The idea of an Illuminati can be traced to the writings of a wealthy, well-connected, and highly eccentric Bavarian intellectual named Johann Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830), who believed that he had the power to create a secret society that would rule the world. That many of his contemporaries believed him—and that many conspiracy theorists
still do—is a testament to the power of his legacy.
1773Johann Adam Weishaupt becomes professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt, an unusual honor for a layperson.
Taking on the name "Brother Spartacus," Weishaupt forms a secret society called the Order of the Illuminati
(also known as the Order of Perfectibilists).
Weishaupt becomes a Freemason
and begins to advocate "Illumined Freemasonry." He describes it thusly:
I have contrived a system which possesses every advantage. It attracts Christians of every communion, gradually frees them from all religious prejudices, cultivates the social virtues, and animates them by a great, feasible, and speedy prospect of universal happiness in a state of liberty and moral equality, freed from the obstacles which subordination, and the inequalities of rank and wealth, continually throw in our way ...
This is the great object held out by this Association, and the means of attaining it is Illumination—enlightening the understanding by the sun of reason, which will dispel the clouds of superstition and prejudice. The proficients in this Order are therefore justly called the Illuminated.
While Freemasonry provided Weishaupt with the sort of private social networks that he needed to spread his doctrine of the Illuminati, it would also lead many to see a connection between Illuminated Freemasonry and Freemasonry as a whole—one that would place Freemasonry at the center of conspiracy theories for centuries to come.
The U.S. government adopts the Eye of Providence
as part of the Great Seal, accompanied by the Latin text novus ordo seclorum
(often translated as "New World Order"). Because of the historical connection between Freemasonry and the Eye of Providence, and the then-recent emergence of Illuminated Freemasonry, some conspiracy theorists have taken this to mean that the Illuminati had some kind of formative role in U.S. history. There is no meaningful evidence to support this theory.
1785Duke Karl Theodor of Bavaria bans secret societies, driving Weishaupt and the Illuminati further underground.
1786Exiled to Germany, Adam Weishaupt writes the first of twelve volumes about Illuminism. He would go on to write 27 volumes of philosophy in all.
Augustin Barruel's Illustrating the History of Jacobism
claims that secret societies played an instrumental role in the French Revolution
, and points to the Illuminati as a corrupting influence.
1798John Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy further articulates the anti-Illuminati conspiracy theory.
In a letter to the Rev. James Madison (not to be confused with the Founding Father of the same name
), Thomas Jefferson
dismisses the anti-Illuminati conspiracy theories and paints Weishaupt as a utopian
idealist in the tradition of William Godwin
Weishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist ... He thinks he may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, and of course to render political government useless ... Weishaupt believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. That his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, and by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves. His precepts are the love of god and love of our neighbor. And by teaching innocence of conduct, he expected to place men in their natural state of liberty and equality. He says, no one ever laid a surer foundation for liberty than our grand master, Jesus of Nazareth.
He believes the Freemasons were originally possessed of the true principles and objects of Christianity, and have still preserved some of them by tradition, but much disfigured ... As Weishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot and priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, and the principles of pure morality. He proposed therefore to lead the Free masons to adopt this object and to make the objects of their institution the diffusion of science and virtue. He proposed to initiate new members into his body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny. This has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment, the subversion of the masonic order, and is the colour for the ravings against him of Robinson, Barruel & Morse, whose real fears are that the craft would be endangered by the spreading of information, reason, and natural morality among men ... I believe you will think with me that if Weishaupt had written here, where no secrecy is necessary in our endeavors to render men wise and virtuous, he would not have thought of any secret machinery for that purpose.
Later that year, Jefferson was elected President of the United States.
1830Weishaupt dies, having outlived most public traces of Illuminism as a movement—but the fear of Illuminism, and the suspicion that Weishaupt had in some invisible way succeeded in taking over the Western world, would live on for centuries to come.