Who are the Shriners?

The Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine

In 1870, when Freemasonry was at a high point, many of the several thousand Freemasons in Manhattan lunched at the Knickerbocker Cottage. They had a special table on the second floor and during these discussions, the idea of a new Masonic group, stressing fun and fellowship, was often discussed. Walter M. Fleming,  a prominent physician and surgeon, and William J. Florence, a world-renowned actor, took the idea seriously enough to act upon it.

While on tour in Marseille, Florence was invited to a party given by an Arab diplomat. The  evening’s entertainment was an elaborately staged musical comedy. At its conclusion, the guests became members of a ‘secret society’, as was customary in the frivolity of the time. Florence took copious notes and drawings both then and on two other occasions, once in Algiers and once in Cairo.

Dr. Walter Millard Fleming (1838 – 1913) a prominent physician and surgeon. During the Civil War, he was a surgeon with the 13th New York Infantry Brigade.

When he returned to New York in 1870, he showed his material to Fleming who used this as the basis of the ritual, emblem and costumes for what would come to be known as the Shriners. Florence and Fleming were initiated August 13, 1870, and they initiated 11 other men on June 16, 1871.

Masonic ritual and tradition typically follows a Jewish or Christian ritual so the adopt a  Middle Eastern theme was something new within the Fraternity. The first ‘Temple’ established was Mecca Temple (now known as Mecca Shriners), in the New York City Masonic Hall on September 26, 1872 with Fleming the first Potentate.

William Jermyn Conlin (July 26, 1831 – November 19, 1891) better known by his stage name William J. Florence, was a US actor, songwriter, and playwright.

Membership grew slowly as in 1875 there were only 43 Shriners in the organization. In an effort to encourage membership, at the June 6, 1876 meeting of Mecca Temple, the Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America was created with Fleming elected the first Imperial Potentate. By 1878 there were 425 members in 13 temples in eight states, and by 1888, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples in the United States and Canada. By the Imperial Session held in Washington, D.C. in 1900, there were 55,000 members and 82 Temples.

By 1938 there were about 340,000 members in the United States. That year Life published photographs of its rites for the first time. It described the Shriners as “among secret lodges the No. 1 in prestige, wealth and show”, and stated that “in the typical city, especially in the Middle West, the Shriners will include most of the prominent citizens.”

Widely known through the United States, Shriners support children’s charities of all types but are especially well known for their Children’s Hospitals. Established in 1922, the Shriners Hospitals for Children is a network of 22 non-profit medical facilities across North America, raising in excess of $820Million USD annually and distributing it widely. In other countries, like Australia and Canada, where hospitals are generally government funded, Shriners raise money for other children’s charities and are widely respected for such work.

Universally, Shriners are recognised through the wearing of their Red Fez, that bears the name of the Shrine or Temple that they are a member of and, if appropriate, their office. To wear a fez is an honour amongst Freemasons and memberships is open to all Master Masons wherever they may hail from.