THE "ORDER OF THE ARROW" — SCOUTING'S HONOR SOCIETY
by Jim Howes
The "Order of the Arrow" is the honor society of the Boy Scouts of America, intended to recognize older scouts in their teens who best exemplify the scout virtues of cheerful service, camping, and leadership. As one of the largest and most outstanding youth programs of the past century in the United States, the Order of the Arrow's history, purposes, and membership requirements merit this introduction. Founded in 1915, just eight years after the acclaimed English war hero Robert Baden-Powell started scouting in Great Britain, the "OA's" origin and development are tightly intertwined, like a well-made square knot, with scouting itself in the United States. Its history is a remarkable saga of a good-hearted visionary's lasting effect on generations of American youth.
The new scout movement was enjoying halcyon days in an America still at peace in 1915, while young men in Europe were dying by the thousands in a war more terrible than any before in history. Boys in the U.S. seemed to be donning scout uniforms everywhere as membership grew rapidly from coast to coast. Prominent businessmen, civic and religious groups, and politicians, including Congressmen and the President, vied to match the enthusiasm of boys surging into scout camps across the nation, eager to be part of the great wave of scouting which had reached American shores in the years before the First World War.
As E. Urner Goodman, a Philadelphia (PA) scoutmaster, celebrated his 24th birthday on May 15, 1915, he undoubtedly heard newsboys on nearby Chestnut Street, as he strode towards the Philadelphia Scout Council's office in historic Independence Hall. The headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer that day was blaring the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania from a U-boat torpedo attack within sight of the Irish coast, just a few days previously. Young Urner had just agreed to take the job of Camp Director at the scout council's camp, perched on idyllic Treasure Island in the Delaware River. What he had in mind was to leave a lasting imprint on thousands of American youth in the twentieth century and into the 21st century.
Urner's thoughts in 1915 were focused on development of methods to teach the scouts attending summer camp that skill proficiency in Scoutcraft was not enough; rather, the principles embodied in the Scout Oath and Law should become realities in the lives of Scouts. As a means of accomplishing this without preaching and within a boy's interest, he decided to launch an innovative program that summer based on peer recognition and the appeal of Indian lore. Troops would choose, at the conclusion of camp, those boys from among their number best exemplifying these traits, who would be honored as members of an Indian "lodge". Boys so acknowledged in the eyes of their fellow scouts would form a fraternal bond joined together in a richly symbolic brotherhood.
Assistant Camp Director Carroll A. Edson and others helped research the lore and language of the Delaware Indians who had once inhabited the Treasure Island area. Edson also studied Ernest Thompson Seton's Woodcraft Indians, which was another popular boys' program of the time. The dramatic induction ceremonies developed for the "Order of the Arrow", as the fledgling honor society was soon dubbed, indeed proved to have a strong influence on scouts. Even today, these colorful rites make a lasting impression on the hundreds of thousands of American youth who have been "Arrowmen".
As the OA continued to develop in the early years, others further embellished the ceremonies with characters from James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans", along with the addition of some Masonic-like rituals. A similarity between certain aspects of OA and Masonic ceremonies is not surprising, since Goodman himself was a Mason, as were others who had a prominent role at the time in further development of OA ceremonies following the end of WWI.
By 1921, the idea had spread to a score of scout councils in the northeast U.S. and the first national gathering of the Order of the Arrow was held. A few other scout councils scattered around the nation started their own local versions of ceremonial scout honor societies in the 1920's and 1930's, called by various other names. The OA and similar scout honor societies were initially viewed with suspicion by some scouters as secretive, if not an affront to the egalitarian ideals of scouting. Goodman and Edson vigorously championed the concept, persuading legendary Chief Scout Executive James E. West to permit those councils desiring Order of the Arrow lodges to establish them as an "experimental" program under a "National Lodge". By the 1940's, E. Urner Goodman's innovation was an integral part of the BSA's program, found in most councils nationwide.
When the Order celebrated its Diamond Anniversary in 1990, membership had grown to 160,000 Arrowmen of the more than one million eligible Boy Scouts in the U. S., organized into almost 400 lodges nationwide. Rare indeed is the council today that does not have an Order of the Arrow lodge with its own Indian name and "totem", or emblem.
The Order of the Arrow made a significant contribution to traditional Boy Scouting between 1915–2018 in the United States. The OA's motto, "Brotherhood of Cheerful Service", is more than just an empty slogan for many Arrowmen, who constitute a valuable council resource for camp promotion, improvement projects, and summer camp staff. The OA, at its best, continues to be a powerful teaching tool for Scouting ideals.
Until the Boy Scout program was changed in 2019, the OA was for boys under age 21 only, who provided leadership to their Lodges. Periodically, lodges met with other lodges in their sections each year and attended a nationwide gathering held on the campus of a major university every two years. These National Conferences, as they are called, feature individual and Lodge competitions in ceremonies, Indian dancing and costumes, and sports, along with seminars and gala arena shows. These events were led by National and Regional Chiefs, who were also young men under 21 years of age, typically college students. Thousands of Arrowmen attend, which for many is an exciting highlight of their scouting experience on a par with a National Jamboree.
For more than a half century after founding the Order of the Arrow, E. Urner Goodman continued to be a towering figure in American scouting, serving for many years as National Program Director of the BSA, all the while steadfastly devoted to the OA. He and his wife enjoyed hosting visiting Arrowmen at his "Order of the Arrow Brotherhood Barn" home in Vermont and he also attended events held by Unami Lodge #1 in Philadelphia and various Section Conferences in the 1960's and 1970's. Sadly, as the Order of the Arrow was founded amidst the gathering clouds of the First World War, so the Second World War would deeply affect Goodman and Edson, as both founders each lost sons on the battlefields of France. Awarded an honorary doctorate in education for his accomplishments, Goodman retired to Florida but continued to correspond personally with many Arrowmen, including this author. A man of deep religious faith, he also delighted in composing hymns, as he wrote in one such letter.
Dr. Goodman's keynote speeches were a traditional and inspiring highlight of OA National Conferences, until his final appearance in 1979 at Colorado State University when he was 88 years old, just six months before his death in March, 1980. He was hailed by the 4,300 Arrowmen present with a thunderous standing ovation. He spoke movingly of his creation of the OA as a "Thing of the Spirit" in that place — so distant in time — on the misty shores of the Delaware River. He bade us farewell, there in the shadows of the snow-capped Rockies, with a memorable peroration to keep the OA's flame of fellowship glowing brightly in our hearts. Though a frail, elderly man stood before us, stooped with age, yet the spirit borne within would truly live on in our hearts, firm bound eternally in youthful brotherhood, wherever men strive to love and serve one another.