The 18th century was an age of revolution as new ideas pushed educated men and women across Europe and America to question old assumptions about science, religion, and, of course, politics.
One man wanted carry this light of reason — this illumination — into the darkest places. He formed the Order of Illuminati, an organisation that has grown to mythical size in the imaginations of wild-eyed keyboard warriors everywhere.
In what is now Germany, change couldn’t come fast enough. Not yet one country, it was divided into smaller city states, duchies and principalities, many of whom were still ruled by dukes, bishops and princes.
They were part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor particularly Roman, but had limped on as a loose assembling of German and Central European states under a powerless emperor since the Middle Ages.
In the Electorate of Bavaria, one of the wealthiest southern states, a young law professor called Adam Weishaupt was eagerly absorbing the latest works from the greatest thinkers.
In particular, he was won over by the philosophy of empiricism advocated by fellow Bavarian Johann Georg Heinrich Feder. Put simply, empiricism asserted that only the things you can confirm with your own senses are real — it’s firmly in favor of science and rational thinking, and firmly opposed to feelings and faith.
Unsurprisingly given his new viewpoint, Weishaupt came to the conclusion that Bavaria’s problems could be traced back to two things: hereditary monarchy and the Roman Catholic church, both of which he believed held back new ways of governing society.
Weishaupt initially joined the Freemasons looking for answers, but found that beyond the spooky rituals and general air of mystery, they were really just a gentlemen’s social club, more interested in helping each other out than helping Bavaria be more than a feudal backwater.
He was frustrated by the self-serving nature of Germany’s secret societies, and declared “when there was no end of making game of and abusing secret societies, I planned to make use of this human foible for a real and worthy goal, for the benefit of people.”
Weishaupt built his own secret society, but rather than being mystical, the Order of Illuminati were radical.
According to Weishaupt, his club was to be free “from all religious prejudices; cultivates the social virtues; and animates them by a great, a feasible, and speedy prospect of universal happiness.” This could only be done be working towards “a state of liberty and moral equality, freed from the obstacles which subordination, rank, and riches, continually throw in our way.”
The first meeting of the Illuminati — Weishaupt and four of his students from the university — was held in the evening of May 1, 1776 in a forest near the city of Ingolstadt.
In a torch-lit discussion they established the rules of membership: that all future members needed the approval of the whole group and — despite claims to equality and freedom from “rank and riches” — they had to be wealthy, well-connected, and should come from influential families.
The Illuminati also took pseudonyms from ancient Greece and Rome, with Weishaupt calling himself Spartacus after the leader of the Roman slave revolt.
Still a Freemason, Weishaupt used his membership as a way of drawing recruits to his own group and like the Freemasons, the Illuminati had a supernatural-sounding hierarchy of Novices, Minervals, and Illuminated Minervals.
The two more senior ranks were named after Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and true to Weishaupt’s academic origins each grade had recommended reading by which that wisdom was attained. Much of it was in the form of political and philosophical literature that was banned in Bavaria, but freely available in the Protestant German states.
By 1782 membership had reached as many as 600, including some of the most prominent men in Bavaria like the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Growing quickly, by 1784 the Illuminati numbered in their low thousands across Germany, not just Bavaria.
Members were constantly under surveillance from other members, who passed their gossip up the ranks, and only the leadership knew the true structure of what was becoming a complex network. The Order of Illuminati received another boost when the energetic Freemason Adolph Knigge signed up.
Already frustrated about the lack of meaningful political change, Knigge was thrilled to find a ready made organisation with which to make a difference. Recruiting from within his own Masonic circles, Knigge’s clique was growing so quickly that he was given permission to create his own ranks — expanding the three original ones into a staggering 13, divided into three classes.
Like many organisations that attract powerful and influential men, the Order of Illuminati began to fight amongst themselves as lines were drawn between those who thought the the anti-religious sentiment would alienate older Freemasons and other valuable potential recruits, and the original radicals.
They also faced rivals from another secret society, the Rosicrucians who were also active in recruiting and infiltrating Masonic lodges. The Illuminati’s polar opposites, they were Christian mystics and staunchly pro-monarchy.
Rapid expansion had also led to a breakdown in authority. Dirty laundry began to be aired in public and arrogant new members boasted about their group’s power and influence, feeding rumors of conspiracy and corruption.
There was some legitimacy to these fears. Unlike the many secret societies in Bavaria which were tolerated so long as they stayed out of politics, the Order of Illuminati were actively trying to renew the political culture, and fight against corruption and oppression. Rumors spread that they were interested only in personal wealth and power, and that a number of government officials were secretly members.
Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria banned the formation of any new secret societies not approved by the state in 1784, but that backfired. Discovering that his heavy handed rule was seeing many sympathize with the Illuminati’s mission instead, his government targeted the group explicitly.
The Bavarian police raided their meeting places and seized documents. In 1787 they published a selectively edited anthology of Illuminati papers that defended suicide and atheism, detailed plans to form an Order of the Illuminati for women, and offered instructions for creating invisible ink and performing abortions. In the eyes of Bavaria’s staunch Roman Catholic public, this was all their red flags flying at once.
The book was widely read across Germany, more so following the cataclysm of the French Revolution in 1789 which did Europe’s kings and bishops a massive favor by “exposing” the chaotic face of republicanism. Hysterical conservative critics blamed the Order of Illuminati for the anarchy in France, and from 1800 the word “Illuminati” became a shorthand for a secret revolutionary conspiracy behind every act of political unrest or scandal. Not long after, churchmen in the United States of America found themselves cursing the shadow of the Illuminati from their pulpits.
Armed with this damning cache of cherry-picked evidence of agitating against the church and state, the Order of the Illuminati were outlawed in Bavaria first, then Prussia and Austria, and further membership of the organisation carried the death penalty. Adam Weishaupt was sacked from his position at the University of Ingolstadt, and was exiled to the nearby Duchy of Saxony.
Weishaupt passed away in 1830, having seen his creation go from a potential vehicle of much-needed reform in his home country, to a bogeyman conjured up by paranoid priests, repressive monarchs and politicians across Europe and America. Over 200 years of conspiracy theories and paranoia is not the legacy this daring progressive thinker would have wanted.
However one man, at least, saw Weishaupt for what he was. In 1800 the Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Order of the Illuminati that “in the heart of its founder was a deep yearning for humanity to experience enlightenment and true freedom, evolve with ethics, and no longer be governed by tyrant, state or throne.”