Given the vast number of cults and sub-cults, Parfrey knew his research would be surprising to many. "Despite the success of Joseph Campbell's PBS series a couple decades ago, what good American thinks he's practicing 'rites' or 'rituals?'" Parfrey asks. "These words are thought to refer to what primitives do in foreign lands." Ritual America shows that hundreds of ritualistic oaths and procedures are practiced behind the doors of lodges and clubs, even today.
Parfrey defines a "secret society" as a social group that demands an oath of allegiance to join. "That's our perspective; we know that others may feel differently," he says. "Some service-oriented organizations, like Lions or Elks, have a great deal of secret ritual within its structure. Rotary and Kiwanis, less so, but these organizations, like the Masons, require oaths of allegiance. No oath, no membership."
Researching the book was eye-opening (and, fittingly, the cover illustration is the so-called "eye of providence"). There were an amazing number of groups "particularly at a time when there was no seeming reason for integrating secret rituals into their organizations," he says. "Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic church battled groups of Freemasons over power and money, and the need for secrecy back then was logical." But today it's a bit more mystifying.
Parfrey says his primary source was Albert C. Stevens's The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities (1899). And the subtitle says it all: A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origins, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States, Supplemented by Family Trees of Groups and Societies, Names of Many Representative Members. Of those "More than Six Hundred Secret Societies," Freemasonry is the grandaddy, "like AA is the archetype of all the 12-step sobriety movements," Parfrey says. But secret societies had many purposes and took many shapes: labor unions, business groups, rural/agrarian organizations, religious and occult organizations, sobriety groups, drinking groups, immigrants, anti-immigrant organizations. As Parfrey puts it, taking in the breadth of them provides "a snapshot of America."
The question of who gets admitted to these groups recurs as a theme through history. Among the more troubling societies was a fairly large and important group, The Improved Order of the Red Men, which dates back to the early 1800s. Its members dressed in Native American garb and had rituals inspired by that culture—and yet refused to allow Native Americans into their society. Freemasonry and other fraternal groups, which said they welcomed all comers who believed in God, were primarily Protestant in perspective. "As a result, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups adopted a close form of Masonic ritualism," Parfrey says.