Who Are The Shriners?
What is a Shriner? What kind of organization attracts physicians, lawyers, truck drivers, dentists, contractors, heads of state, movie stars, clergymen and accountants?
Someone might answer: “Shriners are those guys who have those parades with the wild costumes and funny little cars.” Another might think of circuses and clowns. The fellow next to him might interject, “No, Shriners are the guys who wear those funny hats – link flowerpots – and have those big conventions.”
“I don’t know about that,” a passerby might add. “But I do know my little girl was born with clubfeet and now they are straight, and she can walk, thanks to Shriners Hospitals for Children.”
“She can walk?” questions still another. “I thought the Shriners ran those fantastic burn hospitals. I’ve read stories about them saving kids with burns on 90 percent of their bodies.”
All those people are right. Each has experienced an aspect of Shrinedom. What they cannot experience, unless they are Shriners, is the camaraderie, deep friendships, good fellowship and great times shared by all Shriners. What they may not know is that all Shriners share a Masonic heritage: Each is a Master Mason in the Freemasonry Fraternity.
Historically, Masons had to become members of the York or Scottish Rite Bodies before becoming a Shriner. However, at the Imperial Council Session in July 2000, an amendment to Shrine law changed that requirement, allowing Master Masons to become Shriners directly.
There are approximately 400,000 Shriners now. They gather in temples, or chapters, throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Republic of Panama. There are 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children providing care for orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lip and palate. These hospitals have helped approximately 835,000 children – at no cost to parent or child – since the first Shriners Hospital opened in 1922.
The History of The Shriners
In 1870, several thousand of the 900,000 residents of Manhattan were Masons. Many of these Masons made it a point to lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a restaurant located at 426 Sixth Avenue. At a special table on the second floor, a particularly jovial group of these men used to meet regularly.
The Masons who gathered at this table were noted for their good humor and wit. They often discussed the idea of a new fraternity for Masons, in which fun and fellowship would be stressed more than ritual. Two of the table regulars, Walter M. Fleming, M.D., and William J. “Billy” Florence, and actor, took the idea seriously enough to do something about it.
Billy Florence was a star. After becoming the toast of the New York stage, he toured London, Europe and Middle Eastern countries, always playing to capacity audiences. While on tour in Marseilles, France, Florence was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat.
Florence, recalling conversations at the Knickerbocker Cottage, realized that this Arabian theme might well be the vehicle for the new fraternity.
Dr. Walter Fleming was a prominent physician and surgeon. Born in 1838, he obtained a degree in medicine in Albany, N.Y., in 1862. During the Civil War, he was a surgeon with the 13th New York Infantry Brigade of the National Guard. He then practiced medicine in Rochester, N.Y., until 1868, when he moved to New York City and quickly became a leading practitioner.
Fleming was devoted to fraternalism. He became a Master Mason and completed some of his Scottish Rite work in Rochester. Fleming then completed his Scottish Rite degrees in New York City and was coroneted a 33° Scottish Rite Mason on September 19, 1872.
Fleming took the ideas supplied by Florence and converted them into what would become the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.).
With the help of other Knickerbocker Cottage regulars, Fleming drafted the ritual, designed the emblem and costumes, formulated a salutation, and declared that members would wear a red fez.
The initiation rites, or ceremonials, were drafted by Fleming with the help of three Brother Masons: Charles T. McClenachan, lawyer and expert on Masonic Ritual; William Sleigh Paterson, printer, linguist and ritualist; and Albert L. Rawson, prominent scholar and Mason who provided much of the Arabic background.
The Crescent was adopted as the Jewel of the Order. Though any materials can be used in forming the Crescent, the most valuable are the claws of a Royal Bengal Tiger, united at their base in a gold setting. In the center is the head of a sphinx, and on the back are a pyramid, an urn and a star. The Jewel bears the motto “Robur et Furor,” which means “Strength and Fury.” Today, the emblem includes a scimitar from which the crescent hangs, and a five-pointed star beneath the head of the sphinx.
Dr. Fleming and his colleagues also formulated a salutation used today by Shriners – “Es Selamu Aleikum!” – which means, “Peace be with you!” In returning the salutation, the gracious wish is “Aleikum Es Selamu,” which means “With you be peace.
The red fez with a black tassel, Shriners’ official headgear, has been handed down through the ages. It derives its name from the place where it was first manufactured – the city of Fez, Morocco.
Some historians claim it dates back to about A.D. 980, but the name of the fez, or tarboosh, does not appear in Arabic literature until around the 14th century. One of the earliest references to the headgear is in “Arabian Nights.”
The First Meeting
On September 26, 1872, the first temple in the United States was organized in the New York City Masonic Hall. Charles T. McClenachan and Dr. Fleming had completed the ritual and proposed that the first temple be named Mecca. The original 13 Masons of the Knickerbocker Cottage lunch group were named Charter Members of Mecca Temple (now Mecca Shriners). Noble Florence read a letter outlining the “history” of the Order and giving advice on conducting meetings. The officers elected were Walter M. Fleming, Potentate; Charles T. McClenachan, Chief Rabban; John A. Moore, Assistant Rabban; Edward Eddy, High Priest and Prophet; George W. Millar, Oriental Guide; James S. Chappel, Treasurer; William S. Paterson, Recorder; and Oswald M. d’Aubigne, Captain of the Guard.
The organization was not an instant success, even though a second temple was chartered in Rochester in 1875. Four years after Shriners’ beginnings, there were only 43 Shriners, all but six of whom were from New York.
The Imperial Council
At a meeting of Mecca Shriners on June 6, 1876, a new body was created to help spur the growth of the young fraternity. This governing body was called “The Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for the United States of America.” Fleming became the first Imperial Grand Potentate, and the new body established rules for membership and the formation of new temples. The initiation ritual was embellished, as was the mythology about the fraternity. An extensive publicity and recruiting campaign was initiated.
It worked. Just two years later, in 1878, there were 425 Shriners in 13 temples. Five of these temples were in New York, two were in Ohio and the others were in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan and Massachusetts.
The number of Shriners continued to grow in the 1880?s. By the time of the 1888 annual session (convention) in Toronto, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples throughout the United States and one in Canada.
While the organization was still primarily social, instances of philanthropic work became more frequent. During an 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Fla., members of Morocco Shriners and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to relieve suffering. In 1889, Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown Flood victims. In 1898, there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 temples were engaged in some sort of philanthropic work.
At its 1900 Imperial Session, representatives from 82 temples marched in a Washington, D.C., parade reviewed by President William McKinley. Membership was well over 55,000.
Evolution of the “World’s Greatest Philanthropy”
Shriners were unstoppable in the early 1900?s. Membership grew rapidly, and the geographical range of temples widened. Between 1900 and 1918, eight new temples were created in Canada and one each in Honolulu, Mexico City and the Republic of Panama. The organization became, in fact, the Ancient Arabicv Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America. New flourishes were added to a growing tradition of colorful pageantry. More bands were formed, and the first circus is said to have opened in 1906 in Detroit.
During the same period, there was growing member support for establishing an official charity. Most temples had individual philanthropies, and sometimes Shriners as an organization gave aid. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Shriners sent $25,000 to help the stricken city, and in 1915, Shriners contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither the individual projects nor the special one-time contributions satisfied the membership, who wanted to do more.
In 1919, Freeland Kendrick (Lu Lu Shriners, Philadelphia) was the Imperial Potentate-elect for the 363,744 Shriners. He had long been searching for a cause for the thriving group to support. In a visit to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta, he became aware of the overwhelming orthopedic needs of children in North America. As Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920, he traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 temples to campaign for an official philanthropy.
1920 Imperial Session
At the June 1920 Impe4rial Session in Portland, Oregon, Kendrick proposed establishing Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children (now Shriners Hospitals for Children), to be supported by a $2 yearly assessment from each Shriner (now $5 per year).
Conservative Shriners expressed doubts about assuming this kind of responsibility. Prospects for approval were dimming when Noble Forrest Adair (Yaarab Shriners, Atlanta) rose to speak:
I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about 4 o’clock…and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band…stood down there under the window for 25 minutes playing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’”
He said that when he awoke later, “I thought of the wandering minstrel, and I wondered if there were not a deep significance in the tune that he was playing fro Shriners, ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’”
He noted, “While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it’s time for the Shrine to spend money for humanity. I want to see this thing started. Let’s get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America,” he continued, “who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.”
When he was through, Noble Adair sat down to thunderous applause. The whole tone of the session had changed. There were other speakers, but the decision had already been reached. The resolution was passed unanimously.
A committee was chosen to determine the site and personnel for the Shriners Hospital. After months of work, research and debate, the committee concluded that there should be not just one hospital but a network of hospitals throughout North America. It was an idea that appealed to Shriners, who liked to do things in a big and colorful way. When the committee brought the proposal to the 1921 Imperial Session in Des Moines, Iowa, it too was passed.
Note: The following essay was quoted from “A Short History, Shriners Hospitals for Children & Shriners of North America,” which can be downloaded in its entirety from the Shriners of North America website.