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This order was first called the Order of Perfectibilists, and was a fairly short-lived, meteoric, controversial society formed May 1, 1776, in Bavaria, by Adam Weishaupt, aided by Baron von Knigge and others, suppressed in 1784, and entirely disappeared by the close of the century. It was not primarily Masonic, and evidently not founded by any Masonic authority, though it pirated or paraphrased Masonic rituals and at one time or another had a number of prominent Freemasons in the group. Freemasonry has received a great many denunciations from several sources by reason of the aberrations of the Illuminati, and the enemies of Freemasonry encouraged the idea that Illuminism and Freemasonry were the same. For details of the lives of Weishaupt and Knigge, reference must be made to those titles in the general text but, since Illuminism was their creation and developed as they directed, their acts are material and discussed here.
Adam Weishaupt, Professor of Canon Law at the University of Ingolstadt, conceived the idea of founding an order which, by mutual helpfulness, counsel, and philosophic discussions, would increase morality and virtue, lay the foundation for the reformation of the world, and oppose the progress of evil, all of which objectives were expressed in the name, "Order of Perfectibilists" or "Perfectionists", which was soon changed to "Illuminati", which is best translated as "intellectually inspired". Modesty and humility seems to have been no trait of Weishaupt, for he was one of the first to attempt to fly with little knowledge of human aerodynamics. His ambition outweighed his judgement; his ideals were too refined for a rude world. Like many other promoters, Weishaupt sought the aid of Freemasonry to give his machine both propulsion and ballast. But it dragged Freemasonry down without helping Illuminism very much. He was too shrewd and subtle for his own good, though such qualities gave him headway for a time. Although he formerly belonged to the Jesuits, he secured admission to a lodge of Freemasons in 1777. Ironically, that was named "Lodge of Caution."
We are not informed as to just how Weishaupt became associated with Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwid Baron Von Knigge, for the latter lived in North Germany, was of the nobility, and, after his initiation in 1773, showed little interest in Freemasonry. But noblemen were found in abundance in the most fraudulent orders in Germany claiming some Masonic connections. Weishaupt, in 1780, dispatched the Marquis de Costanzo to propagate Illuminism in the north and Knigge probably then first showed interest in the society. He became more and more enthusiastic as the plan was revealed to him, and, in 1781, accepted the invitation to visit Bavaria and receive full access to all of Weishaupt's materials. Knigge not only completed the scale of degrees but became a proponent of them, bringing to his aid the assistance of Johann J. C. Bode, a prominent German Mason. The order was at first very popular and attracted, it is said, some of the best men in Germany and some of the worst. It had 2000 names on its rolls and spread to France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, and Italy. Knigge, especially, was a highly religious and intellectual man and would have had nothing to do with that or any other order which was anti-Christian, yet, the vicious attacks and accusations by Baruel and Robison had great influence, and it was even charged that the Illuminati were themselves agents of the Jesuits, though the latter were opposing it in their usual secret manner. The Illuminati were extremely secretive, even identifying themselves and their chapters by assumed classical names; for examples, Weishaupt was Spartacus, Knigge was Philo, Ingolstadt, the headquarters, was Eleusis, Austria was Egypt, etc. Dates were given in a sort of cryptography.
The ceremonies were divided into three principal classes and those into degrees as follows: I-The Nursery: 1. Preparatory Literary Essay; 2. Novitiate; 3. Minerval; 4. Minor Illuminatus; 5. Magistratus. II-Symbolic Freemasonry: 1. Apprentice; 2. Fellow Craft; 3. Master; 4. (a) Scots Major Illuminatus, (b) Scots Illuminatus Dirigens (Directory). III-Mysteries; 1. Lesser: (a) Presbyter, Priest, or Epopt, (b) Prince or Regent; Greater: (a) Magus; (b) Rex or King (some of these latter degrees were never completed).
The Illuminati were finally beset by both internal and external disorders, for Weishaupt found fault with some of Knigge's ritualistic work and peremptorily ordered it changed, whereupon, Knigge became disgusted and resigned in 1784. The Jesuits had fought it from the first and eventually all priests became its active enemies and raised so much opposition that the Elector of Bavaria suppressed the Order by edict, June 22, 1784, many Illuminati being imprisoned and some, including Weishaupt, being forced to flee the country. Though the first edict had been obeyed, it was repeated in March and August, 1785. Not only Illuminism, but Freemasonry was exterminated in Bavaria and neither ever recovered its former position. The Illuminati seem to have completely disappeared everywhere by the end of the 18th century.
Founder of the Illuminati of Bavaria, born at Inglstadt, 1748, died 1811. He was educated in law and attained the rank of Professor in 1772 at the University of Ingolstadt. He had been educated by the Jesuits but acquired a dislike for them, and in his professional life, he was soon in conflict with the whole clergy, partly because he held the chair of Canon Law, which had always been held by an ecclesiastic. In conferences with his students in whom he planted liberal ideas on religion and philosophy, and he soon conceived of a close association of enlightened or intellectual persons who might advance the moral and intellectual qualities of themselves as well as others. This idea materialized as the Illuminates or Illuminati, who at first had no connection with Freemasonry. In 1777, he was admitted to Lodge Theodore of Good Counsel (translated by some as Lodge Theodore of Caution) at Munich, and from that time, he sought to interrelate the affairs of his Illuminati with Freemasonry.
He soon formed an association with Baron von Knigge, an able and upright man from north Germany, and the two might have accomplished their objectives and some good had it not been for the opposition of the Jesuits (who were still powerful though banished from Bavaria) and the Roman Catholic clergy. Moreover Weishaupt and Knigge could not agree upon some of the latters' ritualistic interpretations. From the literature on the subject of Illuminism and from the caustic remarks of Masonic writers, we might suppose that this order or movement lasted a long time, but the whole drama opened with the organization of the Perfectionists in 1766 and, 18 years later in 1784, the Bavarian government banned all secret associations. The next year, Weishaupt was discharged from his position at the University and banished from the country. He fled to Gotha and found asylum with Duke Ernest of that little city, remaining there until his death in 1811. In Gotha, he published a number of works, those on Illuminism being: "A Picture of Illuminism", 1786; "A Complete History of the Persecutions of the Illuminati in Bavaria", 1785 (only the first of two planned volumes published); "An Apology for the Illuminati", 1786; "An Improved System of Illuminism", 1787, and others.
The most objective writers on the subject give Weishaupt credit for being of high moral character and a profound thinker, and it is worth noting that his associate, Knigge, spoke with great respect of his intellectual powers. It appears, however, that he was the victim of at least two powerful forces, first, the vindictive hate of the Church of Rome and the Bavarian government and, secondly, his own inadequate judgement of how to launch a revolutionary and more or less secret movement such as Illuminism. He was really employing methods of the Jesuits, for his whole order seems to have been composed of spies and counter spies, and only those most adept at scheming and trickery were advanced. The candidates all had pseudonyms, that of Weishaupt being Spartacus, and those who became too inquisitive about matters as to which their suspicions were aroused were turned out. If the purpose had been philosophic, ethical, or for the improvement of the mind or salvation of the soul, it need never to have been quite so secretive, and from the Masonic standpoint, Weishaupt was not justified in using the Fraternity as the vehicle for his scheme, good or bad, though he had ample precedents on all sides.
Knigge, Baron von (Adolph F. R. L.)
German Freemason and, in part, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. He was born near Hanover in 1752, and died at Bremen in 1796. He was initiated in a lodge of the Strict Observance at Cassel in 1772, but, for a time, seemed uninterested in the Society, though later becoming one of the foremost German writers on the subject. He published "On the Jesuits, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians, 1781, anon.; "Essay on Freemasonry", 1784; "Contribution towards the latest history of the Order of Freemasons", 1786; and "Philo's final Declaration", 1788. He also wrote many non-Masonic works, one being "On Conversation with Men", towards the end of his career and after a sad experience with the Illuminati and disappointment with the Strict Observance, causing him therein to devote much space to secret societies and denunciation of Freemasonry. The most interesting and significant part of Knigge's career was his participation with Weishaupt in the promotion of the Bavarian Illuminati, he being almost an equal party.