Originally, the Ancient Arabic Nobles of the Mystic Shrine required their members to be either 32nd degree Scottish Rite masons, or Knights Templar. This worked as a policy for over a century. It ensured that only men serious about masonry would enjoy what the Shriners had to offer. The assumption was that a Noble worked hard in his blue lodge, and also worked hard in his Valley, Orient, Chapter, Council, and/or Commandery, and wanted a place where he could relax in merry fellowship with other brothers whose commitments to masonry were as serious as his.
This had significant appeal to many workers in the quarries, and the Shrine Temples proved to be social centers for many Freemasons, among those who had earned the privilege. So many worthy men joined the Shrine that they had a great deal of attention and devotion focused towards these Shrine Temples, and the Shrine in general. These were men who were deeply committed to their blue lodge, often forming the officer core of their lodges, and their more accomplished past masters. They were officers in Scottish Rite and York Rite bodies, and deeply committed to these bodies, too, often involved in many different such bodies. They knew and understood their ritual, and took their work very seriously, but also understood that they were not seeing the merrier side of men they worked with, and loved the company of their brothers enough to want another place, on top of all the other places, to congregate with these brothers in a more light-hearted setting.
Brothers flocked to the Shrine in sufficient numbers that they were made aware of the power to do good that such an assemblage of good men could generate. In the earnest attempt to concentrate the power to do good, these men created the Shriners Hospitals for Children. In this current age of medical insurance and health care reform, it is hard to see what an incredible gift these hospitals were and are. Any child under the age of eighteen, stricken with horrific injuries and diseases, could visit a Shriners Hospital and receive total medical care, free of charge, for life. The level of generosity implicit in such an institution is staggering. Shriners are hardly exaggerating when they describe their hospitals as the "Greatest Philanthropy in the World".
The Shrine was so successful with their hospitals that every appendant body began their own charity or charities in imitation of the Shriners Hospitals. The Scottish Rite built two hospitals, but eventually got out of the hospital business. Instead, they worked on schizophrenia research, and learning disability tutoring. The York Rite supported eye injuries, the Grotto performed free dentistry for severely handicapped people, the Tall Cedars supported muscular dystrophy research, and Grand Lodges across the USA formed their own external charities.
I am not aware that the question was ever asked, as these hospitals were created, if it were appropriate for the Shriners to devote so much labor to such a thing, something pretty far afield from the original intention of the Shrine. Instead, we kept making hospitals, and kept making Shrine Temples, and grew, and grew.
Half a century after the Shrine was first formed, one in four men in the USA belonged to at least one fraternal organization. It was the general consensus that the Free and Accepted Masons were the gold standard of fraternal groups. So much so that many new organizations sprung up in blatant imitation of Freemasonry: the Knights of Pythias and Columbus, and the Independent Order of B'nai Brith come to mind. As the Shrine would only take its members from masons who had made a deeper commitment to masonry than the average mason, it began to be seen as an elite organization within Freemasonry. But, to keep the average Shriner from being too conceited, the entirety of Shrinedom is laced with gentle self-effacing humor, from the induction ceremonial onward.
It should also be noted that, as the Temperance movement spread across the USA, blue lodges became abstinent of alcohol, but the Shrine did not. Whereas 18th century Freemasonry was generous with libations and merriment, in the 19th century, Grand Lodges across the USA forbade alcohol in open lodge. Some have gone so far as to ban alcohol from anywhere on the premises of a masonic building, whether or not lodge is in session, whether or not masons are using the building at the time. At the time, it was felt that this was an appropriate public relations response to the Morgan scandal: the cliché of the drunken mason staggering home after a lodge meeting proved too embarrassing for Grand Lodges, and in an attempt to appear more respectable, grape and grain were dismissed from the lodge room.
Other fraternal bodies felt no need to ban alcohol. Indeed, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks incorporates the use of alcohol in their ritual, and were originally founded to use a loophole in the liquor laws of New York. I'm sure other fraternal organizations are similar, with the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles being an extreme example.
The Shrine originally met in a restaurant in New York City, and always centered itself around a well-stocked festive board. After getting to know a brother in lodge, chapter, council, consistory, commandery, and such, it was always a familiarity to see what he was like with a few drinks in him. That and the fact that only a small fraction of men in the USA have ever fully endorsed the Temperance movement made it inevitable that some appendant body of masonry would allow for alcohol in their meetings. In masonry, besides the Shrine, we have the Grotto, the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, and High Twelve as well who allow alcohol in their meetings.
Prohibition came and went, and the Depression hit, and fewer men participated in fraternalism. The structures we built when fraternalism was in its ascendancy could no longer be sustained in the same manner, at least until the Second World War ended, and our numbers swelled, peaking in 1960. A new generation came into being that rejected the values of their fathers, and preferred more counter-cultural expressions of belonging than fraternalism could provide. By the 1990s, things had reached a nadir. The Shrine was a heavy platform resting on two platforms that rested on a platform. Without a healthy blue lodge membership to select from, the Scottish Rite and York Rite could not have the same numbers, and the Shrine therefore had fewer brothers to choose from, and yet had nearly two dozen Shriners Hospitals for Children to support.
A few trends emerged to swell the ranks. The most controversial was the concept of the one-day class, in which a candidate would take all three degrees of craft masonry in one day. Also, Scottish Rite and York Rite bodies began their own one-day classes. Thus, a man who wanted to become a Shriner could enroll in a one-day class at their Grand Lodge one weekend, enroll in a one-day class at their Scottish Rite Valley or Orient the next weekend, and then attend a Shrine Ceremonial the third weekend, and be a Shriner in three weeks. As long as he continued paying dues to whichever blue lodge took him, and to his Scottish Rite group, he could remain a Shriner. Blue lodges and Scottish Rite bodies gained a source of revenue without incurring any expenses, and the Shrine got a new member.
Eventually, in 2000, the Shrine dropped the York or Scottish Rite requirement for membership. This was a shock for the York Rite and Scottish Rite. It was also a shock for the Grotto, which did not require anything above blue lodge membership in its members, had also allowed alcohol, but had never gained the fame or numbers that the Shrine had. The Shrine membership had a bump after this, but then continued its decline, following the decline in fraternal participation across the board.
What is the result of all of this? The Shrine is deeply worried about declining membership. My Scottish Rite body still does one-day classes exclusively, even after the Shrine requirement was lifted. There are still craft lodge one-day classes, although I don't know anyone who has participated in one. Every appendant body is being crushed under the weight of their philanthropies while their numbers decline. Accusations are being made of poor management of these philanthropies, and some bodies are asking if it still makes sense for them to imitate the Shrine's generosity, or whether they should focus their financial power on making a quality experience for their members, in order to retain them.
The Shrine leadership is meeting in San Antonio as I write this. Six, (or some would say, nine) Shriners Hospitals for Children are facing imminent financial collapse, and in the panic, rumors abound. There are murmurs that the Ancient Arabic Nobles of the Ancient Shrine may drop the requirement that their members be masons. I don't know what to make of rumors, and I only repeat this one to ask what would happen if the Nobles meeting in San Antonio take this drastic step. Are there men out there who are waiting to be Shriners, but Freemasonry is a barrier for them? Are men thinking "I want to be a Shriner, but I could never be a mason. What a shame!"? On the other hand, the Shriners Hospitals for Children might be a philanthropy too large for masons alone to maintain. But if we get rid of the West Gate, what follows? I personally have no objection to women becoming Shriners, if the masonic requirement is lifted, but I'm sure not everybody agrees with me. The length of the Shriner cable-tow is being stretched to its limit, and it may be its cruel fate this week to have to choose between its philanthropy and its masonry.
I am a Shriner, and I'm proud to be a Shriner. It makes me deeply proud to know that, about a mile from where I type this, children are sitting in a burn ward in a state-of-the-art hospital getting world-class treatment, and that their parents have no financial burden to bear. I love the special bond I feel with my brother Nobles, and love to meet in fellowship with them, both inside and outside the Shrine Temple. The Shrine is not for everyone, and I fully respect the opinions of those brothers who are more critical of the Shrine than I am. It's not for everyone, and it's not nearly as solemn nor as esoteric as the other bodies, and should never be a substitute for the blue lodge.
I am also a 32nd degree Mason in the Scottish Rite, and proud to be a Sublime Prince. I worry that I may not have sufficient knowledge to call myself such; my up-to-date membership card, and participation in degree work at the Lodge of Perfection does not make me feel like I possess knowledge I lack about the higher degrees. With no disrespect to the leaders of my Valley, I would gladly hand in my pocket jewel temporarily until I have actually earned all 29 degrees in the four bodies, and had suitable education in their meaning, even if that took many years to accomplish. I wouldn't want the ghost of Albert Pike to despise me for my ignorance.
My obligation as a mason extends to distressed brother master masons, their widows and orphans, they making application to me as such, and I finding them worthy, so far as I can without injury to myself and my family. In this respect, all of these philanthropies are extra-masonic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that we are not masonically obligated to perpetuate the philanthropies that are crushing us. Are we saving the philanthropies while allowing distressed master masons, their widows and orphans, to suffer? Are the Rites bodies being injured by their philanthropies? Put more simply, are we offering the best degree work and education we can to our brothers and candidates in blue lodge, in the York Rite, and in the Scottish Rite, before we extend our arm to do charity, or are we doing charity at the injury of our brothers and candidates? If by doing them, we diminish the core of what we are, what use are the philanthropies to us? I'm not saying that this is necessarily my assessment, merely that before this becomes a risk, we should hold fast to that which makes us us.
My grandfather died in 1965 after a long battle with cancer. While fighting his illness, he failed to pay his lodge dues, and was suspended for non-payment of dues just before he died. His widow was never contacted by a mason until I joined Freemasonry, four decades later, and only on my insistence. In contrast, my lodge (different from my grandfather's, which has since merged with a larger lodge and has lost its name) sends flowers annually to masonic widows, and calls them from time to time to see how they are doing. Before we suspend a brother for non-payment of dues, the lodge secretary and the Worshipful Master have talked to him and asked what we can do to help him continue with the fraternity. We telephone elderly and disabled brothers and arrange rides for them to and from lodge. We visit sick brothers in the hospital. That's just part of being a mason, as far as I'm concerned.
The rallying cry has been made by other masons: "Leave Philanthropy for the Shrine". While that may not be the correct policy, I do urge us to see if we are providing our best to our brothers and candidates without injury to ourselves before we worry about others. How the Shrine manages this they will decide this week in San Antonio.