Most people think of Shriners as those guys in little cars wearing funny hats. Or perhaps they think of the well known Shriners Hospitals for Children. However, the Shriners have a long history, dating back to the 19th century.
In Manhattan in the 1870s, there were a group of Freemasons who regularly met for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a local pub. A few of these Masons discussed forming a new fraternity within the Masons organization. Their focus would be on fun and friendship, as opposed to the solemn rituals of traditional Freemasonry.
In 1872, two of these Masons decided to put this plan into action. William J. Florence became inspired while viewing an elaborate Arabian musical comedy which featured a secret society. Sharing his ideas with Walter M. Fleming, M.D., the two formed the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. They chose a Middle Eastern theme, including the signature fez. They also picked an Islamic phrase, “Es Selamu Aleikum,” meaning “Peace be with you,” to be their standard greeting.
Currently, there are approximately 412,000 Shriners, belonging to 191 Shrine Centers, called Temples. These are spread across the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Republic of Panama. The Masons have no connection to a specific religion, but do include “perpetuation of moral values” as part of their mission statement. To become a Shriner, one must be a Freemason and have achieved the Master Mason level. Although only men are allowed to join the Freemasons, and therefore join the Shriners, there are a number of associate organizations for women and children, stressing leadership skills and community service.
The Shriners are run by a group of elected officers. The officers of each Temple are referred to as the Divan, and the Potentate is the leader. The Potentate’s second in command is called the Chief Rabban. The international governing body is called the Imperial Divan, and the chief officer is the Imperial Potentate. Once a year, the Shriners gather for their conference, the Imperial Council Session, which is held in a major North American city.
Shriners are known for their commitment to community service, and have built 22 hospitals in North America. The Shriners Hospitals for Children were originally dedicated to the fight against polio, but have since expanded to deal with all pediatric cases. Shriners Hospitals have been at the forefront of treatments for burns, spinal cord injuries and orthopedics. There are 18 orthopedic hospitals, three burn centers, and one hospital providing care for orthopedic, burn and spinal cord injury. In the last 35 years, they have also started to focus on cleft lip and palate repair. Since 1922, they have treated more than 835,000 children. Treatment at Shriners Hospitals is always free of charge, and they do not discriminate on the basis of race or religion.
The other public face of the Shriners is featured in parades across the country. There, the Shriners can be seen wearing their fezzes and driving tiny cars or trucks. Some Shriners have formed motorcycle units or brass bands. In some areas, the Shriners sponsor an annual circus. Additionally, they host the annual East-West Shrine Game, a college all-star football game. Famous Shriners have included former President Gerald Ford, golfer Arnold Palmer, and astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.