in England, and the term seems to have stayed there predominantly, while benevolent was used more in the United States. Simplified? The geography is the difference.

One last point to make here, which I thought to be rather telling.
“Some people distinguish between societies that help only their own members (benevolent or friendly societies) and societies that help other people (charitable or service societies), but this is not a very helpful distinction.”3
Even though the overall statement seems to be dismissing this common belief, the fact that the author puts benevolent and friendly together is an indication of how similar the two terms are. I believe we can safely say that the differences are minor, however, they are blatant enough to know that the two words are not interchangeable, and must be used intentionally when in discussion on fraternal societies.  Once again, where you are in the world makes a difference in how you research, and what you research!

For more information….

Wikipedia lists "some common" friendly societies, and the collection ranges from the AARP to the I.O.O.F. to the Royal Liver Assurance. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_society#List_of_some_friendly_societies)

Selly Sell: I wrote a Legacy QuickGuide on researching Fraternal Societies. You can find it here.

1 Alan Axelrod. The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders. Checkmark Books, New York, NY, 1997, p.98-99.
2 Ibid, p xi, Introduction.
3 Ibid, p xi, Introduction.