What may be the longest-running conspiracy theory in American history began on Sunday morning May 9, 1798, when the Reverend Jedidah Morse electrified and terrified his parishioners at the Congregationalist First Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts. He warned them that there was a secret group of evil men that were plotting to destroy Christianity and all legitimate governments.
Their agents, he said, were already at work in the United States infiltrating schools, political clubs, newspapers, even the U.S. post office. Their aim was to erode religious faith and patriotism. Who were these evil men? According to the Reverend Morse they were the Order of the Illuminati. It is not known how many, if any, of those who listened to the sermon on that May morning had ever even heard of the Illuminati.
But within just a few months nearly everybody in the new United States had heard of them, and a genuine panic developed, particularly in New England. The group called the Order of the Illuminati (illuminated or enlightened ones) was formed about 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of canon law at Ingolstadt University in Bavaria, Germany. Inspired by freethinking philosophers like Voltaire, the group’s stated aim was to free humanity from ”tyranny.” For the Illuminati, this meant replacing Bavaria’s church-state hierarchy with an egalitarian society based on “reason.”
Weishaupt also had a mystical side and was heavily influenced by the Freemasons, or Masons. The Order of the Illuminati was a secret society with a strict hierarchy. Weishaupt devised elaborate rituals and secret signs for his group, and he attempted to recruit members from Masonic lodges. Just how large the Order of the Illuminati became is difficult to determine.
Deeply committed members may have been limited to Weishaupt and a few friends. There are some estimates that at its height the Illuminati may have had as many as 2,500 members, but the records are so foggy and unreliable that no one really knows. In 1784 the highly conservative Duke Karl Theodor became Bavaria’s chief of state, and he began an investigation of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and other suspect organizations. Weishaupt lost his position at the university and fled the country. In 1787 the duke came down hard on the Illuminati.
The order was banned, and those who were members faced exile or, in some cases, death. At this point the Illuminati simply disappeared from the historical record, probably because the organization disintegrated in the face of the onslaught. Weishaupt himself was ultimately reconciled with the Catholic Church before his death.
Why did this obscure European organization create a conspiracy scare in the United States some eleven years after it ceased to exist?
The reason was the French Revolution of 1789, which really did overthrow church and state and traumatized many in Europe and the United States as well. But there were many persons who, rather than trying to understand the vast and complicated interplay of forces that brought about an event as momentous as the French Revolution, found it simpler and more satisfying to blame a conspiracy.
James Robison, a well-known Scottish scientist and mathematician, gathered together all that had ever been said about the Illuminati primarily by its enemies, added his own paranoid notions, and came up with a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All Religions and Governments of Europe.
It is a masterpiece of conspiracy theory. Robison said that the Illuminati had not really been crushed in 1787, but had merely gone underground, and the obscure Bavarian professor was the sinister genius behind the French Revolution and practically everything else that was plaguing Europe. The book was filled with all sorts of sensational charges. It said that the Illuminati had developed a detailed plan for killing all the aristocrats and priests in Europe, and that the order possessed an arsenal of what would have then been considered high-tech weapons like exploding boxes and poison gas.
Many Americans, particularly conservative clergymen like the Reverend Morse, blamed the French Revolution for a rising tide of religious skepticism in America. For them Robison’s book, which first appeared in America in 1789, struck a responsive chord. Morse’s sermon touched off a genuine Illuminati panic.
Soon anti-Illuminati preachings came from pulpits throughout New England. The editor of the influential Porcupine’s Gazette said that every living man should read Proofs of a Conspiracy because “it unravels everything that appears mysterious in the progress of the French Revolution.”1
The New York Spectator told its readers that they must chose between “INDEPENDENCE and SUBMISSION.”2
Among those who thundered against the evils of the Illuminati was President Timothy Dwight of Yale. He said the Illuminati would turn American churches into Temples of Reason, cast the Bible into the bonfire, grind Christian virtues underfoot, and make concubines of Christian women. The Illuminati excitement had a political side as well.
The conservative Federalist party pointed to Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a driving force in the liberal Democratic-Republican party, as a possible Illuminati conspirator. Jefferson was an outspoken defender of France, and his religious views were anything but orthodox. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, who were often persecuted in early America, were singled out as probable members of the conspiracy because of their egalitarian views.
The United Society of Irishmen was also viewed with grave suspicion. Ironically the Freemasons, who were so central to the European ideas of the Illuminati conspiracy, were treated very gingerly at first. The Masons had many powerful members in the new United States. One of America’s leading Masons was George Washington himself, a revered, almost godlike figure in that era of American history.
There were no riots or deportations of suspected Illuminati. But those who feared the conspiracy waited anxiously for the plotters to make their move. A year went by and nothing happened. So the Reverend Morse climbed back into his pulpit on April 25, 1799, and said that he now had “complete and indisputable proof” of the Illuminati conspiracy against the United States—and this time the Freemasons were central to the story.
Morse had been given documents indicating that the Grand Orient, France’s largest Masonic lodge, controlled a network of some sixteen American lodges plus a seventeenth in Santo Domingo. Most of those in the lodges were recent French immigrants. Only the truly paranoid could find anything sinister in these perfectly routine documents. But Morse and his supporters found conspiracy nonetheless. For example, the new French-dominated lodge in Santo Domingo, which had been the scene of a successful slave revolt, was called Perfect Equality.
From that it was—to Morse at least—only a short leap to a belief that there was to be a French-led invasion from Santo Domingo in order to stir up rebellion among American slaves. Another charge was that Weishaupt had escaped to America, where he had been able to successfully impersonate George Washington, the real Washington having been assassinated by Illuminati agents!
As the Illuminati conspiracy theories became more widely known, they inevitably began to encounter more serious opposition. In Europe, scholars were able to show that Robison’s Proofs of Conspiracy was not only wrong, it was utter nonsense. Journalists compared Morse’s obsession with the Illuminati to the Salem witch trials. By the end of 1799 the Reverend Morse and his supporters either changed their minds or just shut up in the face of critics, and what Jefferson called their “bedlamite ravings” came to an end.
And that should be the end of the Illuminati conspiracy story. But it’s not. Once an idea, no matter how ill-founded and downright loony, enters the stream of conspiratorial thinking, it will resurface again and again in one form or another.
The influential nineteenth-century mythologist Lewis Spence tried to give the Illuminati an ancient history. Instead of beginning in Bavaria in the late eighteenth century, Spence traced their history back to Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. He said that the ideas really took root in Spain while it was still under Muslim influence, and that later many Illuminati fled to France to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Attempts to trace secret conspiratorial groups back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years are common. Spence’s theory is colorful, almost thrilling, but there is not one shred of reliable historical evidence to support it.
Far more sinister than Spence’s speculations are the writings of the popular conspiratologist Nesta H. Webster in the earlytwentieth-century. In a series of books she attempts to link a number of secretive movements like the Illuminati to all manner of revolutionary upheavals. One was the French Revolution, of course, for she relies heavily on Robison’s writings, and another was the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Webster‘s 1924 book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements concludes ringingly: “For behind the concrete forces of revolution—whether Pan Germanic, Judaic, or Illuminist—beyond the invisible secret circle which perhaps directs them all, is there not yet another force, still more potent, that must be taken into account? In looking back over the centuries at the dark episodes that have marked the history of the human race from its earliest origins—strange and horrible cults, waves of witchcraft, blasphemies, and desecrations—how is it possible to ignore the existence of an occult power at work in the world? Individuals, sects, or races fired with the desire of world-domination have provided the fighting forces of destruction, but behind them are the veritable powers of darkness in eternal conflict with the powers of light.”3
Webster’s books are still in print and still on the recommended reading lists of a variety of conspiracy-minded organizations. In the 1960s the Illuminati made another and quite bizarre reappearance. In occult circles the rumor spread that an ancient and secretive brotherhood of Illuminati was now “controlling world events.”
No one seemed to know who the Illuminati were or whether they were supposed to be good or evil. Two centuries after an obscure professor was chased out of his native Bavaria, and the tiny and short-lived organization he founded dissolved forever, the Illuminati lives on in the world of the conspiracy theorist.