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Ill. Joseph Cullen Root, 33°

Rev. Robert L. Uzzel, 32°

Ill. Joseph Cullen Root was America’s most prolific founder of fraternal benefit societies.

"There is a destiny that makes us brothers; none goes his way alone; all that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own." These beautiful words constitute the creed of Modern Woodmen of America and were well exemplified by the life of Ill. Joseph Cullen Root, 33°, the most prolific founder of fraternal benefit societies America has produced. Thus, toward the end of his highly productive life, Root was able to say: "I have spent nearly a generation of years in this work, not for pelf or wealth, not for praise or fame, but in an effort to help my fellowmen up to the heights . . . to give assistance is the noblest pursuit of man and woman."

This giant of American fraternalism was born on December 3, 1844, in Chester, Massachusetts. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to Belvidere, Illinois, and later to Fulton, Illinois, and Lyons (now Clinton), Iowa. In 1865, he graduated from Eastman Business College in Poukeepsie, New York. As a young man, Root operated a number of businesses, including a mercantile establishment, a grain elevator, and two flour mills. He sold insurance and real estate, taught classes in bookkeeping, managed a lecture bureau, and practiced law.

Root held a firm conviction that Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations had an important role to play in the promotion of human welfare. Thus, he sought light in Masonry in Lyons Lodge No. 93. He was initiated as an Entered Apprentice on July 20, 1877, passed to the Degree of Fellowcraft on December 28, 1877, and was raised to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason on March 30, 1880. He received the 32nd Degree on March 14, 1884. After relocating to Omaha, Nebraska, he became a member of Mount Moriah Lodge of Perfection, Semper Fidelis Chapter of Rose Croix, Saint Andrew’s Council of Kadosh, and Nebraska Consistory. On October 19, 1897, he was elected a Knight Commander of the Court of Honour. On December 4, 1899, he received the 33°. He also held membership in the Knights Templar, the Knights of Pythias, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Root’s earliest experience with fraternal benefit societies included involvement in the Iowa Legion of Honor, the Ancient Order of United Workmen and Mechanics, and V. A. S. (Vera Amicitia Sempiterna, "true friend-ship is eternal"). He set up the accounting systems and wrote the rituals for the latter two organizations. No doubt, in his preparation of these and later rituals, he borrowed elements from Masonry, Odd Fellowship, and Pythianism.

His membership in so many fraternal orders and his years of experience in the insurance business contributed to his destiny as a leader in the field of fraternal insurance. Eventually, he would be responsible for the establishment of Modern Woodmen of America, Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, Woodmen of the World (Pacific Jurisdiction), Canadian Woodmen of the World, Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle, Neighbors of Woodcraft and, indirectly, Royal Neighbors of America.

In July 1882, Root heard a sermon by Rev. Sidney Crawford at First Congregational Church in Lyons, Iowa, about "pioneer woodmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families." Thus, he was inspired to organize Modern Woodmen of America as a society which would clear away problems of financial security for its members. He felt the use of the term "ancient" by so many fraternities was dishonest and, thus, described his order as "modern." He saw the word "woodmen" as alluding to a noble vocation. Since his order was native to American soil, he felt that the addition of the words "of America" was quite appropriate. He saw his brainchild as linked with his name of "Root" and visualized an order growing in the same manner as a tree in the forest grows from its roots.

On January 5, 1883, Root established Modern Woodmen of America at Lyons. He wrote the ritual and served as the first Venerable Consul of Pioneer Camp No. 1 and the first Head Consul of the new order. In 1888, the Royal Neighbors of America was established as a ladies auxiliary, with a relationship to the parent order similar to that of the Order of the Eastern Star to Masonry. By 1889, there were 42,694 Modern Woodmen.

Despite massive growth, however, Modern Woodmen did not experience smooth sailing. In 1889, a major conflict developed between Root and Head Physician Dr. P. L. McKinnie. Soon, the order’s hierarchy was marked by animosities and accusations of false beneficiary claims. In 1890, Root resigned and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where, on June 3, he organized Woodmen of the World. The name resulted from his desire both to maintain the name "Woodmen" and to build an order which would be international in scope. At this time, a separate Pacific Jurisdiction was established in Denver, Colorado.

In 1913, Root attended Woodmen of the World conventions in Florida and Ohio. In November of that year, he began visiting southern camps, touring Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia. On December 17, while on a train near Hendersonville, North Carolina, he became ill and gradually grew worse. He died in Hendersonville on December 24. His body was returned to Lyons, where a ceremony was held in the Congregational Church. On December 29, his funeral was held at the Root family home in Omaha. Burial was in the mausoleum of Forest Lawn Cemetery there.

By the time of Root’s death, Woodmen of the World had nearly 700,000 members and over 10,800 camps. Insurance in force amounted to over $927,000,000. Through 1913, the society had paid $553,004 to beneficiaries. More than 45,000 Woodmen monuments could be seen above the graves of members throughout the United States.

Today, the various "Woodmen" organizations established by Joseph Cullen Root continue to provide valuable insurance protection and fraternal benefits to thousands of members. This fact is a testimony to the great vision and organizational genius of this giant of American fraternalism.


Robert L. Uzzel
is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society and the Philalethes Society. He is a member of Union Seal Lodge No. 64, P.H.A., Waco, Tex.; Rose of Sharon Consistory No. 180, Waco; and Zakat Temple No. 164, Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Dallas, Tex. A Fellow and Director of Public Communication for the Phylaxis Society, he holds a Ph.D. (1995) from Baylor University in World Religions, is an Adjunct Instructor at Cedar Valley College, Lancaster, Tex., and pastors two African Methodist Episcopal Churches in rural Texas.