When the general public hears you talk about Masonry, they usually have no idea what you are talking about. When the Shrine is brought up however, usually the response is, “Oh, you mean those guys in the funny hats and the tiny cars?” They are Shriners, members of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or A.A.O.N.M.S. The Shrine tends to be the public face of Freemasonry today.
Where did it start?
It all started in 1870, in Manhattan. At the time, more than 3,000 men living in Manhattan were Masons. Some of these men made an effort to have lunch together as often as they could, on the second floor of the Knickerbocker Lodge. Each one of these men who attended this lunch were known as light-hearted jokesters, who talked often about starting a fraternal offshoot of Masonry who’s focus was fun and fellowship, over the emphasis on ritual of Blue Lodge. Two of the men, Walter Fleming and William Florence, decided to take action.
Florence was an actor who traveled the world. During a tour in France, he had been invited to a party thrown by an Arabic diplomat. During this party, a troupe of actors put on a play, in which, the members of the audience became members of a secret society. He felt that this play would make a wonderful basis for their new fraternity. After viewing the play a few more times, he returned with his information to Fleming.
Fleming was a man devoted to fraternalism. He took the ideas laid out by Florence, and created the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Together with the other lunch fellows, they drafted the ritual, created costumes and a greeting, and decided upon the now infamous fez. Florence and Fleming were initiated on August 18, 1870, and 11 other men followed on June 16, 1871
How can I join?
Despite the name, the Shrine does not have any Arabic connection, other than the origin story. A number of Shrines that used to be referred to as “temple” or “mosque” are now shifting to using “Shrine Center” instead, to help distance themselves. Many people believe incorrectly that it has something to do with Islam. Just like Blue Lodge Masonry, Shriners only require a belief in a higher power. A lot of people are under the impression that you can simply become a Shiner, and skip the first three degrees. This I think is largely due to the marketing campaign that they use. 2B1Ask1 is very popular, and the Shrine is the only branch of Masonry that really advertises at all.
In order to join the Shrine, a man must be a Master Mason in good standing. Before the year 2000, however, a Mason had to also be a member of York or Scottish Rite before he could join the Shrine. This was largely done to not only encourage the idea of work before play, but also to facilitate more membership in these groups. Unfortunately, they saw a lot of members join only to become a Shriner, and never be active in either of the Rites.
There are two women only organizations associated with the Shine, the Daughters of the Nile and the Ladies’ Oriental Shrine. Both are closely tied to the Shiner’s Hospital for Children. You can read more about those organizations here.
What they do
The Shriners do a lot, usually for their local community. While it is not to say that they do not have the plain, regular, boring, business meeting, their main focus is on fun, and you can see that through the work that they do.
Perhaps one of the best known units (which is basically like a club within the Shrine) is the parade unit. These units may include bands, equestrian units, color guard, motorcycle units and more. The most prominent and well-known however, are the mini car units, otherwise known as the motor corps. Usually it is a requirement that a Shriner own his own mini car in order to be a part of the unit, however many Shrine Centers are starting to move away from this, in order to encourage more participation.
Other well-known activities that the Shiners put on are the Shrine Circus, and the East-West Game.
Something that a lot of people do not seem to connect to the Shriners, for whatever reason, is the Shrine Hospital for Children. This is a network of 22 hospitals across North America (1 in Canada, and 1 in Mexico) that sees children with orthopedic issues, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lip and palate. Here’s the thing that makes it a bit different from the rest of the hospitals out there. EVERYONE that needs their services receives it, whether or not they can pay the bill. There have been some issues with that as of late, and some families have had their insurance billed, but the hospital is always sure that it is well within the families means. Those without insurance are covered 100%. The majority of the operating costs come from donations, many from Freemasons or Shriners themselves. Often a Shrine Center funnel’s its hospital donations to the closest hospital. For instance, all of our hospital donations here in Omaha fund the hospital in Minneapolis. Patients do not have to be Masons, or related to a Mason in any way. The service is there for anyone who may need it. I feel that this truly helps the Shrine earn the nickname of “The World’s Greatest Philanthropy”.
The Shrine has a lot to offer, definitely a “something for everyone” kind of fraternity. There are always plenty of fun activities going on, usually with the focus being on the family, instead of just the Shrine member. Our local Shrine hosts and supports our DeMolay chapter, and it seems like there is something to do there every night of the week. If you are a Mason, or with a Mason, or even just looking to become one, and have a family, or want to attend a lot of social events, I highly recommend you look into joining the Shrine.