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The Heptasophs and life insurance

Improved Order of Heptasophs convention button

The I. O. H. is still progressing

North and South, in East and West;

None of nature’s laws transgressing,

Honesty within our breast.

Members from Wilmington, to Harrington, to Seaford began their meetings for four decades reciting in unison the Opening Ode.

The original Order of Heptasophs (later the IMPROVED Order of Heptasophs, or I.O.H.) was founded in New Orleans in 1852, one of the country’s earliest fraternal orders. The name is derived from Greek roots meaning seven and wise and means the seven wise men. “The order was founded by a few earnest, unselfish men, for fraternal and beneficial purposes,” stated its charter. “The teachings are calculated to strengthen the character and elevate the moral principles of the members.” 

“Philadelphia appears to be the Paradise of secret orders,” chuckled the Delaware Tribune in 1869. The Heptasophs had just held their national conclave in that city in early August, and the Tribune noted that the group had 500 lodges across the United States. Delaware newspapers didn’t pay much more attention to the fraternal group for another decade.

1882 charter for Milton, DE I.O.H. Conclave #44
1882 charter for Milton, DE I.O.H. Conclave #44

That decade—the 1870s—reshaped the group purpose of the Heptasophs profoundly, just as it was reshaping hundreds of other secret societies originally founded as social clubs. The Civil War had jolted the public into an awareness of life’s precariousness. Hundreds of thousands of families were thrown into poverty by the conflict. There was no Social Security program. There was no FDIC to protect one’s bank assets. There was no bankruptcy protection—personal financial setbacks could and did lead to the poor house or debtor’s prison.

And so within ten or fifteen years after the Civil War ended, the country saw a tremendous growth of ‘beneficiary’ secret societies to address at least some of these insecurities. New societies arose, and existing societies reorganized, in order to pay sick, funeral and death benefits to members. 

The Improved Order of Heptasophs split off from the original order in 1878.  The cause of the split was a disagreement over whether the order should offer life insurance.  Fraternal orders in the late 1800’s were increasingly involved in the life insurance business—their members demanded it—and the IOH reflected that trend. “The main object of the association is to secure a fund of from $1,000 to $5,000 to the beneficiary of a deceased member,” stated the charter of the new group. 

The Zeta Conclave of Baltimore formed the core of the IOH splinter group. C.E. Baird, of that conclave, organized the Diamond Conclave, Delaware’s first IOH conclave, in Dover in 1879. The new group took part in an October 1880 fraternal organizations celebration in Baltimore that included names more familiar to us today: the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias. 

Baird went on to coordinate Delaware’s second conclave, the Wilmington Conclave, no. 22, a month after that gathering. The IOH was one of the first fraternal organizations to place its insurance feature under the supervision of insurance departments in states where it had formed conclaves. By 1895 the group had paid out more than two million dollars to beneficiaries.

Pins, badges, medals from Improved Order of Heptasophs.
Pins, badges, medals from Improved Order of Heptasophs.

Like most fraternal life insurance societies, the IOH would gradually become less of a fraternity and more of an insurance company.

In 1915, Delaware’s Friendship Conclave No. 1 of the Heptasophs or Seven Wise Men, Inc. had failed to pay taxes for preceding 2 years, and Governor Richard McMullen repealed its charter.  Nationwide the group was losing money. In May of 1917 the IOH ceased to exist when it merged with the Fraternal Aid Union. The latter changed to Standard Life Association in 1933.  

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