The first national Illuminati scare in the U.S. was in 1798–99. The most recent one is still going on.
by Massimo Introvigne.
Although the myth of the Illuminati is international, what was a European esoteric order became a ghost haunting the national politics primarily in the United States. It was a Congregationalist pastor, Jedediah Morse (1761–1826), who, based on the theories of fellow Calvinist John Robison, launched with his sermons of 1798–99 the first panic against the Illuminati in New England. The dreaded Bavarian cult, he claimed, had taken over the American Masonic lodges and was ready to betray the United States by selling it to revolutionary France (in later versions, to Britain). Several police investigations led to nothing, but the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was repeatedly accused, wrongly, of being a member of the elusive Illuminati. Some of his supporters contributed to the confusion by assuring that the Illuminati instead had infiltrated his opponents.
Anti-Masonic authors such as Edith Starr Miller, who became, through her marriage with an English lord, Lady Queenborough (1890–1933), and Nesta Elen Bevan, married Webster (1867–1960) kept the idea of the Illuminati political conspiracy alive. In a totally different vein, it inspired a classic of satirical postmodern literature, The Illuminatus Trilogy, published in 1975 by Robert Joseph Shea (1933–1994) and Robert Anton Wilson (1932–2007).
The authors’ intentions might not have been immediately obvious to a casual reader. Shea and Wilson were members of the Discordian Society, situated somewhere between spiritual parody and alternative religion, which claims to worship Eris, goddess of discord and chaos, through “cosmic jokes” played on the world as a whole. The trilogy is actually a libertarian text, where the power of the Illuminati, who represent order and bureaucracy, is challenged by the Discordians in the name of freedom, chaos, and the goddess Eris. Throughout the story, the Illuminati are revealed to be at the center of every conspiracy in history: the United States, in particular, has been controlled by them ever since Adam Weishaupt killed George Washington and secretly took his place.
Since one of the aims of the Discordians was to mock the anti-cult movements and their theories that “cults” practice brainwashing, Shea and Wilson also revealed a secret word, “Fnord,” which quickly became part of American youth slang, which, introduced in any text, allows the Illuminati to condition its readers through subliminal messages. Not everybody understood all this was intended as a (cosmic) joke.
From the trilogy onwards, the Illuminati popped up literally everywhere—not only in the United States, as proved by Umberto Eco’s (1932–2016) novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). The Illuminati show up in countless novels, in movies (launching a memorable challenge to Lara Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2001), comics, in collectible card games such as Steve Jackson’s Illuminati: New World Order (1994), where the Illuminati of Bavaria face rival groups such as the Discordians, the Gnomes of Zurich, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Aliens. Weishaupt and Knigge were thus reduced to figures in a deck of cards. A parody, again, except that some Christian fundamentalists and right-wing extremists argued that both the Illuminatus trilogy and the card game, under a clever pseudo-humorous disguise, in fact revealed the truth about the Illuminati.
On the morning of November 5, 2001, the farce degenerated into tragedy in Eagar, Arizona. There was the home of Milton William Cooper (1943–2001), the author of Behold a Pale Horse (1991), a book that became extremely popular in the American militia movement by claiming that the Illuminati had created both Communism and capitalism, and were now preparing an invasion of extraterrestrials. Cooper also refused to pay taxes to a government he regarded as controlled by the Illuminati. Surrounded by the county sheriff’s agents, who intended to arrest him for tax evasion, Cooper opened fire on the officers, wounding one in the head. The officers returned fire and killed him. He is still celebrated in right-wing circles as a martyr of the Illuminati.
The same right-wing circles accused two Republican Presidents they regarded as too moderate, George H.W. Bush (1924–2018) and his son George W. Bush, of being members of the Illuminati. The smoking gun was their acknowledged affiliation with the Skull and Bones, the oldest student society at the prestigious Yale University. Founded in 1832 by an undergraduate, William Huntington Russell (1809–1885), it resembles many other college fraternities.
The Skull and Bones has been accused from its beginnings, certainly in part because of its name, of links to Masonic or even Satanic rituals. An anti-Masonic author, Anthony Sutton (1925–2002), tried to find traces of European Freemasonry and in particular of the Illuminati of Bavaria in the rituals of the Skull and Bones, but the results of his tour de force were unconclusive. The Skull and Bones traditionally include the best students of Yale. Many went on to become powerful politicians and business executives, but a good degree from Yale is in itself an excellent asset in life, without the need to imagine dark plots and secret societies. A conservative Protestant such as President George W. Bush, who has been a member of Skull and Bones as his father was, has repeatedly stated that he considers accusations of ties to the Illuminati or Satanism ridiculous.
While fundamentalist Christians and right-wing extremists regard the Illuminati as a Satanic conspiracy, some liberals turned the myth on its head and presented the Illuminati as a secret but benevolent organization. This was epitomized in Dan Brown’s 2000 novel Angels & Demons. Many readers of Dan Brown believe it is a “sequel” to the 2003 The Da Vinci Code. In fact, it was published before, and was not very successful. What become phenomenally successful, and was made into a movie, was its reprint that capitalized on the success of The Da Vinci Code.
The character of expert of symbology Robert Langdon was not born in The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown had created him for Angels and Demons. The latter novel begins at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, where an assassin has killed one of the scientists branding his corpse with an ambigram (a letter or group of letters that can be read in at least two different ways by looking at them from different directions), which is the mark and signature of the mysterious Illuminati. Robert Langdon as an expert of the Illuminati is called to investigate. Shortly thereafter, the four cardinals favored to become the new Pope in the conclave that is beginning in Rome, are kidnapped, allegedly by the Illuminati, and killed one by one by following the “Path of Illumination,” a route marked by monuments built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). This is not a coincidence, as it is revealed that Bernini was once a prominent member of the Illuminati, as was Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). It is through an unpublished work by Galilei kept in the Vatican archives that Langdon manages to decipher the mystery.
In fact, the Illuminati are innocent of the crimes and are basically a benevolent organization, which had traditionally fought the Catholic Church in the name of progress and science. It is a rogue cardinal who wants to be elected Pope (and who is the secret son of the previous Pope) who is maneuvering the unwitting murderer, not the Illuminati.
Those who see the Illuminati as a malevolent and even Satan-worshipping cult remains more numerous. Bill Clinton joined other presidents and former presidents when he was accused of being part of the Illuminati, who were accused of being connected with pedophile rituals allegedly organized at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. The mini-chain of restaurants East Side Pies in Austin, Texas, was also accused of being connected with the Illuminati and alluding to them in its publicity, and owner and employees received death threats.
Worse happened at Comet Ping Pong, where on December 4, 2016, a man from Salisbury, North Carolina, arrived with a rifle and fired three shots, happily without injuring anybody. He claimed he was there to rescue the children kept as sex slaves by the Illuminati.
The Pizzagate legend never went away, and became an integral part of the conspiracy theories of QAnon. President Biden was quickly promoted into a member of the Illuminati. As for Donald Trump, the question is more complicated. Surely, QAnon spreads the idea of an epic battle opposing Trump to the Illuminati. On the other hand, there are also competing theories that Trump is himself a member of the Illuminati, presented in two versions, one claiming that the Illuminati are less bad than they seem and the other that Trump is less good than he is believed to be to his followers.
An incident in 2016 galvanized the followers of the theory that makes Trump a member rather than an enemy of the Illuminati. As president of the United States, Trump appointed an author called George Mentz to the Commission on Presidential Scholars, a body that selects the most distinguished high school seniors in the U.S. every year. Mentz is a lawyer who teaches online courses at Texas A&M University School of Law. However, he is mostly known as the author of several self-help books that claim to teach the “secret Illuminati method” for growing rich. Although Mentz immediately explained that the references to the Illuminati were tongue in cheek, not surprisingly the appointment was widely referred to in social media as evidence that Trump either had sold out to the Illuminati after his election or was part of a benevolent Illuminati conspiracy.
It seems that “Illuminati” is a label that can be attached to anybody and anything. The real Illuminati of Weishaupt or Engel are far away. Because there were real Illuminati. They were neither an invention of novelists nor members of a powerful order that dates back to Noah, Aristotle, or the Renaissance and has had among its ranks the greatest geniuses of science and art. The historical Illuminati were, in their first incarnation as the Illuminati of Bavaria, a para-Masonic esoteric order that enrolled some princes and luminaries and tried, for a limited time and without great success, to play a political role in Germany in the years before the French Revolution. In their second incarnation, which lasted between 1901 and 2008, the Illuminati were a movement that competed with many others in the occult milieu, never had more than one hundred members, and was finally reduced to a handful of devotees in rural Switzerland.
The reality of the first and the second Illuminati has only a vague relationship, and often no relationship at all, with the mythical Illuminati created by anti-Masonic writers such as Luchet, Robison, and Barruel. They inaugurated one of the most successful conspiracy theories in history, one that is still will us and will likely influence future American elections.