Timothy Dwight Reenactment: A divided family will destroy itself. A divided nation will anticipate ruin, prepared by its enemies.
Simone: The year is 1798 -- think waistcoats and powdered white hair. It's July 4th and a young United States of America is celebrating her 22nd birthday -- the perfect time to have an identity crisis.
Simone: The scene is Yale College, which had already been around for nearly a century. The school’s president, Reverend Timothy Dwight, stands in front of a crowd of his fellow New England elites and delivers a sermon.
Timothy Dwight Reenactment: Oh thou God of our fathers! Our own God! And the God of our children!
Simone: But this speech isn't quite the birthday celebration you might expect. Timothy Dwight has some bigger things on his mind…he’s worried for his country…
Timothy Dwight Reenactment: Justice, truth, kindness, piety, and moral obligation universally, have been not merely trodden under foot; but ridiculed, spurned, and insulted, as the childish bugbears of driving idiocy.
Simone: “Bugbears,” huh? That’s a good old-timey insult to keep in the backpocket.
Simone: Anyways, Dwight’s sermon is titled “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis.” And the “present crisis” he’s worried about is a theory: there’s an organization conspiring to infiltrate the U.S. government -- and that organization is the Illuminati.
Simone: Yeah. For real. Like for really real.
Timothy Dwight Reenactment: The great and good ends proposed by the Illuminati, as the ultimate objects of their union, are the overthrow of religion, government and human society, civil and domestic.
Simone: Wow that sounds serious! But obviously the idea that the Illuminati are pulling the strings behind the scenes is just a conspiracy theory. It's not real...or is it?
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world.
Simone: 223 years ago this July 4th week, Timothy Dwight delivered that speech, warning his fellow countrymen about that shady secret society, hell-bent on destroying American democracy. And conspiracies about the Illuminati are still around! Especially in pop culture.
[ARCHIVAL, VO: Some conspiracy theorists claim that Beyonce and husband Jay-Z are the reigning king and queen of this centuries old organization...]
Simone: Man, y’all haters really are corny. Illuminati conspiracy theories have had staying power. But where did they come from? How did they travel all around the world? And was the Illuminati ever really real?
Simone: To answer all this, we're journeying around the globe and back again. And along the way, we’ll learn some uncomfortable truths about the state of our country.
Simone: So open up your third eye, sheeple! It’s the Illuminati episode -- stay woke.
Simone: To understand the American obsession with the Illuminati conspiracy theory, we actually need to start with the French Revolution…
Simone: Because when this conspiracy theory was born, shit was going down in France that was making the rest of the world a little nervous, and a little suspicious.
Simone: So, we’re in France. It’s 1789. Think Louie the XVI, Marie Antoinette, let them eat cake, and the storming of the Bastille. Do you hear the people sing? The Third Estate -- AKA the French Revolution’s version of the 99% -- is in a years-long and bloody revolt against existing power structures...that eventually led to the overthrow of the clergy and the crown…
Simone: And people are like, how did that happen?
Dr. Michael Butter: Leading intellectuals all over Europe all come to the conclusion that the French Revolution was the result of a big conspiracy.
Simone: That’s Dr. Michael Butter, a professor of American Cultural History at the University of Tubingen in Germany. And he says, a rumor started to surface…
Butter: And the parties involved in this conspiracy -- the overthrow of all authorities, government and religion -- are the Illuminati.
Simone: Ah yes, it couldn’t be the people organizing to revolt against oppressive conditions… no, no… it must be Illuminati.
Simone: But here’s the conundrum: the organization we think of as the Illuminati had actually been defunct for years at this point. They weren’t even based in France! They started in 1776 in Bavaria -- a state in modern-day Germany -- which at the time was part of the Holy Roman Empire and run by a powerful noble dynasty. Very similar to the society that the French were revolting against during the revolution -- so you can see why people would’ve made that connection. And like the French would later attempt, the actual Illuminati wanted to effect large-scale reforms, too…
Butter: The Illuminati really are revolutionaries. They want to change society. They are progressives. They want to move beyond the status quo. What they are not, however, are conspirators who are planning a violent overthrow of the government.
Simone: Back in Bavaria, in the late 1770s, The Illuminati wanted to change the way knowledge was taught. They wanted to replace Christianity with a religion of reason. They believed that knowledge should be available to everyone -- and this was counter to the teaching of the church, who wanted to control the flow of information. So the Illuminati would meet in secret, think...dark tunnels and three knocks and a password to gain entry kind of secret.
Simone: They were one of many secret societies at the time. Groups like Freemasons, Nights of Templar, and Rosicrucians. They were a way for like-minded people hungry for change to come together. But the Bavarian government caught wind of these groups and in 1785 they banned secret societies. Some members were imprisoned, others driven from their homes. And that was the end of the Illuminati.
Butter: So that is the history of the Illuminati, which is pretty unspectacular.
Simone: The actual Illuminati was only around for nine years. But even though they functionally dissolved, their notoriety stuck around…perhaps because the spirit behind their ideas was catching fire in other parts of Europe.
Simone: And this brings us back to the French Revolution, when the Illuminati becomes the perfect scapegoat for something they had no role in: overthrowing Louie and Marie. Like we mentioned earlier, leading intellectuals struggled to wrap their heads around this dramatic toppling of power structures, and they were convinced that something else must be behind it. It’s one of the earliest conspiracy theories.
Butter: So this conspiracy theory about the, um, the French Revolution in Europe proves very, very powerful, and it's kind of the blueprint for all subsequent conspiracy theories.
Simone: After spreading through Europe, Illuminati conspiracy theories set sail across the Atlantic and landed on American shores.
Simone: This was at a pivotal moment in our young nation’s history: the run-up to the Election of 1800. America was still a baby nation, and things were…not going so great.
Adam Jortner: The end of the 18th century has been a lot like the last few years in America. The country isn't doing well.
Simone: That’s Adam Jortner, a professor of history, religion, and the American Revolution. He hosts an Audible series called Faith and The Founding Fathers....And he says, at this time, there was a lot of unrest throughout the country…
Jortner: You have a country that the constitution has been passed, but...not everyone has accepted the federal government. And there are political problems…
Simone: Up until this point, the country’s been operating pretty much under one political party -- the Federalists. This is the party of the President at the time, John Adams. Adams’s VP is Thomas Jefferson -- for you Hamilton Heads, that’s Daveed Diggs.
Simone: And if you’ve seen Hamilton you know, Jefferson is not a happy camper in this government. Whereas Adams believes in a strong central government, Jefferson is more of a states’ rights kinda guy. Jefferson’s got his own political party -- the Democratic-Republicans. And he decides to challenge John Adams in the Election of 1800.
Simone: The Federalists do not want to lose. They mount several attacks against Jefferson. Number one: he’s a francophile. Americans were quite xenophobic in this moment, and Jefferson had lived in Paris for part of the revolution as Minister to France. And number two: that Jefferson wasn’t a good enough Christian. We’ll get to why in a minute. But both of these things inspired whispers that Jefferson was an agent of the Illuminati.
Simone: Which brings us back to Reverend Timothy Dwight on the 4th of July, 1798.
Timothy Dwight Reenactment: The great and good ends proposed by the Illuminati, are the overthrow of religion, government, and human society civil and domestic.
Simone: Dwight was a big time Federalist stan…and he was legitimately concerned about the Illuminati. And Jortner says he focused that concern on Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans.
Jortner: He does not think that Democratic Republicans in 1798 are good Americans. He thinks the democratic Republicans are irreligious, they're infidels. They’re people who can't be trusted with the government. They will lead the entire nation to immorality and to destruction.
Simone: Dwight and many of the Federalists were staunchly religious…and they didn’t like that Thomas Jefferson wasn’t.
Simone: Jefferson believed in God -- but not in the Resurrection and didn’t buy into conventional Christian dogma. This posed a big threat to the powers that be at the time -- ie Federalists like Timothy Dwight. And so, they were scared. And paranoid. And they reached for that convenient bogeyman, once linked to the opposition of Christianity: the Illuminati. Shadowy, religion-less forces determined to topple existing power structures…and in this case, upend America’s fledgling democracy.
Jortner: It is a political speech. He is talking about politics. He doesn't come right out and say, “So you got to get out there and vote Federalists,” but he does say, “If you're not voting for the religious candidate, if you're not voting for the party of moral government, ie against the Illuminatis -- who are out there, secretly poisoning America -- then you're not really a Christian.”
Simone: This fear about the amoral, irreligious direction Jefferson could take the country in was at the heart of these attacks. And they went beyond sermons…
Jortner: There is one very famous, uh, gazette in the United States runs a headline, uh, which reads...
Voice Actor: Will you vote for John Adams and a Christian government or Jefferson and no God -- exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point!
Simone: Lest you think it was only the Federalists lobbing Illuminati attacks, there was at least one person on Jefferson’s side attempting to flip this around. His name was John Ogden. He penned an article in the Anti- Federalist newspaper -- the Philadelphia Aurora -- that claimed the real Illuminati were the New England clergy...guys like Yale's own Timothy Dwight.
Jortner: What Ogden says is, you know, the congregational clergy of New England they go, they talk to the elected representatives and they collude together to create things like state churches, and days of fasting and prayer. And the idea that they’re supposed to set morality for everybody else.
Simone: We’ll never know to what degree all this Illuminati slinging affected the result of the election…but we do know that the Federalists lost.
Simone: Adams played the sore loser…he didn’t even show up to the inauguration. Man, I swear I’ve heard that story before.
Simone: But that was far from the last time we’d hear about the Illuminati in America… it’s in our pop culture…and even in our politics. It most recently came up during President Joe Biden’s inauguration. A theory circulated Facebook that the family bible he used during his swearing-in was actually linked to the Illuminati and that he was taking some kind of sinister oath.
Simone: So, conspiracy theories in politics are obviously not just an 1800 thing. And you might be feeling like they’ve gotten uncomfortably close in recent years.
Simone: And we’ll get into that, right after the break.
Simone: Welcome back. Before the break, we learned that the Illuminati really did exist…just not for very long. And that paranoia about them played a role in the election of Thomas Jefferson…
Simone: Okay. But today, America's a little older. A little wise-...uh...older. And conspiracy theories are still alive and well in our politics. What does this tell us about the current political landscape? And about the country in general?
Simone: First, you gotta know who is drawn to conspiracy theories in the first place.
Joe Uscinski: Conspiracy theories are for losers because in politics like sports, it's the losers who tend to complain the most when they lose.
Simone: That’s Joe Uscinski. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Miami. And he co-wrote a book tracking conspiracy beliefs across history called American Conspiracy Theories.
Simone: And he says it’s losing -- not just things like elections or competitions -- but losing power. Think about the election of 1800: the threat of losing to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans was enough to stoke paranoia among the ruling Federalists. And while the truth was more like...a series of societal changes and unpopular political choices led to their declining popularity...something like, “the Illuminati are out to get us,” offers a way simpler excuse.
Joe Uscinski: Winners think everything's hunky dory, But when your side loses, of course it was rigged against you.
Simone: If that language sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard ex-president Donald Trump and many other prominent Republicans throw the term “rigged” around quite a lot lately. And that's a big tip-off that they're peddling a conspiracy. Namely, something you've probably heard of -- The Big Lie.
Simone: The Big Lie is the false claim that Trump didn’t actually lose the election to Joe Biden, but that it was stolen from him. That election officials organized voter fraud and hid votes in a conspiracy with others who wanted to take power from Trump and the Republicans.
Simone: For the record, this is all totally unsubstantiated…there is no evidence to suggest any widespread fraud or organized conspiracy in the 2020 election. But, it’s a narrative that’s really taken hold. One national poll found that nearly a third of Americans believe in The Big Lie.
Uscinski: It's much easier for losers to say, “Hey, we were cheated” than it is to you know, to say, “Maybe we didn't have a good candidate. Maybe our ideas aren't that great. Maybe we didn't work hard enough.” Who wants to say that? Who wants to do that kind of self-reflection? Nobody. So it's much easier to say, “We were cheated.”
Simone: And I have to admit, I’ve watched things like the Big Lie, QAnon and Pizzagate unfold and wondered -- “what is going on with the Republican party and conspiracy theories?”
Simone: But, this isn’t a phenomenon that falls along party lines. Uscinski says it’s kind of an American politics thing.
Uscinski: People have argued that it's conservatives and Republicans who are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. I don't find much evidence for that. Instead, what seems to be the case is that people will believe in conspiracy theories that accuse groups they don't belong to. So if you're a Republican, you believe Democrats are up to no good. If you're a Democrat, you believe the Republicans are up to no good. And as power shifts back and forth in our country, we also find that the salient conspiracy theories often switch back and forth too.
Simone: Looking back over recent history, you can see the evidence of this. Think about liberals holding onto the Steele Dossier, with its promise of golden showers. Or just the idea that Trump was a Russian asset. And then there was 9/11. When the September 11th attacks happened, there was a conspiracy theory that it was an inside job manufactured by George W. Bush and his Republican administration so they would have an excuse to invade Iraq and pass the Patriot Act. The theory gained so much attention even Bush himself had to address it in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly.
[ARCHIVAL, George W. Bush: We must speak the truth about terror. Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th. Malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists themselves, away from the guilty.]
Simone: So we’ve seen widespread conspiracy theories emerge across the political spectrum. It's a way for the outgroup to find blame. To be clear, I don’t equate “9/11 was an inside job” with Trump’s Big Lie: It’s one thing for a conspiracy theory to take hold over a group of people -- it’s another thing for sitting members of congress to refuse to accept that the incoming president is actually the president…
Simone: But I’m not gonna lie, conspiracy theories make me nervous. Because it feels like the number of people who believe in them…are on the rise. It feels like they’re shaping our politics more than they ever have. And if a democracy is meant to function best when its electorate is informed...it certainly feels like all these conspiracy theories are messing with that.
Simone: But Uscinski says, while it may feel that way, the data says otherwise.
Uscinski: I have yet to find convincing evidence that conspiracy theory beliefs are increasing. It's often claimed in the media that these beliefs are going up, up, up, up, up, but I find no evidence of that. I have polled on conspiracy theories repeatedly for a decade. I don't find any evidence that these beliefs have increased either during the internet era, in the social media era, or from prior to that.
Simone: To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with that information. In one way it’s comforting — just because I’ve seen a worrying number of bad Facebook memes and unhinged Twitter threads doesn’t necessarily mean conspiracy theories, as a whole, are on the rise…ok, good!
Simone: But on the other hand, I’m like…so that means they’ve been around this whole time? I went from being like, “oh no, we’re fucked!” to “oh no, we’re fucked…but in the same old way we always were.”
Simone: It’s an odd time to be celebrating America. The great national narrative that we like to tell on the 4th…you know, the founding fathers were perfect geniuses, our democracy is flawless, we’re #1, USA! USA! USA!...
Simone: I was never one to believe in American exceptionalism in the first place, but understanding that conspiracy theories are woven into our politics...that historically, it really seems we’re prone to draw from a place of fear and paranoia…I don’t really see what’s so exceptional about that.
Simone: Conspiracy theories have been a part of our country since its founding…and they’ve probably shaped us more than we’d like to admit…
Simone: So maybe there’s an opportunity here…to own up to that…and to see our country as it actually is. Not just as advertised.
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media.
Simone: Next week, we go to a small town in Minnesota…that took extreme measures to get clean water…
Jim Randall: And it just struck me. And I said, “Well, I suppose we could secede and apply for foreign aid as a foreign country.”
Simone: This episode was produced by Kinsey Clarke and Sarah Craig. The associate producers are Jake Maia Arlow and Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Ben Britton played Timothy Dwight in our recreations. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: Sarah McCammon, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
Butter: So, um, when Beyonce sang at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago and she made the Illuminati pyramid during her show and then the lights went out during the second half, many people claimed online that this was because she had basically signaled something to her Illuminati sisters and brothers and since they were all in league with the devil now supernatural things were happening.