Illuminati (Lat. illuminare) [*]
Illuminati. A name assumed at different periods by sects of Mystics or Enthusiasts and Theosophs, who claim a greater degree of illumination or perfection than other men. . . .
But the name of “Illuminati” was really first given to an association of Deists and Republicans which was founded May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt.
This “order,” which, by its founder, was first called the Order of the Perfectibilists, was established on a masonic foundation like that of the organization of the Jesuits. They announced as their aim to elevate mankind to the highest possible degree of moral purity, and to lay the foundation for the reformation of the world by organizing an association of the best men to oppose the progress of moral evil.
Practically, however, the “order” soon evinced tendencies dangerous alike to Church and State. In their opposition to religious and political Jesuitism, which at that time, in Roman Catholic Germany, imposed unbearable restraints on the human mind, they aimed at nothing less than revolutionizing religion, abolishing Christianity in order to substitute reason in its place, deposing all civil powers, and establishing a nominal republican government.
Weishaupt himself, however, was a very honorable man, actuated by the purest motives, and zealous for the religious and political improvement of mankind. The most active disciple, through whose influence the society increased with extraordinary rapidity, was the baron Adolph von Knigge’s, who joined the Illuminati in 1780. The baron maintained that Christianity was not so much a popular religion as a system exclusively applicable to the elect, and that, introduced by the Mystics, it had found its form of highest development in Freemasonry.
Only a small number of the elect were allowed an insight into the ultimate object of the new organization, but the whole system was made profusely attractive to a certain class of minds by mysterious ceremonies and forms. The order aimed steadfastly at obtaining the control of the higher offices in Church and State; and, although liberty and equality were proclaimed as its fundamental principles, it sought absolute supremacy.
With a view to reach that end, Weishaupt, who had himself been a Jesuit, finally made use of the same means by which the Jesuits had been so successful. Thus he sought to win over to his side all persons of any influence; to surround rulers with members of the order; to make proselytes of men weak in mind but strong of purse, while at the same time he excluded such as, on account of their pride or their strength of character, would be unlikely to prove pliant subjects, or whose want of discretion might injure the order.
Strict, unquestioning, and blind obedience was made the first duty of every member; every one was under the direct control of his immediate superiors, and knew, in fact, no other members of the order. Aside from this, each member was subject to a private supervision, which extended to the head of the society; and the Illuminati were soon involved in a system of mutual espionage, confession, and the like, essentially inconsistent with true freedom, but calculated to place the threads all in one hand, by which the holy legion was to be led on, as it was imagined, to the “benefaction of mankind.”
Only such persons as were distinguished for prudence, wisdom, complete abnegation for self, and zeal for the interest of the society, were admitted to the higher degrees, wherein the mysteries of the higher order were revealed to them, while those of the lower degrees hardly suspected their existence. These mysteries related to religion, on which subject they were of the character of naturalism and free-thinking; and to politics, in regard to which the aim was to replace monarchy by republicanism and socialism.
An active correspondence was kept up between the chiefs and the members of the order in the different districts where lodges were established. It was carried on by means of a cipher, generally of the usual figures; but the higher orders also made use of other signs. The months were designated by particular names; thus January became Dimeh, February Benmeh; and Germany was called the Orient, Bavaria Achaia, Munich Athens. The order was represented by O [with an internal dot], a lodge by [parallel horizontal over/under brackets]. The letters addressed to a superior were marked Q. L., i. e. Quibus licet, to open the letter; if the letter was addressed to one of the higher chiefs, it was marked Soli; and if to one still superior, Primo.
Each one of the Illuminati was, besides, known in the order by some particular name. Thus the founder went by the ominous appellation of Spartacus; Knigge by that of Philo, etc. The attractions which the order presented by its mysterious secret forms, and the extraordinary energy and Jesuitical acumen which the leaders brought to bear on their undertaking, soon swelled its numbers, and, during its most prosperous period, the association consisted of over 2000 members, among them some of the most prominent names of Germany, and even princes, who, however, could only be initiated into the lower orders, as the higher mysteries of the order inculcated republicanism.
The head-quarters of the order were in Bavaria, which, with Suabia and Franconia, formed the first province of the association in Germany, and it was not only established in all the principal cities of Germany, but also gained a foothold in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, and Italy.
As regards its interior organization, the order was established on the basis of the Society of Jesus, of which, as we have already observed, Weishaupt had once been a member. In 1777 he had joined the freemasons. From the first it had been his aim to connect his new society with freemasonry, for the purpose of giving it a firmer foundation, and with the ultimate object of finally absorbing the latter in the former.
Knigge’s activity and enterprise finally succeeded in bringing the Illuminati to be considered as freemasons by the craft, but this step made new enemies for the Illuminati, and ultimately caused their overthrow. Knigge modelled the material organization of the society after that of freemasonry, dividing the members into three classes, each of which was again composed of several degrees.
The first, a preparatory class, wan composed of novices, Minervites, and Illuminati minores. Any man eighteen years of age could become a novice, and on his conduct depended his promotion to the next degree, which could be effected after one, two, or three years.
The second class, or that of freemasons, embraced apprentices, masons, and master-masons, besides the two higher grades of Illuminatus major and of Illuminatus dirigens, or Scottish knights. These latter had the control of the Minervite lodges.
The third class, or that of the “Mysteries,” was divided into higher and lesser mysteries; the latter embraced the priests and the regents, or members to whom had been imparted the mysterious aims of the society in regard to religion and politics.
The initiation to the degree of regent was conducted with great solemnity, and was very impressive. The adepts of the higher mysteries were also of two degrees, the Magnus and the Rex, to whom the principles of naturalism, republicanism, and socialism were further developed. These were the Areopagites of the order, and had no superiors but the secret council, presided over by the general of the order (Weishaupt), which composed the highest court of appeal for all members of the order.
A jealous feeling and contention for leadership which sprang up between Weishaupt and Knigge, and a difference of opinion of the two greatest heads of the society on many points of organization and discipline, hastened the decline of the order, especially after Knigge had left it (July 1, 1784). As soon as the State and Church-disturbing tendency, which for a time had remained hidden, became known, the order was vehemently denounced. June 22, 1784, the elector of Bavaria issued an edict for its suppression.
But the society continued to exist in secret. When, however, the authorities had succeeded in obtaining further evidences of the dangerous tendency of the order by securing some of the papers of the association (which they published), they punished the members by fine, imprisonment, and exile. Many quit the country, among them Weishaupt (Feb. 16, 1785), on whose head a price had been set. He fled to Gotha (some say Halle), and resided there until his death, Nov. 18,1830.
Edicts were again published by the elector of Bavaria, March 2 and August 10, 1785, which, by the severe punishment which it threatened to members, caused the rapid decline of the order, and they disappeared altogether towards the close of the last century (eighteenth).
Great importance was at one time attached to the order of the llluminati, whose secret influence was regarded as a principal cause of many of the political events of the time of the French Revolution, and the works of Abbé Barruel and of Professor Robinson of Edinburgh upon this subject were eagerly read, but the highly exaggerated character of their views is now generally acknowledged.
[*] John M’Clintock and James Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 4 (New York 1894), 496–98, s.v. Illuminati. Back.
Translation © 2017 Doug Stott