Partisans of the House of Stuart, opposed to the Hanoverian rule in Britain from 1714, the Jacobites took their title from the Latin version (“Jacobus”) of the names of the exiled James II and his son, the “Old Pretender.” On James’s daughter Queen Anne’s death in 1714, Parliament gave the throne to the minor German prince George of Hanover, a descendant of one of James I’s daughters. In response, the Old Pretender landed in Scotland in 1715 and attempted to start a rebellion against the new king. The rebellion fizzled out, though, and most of James’s supporters had to flee to France.

The collapse of the 1715 rising may have played a central role in one of the crucial events in Masonic history, the organization of the first Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Many of the first accepted Masons to be initiated into what were then still stonemasons’ guilds, men such as Elias Ashmole and Sir Robert Moray, had been staunch supporters of the Stuarts, and a sizeable number of Jacobite exiles after the 1715 rebellion were Freemasons. The Grand Lodge, however, was firmly in the Hanoverian camp from the first, and the lodges affiliated with it followed its lead. Many Masonic historians have suggested that the Grand Lodge was at least encouraged, and may have been covertly sponsored, by supporters of the House of Hanover to deny the Jacobites a potential network for espionage and subversion. See accepted Mason; Ashmole, Elias; grand lodge; Moray, Robert.

If this was their intention, the challenge was taken up by the Jacobites. Between 1723 and 1730, Masonic lodges organized by Jacobite exiles sprang up in France. In 1732 the first French lodge chartered by the English Grand Lodge in London was founded, and from then until 1738 Jacobite and Hanoverian factions in French Masonry fought a bitter covert struggle in which the English ambassador in Paris, Lord Waldegrave, had a part. The Jacobites fared poorly in these struggles, not least because Hanoverian England had enormous prestige in eighteenth-century France.

The Jacobite loss of control over Masonry was a serious blow, but not fatal. The Jacobites responded with a double strategy that had immense consequences. First came a burst of official sanctions against French Masonic lodges. In Paris, Masonic meetings were broken up by police in 1737 and 1738, though the widespread popularity of Masonry and the high social standing of some of its members made it difficult for Cardinal Fleury, who headed the police, to go too far. More serious action came from Rome, where in 1738 Pope Clement XII issued the bull In Eminenti, the first Catholic condemnation of Freemasonry, which excommunicated all Masons and reserved the right to absolve them to the Pope alone. See Antimasonry; Roman Catholic Church.

The second phase of Jacobite strategy had equally sweeping results. Starting around 1740, a new form of the Craft, called “Scottish Masonry,” appeared in France. Until late in the decade its presence was little more than rumor: “I am not unaware,” wrote Gabriel Calabre Perau in a 1744 antimasonic book, Les secrets de l’Ordre des Franc-Maçons dévoilés (The Secrets of the Order of Freemasons Unveiled), “that a vague rumor circulates among Freemasons concerning a certain order they call Scottish, superior to ordinary Freemasonry, with its own special ceremonies and secrets” (quoted in Roberts 1972, p. 95). See Scottish degrees.

This “Scottish” Masonry was not Scottish at all. Scots Masonic records yield no trace of the Scottish degrees until they were imported from America in 1833. Where eighteenth-century sources talk about its origins at all, they trace it directly to the Jacobites. Providing justification for the new degrees was the famous 1737 oration of Andrew Michael Ramsay on the origins of Masonry, which for the first time traced the Craft back to the knightly orders of the Crusades; Ramsay had connections on both sides of the Stuart–Hanoverian split, but as a devout Catholic and a former tutor to the Old Pretender’s two sons, his loyalties lay with the Jacobite cause. See Ramsay, Andrew Michael.

The Scottish degrees probably formed part of the Stuart grand strategy that led up to the 1745 rising, a strategy focused on spreading disaffection and undermining the legitimacy of the Hanoverian regime in advance of the planned revolt. Networks of Jacobite Masons in Britain and Europe played a role in these preparations. The strategy seemed to work at first; when Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender (James II’s grandson), arrived in Scotland many of the Highland clans rallied to him, and his forces seized Edinburgh with little difficulty and marched south as far as Derby. But the general uprising never happened; the Jacobites never grasped the depth of popular resentment and Protestant distrust toward the Stuart line. As the British army closed in, Charles Stuart’s forces retreated into Scotland and were crushed in 1746 at the battle of Culloden.

The disaster at Culloden put an end to the dream of a Stuart restoration, though it did not bring an immediate end to Jacobite activities. Masonic networks in France and Sweden that had been organized to support the rising found a new purpose helping Jacobite refugees who had fled Scotland with nothing but their lives. Yet the failure of the ’45 condemned the Jacobite element in continental Masonry to death by irrelevance. In 1754 the once-secret Templar grades became public knowledge; in that year the Rite of Perfection was founded in Paris while the Rite of Strict Observance appeared in Germany. See Rite of Perfection; Rite of Strict Observance.

There the Jacobite cause rested until the Victorian period, when the Stuarts became the focus of romantic nostalgia and eccentrics could embrace the Jacobite cause with the same enthusiasm that went into schemes for universal languages and clothing reform. They had the advantage of two living claimants to the Stuart title – John Sobieski-Stuart, Count d’Albanie, and his brother Charles – who claimed to be Charles Stuart’s grandsons; their actual names were John and Charles Allan and their claim has been dismissed even by modern Jacobites, but at the time they attracted much attention. A secret society titled the Order of the White Rose existed to promote the Stuart cause, and Samuel Liddell Mathers, one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, added this to his other interests. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Order of the White Rose.

While the claims of the House of Stuart may seem to belong on the far end of irrelevance nowadays, yet another claimant has surfaced in the rejected knowledge scene in recent years. Belgian author Michel Lafosse (1958–), who writes under the name of HRH Prince Michael of Albany, claims to be a legitimate descendant of the Young Pretender and the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. His claims, backed by the usual lack of evidence and blatant errors of fact, have found him an enthusiastic audience in today’s rejected knowledge scene. His major supporter, author Laurence Gardner, has also claimed that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a work of history, which may suggest something of the factual basis of “Prince Michael’s” claim. See rejected knowledge.

Further reading: McLynn 1985, Roberts 1972.


Jewish religious reformer, c.4 BCE–c.33 CE. The life of Yeshua ben Miriam, to give him his proper Hebrew name, is very poorly documented despite his role as the central figure and probable founder of Christianity, the world’s largest religious movement. Little is actually known for sure about his life and teachings. The four biographies of Jesus included in the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were probably written between 50 and 150 years after his death, and selected out of a much larger number of gospels by church councils centuries later to form a canonical account; their value as historical sources has been hotly debated in the last two centuries. See Christian origins.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the child of Mary, a young Jewish woman of the town of Nazareth in the rural northern province of Galilee, part of the Roman Empire. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth, but the Gospels insist that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. They state instead that Mary was made pregnant miraculously by the Holy Spirit; oddly, though, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both trace Jesus’ descent from King David through Joseph. Roman census law required Joseph and his wife to travel to the small town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, and Jesus was born there in a stable, the only lodging the couple could find.

The young Jesus grew up in Nazareth, working in Joseph’s carpentry shop, and around the age of 30 went to the Jordan River to meet his older cousin, John the Baptist, an ascetic religious reformer. After being baptized by John, Jesus began preaching his own message of repentance and the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, and soon gathered a following. The Gospel accounts credit him with a variety of miracles, including turning water into wine, feeding a large crowd of people with five loaves and two fishes, walking on water, and raising his follower Lazarus from the dead.

After some three years as an itinerant preacher, the Gospels agree, Jesus went to Jerusalem just before Passover and drew large crowds with his preaching. The Jewish religious authorities feared that he would proclaim himself the Messiah (mashiach, “anointed one,” in Hebrew), the heir of King David, whom many Jews hoped would appear soon to restore their national independence. With the aid of Judas, a member of Jesus’ inner circle who turned informer, they had Jesus seized by the temple guard. He was interrogated at a closed meeting of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish religious council at the time, and then handed over to the Roman provincial government.

After a trial in the presence of Pontius Pilate, the Procurator of Judea, Jesus was executed by crucifixion, the standard Roman punishment for political crimes. He was buried in a stone tomb donated by a wealthy sympathizer. Three days later, several of his followers went to the tomb and found the entrance open and the tomb empty. Later still, according to the Gospels, members of his inner circle met the resurrected Jesus before he ascended bodily into the heavens.

In the major traditions of the Christian faith, this version of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection became the basis for a theology claiming that Jesus was the Christ (from christos, “anointed one,” the Greek translation of mashiach), one of three aspects or persons of God, who incarnated as a human being and was born of the Virgin Mary in order to free those who believed in him from the original sin inherited from Adam and Eve. His crucifixion came to be seen by later Christians as a redemptive sacrifice whereby, as the Lamb of God, Jesus took on himself all the sins of the world, so that anyone who believes in his divine identity, participates in the ceremonies he instituted, and obeys the teachings of those who claim to be his successors is saved from the eternal damnation suffered by everyone else. This theology first surfaced in the writings of Saul of Tarsus (died c.65 CE), known to Christians as the apostle Paul, who never met Jesus in person but whose letters are the oldest documents included in the New Testament.

While this remains the most popular account of Jesus’ life and death, it is far from the only one. It became standard only after centuries of dispute, and many minority views survive today. The four gospels included in today’s New Testament were once part of a much larger and more varied literature of the life of Jesus, and many of the alternative gospels – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and more – presented radically different views of Jesus’ nature, mission, and destiny. Nearly all of these were suppressed and destroyed after the Christian church seized power in the Roman world during the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE, and only the discovery of a lost Gnostic library in the twentieth century restored a handful of these alternative gospels to the light of day.

Most of the alternative gospels we know about today were the product of the orthodox church’s main rival in the political struggles within the early Christian community, a diverse movement known as Gnosticism. Many of the Gnostics – the name comes from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge” – taught that the material world was the creation of an ignorant and evil godling and his demonic servants, the archons, and that human souls were sparks from the true world of light who had been ensnared in the false world of matter. Jesus, according to these teachings, was one of the ruling powers of the world of light, who descended into the material world to show entrapped humanity the way to escape to their true home. See Gnosticism.

Another very early set of claims about Jesus came from Jewish and classical Pagan sources, and present a radically different picture. According to these sources, Jesus was a folk healer and itinerant wizard, the illegitimate son of a Jewish woman and a Roman soldier, who learned magic in Egypt after looking for work there as a young man. As historian Morton Smith showed in his groundbreaking book Jesus the Magician (1978), the career and recorded sayings of Jesus has many close parallels to those of other wonder-working figures of the ancient Mediterranean world, such as Apollonius of Tyana and Pythagoras, and certain elements of the Gospel accounts of Jesus find their closest parallels in Greek magical texts from Egypt dating from around the time of his life. While the idea of Jesus as a Jewish wizard makes better sense of the few solid facts about his career than most alternatives, it has understandably been ignored or denounced by nearly all sides in the debates about Christian origins. See Egypt; Magic.

The ancient Greek mysteries offer another set of intriguing parallels to early accounts of Jesus’ life and death. The mysteries were pagan religious cults that focused on the life, death, and resurrection of a god or goddess. Initiates of the mysteries believed that they shared in the deity’s rebirth and could count on salvation in the afterlife, in exactly the same way that Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus saves them from damnation. Scholars for more than 300 years have pointed out these parallels and argued that Christianity started as nothing more than one more eastern Mediterranean mystery cult. Some of these scholars have claimed that Jesus was as mythical as Persephone or Adonis, while others have suggested that Saul of Tarsus and others overlaid the life and teachings of the real Jesus, an obscure Jewish religious reformer, with myths drawn from pagan mystery cults, in exactly the same way that an obscure Romano-British military leader in the sixth century CE was overlaid by Celtic legend to become the magnificent King Arthur of medieval romance. See Adonis, mysteries of; Arthurian legends; Eleusinian mysteries; mysteries, ancient.

Between the late fourth century CE, when the Christian church seized power and began to persecute those who disagreed with its doctrines, and the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the church’s hold on society finally began to break down, very few alternative claims about Jesus appeared in the western world. The few groups rash enough to propose them, such as the medieval Gnostic movement of Catharism, faced extermination at the hands of a church far too ready to use violence against dissidents. Not until a few countries in western Europe granted religious liberty in the late seventeenth century did new interpretations begin to surface. One of the first was the work of a secret society, the Chevaliers of Jubilation, founded by the notorious freethinker and seminal Druid Revivalist John Toland sometime before 1710. Several members of the Chevaliers were responsible for the most scandalous book of the eighteenth century, the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (Treatise on the Three Impostors), which argued that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were fakers who invented bogus religions in order to prey on the gullible and ignorant. See Cathars; Chevaliers of Jubilation; Toland, John.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century these claims had been joined by a more intellectual challenge. The theory of astronomical religion, which argued that gods and goddesses were simply names for the sun, moon, planets, and other celestial bodies, included Christianity in its analysis from the beginning. Skeptical mythographers such as Charles Dupuis and William Drummond argued that Jesus was simply the sun, his twelve apostles the signs of the Zodiac, and the events of the Gospel accounts of his life mythological rewritings of the cycle of the seasons. This theory was widely accepted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still has its adherents today. See astronomical religion.

The chief nineteenth-century rival of astronomical religion, the theory of fertility religion, took longer to be applied to Christianity. The first writer to do so was apparently the Welsh Druid Owen Morgan, who fused the fertility and astronomical theories in his 1888 book The Light of Britannia to argue that Jesus was a symbol of the penis as well as the sun. Morgan’s theories found few takers, though less blatantly sexual versions of fertility religion were applied to Christianity frequently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with Jesus redefined as a vegetation god whose birth, death, burial, and resurrection symbolized the cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, and replanting grain. See fertility religion.

Astronomical and fertility theories of Jesus both gained a following in alternative circles, but the rise of Theosophy in the late nineteenth century introduced a much more influential theme. The Theosophical Society, the dominant force in the spiritual counterculture during those years, claimed that its teachings came from the Masters, enlightened beings who had transcended the human stage of evolution and formed the secret government of the world. Most members of the first generation of Theosophists, including the Society’s founder Helena Blavatsky, rejected Christianity and everything connected with it, but by the early twentieth century the Society’s new leaders, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, had reinterpreted Christianity in Theosophical terms and turned Jesus into one of the Masters. This interpretation became standard through most of the occult community of the early 1900s, and spread from there into the Ascended Masters teachings and the New Age movement, two popular alternative scenes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. By way of trance mediums who claimed to be in contact with visitors from other planets, it also found its way into the UFO contactee scene, where the claim that Jesus is actually the commander of an extraterrestrial space armada is still encountered now and then. See Ascended Masters teachings; Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Masters; New Age movement; Theosophical Society; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The most popular alternative interpretation of Jesus in the late twentieth century, though, evolved by stages out of the fertility theory of religion in its latest and most scholarly form, the sacrificial king theory of Sir James Frazer. Frazer’s epochal The Golden Bough (1917) argued that most of the world’s mythology and magic related to an ancient system of fertility religion in which a sacred king, representing vegetation and the life force, was put to death to ensure the fertility of the soil and the safety of his people. Frazer said little publicly about the relevance of his theories to Christianity, but later writers such as the poet and novelist Robert Graves were less reticent. In his novel King Jesus (1946), Graves presented Jesus as the heir of the Jewish kingship, who married the priestess Mary Magdalene, attempted to take his ancestral throne, and was finally killed in a pagan ritual of human sacrifice. See Mary Magdalene.

Graves’ ideas were eagerly taken up in the second half of the twentieth century and expanded in various directions by alternative thinkers. Books such as Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot (1965), which argued that Jesus and his followers staged his crucifixion and resurrection in a deliberate attempt to fulfill biblical prophecies, built a lively and lucrative market for new accounts of Christian origins, and laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable media phenomena of modern times.

In 1969, English actor Henry Soskind (who writes under the pen name Henry Lincoln) encountered a book by Gérard de Sède, a popular French writer in the rejected-knowledge field, describing strange events that allegedly took place in the village of Rennes-le-Château around the turn of the previous century, in which a priest named Bérenger Saunière gained vast wealth after discovering a set of ancient documents hidden in the parish church. As described by de Sède, the mysterious documents had to do with the Cathars, the Knights Templar, the Merovingian kings of early medieval France, and a vast, powerful secret society called the Priory of Sion. Soskind, intrigued, began investigations of his own in the company of two other English writers, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Before long they convinced themselves they had stumbled across one of the great secrets of history. See Knights Templar; Merovingians; Priory of Sion; Rennes-le-Château.

What they had actually stumbled across, however, was a trail of disinformation that had been manufactured a few years previously by Pierre Plantard, the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. The Priory was a small and not very successful Catholic secret society created by Plantard himself in 1956. Like many secret society founders, Plantard set out to make his creation look much older and larger than it was by inventing a glamorous origin story and history for the Priory of Sion, and his methods included planting forged documents in archives and contracting with none other than Gérard de Sède to produce a book supporting the Priory’s claims. See Disinformation; origin stories; retrospective recruitment.

Soskind and his co-authors followed the trail Plantard laid down, but then veered off in a direction of their own. Fascinated by alternative theories about Jesus, they leapt to the conclusion that the Merovingian kings were descended from a child fathered by Jesus on Mary Magdalene, that Jesus had been a claimant to the Jewish kingship, that the Knights Templar, the Cathars, and the Priory of Sion were the secret guardians of this bloodline, and that Plantard himself was the heir of King David and a lineal descendant of Jesus. These claims, which had essentially no evidence backing them and which Plantard himself rejected heatedly, became the basis for a series of wildly successful television documentaries and books, including the bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), and provided much of the plot and background for novelist Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003). See Da Vinci Code, the.

Since the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, alternative theories about Jesus have become a major growth industry. Dozens of theories now crowd the market, connecting Jesus to nearly every other popular theme in the rejected-knowledge field. One series of popular books claims that Jesus taught and practiced ancient Egyptian Freemasonry, while another argues that the Priory of Sion’s role as secret guardians of the alleged Jesus bloodline actually belonged to a group of Jewish priestly families calling itself Rex Deus, which somehow became major aristocratic families in Christian medieval Europe. These and their many competitors borrow constantly from one another, treat a claim that something might possibly have happened as proof that it did, and suffer from spectacular problems of logic and evidence. None of this has prevented these books from having a remarkable influence on contemporary popular culture. See Freemasonry; Rex Deus.

The long history of arguments over who Jesus was and what he did will doubtless continue for centuries to come. The crux of the problem is that Jesus himself was a very minor figure in the context of his own time – one more local religious leader in a backwater province of the Roman Empire that was thronged with visionaries, prophets, and self-proclaimed messiahs. Nobody except for his followers apparently noticed anything special about him at the time, or for more than a century after his death, and contemporary historians outside the fledgling Christian movement saw no reason to mention him at all. Thus the facts about his life, teachings, and death may never be known for certain. This, however, has not prevented countless writers from putting forth claims about him in tones of absolute certainty.

Further reading: Baigent et al. 1983, Crossan 1991, Schonfield 2005, Smith 1978.


The seedbed of late twentieth-century conspiracy theory in America, the John Birch Society was founded in late 1959 by Robert Welch, a successful businessman involved in right-wing politics. Like many Americans, Welch was concerned about the threat posed by communism, but he suspected that Republican as well as Democrat politicians were dupes of Moscow, and became convinced that no one in American politics was willing to do what was necessary to fight the communist threat. In 1959, he invited a group of influential conservatives to a weekend seminar in Indiana, presented his views to them, and urged the formation of a new, tightly disciplined organization to educate Americans about communism and lobby for stronger measures against it. A name for the organization came from John Birch, a Baptist missionary killed by Chinese Communists 10 days after the end of the Second World War, whom Welch considered the first casualty of the Cold War. See Communism.

By the end of the weekend the John Birch Society had come into being. Over the next year Welch gave 28 similar seminars in cities across the US, and the Society finished 1960 with 18,000 members. This explosive growth did not pass unnoticed, and media from the liberal and moderate sides of the political spectrum began sniping at the Society. Hostile publicity extended from the pages of Time and Newsweek to Walt Kelly’s newspaper comic strip Pogo, which saw two of the animal residents of Okeefenokee Swamp form the Jack Acid Society and blacklist the others. Far more troubling was criticism from the right. Senator Barry Goldwater called Welch “far removed from reality and common sense,” while the conservative magazine National Review accused Welch of “damaging the cause of anti-Communism” (cited in Goldberg 2001, p. 44).

In response to the assault, Welch and the Society moved even further to the right. The unwillingness of American conservatives to embrace the Society’s viewpoint proved, at least to Welch, that the conspiracy went far beyond communism and other left-wing movements. In the early 1960s Welch encountered the writings of Augustin de Barruel and John Robison, the fathers of modern conspiracy theory, and became convinced that capitalist and communist systems alike were puppets in the hands of a sinister conspiracy of “Insiders” pursuing an agenda of world domination. These writers led him to Nesta Webster, the doyenne of early twentieth-century conspiracy theorists, who argued that a single Communist–Satanist–Jewish conspiracy headed by the Bavarian Illuminati was responsible for all the world’s ills. See Bavarian Illuminati.

In 1964 Welch began reorienting the John Birch Society to face this larger threat. Close to a third of the membership left, but Welch was simply ahead of his time. He had embraced the distinctive theme of late twentieth-century conspiracy theory, the belief in a single global conspiracy that controls the world in secret. In 1972 he gave this theme its classic name by labeling the conspiracy’s goal a “New World Order.” See New World Order.

The 1970s saw the Society’s analysis gain focus, as the Insiders were revealed as the members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a New York think-tank founded in the 1920s and supported by Rockefeller money. The CFR’s international offshoot, the Trilateral Commission, soon joined it on the list of Insiders, and over the next two decades the cast expanded to include the Bilderberg Group, an annual meeting of influential politicians and businessmen in Holland; the New Age movement; and the Rockefeller, Rothschild, Baruch, Morgan, Schiff, and Warburg banking families. See Bilderberg Group; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); New Age movement; Trilateral Commission.

During the 1980s this vision of universal conspiracy found supporters at both ends of the political spectrum and became the most common form of conspiracy theory in America. These same years posed a serious challenge to the Society, however. Its founder suffered a crippling stroke in 1984 and died a year later, and his heir apparent, Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, was among those killed when Soviet fighters shot down a Korean airliner in October 1984. A financial crisis in 1986 nearly shut down the Society. The Reagan administration proved adept at co-opting criticism from the right, using the language of extremists while pursuing a middle-of-the-road course. The Society also came under attack from the extreme end of the Christian right because several important Society figures were Freemasons, and the Society refused to add Masonry to its enemies’ list. Some modern conspiracy literature refers to the alleged inner core of Freemasons in the John Birch Society as the “Belmont Brotherhood,” after the Society’s headquarters in Belmont, Massachusetts. See Antimasonry.

The Society survived these difficulties, but has never regained its mid-1960s size and influence. It remains a small but vocal presence on the extreme right, while the ideas it launched into popular culture have become central elements of the worldviews of tens of millions of Americans.

Further reading: Goldberg 2001, Kelly 1962.

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