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"...we deal with a mythology which even at its height was denounced on rational and empirical grounds and is clearly nonsense. Why then, were such ideas effective? Why are books embodying them still finding audiences?"
All these fears rest on simplifying, dramatising visions of politics. In the background there is still a belief in hidden manipulation. Those who hold them have abandoned some of the stage machinery, but the plot is the same."
"All human institutions can be described in terms of function, mythologies as much as any other. They are all responses to a need to master reality."
J.M. Roberts
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Jedediah Morse and the Illuminati
The Reverend Jedediah Morse, (1761/08/23 - 1826/06/09), author of the first American geography and gazetteer and minister of the Congregational church in Charlestown, 1. is remembered mainly for his promotion of an Illuminati scare in New England in 1798-99.
A strong Federalist during a period of public disenchantment with the course of the French Revolution, Morse’s promotion of John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy found ready supporters. In three sermons, the first delivered May 9th, 1798, Morse warned of an Illuminati conspiracy. His second sermon on November 29th, 1798 attempted to answer charges that he had provided no proof, but also failed to provide proof. In his third sermon on April 25, 1799 he claimed to have found his proof of an Illuminati presence in Virginia.
In the face of growing criticism, Morse undertook further research which clearly demonstrated that Robison’s accusations were not taken seriously in Europe, and that what he thought was an Illuminati conspiracy in Virginia was merely a regular lodge of Freemasons. He was unable to find a trace of the several Illuminati lodges that Robison claimed had been established in America prior to 1786. (Proofs of a Conspiracy, etc. p. 202.)
Discredited, and an object of some ridicule, from this time on Morse wrote nothing further on the Illuminati. With the exception of the occasional partisan attack,9. nothing further was heard on the topic until 1829 during the formative period of the Anti-Masonic Party.
The following quotes and notes clearly show that Morse’s claims were unsubstantiated and that the promotion of his claims were motivated and fueled by partisan politics.
'The Federalists, who stood for the importance of a strong central government, found themselves confronted with an organized opposition to which in time the terms Anti-Federalists, Republicans, and Democrats were applied. [p. 103.] 2.
'The term "Republican" was one of the by-products of the discussion which arose in this country, from 1792 on, over French revolutionary ideals. [p. 103.]
'The stir created by the activities of [French minister] Genet, great as it was, soon was swallowed up in the excitement produced by the sudden emergence of a new factor in American politics; viz. indigenous political organizations that were secret. [p. 105.]
'These Democratic Societies, or Clubs, were destined to exert a degree of baneful influence upon political feelings out of all proportion to their actual number and weight. [p. 106.]
'...not more than twenty-four separate organizations of this character were formed within the two years which followed their first appearance.3. [p. 106.]
'The fact that at least five of these Democratic Societies were located in New England strongly suggests the immediate concern which the people of that section were bound to have because of these unexpected and ominous secret political associations. The creation of the Boston Society became at once the occasion of virulent opposition and infuriated comment. Organized in the late fall of 1793 under the innocent title, the Constitutional Club, the principles and alliances of the organization became quickly known, with the result that the already agitated waters of local party feeling were disturbed beyond all previous experience. Citizens whose sympathies were fully with the conduct of affairs under the Federalist régime were quick to believe that henceforth they might expect to be threatened, brow-beaten, and checkmated in a ruthless and scandalous fashion because of the activities of this pernicious Club.
'The vote was appreciably increased and elections were more hotly contested on account of the emergence of the Clubs. The Independent Chronicle, Jan. 16, 1794 contains the Rules and Regulations and the Declaration of this society. [p. 107.]
'...having vehemently espoused the cause of France in a rabidly democratic spirit, they consequently added enormously to the passion and suspicion of the day.
'Thus they not only helped to make the strife of parties vituperative and bitter; in addition they made familiar to the thought of a great body of citizens in America the idea that the intrigues of secret organizations must needs be reckoned with as one of the constant perils of the times.' [p. 113.]
Rev. Jedediah Morse expressed his concern about these Clubs in correspondence with Oliver Wolcott, Comptroller of the US Treasury, and in his Fast Day sermon of May 9, 1798 and Thanksgiving sermon of Nov. 29, 1798 [p. 114-15.]
The treaty with England, negotiated by John Jay, signed by Washington, and promulgated February 29, 1796 was unpopular. Viewed as a surrender to the British and an injury to the French cause, it also had the effect of weakening the Federalist attacks on Democratic Clubs.
Morse’s Fast day sermon, wherein he detailed the accusations made in Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the religions and Governments of Europe, precipitated the Illuminati controversy. [p. 233.]4.
Morse is quoted in the Independent Chronicle, June 14, 1798 stating he had purchased a copy of Proofs in Philadelphia in mid April. He had first heard of the book from a Scottish correspondent in January, 1897. [p. 233.]
Morse did not mention any link to Freemasonry [p. 235.] In footnotes to the published text of the sermon he said that Illuminism had been grafted onto European Freemasonry and that it had not appeared in North America; Washington’s association with the craft demonstrating its blamelessness. [p. 236.]
'...the air of New England was already surcharged with notions of implacible hostility to the forces in control of church and state, and with gloomy forebodings born of surmises of intrigue and conspiracy.' [p. 238.]
On May 24, 1798, a pseudonymous contributor to the Independent Chronicle, "An American", questioned Morse’s source and noted that The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature, London, 1797, had criticized Robison’s accuracy. [p. 242.] In contrast, the London Review, of January, 1798, ran a favourable review of Robison’s book. [p. 243.]
Rev. David Tappan, professor of divinity at Harvard warned graduating students on June 19, 1798 about the dangers of the Illuminati [p. 244.] Theodore Dweight, brother to Yale’s president, commented on Robison’s claim that Illuminism had travelled to States by suggesting that Jefferson, Albert Gallatin [1761-1849], and other republicans would be sympathetic to illuminism. [p. 253.]
An article in the Massachusetts Mercury, July 27, 1798 written by "Censor" asked Morse to provide some proof of his assertions that several lodges of the Illuminati had been established in America. [p. 254.]
Morse wrote articles, published in the Massachusetts Mercury for August 3, 10, 14, 17, 21, 28 and 31, attempting to defend his claim while — in articles on September 7, 14, 18, and 21 — also absolving American Freemasons of any suspicion. [p. 259.]
In an article by "A Friend to Truth" in the Massachusetts Mercury, Nov. 13, 1798, serious discrepancies were pointed out between Barruel’s and Robinson’s accounts.
A satire in the Massachusetts Mercury of Nov. 30, 1798 demonstrates the general scepicism that met Morse’s claim:
'The Illuminati esteem all ecclesiastical establishments profane, irreligious, and tyrannical; so do the Quakers. They hold also the obligation of brotherly love and universal benevolence. The Quakers not only profess these Atheistical principles, but actually reduce them to practice. The Illuminati hold the enormous doctrine of the Equality of mankind. so do these Quakers. They, like the Illuminati, have a general correspondence through all their meetings, delegates constantly moving, and one day, at every quarterly meeting, set apart for private business; and I engage to prove at the bar of any tribunal in the United States, that these Friends, these men so horribly distinguished for benevolence and philanthropy, (Ah! philanthropy!) have held, and do still hold a constant correspondence with their nefarious accomplices in Europe.... Awake. arise, or be forever fallen! [p. 263.]
In a footnote, Note F, pp. 67, to his Nov 29, 1798 sermon Morse attempted to link the Illuminati with "the Jacobin Clubs" as he termed the Democratic Clubs which he also accused of hiding behind the name of United Irishman, a society actually founded in Ireland about 1791, and arriving in America after the Irish Rebellion of 1798. [p. 271.] 5.
'On the whole, the idea of secret and systematic plottings against the liberties and institutions of the people of the United States was extensively promoted by clerical agency during the autumn and winter of 1798-99. [p. 276.]
In the Columbian Centinel of Jan. 5, 1799 a letter from Augustus Böttiger, counsellor of the Upper Consistory, and Provost of the College of Weimer claimed that "from 1790 on every interest in the Illuminati had ceased in that country." [p. 278.]
'At Hartford, next to Boston the main center of the Illuminati agitation in New England, two papers, the American Mercury and the Connecticut Courant assisted materially in giving publicity to the controversy.' [p. 281.]
Theodre Dweight’s Fourth of July oration convinced one correspondent to the Aug. 6, 1798 Courant that Jefferson "is the real Jacobin, the very child of modern illumination, the foe of man, and the enemy of his country." [p. 283.]
Porcupine’s Gazette, edited by William Cobbett, and the Aurora General Advertisor, edited by Benjamin franklin Bache, both from Philadelphia, had wide national circulation; the former promoting Morse’s claims while the latter labelling it all an absurd collection of fantasies. [pp. 284-87.]
In Morse’s third and last sermon dealing with Illuminism, he claimed to have his proof: "I have, my brethren, an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, professions, &c. of the officers and members of a Society of Illuminati (or as they are now more generally and properly styled Illuminees) consisting of one hundred members, instituted in Virginia, by the Grand Orient of FRANCE." 6.
This document was a congratulatory letter from Wisdom Lodge No. 2660 in Portsmouth, Virginia, warranted by the Grand Orient of France, to the newly constituted Union Lodge No. 14 in New York, warranted by the Grand Orient of New York. The letter had been supplied to Morse by Oliver Westcott, whose Federalist party could only benefit from any attacks on republican sympathizers. [pp. 296-300.]
The American Mercury, June 6, 1799, pronounced Morse’s sermon to be absurd, as did the New England Farmer’s Weekly Museum. [p. 306.]
Morse had his supporters, but none provided anything resembling proof. An English translation of Barruel’s Memoirs arrived in America in June, 1799. [p. 309.] but Jefferson’s observations seemed to reflect the general impression of the public: indifference. [p. 312.]
The Mercury, Nov. 7, 1799, claimed that Professor Christopher D. Ebeling (1741-1817) of Hamburg had written, in reply to an inquiry by Morse, that Robison had no standing in Europe and that his book was a farrago of falsehoods and a wretched mass of absurdities. This claim was reprinted in the October 9, 1799 Bee and the Nov. 25, Dec. 6, 9, 1799 Aurora. [p. 313.]
In fact Ebeling had sent this letter to the Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts at about the same time he was also corresponding with Morse. Bentley was an active Freemason who blamed Morse for calling Freemasonry into disrepute. From his correspondence with Ebeling, Bentley had reason to assume that the communications with Morse had been substantially the same — which they later proved to be. [p. 317.]
Investigating Lodge Wisdom, Morse wrote to Josiah Parker, member of Congress for Virginia. Parker responded that he had lived in Portsmouth and that the lodge was regarded as a reputable masonic society, harmless as far as fomenting hostiity to the institutions of the country was concerned. [p. 320.] 7.
'Henceforth, the reverberations of the controvery, with a single exception, were to be of the nature of jibes and flings on the part of irritated and disgusted Democrats who adopted the position that the controversy over the illuminati had been introduced into American politics to serve purely partisan ends. [p. 321.]
'In 1802, the Reverend Seth Ayson [1758-1820] minister of the Congregational church at Rindge, New Hampshire, made an effort to revive the agitation. 'Payson’s book was nothing more than a revamping of the earlier literature, European and American, on the subject. There is no evidence that it made the slightest impression on the country.' [p. 321.]
It is noteworthy that Morse, never condemning North American Freemasonry, or equating it with Illuminism, delivered a sermon before the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts on June 25, 1798. [p. 329.]
'Coincident with the breaking out of the controversy over the Illuminati, a number of tales of plots and conspiracies were foisted upon the public....' [p. 346.]
A taylor in Philadelphia was making uniforms for invading French soldiers, the French had massacred the crew of the American ship Ocean, a band of conspirators from the French Directory had taken ship from Hamburg to work sedition in America: all were rumours tracable to Federalist sources. [p. 346.] 8.
'Beginning with 1799 a small group of pamphlets appeared, dedicated by their authors to an effort to convert the charge of Illuminism into a political boomerang, to be employed as a weapon against the Federalists. [p. 348.] '...the word "Illuminati" had lost all serious and exact significance and had become a term for politicians to conjure with....' [p. 360.]
It was not until the disappearance of William Morgan that the specter of Illuminism was once again revived. An Abstract of the Proceedings of the Anti-Masonic State Convention of Massachusetts, held in Faneuil Hall, Boston, Dec. 30 and 31, 1829, and Jan. 1, 1830. Boston, 1830. [p. 5] notes the passage of a resolution "That there is evidence of an intimate connexion between the higher orders of Free Masonry and French Illuminism."
'On the ground that the length of the committee’s report made it inadvisable, the publishing committee deemed it inexpedient to print the "evidence."' [p. 345.]

1. Cf. The Life of Jedidiah Morse, D.D., New York, 1874; Memorablia in the Life of Jedediah Morse, D.D. by his son, Sidney E. Morse (Morse’s surname appears in the sources both as "Jedediah" and "Jedidiah"). Another son, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, was the inventor of the electric telegraph. ^
2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from: Vernon [L.] Stauffer, New England and the Bavarian Illuminati. Studies in History, Economics and Political Law, edited by the Faculty of Political science of columbia University. Volume LXXXII, Number 1. Whole Number 191. New York: The Columbia University Press, Longmans, Green & Co., Agents. London: P. S. King & Son, Ltd., 1918. (Dean and Professor of New Testament and Church History, Hiram College) 374 pages. ^
3. Cf. Luetscher Early Political Machinery in the United Stares. p. 33. ^
4. A Sermon, Delivered at the New North Church in Boston, in the morning, and in the afternoon at Charlestown, May 9th, 1798, being the day recommended by John Adams, President of the United states of America, for solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer. By Jedidiah Morse. D. D., minister of the congregation in Charlestown, Boston, 1798, pp. 5-12 [p. 230.] ^
5. A Sermon, Preached at Charlestown, November 29th, 1798, on the Anniversary Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. With an Appendix, designed to illustrate some parts of the Discourse; exhibiting proofs of the early existence, progress, and deleterious effects of French intrigue and influence in the United States. By Jedidiah Morse. D. D., minister of the congregation in Charlestown, Boston, December, 1798. [p. 264.] ^
6. A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers, and the consequent Duties of the citizens of the United states of America. Delivered at charlestown, April 25, 1799, the day of the National Fast. By Jedidiah Morse. D. D., pastor of the church in Charlestown, Charlestown, 1799. p. 15 [p. 288.] ^
7. Cf. Wolcott Papers, 31; National Magazine, or a Political, Historical, Biographical, and Literary Repository, vol. ii, pp. 26 et seq article by Philalethes. ^
8. Cf. McMaster, History of the People of the United States, vol. ii, pp. 441 et seq. ^
9. John Wood (1775?-1822.) A full exposition of the Clintonian faction, and the society of the Columbian illuminati; Newark, Printed by Pennington & Gould, 1802. 56 p. 21 cm. LCCN: 17022844 ^

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