The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine
You’ve probably seen parades with grown men driving little cars, or playing bagpipes, or doing close-order doughnuts on motorcycles, most of them wearing hats that look like overturned red flowerpots. Look a little closer at those hats and you’ll see strange, vaguely Middle-Eastern-sounding names like Mizpah, Zoran, Hadji, El Bekel, Syria, Ben Ali, and Abdallah, spelled out in glittering rhinestones. If you live in a moderate-size town, you may have seen the Shrine Circus. If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably watched the East-West Shrine Game. Driving down the interstate, you may have passed a semi with an ad on the back, depicting a man carrying a young girl in one hand and her crutches in the other.
All these images come from one source: the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (of the Shrine, for short). The Shriners own and operate 22 hospitals across North America, providing no-cost burn, spinal cord, and orthopedic care to children. What you may not know is that each and every one of those Shriners is also a Freemason.
The Shrine is another appendant body of Freemasonry and it is arguable the most popular. Its mission is very simple: to have fun and help kids. In this chapter, I explain a little bit about where the Shrine came from, how it became one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, and what the Shrine has to do with Freemasonry. I also tell you all about those little hats and what that pseudo-Arabic hoodoo is about.
All Shriners Are Freemason
The Shrine has often been called the “playground of Freemasonry.” Before a man can become a Shriner, he must become a Freemason. In fact, if you look carefully at the full name – Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – you can rearrange the letters A.A.O.N.M.S. and spell “A MASON.”
Today, there are close to 500,000 members of the Shrine. In 191 Shrine centers or chapters, in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Panama. The most populous Shrine is largely unheard of outside of North America and Panama, except for a few clubs of American Shriners living overseas. In 2005, the Shrine announced that it intends to open a center in London.
Until the late 1990’s, before being allowed to join the Shrine, Masons were required to join a local lodge, receive their three lodge degrees, and also join either the Scottish Rite or the York Rite and complete their degree work. That policy has changed: Today, candidates for the Shrine are required only to be a Master Mason. Still, it’s important to understand that the Shrine is not a Masonic organization – it does not confer any degree that continues or enlarges on the Masonic degrees. It’s simply an organization that requires Masonic lodge membership as a prerequisite for joining.
The History of the Shriners
In the mid-1800’s in the United States occurred the gradual removal of intoxicating liquor from the Masonic lodges. Even though the fraternity of Freemasonry had begun in taverns and alehouses, by the 1850’s most Grand Lodges had outlawed booze in the lodges. The local lodges, as well as the York and Scottish Rite commanderies and temples, had become dry establishments, concentrating more on the conferral of degrees and the development of ritual and symbolism than on convivial brotherhood and fun. Masonic halls became solemn places of introspection. Masons had to go to the local bar, restaurant, or private club for their old-style feasts and toasting.
The Knickerbocker boys
In, 1870, a group of New York City Masons met regularly for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a restaurant on Sixth Avenue. They had a regular table and had a reputation for being an especially boisterous group of men. They felt that the lodge had become too stodgy and too wrapped up in ritual, and had lost a lot of the fun and fellowship Masonry one had. Dr. Walter Fleming and a traveling actor named Billy Florence decided to do something about it.
Florence described the show to Dr. Fleming in New York, and provided details and drawings after seeing it performed again in Cairo and Algiers. Fleming loved it, and he and the Knickerbocker boys added to the concept. Charles McClenachan and William Sleigh Paterson were experts on Masonic ritual, while Albert L. Rawson was a prominent scholar on the Middle East who provided more background and Arabic vocabulary. They wrote up an initiation ritual, devised exotic titles for the officers’ positions, and came up with the greeting phrase of the Order based on an Arabic saying, Es Selamu Aleijum!, which means, “Peace be with you!”
In 1872, the little group of friends declared themselves to be the charter members of the Mecca Temple of the Ancient Arabic order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, and Dr. Fleming was elected as the Potentate.
So why the goofy hats?
No self-respecting fraternal group of the 1800’s could be without the appropriate bling-bling. For their official headgear, they adopted the red felt fez (named after the 14th-century Moroccan city of Fez where it was first created to replace the pesky and hard-to-wrap turban). Attached to it is a long, black tassel. In the middle of the fez is a distinctive, crescent-shaped jewel. The crescent is made up of the claws of a Bengal tiger. In the center is the head of a sphinx. The crescent hangs under a curved scimitar (sword), and a five-pointed star hangs beneath the head of the sphinx.
The first growth of the Shrine
At first, the Shrine remained a mostly New York City group. Another temple was charted in Rochester, New York, but after 4 years, there were just 43 nobles (the Shrine’s term for members). In 1876, the group made changes, enlarged the initiation ceremony, and invented and elaborate “history.” They established and Imperial Grand Council and started on a nationwide public relations push to grow the new group. It caught on, and by 1890, there were 50 Shrine temples in the United States and Canada, with almost 7,500 members. By 1900, the membership swelled to 50,000 in 79 Shrine temples. America was apparently full of thirsty Masons.
Polio and the first Shrine hospital
An outbreak of polio struck the United States in 1919. We don’t think of polio much today, because the last three generations of Americans have been vaccinated against the virus. But in 1919, it killed 6,000 people in the United States and left 27,000 paralyzed. In its aftermath, a huge part of the population, many of them children, needed orthopedic care. In 1920, the Shrine’s Imperial Session voted to assess members $2 a year to build the first Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The rules were simple. Care was provided a no cost for any child under 14 (and later, 18) whose family was unable to pay. There was no restriction based on race, religion, color, or national origin – the only requirement was that there had to be a chance of being able to improve the child’s condition.
Depression and growth
Fourteen Shriners Hospital were built in the United States and Canada between 1922 and 1927. The Great Depression struck in 1929, and the Shrine, like other fraternal organizations, fell on hard times. Many other groups didn’t survive. Still, the Shriners and its separate hospital corporation managed to invest more that $1 billion in government bonds during the four years of World War II. After the war, a new explosion of fraternalism brought new members, and the construction resumed with a new hospital in Mexico City in 1945.
The editorial without words
The drawing that graces billboards, trucks and other signs for the Shriners Hospitals is known by it members as “the editorial without words,” because the story it tells needs no explanation. It depicts a Shriner, wearing his fez, carrying a little girl in one hand and her crutches in the other.
Its origin is a real photograph taken in 1970 at an amusement park in Evansville, Indiana. The little girl in the photo is Bobbi Jo Wright, who was born with cerebral palsy. Her orthopedic problems were treated at St. Louis Shriners Hospital, and Bobbi Jo went on to graduate from Anderson University in Indiana.
The Shriner carrying Bobbi Jo is Al Hortman, who became a Mason and a Shriner after his own daughter was treated at the St. Louis Hospital. The image that was photographed by accident by a local newspaper photographer has been reproduced on pins, patches, shirts, hats, and even stained-glass windows. A full-size statue of the image stands outside the Shrine’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, as well as many Shrine centers around the country.
Greatest philanthropy in the world
Since 1920, a total of 22 Shriners Hospitals have been built, all retaining the same criteria for admission: There is still no charge to the family for care. The orthopedic care was increased over the years, and in 1962, the system expanded to treat severe burns. In 1980, it was expanded again to provide spinal cord rehabilitation. Shriners Hospitals have been at the forefront in research for this kind of care and have developed new methods of treatment, as well as made advances in the development of artificial limbs and other prosthetics. The research costs alone come to $25 million a year, and Shriners spend $1,600,000 a day on the hospitals.
In 1996, because of the expanding range of services and treatments, the Shrine officially changed the name of the system to Shriners Hospitals for Children. It is referred to today as the “greatest philanthropy in the world.”
Putting a Little of the Boy Back in the Man
From the beginning, the Shrine was intentionally designed to be fun – actually, even a bit juvenile. Freemasons looking for deep, intellectual symbolism and knowledge won’t find it in the Shrine. What they will find is old-fashioned, back-slapping, glass-raising, cigar-puffing, high-volume socializing. Their history is filled with the tales of the antics of Shriners, especially when collected together at their annual conventions. Perhaps riding horses through the lobbies that wouldn’t open the bar early enough would result in a lawsuit or two today, but it’s the stuff that earned them their well-earned reputation as America’s premiere party animals.
Hot sands of the desert
Most Shriners conduct a two-part initiation ceremony. The first section is a dramatic enactment of a morality story, much like those done in the Scottish Rite. The candidates sit in the audience, and when the time comes for them to take the obligation of the Shrine, the candidates do it in unison.
The second section is traditionally referred to as Hot Sands, and initiates must symbolically cross the “hot sands of the desert” to complete the ceremony. Some Shrines have removed or altered this portion of the initiation, or have made it optional. There is only one “degree” for the Shrine, and members are referred to as nobles.
Temples: Domes and minarets
Shrine temples (or centers, as more of them are referred to these days) are often very large, and there are only a few in any given state. This allows each temple to draw upon dozens or even hundreds of Masonic lodges for their membership. Shrine temples often have thousands of members.
The Shrine built its own dedicated buildings during prosperous times, and they were generally designed with Middle Eastern architectural details. Shrine buildings look strangely incongruous plopped down in the middle of American cities, with their tall minarets and domed roofs. In keeping with the functions of the Shrine, they often have large auditoriums, plus social rooms, dance halls, restaurants, and bars.
Units: One to suit every Shriner
Most Shrine Temples are divided up into clubs or units. Clowns, motorcycle groups, horse patrols, marching bands, railroad clubs, bagpipers, classic-car owners – the variety is endless. Because the Shrine is intended to be more socially involving, members are encouraged to find a unit that appeals to their interests or hobbies.
Some of the units are designed to handle transportation of children and their families to the Shriners Hospitals, and temples often have a small fleet of cars or vans driven by volunteers. Other temples may even have units for private airplane owners, who volunteer to fly patients to hospitals across the country.
There is also a ladies group for wives and daughters of Shriners, called the Daughters of the Nile. Founded in 1913, over the years they have themselves contributed nearly $40 million to the Shriners hospitals.
What’s with the little cars?
Shriners hold fundraising events to support both themselves and the hospitals. One of the most visible is the Shrine Circus. Any event that is designated as a hospital fundraiser send 100 percent of the proceeds to the Shriners Hospitals.
A tradition has developed over the years between Shriners and parades. Anybody can march in a parade, and Shriners pride themselves on their marching bands and wild costumes. But as a way to become more distinctive, Shriners began introducing cars, motorcycles, mini-bikes, go-karts, and tiny cars into the parades. It seems Shriners took to anything with wheels.
One group of Shriners in Omaha, Nebraska, was famous for traveling to Detroit every year and taking delivery of the first 23 Chrysler Imperial convertibles that rolled off the assembly line. Known as the Imps of Omaha, they preordered the cars in matching color schemes.