Lutherans Informed about Lodges (LIL)

The Report of the LCMS

Committee on Organizations regarding

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks







In a day and time when life in America is increasingly marked by feelings of isolation and loneliness, when neighbors in suburbs rarely see or speak to one another, the opportunity for brotherhood in a common cause as offered by fraternal organizations becomes increasingly attractive. Add to this theme of brotherhood an emphasis on patriotism, morality and humanitarian concern (all of which seem to be increasingly absent in our Society), and lodge organizations such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks have found an attractive formula to offer prospective members.

The objectives of the Order of Elks are identified in the Preamble to the Constitution:

To inculcate the principles of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members; to quicken the spirit of American patriotism; to cultivate good fellowship; to perpetuate itself as a fraternal organization and to provide for its government. (Constitution and Statutes, p.79)

The foundational principles to which every member of the Elks Lodge subscribes are further summarized in a dialogue between the Exalted Ruler and the Esquire in the initiation ritual:

  • Exalted Ruler: What made you an Elk?
  • Esquire:   My solemn and binding Obligation.
  • Exalted Ruler: What is an Elk?
  • Esquire:   An American citizen who guides his course in life by the cardinal principles of our Order: Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity. (pg. 41)*

In recent years the Elks Lodge has placed greater emphasis upon family participation. Yet membership in the Order remains closely tied to the teachings and practices identified in its various rituals. The centrality of the rituals is spelled out in Article 1 of the Order’s Constitution which is quoted on the Certification page of the Ritual book:

This Constitution, the Statutes enacted by the Grand Lodge not in conflict therewith, and the RITUAL, WITH THE INSTRUCTIONS THEREIN CONTAINED, SHALL BE THE SUPREME LAW OF THE ORDER.  (Emphasis is in original.)
The general instructions in the ritual book also stress the centrality of the approved rituals by instructing District Deputies and Exalted Rulers not to “permit the use of any charge, lecture, form, ceremony, form of initiation or regalia other than those prescribed in the Ritual.” (pg. 5)

Lodge officials would assert that “Elkdom is not a religion.” Yet the rituals of the Order apply a religious test to the candidate for membership, and undergird the objectives and foundational principles of the Order with prayers, sacred music and biblical allusions. In spite of a pledge to require nothing that conflicts with a man's religious beliefs, the Lodge will not waive portions of the ritual that compromise a Christian’s public confession of the central teaching of the Christian faith—salvation and the hope of eternal life only through faith in Jesus Christ.

* Unless otherwise indicated page references are to the Ritual of the Subordinate Lodges under the Jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America, revised 1990.

The Rituals of the Order:
Although not considered secret, the rituals are nevertheless not distributed indiscriminately. The regalia and ceremonies of the Elks Lodge bear some resemblance to Freemasonry, which is probably the result of the Masonic affiliation of some of the founders of the Order. The most elaborate ritual is reserved for the initiation of new members.

Each meeting of the Lodge is opened and closed in prescribed form. The Opening Ceremony begins with the Exalted Ruler receiving the assurance that all present, including visiting brothers, are qualified to remain. Next, the various officers are called upon to review their duties. The altar is now arranged. First, the American Flag, emblematic of Charity, is placed into position and the pledge of allegiance is recited. Then, the Esquire receives the Bible from the Esteemed Loyal Knight and, while placing it on the altar, says, “This is the Bible, the Book of Law, upon which is founded Justice” (pg. 26). After the members sing or the organist plays “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” the Esquire receives the Elks’ Emblem of Brotherly Love, the Antlers, from the Esteemed Lecturing Knight and places the Emblem on the altar. The Star, emblematic of Fidelity, is illuminated and then, to the tune “Auld Lang Syne,” the brothers sing:

Great Ruler of the universe

All-seeing and benign,

Look down upon and bless our work,

And be all glory Thine;

May Charity as taught us here

Be ever borne in mind,

The Golden Rule our motto true,

For days of Auld Lang Syne.

The Chaplain, standing before the altar, prays:

Our Father Who art in Heaven, direct us in all our deliberations with Thy most gracious favor, and further us with Thy continued help, that in all our works begun, continued and ended in Thee, we may glorify Thy holy name. Enlighten our minds more and more with the principles of our Order—Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity. Let the light of Thy countenance shine upon us even as the light of this star. Increase in us true benevolence, nourish us with all goodness, keep us faithful to our obligation, and lead us and all Elks beside the still waters of peace, for Thine is the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. (pg. 28)

It is interesting to note that the first sentence of this prayer is the collect or prayer for divine guidance and help found in the hymnals of a number of liturgical Christian denominations. It is also noteworthy that the concluding words of that collect, “and finally, by Thy mercy, obtain eternal life," are omitted from the above prayer in the rituals of the Elks Lodge. Instead, the implication is given that all Elks will be lead to the still waters of peace because they have increased in true benevolence and have remained faithful to their obligation.

The brief Closing Ceremony consists of an admonition not to reveal anything of a confidential nature, the return of the Bible, the Emblem and the Flag to their respective stations, the singing of “God Bless America” and a prayer:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, we thank Thee for the fellowship and accomplishments of this hour. As we began our session in acknowledgement of Thee and Thy goodness and mercy may  we close by asking Thy benediction. May the principles of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity guide us until we meet again. Amen. (pg. 56)

The Initiation Ceremony begins with the introduction of the candidate to the Exalted Ruler who informs him of the necessity “to take the solemn and binding Obligation of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks,” assuring him that nothing will conflict with his religious and political opinions. The candidate then affirms his belief in God. (pg. 34)

Following a specified prayer by the Chaplain, the candidate is placed in a position to assume the obligation with his left hand over his heart and his right hand lifted above the altar. The obligation is then administered, in which the candidate swears to keep matters of the Order confidential, support and obey the statutes, uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, not use his membership for business or commercial purposes, etc.  It concludes:

If I break this Obligation, may I wander through the world forsaken; may I be pointed out as a being bereft of decency and manhood, unfit to hold communion with true and upright men. And may God help me, and keep me steadfast in this my solemn and binding Obligation in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America. Amen. (pg. 37)

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” is sung, and the candidate is instructed as to the significance of the hour of eleven o'clock (see below). The members stretch forth their right hands in token of renewing their own obligations, while also reminding the candidate of the hand of fellowship and assistance offered to him by every Elk. However, the candidate is warned, “should you prove unfaithful, these same hands will be clenched to drive you from our midst and punish you for your infidelity.” (pg. 38) Instructions in the procedures of the Order follow, including the making of the “hailing sign.” The “foundation and groundwork” of the Order is revealed as “to do unto others as we would they should do unto us” (pg. 42).  The rituals continue with a review of the cardinal tenets of the Order: Brotherly Love, Justice, Charity, and Fidelity. A legend about the gods on Olympus (not 1 Corinthians 13) is used to teach that Charity is the greatest of all virtues. As a symbol of the patriotism fostered by the Order, a Flag is presented to the candidate. The recitation of the poem Thanatopsis is optional at the conclusion of the initiation.

Chief among other ceremonials is the Eleven O′Clock Toast, which “shall be”; observed whenever a lodge is in session when the hour of eleven arrives. Its significance is to remind all brothers that “Living or dead, an Elk is never forgotten, never forsaken” (pg.15). There are also specified rituals for Institution of a Lodge, Installation of Officers, and other ceremonies, each including prayers and religious sentiments similar to those of the chief rituals. The ceremony of Announcing the Death of a Brother, which is to be included in a regular Lodge meeting when appropriate, includes a prayer expressing confidence in God’s “redeeming grace and power” (pg.76).  A vocalist or quartette sings one verse of “The Vacant Chair”:

We shall meet, but we shall miss him

There will be the vacant chair,

But though we no more possess him,

Still our hearts his memory bear.

But a while ago we gathered,

Friendship beaming in each eye,

Now the golden cord is severed,

He has passed to realms on high.

Concerning the deceased, the Exalted Ruler announces: “He has passed into the light which is beyond the valley of the shadow of death” (pg. 77).

In the Ritual for Funeral Services the Exalted Ruler says:

...and again we realize that in the midst of life we are in death; that He who watches over all our destinies has the spirits of the departed under His gentle care, and on the last great day will again unite the chain of Fraternal Love so recently broken. (Rituals of Special Services, pg. 23)

The ritual for the graveside service includes a prescribed prayer by the Chaplain which contains this concluding sentence: “Bless us in the benevolent and protective work of our Order, and so direct us in observing and advancing the principles upon which our fraternity is founded, that we may ever merit Thy blessings and approval. Amen.” (Ibid., pg. 26)

In his concluding remarks at the graveside, the Exalted Ruler says concerning the departed brother: “May thy memory inspire us to deeds of charity,helpfulness, and love for our fellowrnen, and may we meet again in an eternity of bliss.” (Ibid.,  pg. 27)

On the first Sunday in December it is mandatory upon each Elks Lodge to commemorate departed brothers. The ritual specified for the Memorial Service emphasizes more strongly than any other the promise of eternal life to all departed Elks. The Chaplain’s opening prayer includes the words:

...we meet to honor the memory of our brothers whom Thou hast summoned to lay down the burdens of mortality, and to find rest with Thee... Imbue our hearts with the inspiring hope of immortality that banishes sorrow and gives assurance of a happy reunion upon the shores of Thy fair land. (Ibid.,  p.34)

The Exalted Ruler announces:

As Elks we are taught that some day the mortal shall put on immortality. Firm in our faith, we are reminded by these services that we are born, not to die, but to live. True, the light of beloved eyes has faded from our sight, but it shines more brightly upon another shore. Voices we loved to hear... in fraternal association, are silenced; but they will live again in the music of the Choir Invisible, and blend forever in the harmony of angels. Memorial Day with us is a day of tender sentiment. Hope dries our tears, and with eyes of faith we may see those whom we loved and lost awhile, faring on through a better land, awaiting the day when the chain of fraternal love shall be re-united forevermore. (Ibid., pp. 34-35)

Preceding the Oration the Exalted Ruler says: “And may the Grace of the Grand Exalted Ruler of all enable us to derive from this ceremony renewed confidence that beyond the shadows there is life everlasting.” (Ibid.,   pg. 36).

Evaluation of Religious Aspects of the Ritual:
Although the Order has less emphasis upon religious philosophy in its ritual than Freemasonry, nevertheless the principles of the Order are promoted as meriting the approval and blessing of God. The Order is to be commended for its patriotism and its benevolent contributions to society. The sincere Christian will, however, be concerned that his desire to approach God only through Jesus Christ is ignored, in spite of the fact that he had been promised there would be nothing to conflict with his religious convictions. He obligates himself not to introduce at Lodge meetings anything of “sectarian character” only to discover that whole ceremonies are built upon the sectarian premise of universal salvation which he cannot accept. If used, the poem “Thanatopsis” confuses him since it denies all immortality, while ritual references give assurance of immortality. He hears of the “redeeming grace and power” of God, but sees it applied to men who reject the Redeemer. As a Christian he believes that his good works do not merit God's approval but are simply a response of thanksgiving and love to God for God's gift of salvation in Christ. (1 John 4:19) Yet at the graveside of a brother Elk he hears that observing and advancing the principles of Elkdom merit God's blessings and approval. The Christian is further disturbed when the Bible is used only as a Book of Law, certainly a lesser purpose than that for which it was given—to make men “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

Evaluated on the basis of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, the religious themes in the Elks’ Ritual—the prayers, hymns, funeral and memorial services—are incompatible with confessional Christianity. Officers of local Elk Lodges sometimes insist that some rituals are omitted and that funeral services are falling into disuse. Whether omitted or not, however, these forms still define the Elks’ religious philosophy. Initiated members obligate themselves to these and all other ritual forms. Membership in the organization would compromise the public profession of a Christian’s faith, something which he cannot do in good conscience.

Social Memberships:
In spite of the fact that local Elks’ Clubs are sometimes reported to offer “social memberships” permitting the use of facilities for the payment of a fee, the Grand Lodge Statutes forbid the establishment of a social club for those who are not initiated into a Subordinate Lodge. Membership is by initiation only, and any local lodge promoting another kind of membership is subject to having its charter revoked. Such Social Memberships are illegal and unsanctioned and therefore repugnant to the Christian.

A national officer addressed himself to the question of “social memberships” in a letter written to the Commission on Organizations in March 1992:

You are correct in the statement that there are no “social memberships.” Section 14.130 of the Grand Lodge Statutes specifically provides: “A member shall be termed an Elk. A member in good standing shall have the same and equal privileges and immunities with every other member of his Lodge, except as otherwise provided.”

Structure of the Order:

Membership in the Order is limited to American citizens at least twenty-one years of age, who believe in the existence of God. There are no branches or degrees of membership and no auxiliary organizations, except for State Associations, Past Exalted Rulers' Associations, and the Grand Lodge.

The Order of Elks originated in 1867 for purely social and convivial purposes and was first known as “The Jolly Corks,” the name derived from a drinking game that was enjoyed at the informal meetings. The first members were actors and entertainers who found in their cooperative efforts a way to circumvent the strictly-enforced Sunday “dry” law in New York. In 1868 a more stable organization began to form.

The name “Elks” was selected, since the Elk is strictly an American animal, “noted for gentleness and timidity... strong of limb, fleet of foot, quick and keen of perception” (pg. 43).  The early years of the Order’s history were marked by controversy as principles and regulations were developed. At first the ritual consisted of two parts, with the second part marked by horseplay and comic work. In 1922 Part II of the ritual was eliminated, although it had been abandoned by a majority of subordinate lodges for more than a decade. For a brief period the Order sponsored an insurance branch but discontinued this area of service in 1907.

Throughout its history, the Order has distinguished itself by many patriotic and charitable projects, and is today active in several worthwhile programs of service and charity. There is no organizational connection between the American Elks and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of Canada. According to the Encyclopedia of Associations, 25th Edition—1991, membership of the Order of Elks is 1,500,000 in 2,300 Subordinate Lodges and 50 State Associations.

Auxiliary Organizations:
There are no official auxiliary organizations recognized by the Elks Lodge. The Antlers organization for boys 15 to 21 has been phased out.  The Antlerettes, one of several ladies groups which have appended themselves to the Elks Lodge, apparently are disavowed by local lodges and by the Grand Lodge. The Order of Does, for wives, widows, sisters, daughters and mothers of Elks, also does not have official recognition. However, this Order seems well organized, and in some areas it uses its own full ritual. Lady Elks differ widely from place to place. Most appear to have no printed ritual. However, since these unofficial female auxiliaries espouse the same general principles and objectives of the male Order, the same concerns rom the perspective of a committed Christian would apply.

Prepared from the theological perspective of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in response to inquiries from members of the Synod.