Today at *Time*: Conspiracy theories then (1790s) and now (2020s)

Time is running my piece on the Bavarian Illuminati. A taste:

In the final weeks before the 2020 election, the outsize role of conspiracy theories in American politics has become unmistakable. For some Trump supporters in particular, campaign-season news is filtered through the powerful idea that hidden forces are at work, that the “deep state”—a supposed secret, shadowy and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese scientists, journalists, academics and intellectuals—is seeking to destroy American values. Seen through that lens, COVID-19, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, is a “hoax”; some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.”

But while the particulars of these theories may be new, the dynamics are not. In fact, they go all the way back to America’s earliest years: In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Mass., and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” Today, such an idea sounds both eerily familiar and like a relic of a less sophisticated time—but the lessons of that episode are decidedly relevant.

Read the rest at Time.

The “Deep State” of the 1790s?

Morse

Jedidiah Morse

Is there a “deep state” seeking to undermine the Trump presidency? Yes, if you define the “deep state” as men and women working to stop Donald Trump from undermining American democracy and institutions.

But for many Trump supporters, the “deep state” is a secret, shadowy, and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese officials and scientists, journalists, academics, and intellectuals seeking to destroy American values. Some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.” In this sense, the “deep state” hates America.  It has been created to invoke fear.

These conspiracy theories are not new.  In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” He was convinced that this group of atheists and infidels were behind the secular Jacobin movement in France that sought to purge the nation of organized religion. Morse believed that the Illuminati group was pursuing the same clandestine agenda in America and was working closely with Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic Republicans, the Federalists’ political rivals, to pull it off.

Morse learned about the Bavarian Illuminati from books published in Europe describing a network of secret lodges scattered across the continent. In a 1798 fast day sermon, he appealed to the worst fears of those evangelicals who remained concerned with the moral character of the republic. He described the Illuminati’s ominous attempts to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide (by declaring death an eternal sleep), advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy…decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.” The presence of the Illuminati in America should cause Christians to “tremble for the safety of our political, as well as our religious ark.” In another sermon on the subject, Morse printed a list of secret societies and Illuminati members currently working their sinister schemes in his Christian nation.

Soon Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and the president of Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, expressed similar fears about the Illuminati and used his pen to sound the alarm. In a Fourth of July discourse entitled The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis, Dwight quoted from Revelation 16 to caution his listeners and eventual readers about “unclean teachers” who were educating innocent people in “unclean doctrines.” Such teachers were spreading throughout the world to “unite mankind against God.” As they performed their malicious work, the Bavarian Illuminati took cues from previous opponents of Protestant America–the Jesuits, Voltaire, and the Masons, to name a few.

Dwight called Americans back to God . This, he believed, was the only effective way of resisting such subversive threats to social virtue. “Where religion prevails,” he wrote, “Illuminatism cannot make disciples, a French directory cannot govern, a nation cannot be made slaves, nor villains, nor atheists, nor beasts.” Dwight reminded his readers that if this dangerous society succeeded in its plans, the children of evangelicals would be forced to read the work of deists or become “concubines” of a society that treated “chastity” as a “prejudice,” adultery as virtue, and marriage as a “farce.”

By the turn of the nineteenth century, news of the Illuminati had traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and as far as the Caribbean islands. Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a Federalist statesman, also bought into this conspiracy theory.

Critics of these evangelical Federalists argued that Morse and Dwight, both clergymen, spent too much time dabbling in politics instead of tending to the souls of the Christians under their spiritual care. Others accused these conspiracy theorists of having “overheated imaginations.” Eventually, Morse’s accusations against Democratic-Republican societies were unable to withstand the weight of evidence. As historian Jonathan Den Hartog has written, evangelical Federalists concerned about the preservation of a Christian nation “overplayed their hand” by propagating the Illuminati scare. In the process, they “called their standing a societal authorities into question, and ultimately weakened their position” as shapers of American culture.

The comparison between the “Deep State” and the “Illuminati” is not perfect. No historical analogies are. But sometimes, as we like to say, history rhymes.