Illuminati 101: Was the Illuminati a Real Secret Society?

From America declaring independence to Adam
Smith publishing the Wealth of Nations, 1776 was a year filled with key historical events.
1776 also witnessed the founding of a secret society whose name would live on in infamy.
Today, any mention of the word Illuminati is often met with glances to the north looking
for a tin-foil hat. Yet despite scepticism by some, the Illuminati was in fact a real
secret society that arose in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
On the 1st of May 1776, the Order of the Illuminists was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a Professor
of Canon Law at the University of Ingolstadt, in Bavaria (modern-day Germany), along with
four associates (Billington 1999: 94). Initially, the group had been called the League of Perfectibles
or Perfectibilists, with the name Bees also considered, an interesting potential name
given the concept of a bee hive (Ferguson 2018: 3; Billington 1999: 94). The group settled
on the name Illuminists however due to the image of the sun radiating illumination from
its core to outer circles, with those who were not members of the order referred to
as “sons of darkness” (Billington 1999: 94-95). Weishaupt took inspiration from numerous parts
of history when founding his order. The ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was one,
as the Zoroastrian cult of fire was a key symbolic inspiration for Illuminism, with
the Illuminati also using a Persian-modelled calendar (Billington 1999: 95). Another inspiration
for Weishaupt was the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, who is alleged
to have founded an ancient brotherhood aimed at transforming society (Billington 1999:
100). In fact, Weishaupt titled an essay on political illuminism: ‘Pythagoras,’ with
many occult organizations attracted to the Pythagorean belief in the power of prime numbers:
3, 5, 7, 11, 13… (Billington 1999: 100). Weishaupt also drew inspiration from some
of the most extreme philosophers of the French enlightenment, in addition to the Jesuits
(Ferguson 2018: 49-50). One of the secrets to the growth of the Illuminati
stemmed from Weishaupt’s strategy of infiltrating German masonic lodges, recruiting those freemasons
who were unhappy with the lack of secrecy in masonry (Ferguson 2018: 50). In 1777, Weishaupt
joined a masonic lodge in Munich, with the aim of recruiting disgruntled masons. The
Illuminati rapidly grew over subsequent years, spreading across much of Germany and into
other European countries, with the secret order estimated to have been comprised of
two to three thousand members by the end of 1784. A notable mason who joined the Illuminati
during this period of growth was the German writer, Baron Von Knigge, who quickly became
a member of the inner circle of the order. Knigge overhauled the structure of the Illuminati,
subdividing each of the three ranks of the enigmatic group, with the third rank divided
into the categories of lesser mysteries and greater mysteries (Ferguson 2018: 51). Initially,
the Illuminati had three ranks: Novice, Minerval and Illuminated Minerval, with those who were
in the lower ranks of the order only given limited knowledge about the activities and
ideology of the group at the top (Ferguson 2018: 4). Minerval referred to Minerva, the
Roman goddess of wisdom, whose chief symbol was the owl, a symbol subsequently adopted
by the Illuminati (Ferguson 2018: 4). Another feature of the organizational structure of
the order was the use of codenames, with Weishaupt being known as ‘brother Spartacus’ (Ferguson
2018: 3). The central objective of this secret order
was to launch a form of global revolution aimed at perfecting humanity, overthrowing
all established religious and political institutions in the process (Billington 1999: 94). In an
address in 1782, Weishaupt articulated his outlook and ideology. He argued that the human
race was no longer ‘a single empire’ due to the tendency of humans to differentiate
themselves from others (Ferguson 2018: 52). Through the workings of secret societies however,
Weishaupt envisioned a future where no nations would exist and humanity would become ‘one
family,’ or one world if you will (Ferguson 2018: 52).
It was also common for high members of the Illuminati to publicly declare a stance that
they privately disagreed with. For instance, Weishaupt and Knigge would often publicly
present themselves as supporters of Jesus Christ, yet privately, Knigge admitted that
this was ‘pious fraud,’ with this anti-Christian secret only revealed to high ranking members
of the Illuminati (Ferguson 2018: 52). The Illuminati had numerous initiations and
rituals, with the details of these practices only known in large part because Bavarian
authorities managed to seize secret papers from this order in the eighteenth century.
In order to pass through to a higher rank or degree of the Illuminati, a candidate had
to list the books he owned, the enemies he had and the weaknesses of his personality.
The candidate also had to renounce all other human loyalties, take an oath of secrecy (which
was punishable by death), with the process of transcending to a higher rank allegedly
finalised by drinking blood before seven black candles (Billington 1999: 96; Ferguson 2018:
4). Bavarian authorities also apparently seized various items from Illuminati members that
are straight out of a Hollywood film, including secret ink, copies of government seals to
be used for counterfeiting, manuals with details on how to make poisonous gas and a tea recipe
used to induce an abortion (Ferguson 2018: 54-55).
One of the most notable episodes in history that the Illuminati was at least somewhat
connected too was the French Revolution, which lasted from approximately 1789 to 1799. The
most prominent connection between the Bavarian Illuminati and the French revolution was the
conversion of Nicholas Bonneville to Illuminism in 1787, with Bonneville meeting a prominent
Illuminati associate of Weishaupt, Christian Bode, in Paris (Billington 1999: 96). Bonneville
was a French printer, writer and supporter of the French revolution, who worked as a
lawyer for the parlement or parliament for a period of time (Billington 1999: 97). Bonneville
was also a good friend of the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlet
Common Sense, one of the most important documents in the American Revolution. The two were such
good friends that Paine even lived with the Bonneville family in Paris for five years
between 1797 and 1802. The connections between the Illuminati and
the revolution in France run even deeper than Bonneville however. Prior to and during the
French revolution, numerous German figures who were former members of the Illuminati
arrived in Paris, including the journalist, novelist and publicist, Andreas Georg Friedrich
Rebmann (Billington 1999: 97). The journalist came to prominence by publishing German translations
of speeches by one of the most preeminent leaders of the French revolution, Maximilien
Robespierre, with Rebmann living in Paris between 1796 and 1798 (Saine 1989: 10). James
Billington, who taught history at Harvard and Princeton before becoming the 13th Librarian
of Congress, also argued in his book Fire in the Minds of Men, that there were at least
hints of Illuminism in many of the works by François-Noël Babeuf, a rebellious French
journalist and agitator during the revolutionary period (Billington 1999: 97).
When, or indeed if, the Illuminati disbanded is somewhat of a debated issue. In Bavaria,
the order had increasingly been viewed as a problem by the government. Between 1784
and 1787, the Bavarian authorities passed three edicts banning the Illuminati, claiming
the secret order was ‘traitorous and hostile to religion,’ with the third edict imposing
the death penalty for membership (Ferguson 2018: 5). Some historians argue that the Illuminati
had essentially ceased activity by the end of 1787 (Ferguson 2018: 5), whilst others
argue that the influence of the Illuminati continued at least into the 1790s (Billington
1999: 99). The evidence from the time clearly shows that
the Illuminati and the ideas the group espoused were still being discussed by prominent individuals
after 1787. In a letter dated January 31st 1800, Thomas Jefferson, a notable founding
father of the United States (US), who served as the US Minister to France between 1785
and 1789 and who also went on to serve as the third President of the US between 1801
and 1809, discussed Weishaupt and the Illuminati with another preeminent founding father, James
Madison. Jefferson described Weishaupt as an “enthusiastic philanthropist” and a
believer in the “indefinite perfectibility of man,” who “thinks he may in time be
rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance.” In
relation to Weishaupt himself, he fled Bavaria and lived the rest of his life under the protection
of Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (Ferguson 2018: 53), with Weishaupt dying
in Gotha in 1830, at the age of 82. Given the secretive nature of the Order of
the Illuminists, tracing the precise history of the group is impossible. The order may
have gradually disbanded due to infighting and suppression by Bavarian authorities shortly
after it arose, or it may have continued operations under another name into the nineteenth century.
What is clear is that the Illuminati was one or many influential orders that existed during
a revolutionary period of history when secret societies were the order of the day.

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