Fears and speculations about an ominous and powerful secret society known as the Illuminati haunted the European group since its inception, and traveled to America when a preacher named Jedediah Morse started a nationwide panic about Illuminati infiltrators. Conspiracy theories about the Illuminati are still widespread more than 200 years later, but the truth about the Illuminati and their beliefs is much less dramatic.
Reducing Church Influence
In his 1798 sermon, Morse claimed that the Illuminati had masterminded the French Revolution and wanted to destroy all established governments and churches. Although there really was a secret society called the Illuminati, they were never powerful or widespread. The Illuminati were based at the University of Ingolstadt in the German state of Bavaria, and their primary goal was to reduce the influence of the Catholic church on education. Ingolstadt law professor Adam Weishaupt founded the order in 1776 after he became convinced that Jesuit influence over the university was preventing the students from learning about the new developments in science and philosophy known as the Enlightenment.
Educating the Masses
Enlightenment philosophers held a broad range of opinions, but they tended to support political reforms, scientific inquiry and new concepts such as democracy and women's rights. Adam Weishaupt founded the Bavarian Illuminati to spread these new ideas throughout society, educate people about science and philosophy and oppose what he saw as superstition and ignorance. Jesuit priests controlled the philosophy and theology departments at the University of Ingolstadt and used that control to prevent Enlightenment concepts from taking hold in Bavaria. The secret society structure of the Illuminati was designed to attract influential members from the wealthier and more educated classes so they could be secretly taught the subjects the University of Ingolstadt was not teaching. They would then be in a position to spread the same ideas to the lower classes.
The Illuminati believed in freedom of intellectual inquiry, the equality of the sexes and increased political freedoms. Although they were liberals by the standards of their era, they were not the libertines their critics accused them of being. Weishaupt and other Illuminati leaders such as the Baron Adolphe-François-Frederic Knigge believed that the spread of Enlightenment ideals would make people both wise and moral. They believed that an educated public would reject superstition and reform society.
Fall of the Illuminati
There were about 2,000 Illuminati when the Elector of Bavaria banned the order in 1784. Adam Weishaupt was banished from the country in the crackdown that followed, and by the time Morse gave his sermon in 1798, the Bavarian Illuminati had been crushed. Despite the conspiracy theories that have thrived since then, there is no evidence they continue to exist. Several orders claiming to be either revivals or continuations of the Illuminati have come forward since the 19th century, including the World League of Illuminati and the Orden Illuminati. Because these are secret organizations, there is no way to determine whether they share the beliefs of the original Bavarian Illuminati without receiving initiation.
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