The Illuminati (plural of Latin illuminatus, “enlightened”) is a name given to several groups, both real (historical) and fictitious. Historically the name refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society founded on May 1, 1776. In more modern contexts the name refers to a purported conspiratorial organization which is alleged to mastermind events and control world affairs through governments and corporations to establish a New World Order. In this context the Illuminati are usually represented as a modern version or continuation of the Bavarian Illuminati.
The movement was founded on May 1, 1776, in Ingolstadt (Upper Bavaria) as the Order of the Illuminati, with an initial membership of five, by Jesuit-taught Adam Weishaupt (d. 1830), who was the first lay professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. It was made up of freethinkers as an offshoot of the Enlightenment and seems to have been modeled on the Freemasons. The Illuminati’s members took a vow of secrecy and pledged obedience to their superiors. Members were divided into three main classes, each with several degrees, and many Illuminati chapters drew membership from existing Masonic lodges.
Originally Weishaupt had planned the order to be named the “Perfectibilists”. The group has also been called the Bavarian Illuminati and its ideology has been called “Illuminism”. Many influential intellectuals and progressive politicians counted themselves as members, including Ferdinand of Brunswick and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack, the second-in-command of the order. The order had branches in most European countries: it reportedly had around 2,000 members over the span of ten years. It attracted literary men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar.
In 1777 Karl Theodor became ruler of Bavaria. He was a proponent of Enlightened Despotism and his government banned all secret societies including the Illuminati. Internal rupture and panic over succession preceded its downfall, which was affected by the Secular Edict made by the Bavarian government. The March 2, 1785 edict “seems to have been deathblow to the Illuminati in Bavaria.” Weishaupt had fled and documents and internal correspondences, seized in 1786 and 1787, were subsequently published by the government in 1787. Von Zwack’s home was searched to disclose much of the group’s literature.
Another reorganisation took place in 1780 after the Lower Saxon noble Adolph Freiherr Knigge joined the Illuminati. In 1782 he gave a structure similar to the Freemason lodges to the order that had until that point, as Weishaupt himself conceded, not actually existed anywhere but in Weishaupt’s head. Leadership of the order was given to a so-called Areopagus that consisted of Weishaupt, Knigge and others. This new organisation allowed the Illuminati to recruit numerous Freemasons and infiltrate entire lodges against the backdrop of a crisis that the higher grades of the German Freemasonry were going through after the collapse of the Order of Strict Observance in 1776. This relatively apolitical and romanticising movement claimed succession from the Knights Templar and had enabled Karl Gotthelf von Hund to get the German lodges under his leadership. For years he had been claiming to be in contact with “Unknown Superiors” who had let him in on the deepest secret of Freemasonry. However, after no such “Secret Superiors” contacted the lodges after Hund’s death in 1776, the lodge members were perplexed. At the great Freemasons’ Convent of the Strict Observance, that was held in Wilhelmsbad from July 16 to September 1, 1782, Knigge and Franz Dietrich von Ditfurth, the second Illuminati representative and a most radical proponent of the Enlightenment, could claim the opinion leadership for their order. The templar system was given up and the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, itself trying to succeed the Order of Strict Observance, remained in the minority. The two Illuminati even succeeded in winning over Johann Christoph Bode, one of the leading representatives of the Strict Observance
As a result, the disagreement between Weishaupt and Knigge intensified so much that it threatened to break the Order apart. Therefore an arbitral tribunal called a “Congress“ was convened in Weimar in February 1784. It came as a surprise for Knigge that the “Congress”, in which among others Goethe, Johann Gottfried Herder and Duke Ernst of Saxe-Gotha participated, judged that a completely new Areopagus should be created. Both heads of the Order were supposed to resign from their positions of power. This seemed to be an acceptable compromise. It meant an obvious defeat for Knigge, as the founder of the order would probably still have the same influence even without the formal chairmanship of the Aeropagus. Silence and the return of all papers was agreed upon and Knigge left the Illuminati on the first of July 1784. From this point on he turned away from the “fashionable foolishness” of trying to improve the world with secret societies. Weishaupt for his part handed over the leadership of the Order to Johann Martin Count of Stolberg-Roßla.
While members of societies were quarrelling amongst themselves, secret societies had attracted the attention of the Bavarian authorities. They deemed the objectives of progressive-minded secret societies suspicious because they concentrated on changing the traditional order and on establishing a “rational state” by infiltrating public offices. On June 22, 1784, the Bavarian electoral Prince Charles Theodore consequently prohibited any “communities, societies and associations”, which had been founded without his approval as a sovereign ruler. With the insistence of Father Frank, the chancellor Baron of Krettmayr, the Rosicrucian Baron of Törring and other people at court, another edict was released on March 2, 1785, which explicitely mentioned the names Illuminati and Freemason. It banned them for reason of treason and heresy. During house searches various documents of the order that showed further circumstantial evidence for their radical objectives were confiscated. Documents which were found with a deceased courier gave away information about names of several members. In two letters to the bishop of Freising, sent within the same year (June 18 and November 12), Pope Pius VI declared membership of the order to be incompatible with the Catholic faith