Chances are, when you hear the name "Ben-Hur," you think of Charlton Heston starring as Judah Ben-Hur in the 1959 film. But did you know that the novel that inspired the 1959 film also inspired the creation of a fraternal organization?
Published in 1880, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was written by Lew Wallace, who lived in Crawfordsville, Indiana. By the 1890s, Wallace had become a celebrity due to the huge popularity of his book. Although perhaps difficult to imagine today, Ben-Hur was one of most widely read and commercially successful of all nineteenth-century novels.
Thirteen years after the publication of the book, David Washington Gerard, Wallace's neighbor, approached Wallace asking if he would approve of a plan to start a fraternal organization based on the characters in his popular novel. Wallace consented and the organization - a mutual benefit society which provided insurance to its members - was founded. The objectives of the order were to provide life insurance benefits, to improve members socially, to provide entertainment, to aid in business and secure employment, to care for the sick, and to bury the dead. Like some other mutual benefit societies of the time, they also accepted both women and men equally as members of the organization. They were, in short, like many other mutual benefit societies that had been formed in the late 19th century. What was quite different was their ritual.
The 1914 ritual contains a preface that includes "General Directions to Officers of Court," that explicitly states the connection of the ritual to the 1880 book. Under a prefatory listing of six important points that should be "faithfully observed" in order to properly carry out the ritual, the top of the list reads:
1. Study the book Ben-Hur. You cannot properly give the work unless you are very familiar with the story, as the Ritual embodies the tragic scenes and incidents in the career of Ben-Hur, his mother and sister, whom the candidates are supposed to represent, and in many passages, the exact language of the book is given.
Although the ritual we have doesn't feature any chariot races (although references to it abound in the ritual, and the official publication of the group was called The Chariot), another memorable part of the Ben-Hur story does feature prominently: Ben-Hur's enslavement as an oarsman on a ship. Indeed, the ritual of the Court Degree even features a collapsible boat, or at least a collapsible bench, serving as the galley of a ship, as part of the ritual. (Yes, some of us have a thing for collapsing fraternal props.) The candidate is told:
"One day in battle as Ben-Hur was rowing, the vessel received a great shock, the oars were suddenly dashed from his hands, and the rowers from their benches, and for the first time the beating of the gavel was lost in the uproar, and the galley went to pieces." Here the Master of Ceremonies pulls the cord and the collapse comes. The Captain and Guide quickly assist the candidate to his feet...
For many years, the Tribe of Ben-Hur maintained its ties to the novel that inspired it - an increase in membership of the fraternity in the 1920s can likely be traced to the 1925 MGM silent film, a blockbuster of its time (and, incidentally, the second film-version of the novel; the first being in 1907). In 1928, the fraternity released a book called The Boy's Ben-Hur, an abridged version of the novel, published by Harper Brothers.
Pictured here today are two views of a beneficial (i.e. insurance) certificate (FR001.100) issued to Hattie M. Thompson of Manila, Arkansas in 1924. The image above is from the front of the certificate. The image seen here is a detail from the inside of the certificate and the illustrations show three important elements of the Ben-Hur story: the ship on which Ben-Hur was an enslaved oarsman, the chariot race (made especially famous by the 1959 film), and the three wise men, or Magi, of the nativity story of Jesus Christ (Ben-Hur takes place in the early days of the Biblical account of the life of Christ).
By the 1980s, Ben-Hur Life Association (a modernizing name change occurred in the 1930s) was essentially a life insurance company with fraternal roots. In 1988, the association officially disbanded the fraternity, converted to a mutual insurance company and changed its name to the decidedly less romantic-sounding USA Life Insurance Company of Indiana. (In 1990, the name changed slightly again to USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana, after another company with a similar name objected.) Today, USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana is still in existence. On their website, you'll see that while they note that they've been in business for over 100 years, Ben-Hur's name, alas, is nowhere to be found.
And one final note: we noticed that the current owners/developers of the Ben Hur Life Building in downtown Crawfordsville are looking for a long-term investment partner.
Interested in learning more about the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur? We recommend:
Constitution of the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Indiana] : The Ben-Hur Print, 1901.
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 1901
Court Degree Ritual of the Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Ind.] : R.H. Gerard,  (photocopy)
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 G46
Iliff, David Gerard, Jr. The Lost Tribe of Ben-Hur.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Fall Creek Review, 1994.
Call number: HS 1510 .T824 I28 1994