At a meeting of Mecca Shriners on June 6, 1876, a new body was created to help spur the growth of the young fraternity. This governing body was called "The Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for the United States of America." Fleming became the first Imperial Grand Potentate, and the new body established rules for membership and the formation of new temples. The initiation ritual was embellished, as was the mythology about the fraternity. An extensive publicity and recruiting campaign was initiated.
It worked. Just two years later, in 1878, there were 425 Shriners in 13 temples. Five of these temples were in New York, two were in Ohio and the others were in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan and Massachusetts.
The number of Shriners continued to grow in the 1880's. By the time of the 1888 annual session (convention) in Toronto, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples throughout the United States and one in Canada.
While the organization was still primarily social, instances of philanthropic work became more frequent. During an 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Fla., members of Morocco Shriners and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to relieve suffering. In 1889, Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown Flood victims. In 1898, there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 temples were engaged in some sort of philanthropic work.
At its 1900 Imperial Session, representatives from 82 temples marched in a Washington, D.C., parade reviewed by President William McKinley. Membership was well over 55,000.
Evolution of the "World's Greatest Philanthropy"
Shriners were unstoppable in the early 1900's. Membership grew rapidly, and the geographical range of temples widened. Between 1900 and 1918, eight new temples were created in Canada and one each in Honolulu, Mexico City and the Republic of Panama. The organization became, in fact, the Ancient Arabicv Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America. New flourishes were added to a growing tradition of colorful pageantry. More bands were formed, and the first circus is said to have opened in 1906 in Detroit.
During the same period, there was growing member support for establishing an official charity. Most temples had individual philanthropies, and sometimes Shriners as an organization gave aid. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Shriners sent $25,000 to help the stricken city, and in 1915, Shriners contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither the individual projects nor the special one-time contributions satisfied the membership, who wanted to do more.
In 1919, Freeland Kendrick (Lu Lu Shriners, Philadelphia) was the Imperial Potentate-elect for the 363,744 Shriners. He had long been searching for a cause for the thriving group to support. In a visit to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta, he became aware of the overwhelming orthopedic needs of children in North America. As Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920, he traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 temples to campaign for an official philanthropy.
1920 Imperial Session
At the June 1920 Imperial Session in Portland, Oregon, Kendrick proposed establishing Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children (now Shriners Hospitals for Children), to be supported by a $2 yearly assessment from each Shriner (now $5 per year).
Conservative Shriners expressed doubts about assuming this kind of responsibility. Prospects for approval were dimming when Noble Forrest Adair (Yaarab Shriners, Atlanta) rose to speak:
I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about 4 o'clock...and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band...stood down there under the window for 25 minutes playing 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.'"
He said that when he awoke later, "I thought of the wandering minstrel, and I wondered if there were not a deep significance in the tune that he was playing fro Shriners, 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.'"
He noted, "While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it's time for the Shrine to spend money for humanity. I want to see this thing started. Let's get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America," he continued, "who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself."
When he was through, Noble Adair sat down to thunderous applause. The whole tone of the session had changed. There were other speakers, but the decision had already been reached. The resolution was passed unanimously.
A committee was chosen to determine the site and personnel for the Shriners Hospital. After months of work, research and debate, the committee concluded that there should be not just one hospital but a network of hospitals throughout North America. It was an idea that appealed to Shriners, who liked to do things in a big and colorful way. When the committee brought the proposal to the 1921 Imperial Session in Des Moines, Iowa, it too was passed.
Note: The following essay was quoted from "A Short History, Shriners Hospitals for Children & Shriners of North America," which can be downloaded in its entirety from the Shriners of North America website.