A Founding Myth and a Founder’s Cult in American Fraternalism
Keywords:Fraternalism, benefit systems, leadership, invented tradition, visual piety
The alleged role of J.J. Upchurch (1822-1887) in the creation of the Ancient Order of United Workmen as a successful fraternal order is a fine example of an invented tradition. A set of repetitive narrative, ritual and symbolical practices were constituted around his personality that were designed to promote fraternal values, to enhance group cohesion and to represent the order’s activities as continuous with a partly fictional past. While Upchurch was key to the start of the order, his fame as the creator of the order's mutual benefit system - its most notable feature - was a fiction. The growth of a cult around Upchurch resulted from a campaign by a leading Californian fraternity man with political ambitions. While the latter widely toured Upchurch as a fraternal icon through his State, it was Upchurch himself who proved to be instrumental in generating his own personality cult. This cult eventually found its way to the order’s narratives and “iconic practices”, generating a secular version of what David Morgan calls “visual piety”. The mythical Upchurch image became constitutive of the collective identity of the order, steered the collective memory regarding its foundational myth and helped to symbolize fraternal relationships of protection, charity and mutuality.
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