by Ben Best
"Princes and nations will disappear without violence from the earth, the human race will become one family and the world the abode of reasonable men. Morality alone will bring about this change imperceptibly."
-- Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830)
Medieval stonemasons, not unlike other tradesmen, sought to protect their interests through the formation of guilds which attempted to monopolize the knowledge of their skills. Masons were frequently employed together in large groups and, as building projects tend not to last indefinitely, often lived itinerant and independent lives. Members of the craft used secret signs, handshakes, etc. to identify themselves when traveling from one area to another -- and solemn oaths were taken by entering members to preserve secrecy.
Due to the unique social function of the lodges of Freemasons (drinking, feasting, conversation, gaming and ceremony) they attracted the attention of so many other people that by the early eighteenth century many lodges had been founded which contained few or even no professional stonemasons at all. (Casanova wrote that a well-born young man who wished to travel and see the world without being excluded from the pleasures of his social equals ought to be initiated a freemason.)
The formation of Grand Lodge in London in 1717 (presided-over by elected "Grand Masters") laid the foundation for English Freemasonry. There were three degrees of initiation: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason, each with its own authority, ceremony and revealed secrets. "Scottish Masonry", which thrived in quasi-independent lodges all over Europe, added many additional degrees.
Masons were usually aristocrats, businessmen, professionals or even clergymen. Much of the attraction of Masonry lay in its promise of secret knowledge, and its ceremonies which charged various symbolic acts & objects with portentous significance. Ominous import was derived from such myths as the claim that Masonic tradition originated with Hiram, the builder of the Temple of Solomon, who was murdered for preserving "The Secret". Or that the Knights Templar (secretly Masons who possessed alchemical knowledge) had strove sword-in-hand to rebuild the Temple of Solomon.
Anti-Masonry tended to center around the fact that the international ties of the lodges appeared seditious to nationalists. The intense secrecy of the Masons gave rise to many speculations concerning prurient & subversive activities. Because Masonic secrecy threatened the practice of confession, and since Masons tolerated membership by people of different religions, all Masons were ex-communicated by the Pope in 1738. When the anarchist Czolgosz shot US President McKinley in 1901 the Pope informed the world that anarchism, communism and Freemasonry are all the same thing.
Adam Weishaupt received an implicit education in secret societies by being a student at a Jesuit college. He largely rejected the explicit Jesuit beliefs, gravitating more toward Enlightenment thinkers who promoted atheism, rationalism, materialism and egalitarianism -- such as d'Holbach and Helvetius. As a professor at the Bavarian university of Ingolstadt he must have found the environment somewhat stifling insofar as the main issue of controversy at the time was whether any book by a non-Catholic could be tolerated (books by Enlightenment authors were under absolute ban of censorship).
Weishaupt joined the Freemasons in 1774, but quickly became disillusioned and dropped-out. On the first of May, 1776, Weishaupt founded a secret Order of Illuminati (built on the base of a secret student society) consisting of 5 members who were devoted to promoting equality & rationality, primarily through study. By 1779 there were colonies of the Order in five Bavarian cities, the secret library contained much contraband literature and membership numbered 54. Members were all considered Initiates, and they were to be brought slowly to higher grades of knowledge by first reading the classical moralists, and only eventually the rationalists & materialists. Activities of the Order were conducted under assumed names (Weishaupt called himself "Spartacus") and only the highest Initiates could learn of the Secret Directors (the "Areopagus") who knew the founder's identity and the true history & aims of the Order.
In 1777 Weishaupt had re-entered the Freemasons in hopes of gaining useful lore for his own Order -- and in hopes of tapping-off new members. Whether by original design or evolved purpose, the idea was conceived to for Illuminati members to penetrate the highest Masonic grades to take control of the Lodges. In this way, Masons receptive to Illuminati ideas could be initiated into the highest Orders and less receptive members left to the lower Orders -- and subjected to more dilute truths & convenient fabrications.
In 1779 the Masonic Lodge in Munich succumbed to the Illuminati, and this branch was given authority by the English-authorized Frankfurt Lodge to set-up daughter Lodges, which it did. By mid-1782 the Order numbered about 300 men, said to have included Goethe & Mozart. In 1783 it spread to Bohemia & Milan, and then to Hungary.
In 1784 one of the highest Initiates defected and made public some sensationalistic stories of his experiences. When the Bavarian Elector published an Edict forbidding secret societies, Weishaupt went to him in naive innocence and explained his secrets. As a consequence the Elector issued a new Edict explicitly condemning Freemasons and Illuminati on religious, social and political grounds. Weishaupt fled and the Illuminati vaporized.
Considering the spectacularly anti-religious character of Weishaupt's ideas & ambitions, it is not surprising that in 1797 a Jesuit, Augustin de Barruel, should make history with a book asserting that the French Revolution was the product of a carefully planned plot -- and that behind the Jacobins were the Philosophes, the Freemasons and (above all) the Illuminati. Later, the British authoress Nesta Webster in World Revolution, the Plot Against Civilization (London, 1921) attributed every revolutionary upheaval from 1789 to the Illuminati -- and she considered Bolshevism & Zionism to spring from the same source.
Many conspiracy theorists in the American Religious Right still regard the Bavarian Illuminati as a living threat. In the January 1965 issue of THE CROSS AND THE FLAG, Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith listed The Illuminati as the second most important enemy in the world between World Bankers (first) and Zionism (third) (the Soviet Union ranked 13th). John Birch Society founder Robert Welch ascribed to the Illuminati virtual control of world history up to and including the Vietnam War ("run on both sides by the Communists") ["The Truth in Time", AMERICAN OPINION, November, 1966]. According to Myron C. Fagan, the Rothschilds (banking family) took control of the Illuminati from Weishaupt and used the organization to control US foreign policy through the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is a common belief in Fundamentalist Religious Rightist circles that the eye on the pyramid of the United States $1 bill is a blatant symbol of Illuminati control of the US Federal Reserve System. The back of the $1 bill actually displays both sides of the The Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted by the American Continental Congress in 1782. It is debatable, but doubtful, that the designers of the Great Seal were Masons. The eye in the triangle of the Great Seal is the "Eye of Providence" and has bee equated with the "All-Seeing Eye", which was not adopted as a Masonic symbol until 1797. The Masons -- and now the US Government -- regard their symbols as the "eye of God", hardly representative of atheistic Illuminism. If the Federal Reserve were controlled by atheistic Illuminati, how would that explain the replacement of the National Motto "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of many, One", selected by the Continental Congress in 1776) with "In God We Trust" by an act of Congress in 1956 -- which is prominently printed on every Federal Reserve Note?
To capitalize on "silly" conspiracy theories an "irreverent" trilogy entitled Illuminatus! was written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. These books spoof conspiracy theories in general and the Bavarian Illuminati conspiracy theories in particular -- while teasingly professing the religion of Discordianism (the "most disorganized of all religions"). Discordianism and the trilogy created what could almost be called a "cult", although a very irreverent one.
For more information on Illuminati conspiracy theories see The Illuminati.
For a history of prominent twentieth century American conspiracy theories see my book Schemers in the Web.