An active force in British and European socialism for many years, and a significant figure in conservative conspiracy theories up to the present, the Fabian Society was founded in London in 1884 by a coterie of left-wing intellectuals who gathered around the Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson. Author and playwright George Bernard Shaw, and Annie Besant, head of the Theosophical Society after the death of its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, were among its leading early members. See Theosophical Society.

The Society took its name from the Roman general Fabius Maximus Cunctator, who wore down the armies of Hannibal in the second Punic War by avoiding pitched battles and using indirect tactics; the Fabians hoped to promote socialism by gradual reforms and indirect means. In the early days of the Society, its members attempted to influence the then-dominant Liberal and Conservative parties in Britain in a Socialist direction. In the first decade of the twentieth century, though, the Society helped organize the Labour Representation Committee, the seed from which the Labour Party took form in 1906. Since that time the Fabian Society has been closely associated with the Labour Party and many Labour Party leaders and members of Parliament have also belonged to the Society.

The Fabian Society’s socialist platform and its use of indirect methods have given it an important role in some conservative conspiracy theories, and its activities – especially in its early years, when its efforts to diffuse socialist ideas through existing political parties made use of a certain amount of subterfuge – have provided some justification for these claims. It remains, however, simply one of many pressure groups in the complex patchwork of power in the modern world, and attempts by twentieth-century conspiracy theorists to define it as the “One Big Conspiracy” have little in common with the relatively modest reality of its influence and achievements. See New World Order.

Further reading: Mackenzie and Mackenzie 1977.


The most famous of the curing societies among the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of Native American peoples living in what is now upstate New York and southern Ontario, the False Face Society is best known for its dramatic and brightly colored wooden masks, which can be found in ethnographic museums worldwide. The False Face Society performs important traditional rituals among the Iroquois tribes, including purification rites to banish disease in spring and autumn, the great midwinter ceremonial that celebrates the new year, and private feasts to commemorate a successful healing or a spiritually powerful dream. Still active today among those Iroquois who have not converted to Christianity, the False Face Society is among the Native American secret societies that have undergone a large-scale revival in recent years. See Native American secret societies.


The most famous of Irish revolutionary secret societies, the Fenian Brotherhood emerged after the catastrophic potato blight in Ireland in the late 1840s. The failure of British officials to provide relief for a famine that caused between one and two million deaths embittered the Irish and convinced them they had nothing to gain from continued British rule. In 1848, a planned rising was nipped in the bud by British authorities, and three of the leaders of the conspiracy – John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny, and James Stephens – fled for safety to America.

There, in 1858, they founded a secret society to pursue Irish independence, calling it the Fenian Brotherhood or Irish Republican Brotherhood. The first name came from the legendary band of warriors led by the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, while their operating structure derived from contemporary secret societies in Europe. Members swore oaths of secrecy and were grouped into cells of 10, each cell independent and unknown to all others, at least in theory. In practice, the Fenians had glaring security problems, and the British government had little problem filling its ranks with informers. The Fenians themselves did much to undermine their own security by holding large public conventions, the first in Chicago in 1863. See cell system.

The Fenians nonetheless posed a significant challenge to British rule over Ireland, if only because the huge Irish expatriate population in America – some 1.6 million by 1860 – provided a sizeable field for recruitment. Several attempts were made to fund a rising in Ireland, though these fell through when the British authorities used their informers to arrest leaders and seize guns and money gathered for the purpose.

The American Civil War, in which many Irish expatriates fought on the Union side, brought thousands of veterans into the Fenian ranks. This emboldened the movement and launched it on the frankly harebrained project of trying to conquer Canada as a springboard to Irish independence. In 1866, a thousand armed Fenians crossed the border and seized the town of St Armand, expecting to provoke a rising against the British government. Instead, they were quickly dispersed by Canadian troops. Two further efforts along the same lines yielded equally unimpressive results. In 1867, one final attempt at a rising in Ireland, backed by a plan to seize weapons from Chester Castle in England, fizzled quickly.

Meanwhile the Fenians faced a widening spiral of internal troubles. The organization split in half in 1866 after a series of political quarrels among its leaders, and the fragments split further in the years that followed. The consistent failure of the Fenians to accomplish any of their aims or, for that matter, even make a plausible attempt at doing so, alienated the younger generation of Irish and Irish-American activists. By the mid-1870s the Fenian Brotherhood had ceased operations in America, but Irish Fenian groups in Dublin remained active in at least a theoretical sense. The Fenian name had by this time become an embarrassment, and members typically used the name “Irish Republican Brotherhood” instead. Even under its alternative name, the Brotherhood accomplished little during the last years of the nineteenth century, and the movement was at a low ebb. Several of the most serious Irish terrorist groups of the 1880s drew their membership primarily from Irish Fenians who saw the Brotherhood as a dead end and sought to pursue the cause of Irish independence by more radical means.

By the first decades of the twentieth century British police and military intelligence had written off the Fenian movement as a negligible threat. This proved to be a disastrous mistake, as a new generation of leaders came to the fore and began preparing for an insurrection. The revitalized Brotherhood was small – it had only 2000 members in Ireland in 1914 – but it had close links to other republican organizations, including the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, two pro-independence militia groups. When the Brotherhood and its allies rose in revolt on the Easter weekend of 1916, they took the authorities totally by surprise. While the Easter Rising was defeated, it demonstrated the weakness of the British hold on Ireland in a way that could not be ignored, and sparked a general revolt against British rule that led to Irish independence in 1921. Thus, despite all the failures of the intervening years, the Fenian Brotherhood played a crucial role in accomplishing the goal its founders set themselves in New York back in 1858.

Further reading: Mackenzie 1967, Williams 1973.


One of the major eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories about the origin of religion, the theory of fertility religion proposes that all religion springs from the sense of awe and delight born of humanity’s experience of its own reproductive powers, and the fertility and abundance of living nature. It emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century as European scholars found themselves confronted with the contrast between the guilt and shame with which the western cultures of the time surrounded sex, and the exuberance with which ancient Greeks and Romans, modern Hindus, and people of several other non-western cultures treated sexuality as a natural part of life. English classical scholar Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824) launched the concept of fertility religion into scholarly discussion in his A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786), and it remained a major force in comparative religion until the early twentieth century, when Sir James Frazer’s massive The Golden Bough (1917) defended it in immense detail.

Like its rival and occasional ally, the theory of astronomical religion, the fertility religion theory started as an explanation for the origin of all religions other than Judaism and Christianity. Where the astronomical theory was often used to dismiss pagan faiths as products of human ignorance, though, a surprising number of fertility religion theorists considered the old fertility faiths better than the Judeo-Christian tradition precisely because they made room for a positive attitude toward sex. Payne Knight led the way in this, putting edgy comments about “the sour mythology of the Christians” in his book and pointing out that, whatever the supposed moral failings of the old sexual faiths, they had managed to avoid persecuting other religions. See astronomical religion.

Yet the quest for sexual symbolism in religion eventually opened up the possibility that Judaism and Christianity, too, might be interpreted in sexual terms. This seems to have been done first by the Welsh Druid Owen Morgan, head of a Druid order based at Pontypridd and the author of the privately printed The Light of Britannia (1888), a work that fused the astronomical and fertility theories of religion and interpreted Christianity in their light. To Morgan, Jesus was simply another fertility deity whose life, death, and resurrection had a primarily sexual meaning. His approach was taken up by a minority of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers but never gained the popularity of astronomical interpretations of Christian myth. See Christian origins; Druid Revival.

The theory of fertility religion formulated by Sir James Frazer in the early twentieth century, and popularized by the many volumes of The Golden Bough, had a much more extensive impact by way of Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist turned medieval historian who projected Frazer’s theories onto the witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries and came to the conclusion that the witch trials were aimed at exterminating a surviving fertility cult in western Europe. Despite massive problems with issues of evidence, Murray’s claim was widely accepted during the middle years of the twentieth century and gave a crucial boost to the rise of Wicca, the first widely publicized neo-pagan religion. See Murray hypothesis; Wicca.

Further reading: Godwin 1994.


The bête noire of conservatives worldwide for more than a century after 1864, the First International and its two successors have played a huge role in the modern mythology surrounding secret societies. Though not secret societies in their own right, the Internationals drew on a long tradition of radical secret societies in western Europe, had several secret societies take an active role in their history, and gave conservatives obsessed with secret societies a visible target for their fears. Few if any of today’s conspiracy theories would be the same if the First International had never existed.

The First International was founded out of the fusion of a group of French liberals, some of them in exile from Napoleon Ill’s dictatorship, and a group of English labor unionists inspired by the possibilities of international organization. Behind the original meeting at St Martin’s Hall in London on September 28, 1864 lay years of complex intrigues on the part of the Philadelphes, one of the last surviving political secret societies of the Napoleonic era. Sometime in the late 1830s the Philadelphes had taken control of the Rite of Memphis, an irregular system of Masonry with no fewer than 96 degrees of initiation. In 1850, during one of the brief periods when the Rite was able to operate legally in France, a lodge was chartered in London by a group of French emigrés with close ties to left-wing politics. After Napoleon III seized power and proclaimed the Second Empire in 1852, this lodge, and 10 other lodges connected with it, became deeply involved in intrigues against the new regime and may have taken part in some of the attempts on Napoleon Ill’s life. See Philadelphes; Rite of Memphis.

By the early 1860s, however, the Philadelphes in England were turning toward goals more sweeping than the removal of one French tyrant. From 1855 to 1859 they operated a front organization called the International Association, which had attracted interest in America as well as Europe, and the expansion of the labor union movement in the years before 1864 opened the prospect of organizing the working classes under Philadelphe leadership. The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), as the First International was originally known, was launched under Philadelphe auspices to carry out this project.

In its first year the IWA remained essentially a Philadelphe front. Nearly a third of the members of the Association’s governing board, the General Council, were members of one or another Philadelphe lodge. Yet the secret society had already brought its own nemesis aboard, in the person of a German economist named Karl Marx. Already a major figure among European radicals, Marx and his co-author Friedrich Engels had burst on the scene in 1848 with The Communist Manifesto, and a growing number of radical groups across Europe were taking up Marxist ideas during the formative years of the International. Marx was indispensable, but the Philadelphes made the mistake of believing they could manipulate him to their own ends. By the end of 1865 Marx and his allies had removed the last Philadelphes from the policy-making subcommittee of the General Council and had effective control of the International.

Ironically, another secret society filled the vacuum, causing the political explosions that wrecked the First International in the 1870s. This was the International Brothers, an anarchist secret society founded and headed by the Russian radical and ex-Nihilist Mikhail Bakunin. Founded in Italy sometime around 1864, the International Brothers formed another secret society, the Secret Alliance, as a front group; they then launched a public front group for the secret one, the International Alliance of Social Democracy. In 1868 the International Alliance applied to enter the First International. The leadership of the International rejected the application, but allowed each national subdivision of the Alliance to join as a local branch of the International. See Anarchism; International Brothers; Nihilists.

With this as his way in, Bakunin attempted to take over the International, only to run up against the same Marxist bloc that had defeated the Philadelphes. Marx and his then-ally, French radical politician Auguste Blanqui, fought Bakunin’s party for four years before finally expelling Bakunin in 1872. Though Marx ended up victorious, the struggle weakened the International fatally and drove a wedge between Marx and Blanqui. When Marx forced through new rules giving the General Council dictatorial powers over the International, the local sections rebelled. By 1873 the International was moribund, and the General Council, by then relocated to New York, formally dissolved in 1876. A new International did not begin to take shape in Europe until 1889, and when it did, it had no connection to secret societies at all.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Drachkovitch 1966.


American statesman, scientist, and Freemason, 1706–90. Born in Boston to a working-class family, Franklin entered the printing trade as an apprentice to his brother, who published the New England Courant, a popular newspaper. In 1723, after a series of quarrels with his brother, he left Boston for Philadelphia, where he found work in a local print shop. In 1724 he went to Britain for a year and a half to improve his knowledge of the printing trade and purchase new equipment for his employer. Shortly after his return he opened his own printing business, and soon became one of the most famous printers and publishers in the American colonies, the author and publisher of the wildly successful Poor Richard’s Almanac and a daily newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. By 1748 his printing business had flourished to the extent that he was able to retire, leaving the business in the hands of a partner.

Masonic records from colonial Philadelphia are fragmentary enough that the exact date of Franklin’s initiation into Freemasonry is still uncertain, but the most likely date was 1731. In 1734 he was elected Grand Master of the provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, and in the same year he produced an edition of Anderson’s Book of Constitutions, a standard Masonic manual of the time, which was the first Masonic book printed in America. See Freemasonry.

During this time he made his mark as a leading Philadelphia citizen. He founded the city’s first circulating library in 1731; a fire department in 1736; the American Philosophical Society, the colonies’ first learned society, in 1743; a college, which later became the University of Pennsylvania, in 1749; and the first public hospital in Pennsylvania in 1751. From 1736 to 1751 he served as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly; he was elected to the Assembly in 1751, and in 1757 went to Britain as Pennsylvania’s representative in London. He served in that position until 1762, then returned in 1764 and served as agent for most of the American colonies until just before the outbreak of the American Revolution. During his stay in Britain he was elected to Britain’s Royal Society, frequented learned societies and clubs in London and elsewhere, and also became a member of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club. See Hell-Fire Club; Royal Society.

On his return to America, Franklin was elected to the Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Later in 1776, Franklin sailed for Paris and became the ambassador of the Continental Congress to the court of the French king Louis XVI. There he played a crucial role in winning French support for the American colonies. As a major cultural figure of the time, as well as a well-known Freemason, he was welcomed into lodges throughout Paris, and affiliated with the Lodge of the Nine Sisters (Loge des Neuf Soeurs), whose membership included many of the leading figures in French scholarship and literature. He was a member of the French commission set up to investigate the “animal magnetism” of Franz Anton Mesmer, and strongly supported its 1785 report dismissing Mesmer as a quack.

In 1778, in the aftermath of the American victory at Saratoga, Franklin negotiated an alliance with France and brought French troops and money to the support of the American army. In 1782 he began peace negotiations with Britain, and with the help of John Adams and John Jay negotiated a treaty that gave America its independence. He returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1785, and despite age and ill health took part in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. He died peacefully in 1790.

Further reading: Jennings 1996, van Doren 1991.


One of the many branches of the secret society movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fraternal benefit societies took the benefits system of fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows, but replaced traditional sick pay and funeral benefits with insurance policies. Joining a fraternal benefit society was equivalent to taking out an insurance policy with the society; the premiums took the form of monthly dues, and members also met regularly for business meetings, social functions, and the initiation of new candidates. See fraternal orders; Odd Fellowship.

The era of fraternal benefit societies began in 1869, when an American fraternal order, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, changed its benefit plan to a system of insurance policies for members. The economic crises of the 1870s, when more than 60 major insurance firms went bankrupt, made many Americans deeply suspicious of commercial insurance companies and encouraged them to embrace a system that seemed less vulnerable to economic vagaries. Between 1870 and 1910, accordingly, some 3500 fraternal benefit societies sprang up across America and Canada. Similar factors in the 1880s and 1890s led to a similar expansion of friendly societies, the British equivalent of North American fraternal benefit societies, in Britain itself and many parts of the British Empire. See Ancient Order of United Workmen.

The fraternal insurance industry became a speculative favorite in the late nineteenth century and drew a great deal of investment capital. The demand for new rituals was so great that when Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur (1880) became a nationwide bestseller in America, a group of promoters bought the fraternal-order rights from him for a substantial sum, and launched the Tribe of Ben-Hur, a fraternal benefit society with four degrees of initiation. The Tribe spread throughout the Midwest and remained in existence until 1978. Most American fraternal benefit societies, like nearly all American institutions, were segregated by race, but this simply drove the expansion of African-American fraternal benefit societies drawing on the rich heritage of secret societies in the African-American community. See African-American secret societies.

Most of the fraternal benefit societies, however, fell victim to their own enthusiasm and a failure to grasp the fact that insurance risk increases with age. Societies usually started with a relatively young membership and few payouts, and their bank accounts grew steadily as membership expanded. When the market for fraternal insurance was saturated, however, new memberships slowed to a trickle, payouts increased as the membership aged, and the risk of bankruptcy increased. A survey of fraternal benefit societies (cited in Palmer 1944, p. 211) found that 85 percent of the benefit societies founded between 1870 and 1910 went bankrupt, after an average lifespan of 15 years.

While most fraternal benefit societies went bankrupt, merged with others, or turned themselves into ordinary insurance firms during the twentieth century, some managed to survive and remain active today. More than a hundred fraternal benefit societies still exist today in Britain, America, Canada, and a variety of Commonwealth nations, offering insurance policies and annuities to members.

Further reading: Palmer 1944.


Of the fraternal secret societies of late nineteenth century, few have a more colorful origin than the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In the winter of 1898, the burlesque theatres and saloons of the Lava Beds, Seattle’s notorious red light district, faced a musicians’ strike. Six prominent businessmen from the Lava Beds sat down on a pile of lumber in a shipyard a few blocks from their establishments and worked out a common strategy to deal with the strike. In the course of the meeting, they decided to start meeting regularly and, half jokingly, named themselves the Independent Order of Good Things; this name shared the initials of the Independent Order of Good Templars, one of the largest temperance orders in the country. The original motto of the Seattle IOGT was “Skin ‘em.” See Independent Order of Good Templars.

In the weeks after the original meeting, other Lava Beds business owners and employees asked to join the organization, and the idea of creating a fraternal order modeled on the Elks, another order founded by people in the theatre industry, occurred to the founders. A month after the first meeting, the Independent Order of Good Things renamed itself the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The next month saw the formation of the Grand Aerie, the national grand lodge. In the next 10 years the Grand Aerie chartered 1800 aeries across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and more than 350,000 members. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE).

Several factors contributed to this dramatic growth. At a time when most fraternal orders gave at least lip service to the temperance movement, Eagles aeries either met in saloons or, as they grew, purchased their own buildings with members-only bars. As private clubs, aeries could also evade the “blue laws” in many states that barred public saloons from selling alcohol on Sundays. The revenue from the private bars made it possible for many aeries to offer medical care, sick pay, and funeral benefits to their members. All these things made the Eagles particularly attractive to people in the theatre industry – the source of most early Eagles membership – and, as the order expanded, to many other Americans who faced the difficult economic challenges of the time, or who simply liked to drink in congenial company. See fraternal orders.

Unlike most fraternal orders, the Eagles continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. Three American presidents – Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman – were members. The difficult years of that century’s second half, which saw so many fraternal secret societies go out of existence or fade to a shadow of their former size and influence, also impacted the Eagles but left the order surprisingly strong at the century’s end. The Eagles still have aeries in most American and many Canadian cities.


A common term for those secret societies that pursue social and charitable aims, such as the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Elks, and Eagles. Freemasonry is usually included among fraternal orders in the English-speaking world, where the political dimensions of European and Latin American Masonry are usually absent. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fraternal orders had an immense influence on the western world and provided the framework on which most other secret societies modeled themselves. See Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE); Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE); Freemasonry; Knights of Pythias; Odd Fellowship.

Freemasonry was a primary source of inspiration for the fraternal orders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though the Odd Fellows and a few others evolved from older guild structures around the same time that Masonry evolved out of the old operative stonemasons’ guilds. Many other fraternal orders founded later claimed older roots, inventing origin stories with as much enthusiasm as Masons did. Still, the amount of Masonry that went into other fraternal orders varied drastically. Some were founded by Masons and borrowed symbolism and procedure from Masonic sources; others merely took a few very general ideas about lodge organization and initiation, and filled in the rest from other sources or their own inventions. See origin stories.

By the nineteenth century, too, other fraternal orders had risen to prominence and inspired imitators of their own. Interesting things happened when members of two or more existing orders took part in founding a new fraternal order; the founders of the Patrons of Husbandry, for example, included Odd Fellows and Freemasons, and the rituals and symbolism of the resulting order drew substantial elements from each. See Patrons of Husbandry (Grange).

The expansion of fraternal orders in the nineteenth century drew much of its force from the benefits they provided to their members. In the absence of government welfare programs, fraternal lodges provided a “social safety net” for working-class and middle-class families. Most nineteenth-century fraternal orders borrowed the system of sick pay and survivor benefits developed by the Odd Fellows; in this system, each member put money into a common fund that provided sick pay for those too ill to work, funeral expenses for those who died, and support for widows and orphans. Many lodges also contracted with physicians, paying a lump sum every month in return for health care for lodge members and their families; “lodge practice” formed a significant part of many physicians’ salaries until the 1940s and 1950s.

With the birth of the welfare state in most western countries during the twentieth century, though, the fraternal orders had their most important function taken away, and struggled to find new reasons for their existence. The vast majority of the smaller orders folded, and even once-giant societies such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows – the largest secret society in the world from 1880 to 1920, surpassing even the Freemasons – saw membership rolls dwindle to a few percent of their peak numbers. Those that survive do so on a vastly reduced scale and the average age of their members is generally well above retirement age. While a trickle of new members have succeeded in keeping a few of the old fraternal orders alive, their chance of surviving long into the twenty-first century seems small as at the time of writing.


One of the major American Rosicrucian groups of the early twentieth century, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (Fraternity of the Rosy Cross) was the creation of R. Swinburne Clymer (1878–1966), an alternative physician and occultist with a flair for public relations, who based his work on the teachings of the charismatic American Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–75). See Randolph, Paschal Beverly.

According to Clymer’s later writings, the FRC was founded by Randolph in 1858 and headed by Randolph’s student Freeman B. Dowd (1812–1910) from 1875 to 1907, when the Grand Mastership passed to Dr. Edward H. Brown (1868–1922). On Brown’s death Clymer then became the Supreme Grand Master of the Rosicrucians in the New World. Behind these claims lies a reality at least as colorful, though less marketable. Randolph’s brilliance was more than matched by his erratic moods and arrogant behavior, and none of the secret societies he founded to pass on his teachings stayed together for long. Dowd, a student of Randolph in the 1860s and 1870s, was involved in several of these, and resurrected one of them – the Brotherhood of Eulis – after Randolph’s suicide in 1875. Dowd’s student, Edward Brown, inherited the Brotherhood in Dowd’s old age; Clymer studied with Brown, and went on to contact several other initiates of Randolph’s methods. On Brown’s death in 1922, Clymer became head of the Brotherhood, and turned it into the basis of his own occult secret society, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis.

Clymer’s claim to be the sole head of the Rosicrucian tradition in the western hemisphere brought him into inevitable conflict with the other major contender for the title, H. Spencer Lewis, the Imperator of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). Clymer struck the first blow in the quarrel, siding with several dissident ex-members of AMORC and circulating allegations about Lewis and his order. Lewis responded in kind, launching a public feud that enlivened the American occult press well into the 1930s and drew Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship into the fray. Among the many ironies in this latter-day War of the Roses was the fact that both orders were descended from Randolph and shared important elements of theory and practice derived from his teachings. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Rosicrucian Fellowship.

The struggle faded out after Lewis’s death in 1939, as Clymer had more pressing concerns by that time, notably the legal difficulties faced by alternative health care practitioners in the US at a time when the American Medical Association was forcing most natural healing systems out of existence. Despite this, Clymer maintained a successful healing practice and continued to operate the FRC until his death in 1966. His son, Emerson Clymer, succeeded to the Grand Mastership of the FRC and held it until his death in 1983, after which the position of Grand Master went to Dr. Gerald Poesnecker, a naturopathic doctor. Several high-ranking members of the FRC contested Poesnecker’s election and formed a group of their own, claiming to represent the true FRC.

The FRC under Poesnecker’s leadership continues to operate Beverly Hall, the 300-acre center established by R. Swinburne Clymer, as well as the Clymer Health Center in nearby Quakertown, Pennsylvania. It offers two correspondence courses to potential members – one for those interested in general occult study and one for those who seek initiation into the FRC itself. Its public material still includes criticisms of AMORC, alongside claims of an approaching time of troubles called the “Great Separation,” including a series of catastrophic earth changes that will submerge much of the Old World beneath the sea. See earth changes.

Further reading: Deveney 1997, McIntosh 1997.


The most influential Rosicrucian order in Latin America, the Fraternitas Rosicruciana Antiqua (FRA) was founded in Mexico in 1927 by Arnoldo Krumm-Heller (1876–1949), a German expatriate businessman and occultist who had studied with the French magus Papus (Gérard Encausse, 1865–1916), and received authority from Papus as head of the Martinist Order and Theodor Reuss, head of the Ordo Templi Orientis, to establish lodges in Latin America. See Martinism; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor.

Starting in 1910, Krumm-Heller began creating a network of magical lodges throughout the Latin American countries, combining the many occult traditions he had studied with the results of his own researches. In 1927, in response to the political quarrels of the European Rosicrucian scene, he founded his own organization, the FRA. He was briefly involved in the Rosicrucian wars in America, granting and then revoking a charterto H. Spencer Lewis, head of the American Rosicrucian group AMORC, and later allying with Lewis’s chief rival R. Swinburne Clymer and his Fraternitas Rosae Crucis. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Fraternitas Rosae Crucis.

After Krumm-Heller’s death, the FRA fragmented, but it remains an active presence in most of the countries of Latin America. Most current FRA groups are closely associated with modern Gnostic churches. See Gnosticism.


An influential German occult secret society, the Fraternitas Saturni was founded in 1925 by a group of German students of Aleister Crowley’s magical system. It originated as a branch of another secret society, the Collegium Pansophicum, founded in the early 1920s by bookseller Heinrich Tränker. Like half the occult secret societies of the time, the Collegium claimed descent from the original Rosicrucians of seventeenth-century Germany, but its teachings and practices were fairly standard for early twentieth-century occult secret societies, with a sizeable admixture of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic. See Crowley, Aleister; Rosicrucians.

In 1925 Crowley himself went to Germany and stayed with Tränker for a time. The two occultists quarreled after a short while, and eventually Tränker went to the German authorities and had Crowley expelled from the country. Disgusted with Crowley and Tränker alike, the Berlin branch of the Collegium resigned en masse and reorganized itself as a new order, the Fraternitas Saturni (Latin for “Fraternity of Saturn”). Headed by Eugen Grosche as Grand Master, the Fraternitas became the most prominent occult order in Germany. In 1933, shortly after the Nazi seizure of power, the Fraternitas Saturni was shut down, along with all other magical lodges; Grosche revived it after the Nazi defeat in 1945 and continued to head it until his death in 1964. The Fraternitas Saturni remains active to this day.

Further reading: Godwin 1994, Howe 1997.


The most famous secret society in the modern western world and the paradigm for most other secret societies over the last three centuries, Freemasonry – also known simply as Masonry or, among its members, as “the Craft” – emerged in Britain during the seventeenth century and took its modern form in the decades immediately after the founding of the first Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Its origins and history before that time have been the storm center of unending dispute for most of its history; see Freemasonry, origins of.

Freemasonry is a fraternal secret society limiting its membership to adult men who believe in a Supreme Being. While it absorbed a good deal of occult symbolism from its roots in Renaissance Hermeticism, and a great many male occultists have belonged to it in the last 300 years, it is not an occult order. Similarly, while it was closely associated with liberal political causes for the two centuries after 1717, and Masons such as George Washington, Simon Bolivar, and Franklin D. Roosevelt have played important roles in political affairs and world history, it is not a political organization. Non-members are often surprised to learn that its actual focus is self-improvement. Men join and practice Freemasonry to make themselves better human beings, and the rituals, symbolism, and teachings of Freemasonry focus on morality and ethics. See Hermeticism.

On its organizational side, Freemasonry consists of many thousands of self-governing local lodges, each of which has at least three members and may have up to several hundred. Lodges elect their officers by ballot, manage their own financial affairs, and select and initiate their members. Each lodge also sends representatives to the grand lodge with jurisdiction over the country (in America and Canada, the state or province) where it is located. The grand lodge and its officers, who are elected by the representatives, charter and supervise the local lodges. Each grand lodge is independent of all others; unlike many other fraternal secret societies, Freemasonry has no supreme grand lodge or worldwide head, and quarrels among grand lodges are not infrequent. See grand lodge; lodge.

On the ritual side, Freemasonry consists of three degrees or levels of initiation, titled Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason; the first two of these date from well before 1717, while the third was created in the early eighteenth century from material once passed on to the Worshipful Master (presiding officer) of a lodge on his installation. The first two degrees are based on the ceremonies used to initiate members of stonemasons’ guilds in Scotland in the late Middle Ages, while the third enacts a medieval legend about Hiram Abiff, the murdered architect of King Solomon’s Temple. Members advance from one degree to another by memorizing a catechism about the symbolism of each degree and demonstrating knowledge of the passwords, grips, and signs of recognition Masonry inherited from its medieval past. See Hiram Abiff; Worshipful Master.

Freemasonry started out as simply one of scores of clubs and societies popular in late seventeenth-century Britain, but its dramatic initiation rituals, its ethical focus, and its claim to ancient wisdom gave it a stronger appeal than most of its competitors. By the beginning of the eighteenth century it was widespread among the British middle classes and attracted a significant number of members from the aristocracy. The presence of peers in Masonic lodges gave the Craft the social cachet to spread beyond Britain’s shores to Europe. The first overseas lodges were founded in France in the early 1720s, and by 1750 Masonry was active throughout Europe and the American colonies. Today it has lodges everywhere in the world except for some Muslim countries and Communist China, where it is forbidden by law. See Initiation.

The spread of Masonry to Europe also launched an explosion of new Masonic degrees beyond the three of the original system. These first emerged in France in the late 1730s, as Jacobites – partisans of the House of Stuart’s claim on the British throne – struggled with their opponents, the Hanoverians, for control of French Masonic lodges in the years just before the Jacobite rising of 1745. These first “Scottish degrees” were originally secret but began to publicize their existence from 1750 on, and in their wake more than 2000 additional Masonic degrees came into being over the following century and a half. See high degrees; Jacobites; Scottish degrees.

Very few of these new degrees came under the authority of the grand lodges. The result is a bewildering tangle of independent grand bodies, which varies from country to country. In America, for example, Masonic lodges working the three degrees of Craft Masonry – “blue lodges,” in Masonic parlance – answer to state grand lodges. Royal Arch chapters working one set of higher degrees answer to state grand chapters, and some of these (but not all) answer to the General Grand Chapter of the United States. Commanderies of Knights Templar working another set of higher degrees answer to state grand commanderies, which answer in turn to a national grand encampment. Local units of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, who work yet another set of higher degree, answer to one of two supreme councils, one for the northeast quarter of the United States, the other for the rest. The situation in Britain and other countries is similar. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR); Royal Arch.

What makes this even more complex than it seems is the fact that each of these grand bodies is independent of the others. The Sovereign Grand Commander of a Scottish Rite supreme council, for example, has no authority at all over the Grand Master of a state grand lodge, much less over the Grand High Priest of a state Royal Arch grand chapter, which belongs to the rival York Rite. Since quite a few American Freemasons belong to a lodge, a chapter, a commandery, and the four related bodies of the Scottish Rite at the same time, the actual authority wielded by any grand officer over a given Mason is very small. See York Rite.

This tangled web of organizations, jurisdictions, rituals, and degrees expanded steadily until about 1900, along with the membership of Masonry itself. In that year perhaps 8 million men belonged to Masonic lodges worldwide. Since then Masonic membership has steadily contracted, with the total number of Masons falling to a little under 2 million worldwide as of this writing. Like nearly all other modern secret societies, it flourished during an era when voluntary organizations rather than government programs took responsibility for most charitable, welfare and self-help programs, and withered as the media-driven mass society and the welfare state took over during the course of the twentieth century.

A complex role in Masonry’s rise and fall has been played by organized antimasonry. Masonry’s size, its social prominence, and its role as the western world’s archetypal secret society has made it the target for criticism, opposition, and persecution at many times over the last three centuries. The Roman Catholic Church has been a bastion of hostility to Freemasonry since 1738, when Pope Clement XII issued the first of many bulls condemning it and excommunicating any Catholic who became a Mason, and opposition to Masonry has likewise been strong among conservative Protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The Nazi party in Germany and the Communist parties of Russia, China, and the pre-1989 Eastern Bloc all outlawed Masonry within their borders. Since the late eighteenth century, Freemasonry has also been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists in Europe and around the world. See Antimasonry.

Yet Masonry’s steep decline in numbers and influence in the twentieth century also had much to do with changes in the Craft itself. As the most prestigious secret society in the western world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it attracted countless members whose interest in Masonry was limited to its value as a source of social connections and, especially in America, as a means of access to members only clubs and facilities. As local and grand lodges alike grew used to large budgets, maintaining and expanding membership numbers gradually took precedence over the purposes of the Craft, and led to a watering down of standards. In some jurisdictions nowadays a candidate can be entered, passed and raised (the traditional phrasing for the process of receiving the three degrees) in a single day. While these changes were put in place in an attempt to bring more men into the Craft, their effect has been to cheapen the experience of the ritual and thus remove one of the reasons men once became Masons in large numbers. At the same time, many Masonic bodies have turned away from the core Masonic purpose of self-improvement and tried to reinvent the Craft as an amateur social service agency focused on charitable projects. This has done little to slow Freemasonry’s decline.

The result is a remarkable disconnection between Freemasonry’s image and its reality in the opening years of the twenty-first century. People outside the Craft often see it as a polished, powerful, and monolithic institution guarding valuable secrets behind walls of wealth and privilege, while many of its members see it as a dwindling, beleaguered voluntary organization facing challenges from all sides, and struggling to define itself and its purpose in a world that increasingly treats it as an anachronistic irrelevance. Even as antimasons insist that Masonry controls the mass media, Masons complain that the mass media never portray Masonry in a positive light. While Freemasonry will probably survive its current decline, as it has weathered difficult times in the past, the clash between Masonry as it is and as it exists in the imagination of popular culture and conspiracy theory adds to the pressures against it.

Further reading: Case 1985a, MacNulty 1991, MacNulty 2002, Pike 1871, Roberts 1974, Stevenson 1988.


As the most influential secret society in the modern Western world, Freemasonry has attracted a torrent of speculation from Masons and non-Masons alike, and inevitably much of that speculation has fastened on the question of Freemasonry’s origins. Emerging out of obscurity in Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century, with no documented origin or founder, Freemasonry has posed a puzzle to scholarly research and provided a happy hunting ground to crackpots of all descriptions. No other social institution in the western world has been credited with so many different origins. See Freemasonry.

The oldest surviving Masonic documents, the Old Charges, trace the Craft back to a biblical origin. According to their account, before the Flood the sons of the patriarch Lamech invented geometry and all the other sciences. Fearing that God would punish them for their sins, they inscribed their discoveries inside two hollow pillars, a marble pillar that could endure fire and a bronze pillar that could survive flood. One of the pillars survived the Flood and was eventually found by Hermes Trismegistus, the great-grandson of Noah, who deciphered it and taught its wisdom to the Egyptians. Several generations later, King Nimrod of Babylon first set out the rules of Masonry for the builders of the Tower of Babel, and the first use of signs and gestures came after the confusion of languages during the building of the Tower, when masons unable to speak to one another learned to communicate by gesture. The regulations established by Nimrod remained in force until the time of Solomon, who reformed the Craft during the building of his temple. When the 80,000 masons employed building the temple returned to their home countries, they took Freemasonry to the four corners of the world. See earth changes; Hermes Trismegistus; Temple of Solomon.

This legend corresponds closely to the origin legends of many other craft guilds of the Middle Ages. By 1700, when Freemasonry began its astonishing spread through Britain and continental Europe, such legends had little credibility. While some early opponents of Masonry claimed that the Craft had been invented by the English dictator Oliver Cromwell to further his political ambitions, the vast majority of early publications related to the Craft either cited the biblical origin myths of the Old Charges or simply traced them back to craft guilds of medieval stonemasons. See guilds, medieval.

The link between Masonry and the old stonemasons’ guilds made for good publicity in Britain, where the educated middle classes, who formed the backbone of Masonry, defined the Craft in their own image. Masonry spread to Europe, however, and became popular among French and central European aristocrats, to whom any association with manual labor seemed degrading. A new origin story was called for, and was in due time supplied by Andrew Ramsay (1686–1743), a Scottish Freemason and Jacobite in voluntary exile in France. In a famous oration written in 1736, Ramsay proposed that Masonry had actually originated with the knightly orders of the Crusades, which had somehow become mixed up with medieval stonemasons in Scotland. Ramsay specifically named the Knights Hospitaller as the order in question, but another order, far more romantic, inevitably replaced it: the Knights Templar. By the 1740s new “Scottish” degrees of Masonry explicitly named the Templars as the original source of Freemasonry. This provided Masonry with the aristocratic heritage it previously lacked, and helped the Craft expand explosively in Europe through the rest of the eighteenth century. See Knights Templar; Ramsay, Andrew Michael; Scottish degrees.

The prestige of the Templar story was so great that other Masonic and quasi-Masonic orders piggybacked their own origin stories onto it. This process even affected Rosicrucian orders, which had their own traditional origin story centering round the mythical fifteenth-century German sage Christian Rosenkreutz. Thus the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an eighteenth-century German Rosicrucian order, claimed an origin in Egypt in 96 CE, but dated its arrival in Europe to 1188, when Knights Templar who had been initiated into the order in Palestine brought it back with them. See Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross; Rosenkreutz, Christian; Rosicrucians.

The Templars never managed to have Freemasonry all to themselves, however. Another influential eighteenth-century theory traced the origins of the Craft back to the ancient Druids, the priests of the Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland, and France. That century was the seedtime of the Druid Revival – the reinvention of Druidry as a modern spiritual tradition – and it also saw Druids become a significant presence in British and French popular culture. Since scholars at the time believed the Druids built Stonehenge and other megalithic sites, their connection to a later guild of stonemasons seemed plausible, and the theory that ancient Druids had evolved into modern Masons had no shortage of enthusiastic defenders. English author John Cleland, better known as the author of Fanny Hill, argued for a Druid origin of Freemasonry in several books. He suggested, among other things, that the word “Mason” had originally been “May’s son,” referring to the Druid celebration of Beltane on May 1. American revolutionary Thomas Paine also contributed a work on the same theme. See Druid Revival; Druids.

The European rediscovery of ancient Egypt toward the end of the same century also provided Masonry with another popular source for origin stories. Alessandro Cagliostro, one of the great occult poseurs of the age, helped launch this trend in 1778 by inventing his own Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry, whose rituals he claimed he had found on a London bookstall. The Crata Repoa, a pseudo-Egyptian ritual of initiation published in Berlin in 1770, also added to the popularity of Egypt as a home of Masonry. The Rites of Memphis and Misraim, two Masonic systems of high degrees invented in the first decades of the nineteenth century, took up the banner of Egyptian Masonry and made the claim of an Egyptian origin commonplace in the occult wing of nineteenth-century Masonry. See Cagliostro, Alessandro; Crata Repoa; Egypt; Rite of Memphis; Rite of Misraim.

Nor were these the only theories of Masonic origins circulated and widely believed in the nineteenth century. The Dionysian artificers, a religious brotherhood of craftsmen known from a few inscriptions in the Greek city-states of Asia Minor, were given a wholly undocumented role in the building of King Solomon’s Temple and thus turned into the ancestors of Masonry. The ancient Greek mysteries, much better documented but less easily linked to late medieval stonemasons, and the Essenes also ended up redefined by enthusiastic Masonic historians as ancestors of the Craft. See Essenes; mysteries, ancient.

A somewhat more plausible theory emerged from studies of ancient Roman history. From the time of the earliest Roman legal codes there existed in the city collegia or guilds of certain trades, and the guild of architects and builders, or Collegium Artificum, was established well before the beginning of the Roman Empire. In Italy, and possibly also in France and a few other places, some of the Roman guilds seem to have been the ancestors of medieval trade guilds. A seventh-century legal code of the Lombards, a German tribe that settled in northern Italy after the fall of Rome, includes two references to a guild of builders called the Comacine Masters, who took their name from the province of Como where they lived. From there, leaping the thousand-year gap between seventh-century Italy and seventeenth-century Scotland, some Masonic historians derived Freemasonry.

All these theories remained in circulation well into the twentieth century, and when they were discarded by historians they fell into the hands of the alternative-history scene, with predictable results. All the more romantic Masonic origin theories of the nineteenth century were brought back out of storage in the second half of the twentieth, so that once again Masons found themselves identified as surviving Templars, Egyptians, Essenes, and so on. Some of these efforts, such as John Robinson’s restatement of the old Templar theory in his widely cited Born In Blood (1989), at least attempted to provide new historical evidence for the old claims. More often, though, these books argued that if a speculation couldn’t be totally disproved, it must be true, or simply presented a colorful narrative and insisted that the only reason historians didn’t accept it was that they were part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth. Such arguments sold books but did nothing to narrow the chasm between professional historians and authors of alternative history.

An important feature of twentieth-century conspiracy theory also had a powerful influence on theories of Masonic origins. Starting just after the First World War, when the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion were circulated throughout the world, many conspiracy theorists began to insist that all secret societies, whatever their apparent motives and intentions, took orders from a single ruling circle. By the second half of the century this odd belief had become standard in the conspiracy-theory underworld and remains rarely questioned to this day. One result of this consensus is that instead of arguing over which ancient group was the ancestor of Freemasonry, many late twentieth-century writers simply insisted that they all were. See New World Order; Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This process was catalyzed by popular works such as Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas’s highly influential The Hiram Key (1996), which argued that the rituals of Freemasonry started as commemorations of the murder of a minor Egyptian pharaoh, which were for some reason adopted by the Hebrew tribes and passed down through the Temple of Jerusalem to the Essenes, then transmitted to the Knights Templar via documents uncovered in the foundations of the Temple following clues left by the Celtic Church of Scotland and Ireland; Templars fleeing from the destruction of their order in 1307 then brought the rituals to Scotland, where they ended up as the guild initiations of the local stonemasons. This narrative weaves together most of the popular theories about the origins of Masonry into a single tapestry, though for some reason they left out the Druids. As history, it has massive problems; knowledgeable reviewers have pointed out that its sweeping claims rest almost entirely on unsupported assumptions, speculation, and outright misinformation, but as a romantic origin story that embraces nearly every imaginable theory about Masonry’s beginnings, it’s hard to beat.

From the middle of the twentieth century, while speculation piled on speculation and authors in the rejected-knowledge industry had a field day with the Craft, a countertrend of sober historical scholarship has returned to the theory that Freemasonry descends from late medieval stonemasons’ guilds in the British Isles. Knoop and Jones’s magisterial The Genesis of Freemasonry (1947) made a strong case for this claim, and David Stevenson’s The Origins of Freemasonry (1988) clinched the case by documenting many of the stages by which Scottish stonemasons’ lodges began admitting people from outside the building trades, launching the transition to modern Freemasonry. None of this has even slowed down the production of new theories and the constant recycling of old ones, tracing Freemasonry to some source more romantic or sinister than the traditional ceremonies of medieval stonemasons.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Knoop and Jones 1947, Stevenson 1988.


The revolution of 1789–93 that toppled the Bourbon monarchy of France and set up continental Europe’s first democratic government became the crucible of modern conspiracy theories and is still frequently cited by modern writers on the extreme right as the classic example of a national government subverted and destroyed by secret societies. These claims are all the more ironic in that nearly every other revolution in modern times offers more evidence of secret society activities. Where the American Revolution of 1776–83 can hardly be described without referring to the activities of the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty and the Russian revolution of October 1917 was stage-managed by the Bolshevik Party, the role of secret societies in the French Revolution is equivocal at best. See American Revolution; Committees of Correspondence; Russian revolution; Sons of Liberty.

The ultimate cause of the collapse of the French monarchy in 1789 was the collision between France’s ambitions as a world power and the corrupt, archaic, and inefficient system of taxation and finance that French kings relied on to fund their overseas ventures. The European wars of Louis XIV had placed the kingdom under a burden of debt that grew steadily through the reigns of his son and grandson. France’s part in the American Revolution, financed almost entirely by loans, pushed the Ancien Régime to the brink; in the national budget of 1788, expenses exceeded income by 20 percent, and more than half of expenses went to service the national debt. The royal government’s attempts to reorganize the tax system were systematically blocked by the aristocracy, which sought to preserve its own tax-exempt status and hoped to use the fiscal crisis to regain some of the political power it had lost during the sweeping reforms of Louis XIV.

With every other option closed to him by aristocratic intransigence, the king summoned the Estates-General, the rarely convened national parliament of France, which alone had the power to levy new taxes. Many aristocrats supported this move, as they hoped to force the king to accept a constitutional monarchy with a privileged place for the nobility. However, this plan backfired explosively on June 17, 1789 when the lowest of the three houses of the Estates-General, representing the commoners, declared itself the sole National Assembly and invited liberal members of the other two houses to join them in a new national government. While the king and conservative aristocrats bickered and temporized, the National Assembly created its own army, the National Guard. In July the Bastille in Paris, the symbol of the king’s absolute rule, was seized and sacked by the Paris mob, and in October the king and his family were forced to leave Versailles for Paris as virtual prisoners of the new government.

From 1789 to 1792 the National Assembly governed France in the king’s name, abolished the privileges of the aristocracy and nationalized the property of the Catholic Church in France. An attempt by the king to flee to the German border, take command of the border garrisons, and retake power was thwarted when a mob stopped him and forced him back to Paris. More serious was the outbreak of war with the Austrian Empire, which sought to return France to royal control. After the poorly equipped French army suffered a series of defeats, a group of Paris radicals seized control of the government, dissolved the National Assembly and abolished the monarchy. A new governing body, the National Convention, called up a massive new army that soon turned the tide against the invaders, driving them back beyond France’s borders and launching a successful invasion of Italy.

The Convention soon broke apart in bitter internal struggles, though, and in April of 1793 Maximilien Robespierre – the head of the extremist Jacobin party – seized power and established a revolutionary dictatorship. In September of the same year the Terror began as the Jacobins started rounding up and executing their real or imagined opponents. By the time Robespierre alienated his own supporters and went to the guillotine himself, on 28 July 1794, some 40,000 people had been executed, including the king and queen. A more moderate government, the Directory, took power in 1795 and held it until 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican in French service who had risen through the ranks to command the army, seized power in a coup. In 1804 he renamed himself Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Defeated and exiled in 1814, he staged a dramatic return to power the next year, but was defeated again at the battle of Waterloo and spent the rest of his life in exile on the bleak island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.

The role of secret societies in these convulsions is complex. Freemasonry had reached France in the 1720s with Jacobite exiles; purely an aristocratic pursuit in its early years, it soon made its way down the social ladder and became popular among the educated middle classes. Many of the moderates in the revolutionary government (though relatively few of the radicals) were Freemasons. Further to the left was the Social Club, a political society headed by Louis d’Orleans, and its offspring, the Social Circle, took a position on the extreme left after its founding in 1790. Nicholas de Bonneville, the founder of the Social Circle, had connections with the Bavarian Illuminati, a liberal secret society active in Germany between 1776 and 1786. All these secret societies helped spread liberal and egalitarian social ideas before and during the Revolution. Still, evidence that any of these groups took any more active role in the Revolution is effectively absent. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry; Social Circle.

Ironically, the best-documented secret societies in France during the revolutionary era all opposed the governments that succeeded Louis XVI in power. The Conspiracy of Equals, a secret society headed by François “Gracchus” Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, attempted in 1796 to overthrow the Directorate. Later, during Napoleon’s reign, the Chevaliers of Faith and the Philadelphes worked to overthrow him within France, while a dizzying array of Italian secret societies – the Raggi, the Carbonari, and others – formed to oppose French imperial pretensions in Italy. See Carbonari; Chevaliers of Faith; Conspiracy of Equals; Philadelphes; Raggi.

The claim that secret societies stage-managed the French Revolution – a claim that has featured in scores of conspiracy theories since that time – was a product of two conservative authors of the 1790s, the French Jesuit Augustin de Barruel and the Scottish Freemason John Robison. In sensationalistic books published within a year of one another, de Barruel and Robison both argued that the Bavarian Illuminati, acting through Freemasonry, had pursued a centuries-old vendetta, originally launched by the Knights Templar, against the French monarchy – a campaign that ultimately aimed at the violent overthrow of Christianity and all the monarchies of Europe. Both these books were wartime propaganda meant to turn public opinion against the French revolutionary government at a time when many on the left saw the spread of revolution outward from France as their own best hope of liberty. The viewpoint they presented assumed that nothing except the unseen hand of the Illuminati could explain the collapse of a corrupt, incompetent, and mismanaged French monarchy that had long since lost its legitimacy in the eyes of most of its own subjects. Despite the noticeable weaknesses in this claim, it has remained popular among reactionaries ever since. See Knights Templar.

Further reading: Billington 1980, Lefebvre 1947.


A common term in Great Britain for fraternal benefit societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. See fraternal benefit societies.


The word “fundamentalism” has been applied in recent years to religious extremists around the world. Properly speaking, though, it refers to an offshoot of Christianity invented in Britain in the 1820s by John Nelson Darby, the founder of a small evangelical sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Darby argued that certain Bible verses, when properly rearranged and reinterpreted, revealed a system of seven ages or “dispensations,” and a detailed set of predictions about the end of the world. His influence in Britain was modest, but Darby’s theories quickly gained a large following in the United States. In 1912, a 12-volume series of books titled The Fundamentals went into circulation in America, winning Darby’s theology a sizeable audience and giving the movement its lasting name. Fundamentalist churches soon became the core of a reactionary political movement that spread through most of the English-speaking world.

Fundamentalism is not a secret society, but it has had a massive role in shaping ideas about secret societies in the western world through relentless campaigns of anti-secret society propaganda. Many fundamentalists remain convinced believers in claims of Masonic devil worship dating from the “Palladian Order” hoax of the 1880s. The New World Order mythology launched by the John Birch Society in the 1960s and claims that Freemasonry is involved in Satanic ritual abuse are also grist for fundamentalist mills. While some criticisms of Masonry and other secret societies are based on honestly held differences of opinion, others can only be described as deliberate disinformation, and seem to be motivated by the political agenda of the movement. See disinformation; John Birch Society; New World Order; Palladian Order; Satanism.

Ironically, the fundamentalist movement has a long history of connections with secret societies that support its agenda. In 1920s America, for example, the Ku Klux Klan and fundamentalist churches were close allies. As many as 40,000 fundamentalist ministers enrolled as Klansmen during this period. One popular Kansas City minister, Rev. E.F. Stanton, published a sermon, Christ and Other Klansmen, extolling the Klan as a way back to “old-fashioned” (i.e., fundamentalist) Christianity. In the early 1920s the Grand Dragons of four states and 26 of the 39 Klokards, or national lecturers, employed by the Klan were fundamentalist ministers. Other secret societies that have benefited from fundamentalist connections include the Loyal Orange Order, the Knights of Luther, and the American Protective Association. More recently, fundamentalist groups have established close ties with Dominionist organizations such as the Coalition on Revival. See American Protective Association (APA); Dominionism; Ku Klux Klan; Loyal Orange Order.

Fundamentalism has had at least one more major impact on a secret society, this time in an unexpected direction. English magician and would-be Antichrist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) was raised in the Plymouth Brethren, the original fundamentalist sect. His rejection of the religion of his childhood failed to erase all traces of Darby’s theology from his mind, and the theology he created for his new religion of Thelema (“will”) echoes Darby’s ideas in many particulars, defining history as a series of dispensations ruled by different spiritual powers. This theology continues to guide the Ordo Templi Orientis, one of the largest occult secret societies in the world today. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

Further reading: Boyer 1992, Marsden 1980, Stanton 1924, Wade 1987.

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