Rev. Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826) was one of the early American Republic’s best-known authors and clergymen, serving as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts (now part of Boston) for thirty years. Perhaps counterbalancing his other accomplishments, Morse was also one of the forerunners in the field of U.S. conspiracy theory.
Besides his pastoral duties and frequent service as an orator on civic and political occasions, Morse was a pioneer in American geography, producing one of the first popular books on the subject, Geography Made Easy (1784), just a year after his graduation from Yale College.
This was followed by a series of other works, most notably the two-volume American Universal Geography (1793), which altogether went through hundreds of editions. In an age when travel was still difficult, expensive, and infrequent, it is not too much to say that Jedidiah Morse taught most Americans of his day most of what they knew of the country beyond their own immediate horizons.
Morse also made a name for himself as a prominent purveyor of anti-Illuminati conspiracy theories. In the hysterical kala of the XYZ Affair and the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s, Morse lent his considerable energy and prestige to the project of turning the Bavarian Illuminati into a mainstream political issue. Joined by many other prominent New England divines, including Yale College president Timothy Dwight, Morse almost succeeded.
Like many other old-fashioned New England Calvinists, Morse was deeply alarmed at the seeming rise of “infidelity” in the 1790s, a category into which he put not just the outright rejection of Christian belief, but also its liberalization into less supernatural, more rational forms such as Unitarianism and deism. Besides mankind’s innate wickedness, Morse and his colleagues blamed radical politics, especially the French Revolution and its American sympathizers, for the decline of faith, and vice versa.
The year 1794 was a turning point. Robespierre’s reign of terror raged in France, while the Democratic Republican Societies and the Whiskey Rebellion disturbed the political peace at home. That same year, deist speaker and organizer Elihu Palmer toured the United States, and Thomas Paine’s attack on revealed religion, The Age of Reason, first arrived on U.S. shores.
Under the infidels’ influence, Morse believed, “uncleanness, Sabbath breaking & all the flood of iniquity which springs from these” ran riot among the people. To pillars of New England’s Federalist/Congregationalist “Standing Order,” under which the churches were supported by taxes and ministers used their pulpits to support the ruling political elite, it seemed that a “mental epidemic” was sweeping the country.
It only got worse as the 1790s wore on. Criticism of the government, and political activism against it, grew more intense during the battles over the Jay Treaty with England in 1796 and the presidency in the 1796 election. The pious Federalist John Adams beat the free-thinking Jefferson in that election, but with war against the French looming, Federalist hysteria came to a fever pitch.
It was in this atmosphere, in 1797, that Jedidiah Morse, Timothy Dwight, and their colleagues discovered John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy, finding in its account of the Illuminati campaign to destroy all religions and governments a ready explanation for many political and cultural trends that disturbed them.
Morse launched his personal campaign against the Illuminati by giving two sermons on the national fast day proclaimed by President Adams for 9 May 1798, one at his own church and one at North Church, Boston. Following New England tradition, where sermons were popular reading matter and often served as political tracts, Morse’s effort was published soon afterwards.
In his Sermon on the National Fast Day, Morse attacked the “deep-laid plan” of the French Republic “to destroy the confidence of the [American] people” in the men and institutions that governed them, a plan being implemented not just by the French themselves, but also by their local minions, the Democratic Republicans.
What was worse, they had criticized the clergy, too, suggesting that some secret, even deeper design was “in operation, hostile to true liberty and religion,” preparing the way “for the spread” here of “that atheistical philosophy” that was “deluging the Old World in misery and blood.” Morse recommended Robison’s book as a judicious explanation of everything that was happening, attributing it all to “the dark conspiracies of the Illuminati”.
Initially the response was less sensational than Morse must have hoped, but the controversy kept him and the Illuminati in the public eye for most of the next two years. Democratic Republican newspapers questioned Robison’s veracity, printing negative reviews of the book from the British press, and demanded proof of the charges.
Not much proof was to be had, but Morse gamely struck back with newspaper articles and clippings defending Robison and attacking their critics. At the same, Salem minister William Bentley, a rare Jeffersonian among the Massachusetts clergy, supplied equal amounts of material damning Morse’s position and his sources.
The controversy was renewed and expanded with a round of published Thanksgiving sermons from Morse and many other New England ministers over the winter of 1798–1799. Morse’s included an appendix that tried to document a view of American events closely following the pattern of Robison’s and the Abbé Barruel’s accounts of the French Revolution.
The Democratic Republican Societies of 1793–1794 were not mere debating clubs, he tried to show, but extensions of the Illuminati. They had been founded by a French agent, “Citizen” Edmond Genet, and merely went underground and reappeared under other names after President Washington had publicly blamed them for the Whiskey Rebellion.
Morse finally seemed to get his Illuminati witch-hunt on firm ground with a third published sermon, originally given on another national fast day, 25 April 1799. This time a triumphant Morse claimed finally to have “complete and indubitable proof that such societies do exist, and have for many years existed, in the United States”.
The smoking gun was a letter detailing the membership and organization (all the way back in 1786) of a somewhat irregular Masonic organization called Wisdom Lodge in Portsmouth, Virginia, made up chiefly of immigrants from St. Domingue and France.
There were suggestions of other U.S. lodges being in contact with Wisdom Lodge, and a mother club in France, but the connection to the Bavarian Illuminati was tenuous at best and the evidence of any real influence nonexistent.
Nevertheless, Morse felt the case was sealed, and the Illuminati theory gained some ground, until it was derailed by a new controversy over Morse’s own integrity. It happened that both Morse and his antagonist William Bentley were in correspondence with the German geographer Christoph Ebeling.
To both men, Ebeling had written letters castigating Robison’s book, contradicting many of the alleged facts it cited, and dismissing the idea that the Bavarian Illuminati still existed in any form. Rumors of the letters began to circulate in the summer of 1799.
The following autumn, Bentley saw to it that the text of his Ebeling letter appeared in several newspapers, anonymously but describing the writer and recipient in such a way that readers might assume the Massachusetts man who received the letter was Morse himself.
The Illuminati theory’s chief U.S. backer was forced on the defensive, unable to come clean without admitting that he had covered up incriminating information even though it was provided by a respected colleague.
By the end of 1799, Republican newspapers were openly ridiculing Morse and his ideas, and building a sort of satirical conspiracy theory about the “New England Illuminati,” an oligarchy of “political priests” of which Morse was said to be a ringleader.
Morse soon had to drop the Illuminati theory from his repertoire, although he continued to fight for the old-time Puritan religion in other ways over the rest of his life.
His skills as a controversialist and publishing entrepreneur were put to good use resisting the teaching of liberal theology at Harvard, promoting missions to the Indians and western migrants, and helping establish Andover Theological Seminary, the New England Tract Society, the American Bible Society, and the American Tract Society.
The family tradition of scientific and artistic achievement mixed with conspiracy was carried on by Jedidiah’s son, Samuel F. B. Morse.