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.

Founding of the Order

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).

Infiltrating Masonry

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).

Global Revolution

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).

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

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).

Decline or Deception?

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).

Jefferson: Weishaupt an “Enthusiastic Philanthropist”

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.


Billington, J. E. (1999) Fire in the Minds of Men – Origins of Revolutionary Faith (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers).

Ferguson, N. (2018) The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (London: Penguin Books).

Hernández, I.Meet the Man Who Started the Illuminati (National Geographic) –

Letter from Margaret B. Bonneville to Thomas Jefferson, 13 March 1813 –

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Bishop James Madison, 31 January 1800 –

Saine, T. (1989). ‘A. G. F. Rebmann and the Condition of Germany in the 1970s.’ Monatshefte, 81:1, 10-18.

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Kupferstich nach C. K. Mansinger von 1799 Punktierstich von Johann Friedrich Rossmässler (ca. 1775 – 1858) de:Benutzer:Verwüstung John Trumbull Stefan Schäfer, Lich Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license From Das verbesserte System der Illuminaten Shadowxfox / **derivative work Alphathon /’æɫfə.θɒn/, Milenioscuro Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license Abolfazl Ahmadi Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Galilea at German Wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported… De l’Esprit by Claude Adrien Helvétius Adolph Freiherr Knigge Christoph Wilhelm Bock Jastrow (2007) from the Louvre Museum Initiation of an apprentice Freemason around 1800. This engraving is based on that of Gabanon on the same subject dated 1745 Glasshouse using elements by Sodacan Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International “La prise de la Bastille” Jean-Pierre Houël Prise de la Bastille Eberhard Siegfried Henne and Johann Ernst Heinsius Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 Includes “Eye of providence” symbol (eye in triangle) Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier Matthew Pratt Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet Vue de Paris du Pont Neuf Gettty Center Bamberger Historische Studien Band 5 Veröffentlichungen des Stadtarchivs Bamberg Band 13 S 15 Musée Carnavalet James Billington François Bonneville Bibliothèque nationale de France Rembrandt Peale White House John Vanderlyn The White House Historical Association Johann Jonas Michael Schloss und Spielkartenmuseum Altenburg

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