The Order of the Illuminati was a short-lived secret society in eighteenth-century Germany that became the linchpin of countless conspiracy theories and works of historical and religious speculation, ranging from reactionary attacks on the French Revolution to the counter-cultural writings of the 1960s and 1970s and through to the religious Right in the present. In terms of sheer longevity and versatility, few conspiracy theory “villains” can match the record of the Illuminati.
The legend began in the southwest German state of Bavaria, a militantly Catholic realm where the Reformation and the Enlightenment had been stoutly resisted by both the ruling family and the Jesuit clergy who controlled the cultural institutions. The Order of the Illuminati was born in the febrile brain of Dr. Adam Weishaupt, a professor of Canon Law at Bavaria’s most prestigious educational institution, the University of Ingolstadt.
A leader of the liberal faction within the university that supported the introduction of non-Catholic books and scientific subjects into the university curriculum, Weishaupt felt that Jesuits rivals were sabotaging his career, and determined that only a secret organization could ever succeed in spreading the secular, rationalistic ideas of the Enlightenment in such a hostile environment.
Secret societies and fraternal orders were something of a rage among the elites of Europe and America during the eighteenth century. Living in a world where traditional beliefs seemed increasingly inadequate and traditional society was decaying, many sought out deeper knowledge and new forms of sociability to go with them.
The exotic rituals and quasi-pagan “mysteries” available to initiates in Freemasonry and similar institutions were immensely appealing, and at their best taught a more modern and open-minded value system than the official culture of the day. Membership was also an excellent way for ambitious men to make social and professional connections.
Weishaupt’s new secret society was launched 1 May 1776, with five members. Loosely based on Masonic lodges, Illuminati chapters were intended to become “schools of wisdom” (Stauffer, 150), in which new ideas could be freely taught, away from the prying eyes of priests and public officials.
Weishaupt originally planned three “grades” of Illuminati, Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval, promising higher grades to come. The order was structured in a hierarchical, cultlike fashion in which the higher-ranking members were supposed to control the actions and thinking of their subordinates.
Each novice—young, rich, impressionable men were the preferred recruits—was to be instructed by a single Minerval who was to keep the identities of the other members secret. Advancement required the novitiate to prepare detailed reports on his life and character, including the books he owned and the names of his enemies, and to recruit new candidates.
Then finally, after two years of study, the novice was elevated to Minerval status and got to attend Illuminati gatherings. Minervals were to form a kind of secret Enlightenment university hidden within the existing institutions of the society, where the order would work to see that its members were highly placed.
This was a bold plan to spread an intellectual revolution through Catholic Europe, frightening in the degree to which it sought to control its agents, but it amounted to relatively little in practice. Intent on personal, dictatorial command of the order, Weishaupt quarreled frequently with other leading members, and the total number of Illuminati rose to no more than perhaps sixty in its first four years of existence.
The order’s fortunes took a temporary turn for the better when Baron Adolf Franz Friederich Knigge, a well-connected diplomat and leading Mason from the north of Germany, joined in 1780. The accession of Knigge greatly increased the geographic reach and social prestige of Illuminism, and created an alliance with Freemasonry that proved the key to the order’s brief period of expansion.
Knigge added a number of new grades, with cheeky, imposing titles like Priest, Prince, and Magus, and expanded the group’s recruitment to include not just impressionable young students but also experienced men who already occupied positions of influence, especially Knigge’s Masonic colleagues. Several of the new Illuminati grades corresponded to Masonic degrees and provided easy points of access for Masons into the higher ranks of the new order.
Under Knigge’s guidance, the Order of the Illuminati enjoyed its only period of real prestige or influence. Membership climbed into the thousands, and reached outside Bavaria into a number of other German-speaking states. A number of German princes and nobles became Illuminati, as did such lions of German culture as Goethe and Herder.
Then, beginning in 1784, just at the peak of the order’s popularity, the hammer came down. Duke Charles Theodore of Bavaria issued a series of edicts banning all voluntary associations and societies that had been created without government permission, in time naming the Illuminati specifically as one of the outlawed groups.
An investigation was begun and Illuminati who held any kind of official position in the army, clergy, government, or educational system were forced to confess and recant their membership, promptly and sincerely, or lose their jobs. As in many cases where a government tries to suppress a conspiratorial organization, heavily embroidered confessions and lurid, semifictional tell-alls began appearing as the scandal mounted.
Weishaupt and Knigge escaped, but a number of other leading Illuminati were arrested, including one Xavier Zwack, a disgraced member whose trove of letters and documents included plans for creating a secret organization for women, essays defending atheism and suicide, claims that the Illuminati had the power of life or death over their members, and information on secret ink, counterfeiting, poison, and even abortion.
Conspiratorial Interpretations of History
A highly imaginative stew of prospective sin and projected skullduggery, Zwack’s papers became the basis for the Illuminati legend that mushroomed almost simultaneously with the Bavarian order’s final suppression in 1787. Its fame was first spread by a host of German-language works published attacking and defending the order, including several intemperate productions from founder Adam Weishaupt himself.
Taking the seized documents and the controversial literature out of its original context, the embattled defenders of church and king came to see the Illuminati as both representatives of, and the prime movers behind, all the insidious forces of innovation, free thought, and revolution that seemed to threaten their world. European reactionaries simply refused to believe that such a diabolical organization could be killed, seeing its hand in the other major and minor political upheavals of the eighteenth century.
The most notable and shocking of these developments, of course, was the French Revolution that began in 1789. Once the French Jacobins had pushed the country to regicide and mass murder in the early 1790s, apologists for the old regime cast about for explanations and many settled, improbably enough, on the Bavarian Illuminati as the culprits.
The basics of the grand Illuminati conspiracy theory were first mapped out by University of Edinburgh scientist John Robison, a Mason who gradually became convinced that the secrecy provided by Masonic lodges and similar institutions “had been used in every country for venting and propagating sentiments in religion and politics, that could not have been circulated in public without exposing the author to great danger” (Robison).
This protection encouraged free thinkers and libertines to “become more bold, and to teach doctrines subversive of all our notions of morality ... of all satisfaction and contentment with our present life, so long as we live in a state of civil subordination.”
This insight might have had some merit as a description of Europe’s intellectual ferment during the eighteenth century, but Robison literalized it into the charge that “AN ASSOCIATION HAS BEEN FORMED for the express purpose of ROOTING OUT ALL THE RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS, AND OVERTURNING ALL THE EXISTING GOVERNMENTS OF EUROPE”.
In his book Proofs of a Conspiracy, Robison outlined his theories in massive though often mistaken detail, tracing the origins of the conspiracy back to French Freemasons whose ideas had spread to Germany and allegedly spawned the Illuminati. Along with many of his contemporaries, Robison believed that the Illuminati had not really been suppressed in 1787, but had merely gone underground and assumed new and more dangerous guises.
Robison labored for sixty pages to establish a link between the Bavarians and the French revolutionaries, relying on a few fleeting contacts between some mid-level Illuminati leaders and two well-connected French Masons who became prominent French politicians during the 1790s, Mirabeau and Talleyrand.
Supposedly the French immediately adopted Weishaupt’s plan “in all its branches,” creating “illuminated” lodges all over France, including, Robison claimed, the infamous Jacobin club that produced the Revolution’s most radical and bloodthirsty faction.
Almost simultaneously with Robison, a French writer was working out an even more elaborate version of the same theory. In Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism), the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel described a “triple conspiracy” of “sophistes” specializing in “Impiety,” “Rebellion,” and “Anarchy.”
According to Barruel, it all began with a conspiracy of philosophers, led by Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, whose anti-Christian writings sapped the intellectual and political prestige of the Catholic Church.
At the same time, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau expounded the doctrines of liberty and equality, and Freemasons took up their cause, inculcating impressionable young men with the blasphemous notions that “all men are equals and brothers; all men are free.”
The Illuminati then emerged to bring the philosophers and Masons together behind a program of cultural and political revolution, seeking to destroy not only the Christian churches and Christian monarchs of Europe, but “every religion natural or revealed ... every government ... all civil society ... all property whatsoever.” This “complete academy of Conspirators” brought their plans to fruition by creating the Jacobin clubs and fomenting the French Revolution.
Arrival in the United States
These Illuminati-based explanations of the French Revolution and the other radical movements of the time spread quickly to the United States, where war with the French Republic seemed to be looming and the Federalists in power were being severely criticized in the press.
Many of these press critics were political refugees from suppressed radical movements in England, Scotland, and Ireland and strong sympathizers with the ideals of the French Revolution, adding fuel to a sense of alien subversion.
The authors of the Illuminati conspiracy theory had warned the United States that it was in danger. Robison claimed that the Bavarian Illuminati had planted cells there before their official suppression, and Barruel cried that the Illumines were coming fresh from their successes in France: “As the plague flies on the wings of the wind, so do their triumphant legions infect America.... The immensity of the ocean is but a feeble barrier against the universal conspiracy of the Sect”.
Robison and Barruel found eager readers among the Federalists, especially in New England, where the legatees of the old Puritan clergy wielded great political influence and deplored what they perceived as a declining level of religious belief since colonial times.
Believing that Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans were in cahoots with the French in any case, Federalists were all too prepared to believe that their political enemies might be part of a much broader and deeper conspiracy against not just George Washington and John Adams, but religion and morality in general.
In the spring and summer of 1798, a full-fledged Illuminati scare broke out, turning the conspiracy theory into a leading topic of political debate and contributing to the paranoid atmosphere that produced the Alien and Sedition Acts. Robison and Barruel were endorsed in widely published and discussed sermons by some of New England’s most famous divines. Leading off was Rev.
Jedidiah Morse, pastor of First Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts, and also America’s leading authority on geography. Morse launched the controversy before a large audience in Boston on 9 May, declared a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” by President John Adams.
Morse published two other Illuminati sermons later that year, along with innumerable newspaper articles defending and trying to substantiate his charges. Pressed for specifics, he named Thomas Jefferson, the figurehead and presidential candidate of a rapidly coalescing opposition party, as the likely chief of the American Illuminati.
Although by no means universally accepted, even by those of his own political persuasion, the Illuminati theory was given further sanction that summer by Rev. David Tappan, a Harvard professor of divinity, and especially by Rev. Timothy Dwight, who as president of Yale College was virtually the spiritual leader of New England’s Congregational-Federalist establishment.
Having preached and written often against the rise of “infidelity,” Dwight fell hard for the Illuminati theory, lending his considerable prestige to one of the most histrionic of the attacks, addressed to the people of New Haven during their 1798 Fourth of July celebration.
Speaking on the “The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis,” Dwight called upon his fellow citizens to stand against these enemies, who embodied “the cruelty and rapacity of the Beast,” lest their sons become “the dragoons of Marat” and their “daughters the concubines of the Illuminati”.
Morse and Dwight were in deadly earnest, but some Federalist politicians and publicists tried to exploit the Illuminati fears for political gain. One of Jefferson’s nastiest critics, newspaper editor William Cobbett, helped oversee the publication of Robison’s book in America, and Dwight’s politician brother Theodore gave speeches and wrote articles purporting to show that Jefferson was “the very child of modern illumination, the foe of man, and the enemy of his country”.
Despite the large amounts of ink and breath that Federalists expended on it, the Illuminati scare largely fizzled out as a political phenomenon. The opposition press ridiculed the charges and even many Federalists were openly skeptical. What was worse, Jeffersonian Republican journals such as the Boston Independent Chronicle and the Philadelphia Aurora, and clever Republican orators such New Haven’s Abraham Bishop, worked fairly successfully to turn the charges around.
If there was any real conspiracy to suborn the nation’s religious, cultural, and political institutions, it was the one being mounted by the “political priests” of New England, who hoped to suppress the religious and political freedoms that Americans enjoyed, and protect the privileges of New England’s tax-supported Congregational churches, by smearing their political opponents and leading a witch-hunt for Illuminati and other subversives.
Ranging back through the region’s history to Puritan witch trials and blue laws, Democratic Republican critics depicted Federalist New England as a benighted place where a “union of church and state” labored to keep the people misinformed and docile.
Timothy Dwight was labeled the “Pope” of New England, a cutting epithet in a country where the Catholic Church was widely and deeply disdained. Many of the articles and pamphlets were written from the viewpoint of New England clergymen or politicians who had been ostracized and sometimes forced from their positions for their liberal political opinions.
The general tenor and strategy of the attacks are captured in the title of John C. Ogden’s pamphlet, A View of the New England Illuminati: Who are Indefatigably Engaged in Destroying the Religion and Government of the United States; under a Feigned Regard for Their Safety.
Along with hundreds of newspaper articles by Ogden and others, Abraham Bishop’s widely reprinted speech and pamphlet on “the extent and power of political delusion,” emanating from Dwight’s own stomping grounds, proved highly popular and effective.
Although hysterical attacks on the Republicans continued, the specific charge that they were part of an Illuminati conspiracy dropped out of Federalist use once Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801. Jefferson’s own allies kept up the countercharge for several more years as they tried unsuccessfully to gain power within the New England states.
Occasionally they came close to building a conspiracy theory of their own, revolving around the alleged “union of church and state.” In 1802, Bishop published a kind of parody of Robison’s book, also titled Proofs of a Conspiracy, that documented the means by which New England’s Federalist elite clung to power and repressed dissent.
Although never mainstream again after 1800, the Robison-Barruel theory of the Illuminati as secret prime movers in world events has figured in the beliefs of many, if not most, major conservative conspiracy theorists since that time.
Antisemites, Christian Identity, Nesta Webster, the John Birch Society, and the far Right, whose warnings about the New World Order pervade the Internet—all find Robison’s material too good to pass up and assign a major role to the Illuminati as progenitors or allies of whatever group each particular writer fears. Religious reactionaries have been especially attracted to the Illuminati legend, which makes the forces of secularism seem so efficient, powerful, and dangerous.
By the same token, but from the other end of the political spectrum, many Americans influenced by the 1960s counterculture have embraced belief in the Illuminati, sometimes tongue-in-cheek or only imaginatively, out of an attraction for the idea of a secret network of enlightened individuals who might be able to spread hidden knowledge and bring about sweeping cultural, social, and political change.