The history of any fraternal organization or society consists mainly in an answer to three questions: What was its origin? What are its purposes? What has it accomplished? It is quite difficult and sometimes impossible, to establish the facts relating to the founding of a fraternal order, because such organizations, in most cases, at least, are formed by a few enthusiastic persons who are more deeply interested in perfecting the organization and building its membership, than compiling a record of their proceedings.
In the case of Shriners International, however, the historic record is quite accurate. The origin of the Order and its remarkable growth, provide an interesting and factual story dating from 1871, although there are some who contend that the Shrine as it has existed in North America was founded on some ancient Order of Orders which are said to have existed in the Far East at an early day and were conferred upon William J. Florence, founder of the Order in New York, while he was traveling in a foreign country.
The Order of Shriners International, so far as the historical record shows, is an American institution. Oriental signs, tokens and costumes were adopted by those who originated the Order for the sake of pageantry. The jeweled costumes, the picturesque Arab and Fez, all appealed to the organizers and the result today is the greatest Fraternal Order the world has ever known, with 193 Shrine Centers and Shriners Hospital for Children. It is these 22 Hospitals -“Temples of Mercy”- that are the “Heart of the Order”.
The accepted history of the Shrine of North America dates from 1871. In that year, William J. Florence, a distinguished American actor, returned from a European trip inspired by the pageantry and Oriental splendor which he had witnessed at a private ceremony in Marseilles, France, given under the sponsorship of the Arabian Consul at that city.
From notes and material submitted to him by William J. Florence, Dr. Walter M. Fleming – eminent physician, Civil War veteran, 33rd degree Mason and Knight Templar – contrived the Shrine ritual.
At New York on June 16, 1871, Florence and Fleming and eleven Masonic friends endorsed a proposal for the formation of a new fraternal order to be composed of Knights Templar and 32nd Degree Scottish Rites Masons.