In an overheated political milieu where accusations of treason were hurled from both sides, [John Robison’s] Proofs of a Conspiracy was seized on eagerly by the Federalists as evidence of the hidden agenda that lurked behind fine-sounding slogans such as democracy, the abolition of slavery and the rights of man. Robison’s words were repeated endlessly in New England pulpits and pamphlets through 1798 and 1799, and [Thomas] Jefferson was publicly accused of being a member of [Adam] Weishaupt’s Order.One of the loudest voices promoting this idea was the Rev. Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826, shown above) of Charlestown, who was also a leading textbook author. A strong Federalist and Congregationalist, he seized on Robison’s book as proof of a worldwide conspiracy against traditional politics and religion.
On the national fast day of 9 May 1798, Morse preached a sermon based on Robison’s book. He returned to that topic for Thanksgiving on 29 November and for the next national fast on 29 Apr 1799, publishing all three sermons for wider consumption. (It’s notable that Morse didn’t deliver these messages during his regular church services. It’s also notable that in between those dates, on 25 June 1798, he spoke to the Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Freemasons, not mentioning the Illuminati, at least overtly.)
Other speakers pushed back against Morse’s charges, particularly men already in the Jeffersonian camp, such as the Rev. William Bentley of Salem. But the most effective response to Morse came from John Cosens Ogden (1751-1800), an itinerant Episcopal priest with the zeal of a convert (from Presbyterianism).
In 1799 Ogden published a pamphlet titled A View of the New-England Illuminati; Who are Indefatigably Engaged in Destroying the Religion and Government of the United States, under a feigned regard for their safety, and under an impious abuse of true religion. It wasn’t the Jeffersonians who were secretly Illuminati, Ogden wrote—it was the New England Federalists who were pointing fingers at other people.
On 31 Jan 1800, Vice President Jefferson wrote to James Madison—not his political ally but the Episcopal bishop of Virginia with the same name—about the conspiracy theories:
I have lately by accident got a sight of a single volume, (the 3d.) of the Abbé [Augustin] Barruel’s ‘Antisocial conspiracy,’ which gives me the first idea I have ever had of what is meant by the Illuminatism, against which ‘illuminati Morse’ as he is now called, and his ecclesiastical & monarchical associates have been making such a hue & cry.With both sides of the political divide using the term “Illuminati” to tar the other, it became part of the American political lexicon. It survives in many conspiracy theories, still reading like the ravings of Bedlamites.
Barruel’s own parts of the book are perfectly the ravings of a Bedlamite. but he quotes largely from Wishaupt whom he considers as the founder of what he calls the order. . . . Wishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist. he is among those (as you know the excellent [Richard] Price and [Joseph] Priestly also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man. he thinks he may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless. this, you know is Godwin’s doctrine, and this is what Robinson, Barruel & Morse have called a conspiracy against all government