Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

I have here somewhat anticipated (for I hope to point out the sources of this combination,) because it helps to explain or illustrate the progress of infidelity and irreligion that I was speaking of. It was much accelerated by another circumstance. One Basedow, a man of talents and learning, set up, in the Principality of Anhalt-Dessau, a PHILANTHROPINE, or academy of general education, on a plan extremely different from those of the Universities and Academies. By this appellation, the founder hoped to make parents expect that much attention would be paid to the morals of the pupils; and indeed the programs or advertisements by which Basedow announced his institution to the public, described it as the professed seminary of practical Ethics. Languages, sciences, and the ornamental exercises, were here considered as mere accessories, and the great aim was to form the young mind to the love of mankind and of virtue, by a plan of moral education which was very specious and unexceptionable. But there was a circumstance which greatly obstructed the wide prospects of the founder. How were the religious opinions of the youth to be cared for? Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, were almost equally numerous in the adjoining Principalities; and the exclusion of any two of these communions would prodigiously limit the proposed usefulness of the institution. Basedow was a man of talents, a good scholar, and a persuasive writer. He framed a set of rules, by which the education should be conducted, and which, he thought, should make every parent easy; and the plan is very judicious and manly. But none came but Lutherans. His zeal and interest in the thing made him endeavour to interest others; and he found this no hard matter. The people of condition, and all sensible men, saw that it would be a very great advantage to the place, could they induce men to send their children from all the neighbouring states. What we wish, we readily believe to be the truth; and Basedow’s plan and reasonings appeared complete, and had the support of all classes of men. The moderate Calvinists, after some time, were not averse from them, and the literary manufacture of Germany was soon very busy in making pamphlets, defending, improving, attacking and reprobating the plans. Innumerable were the projects for moderating the differences between the three Christian communions of Germany, and making it possible for the members of them all, not only to live amicably among each other, and to worship God in the same church, but even to communicate together. This attempt naturally gave rise to much speculation and refinement; and the proposals for amendment of the formulas and the instructions from the pulpit were prosecuted with so much keenness, that the ground-work, Christianity, was refined and refined, till it vanished altogether, leaving Deism, or Natural, or, as it was called, Philosophical Religion, in its place. I am not much mistaken as to historical fact, when I say, that the astonishing change in religious doctrine which has taken place in Protestant Germany within these last thirty years was chiefly occasioned by this scheme of Basedow’s. The pre-disposing causes existed, indeed, and were general and powerful, and the disorder had already broken out. But this specious and enticing object first gave a title to Protestant clergymen to put to their hand without risk of being censured.

Basedow corrected, and corrected again, but not one Catholic came to the Philanthropine. He seems to have thought that the best plan would be, to banish all positive religion whatever, and that he would then be sure of Catholic scholars. Cardinal Dubois was so far right with respect to the first Catholic pupil of the church. He had recommended a man of his own stamp to Louis XIV. to fill some important office. The monarch was astonished, and told the Cardinal, that “that would never do, for the man was a Jansenist; Eh! que non, Sire,” said the Cardinal, “il n’est qu’ Athee;” all was safe, and the man got the priory. But though all was in vain, Basedow’s Philanthropine at Dessau got a high character. He published many volumes on education that have much merit.

It were well had this been all. But most unfortunately, though most naturally, writers of loose moral principles and of wicked hearts were encouraged by the impunity which the sceptical writers experienced, and ventured to publish things of the vilest tendency, inflaming the passions and justifying licentious manners. These maxims are congenial with irreligion and Atheism, and the books found a quick market. It was chiefly in the Prussian States that this went on. The late King was, to say the best of him, a naturalist, and, holding this life for his all, gave full liberty to his subjects to write what they pleased, provided they did not touch on state matters. He declared, however, to a minister of his court, long before his death, that “he was extremely sorry that his indifference had produced such effects; that he was sensible it had greatly contributed to hurt the peace and mutual good treatment of his subjects;” and he said, “that he would willingly give up the glory of his best fought battle, to have the satisfaction of leaving his people in the same state of peace and satisfaction with their religious establishments, that he found them in at his accession to the throne.” His successor Frederick William found that things had gone much too far, and determined to support the church establishment in the most peremptory manner; but at the same time to allow perfect freedom of thinking and conversing to the professors of every christian faith, provided it was enjoyed without disturbing the general peace, or any encroachment on the rights of those already supported by law. He published an edict to this effect, which is really a model worthy of imitation in every country. This was the epoch of a strange revolution. It was attacked from all hands, and criticisms, satires, slanders, threatenings, poured in from every quarter. The independency of the neighbouring states, and the monarch’s not being a great favorite among several of his neighbours, permitted the publication of these pieces in the adjoining principalities, and it was impossible to prevent their circulation even in the Prussian States. His edict was called an unjustifiable tyranny over the consciences of men; the dogmas supported by it, were called absurd superstitions; the King’s private character, and his opinions in religious matters, were treated with little reverence, nay, were ridiculed and scandalously abused. This field of discussion being thus thrown open, the writers did not confine themselves to religious matters. After flatly denying that the prince of any country had the smallest right to prescribe, or even direct the faith of his subjects, they extended their discussions to the rights of princes in general; and now they fairly opened their trenches, and made an attack in form on the constitutions of the German confederacy, and after the usual approaches, they set up the standard of universal citizenship on the very ridge of the glacis, and summoned the fort to surrender. The most daring of these attacks was a collection of anonymous letters on the constitution of the Prussian States. It was printed (or said to be so) at Utrecht; but by comparing the faults of some types with some books printed in Berlin, it was supposed by all to be the production of one of Nicholai’s presses. It was thought to be the composition of Mirabeau. It is certain that he wrote a French translation, with a preface and notes, more impudent than the work itself. The monarch was declared to be a tyrant; the people are addressed as a parcel of tame wretches crouching under oppression. The people of Silesia are represented as still in a worse condition, and are repeatedly called to rouse themselves, and to rise up and assert their rights. The King is told, that there is a combination of philosophers (conjuration) who are leagued together in defence of truth and reason, and which no power can withstand; that they are to be found in every country, and are connected by mutual and solemn engagement, and will put in practice every mean of attack. Enlightening, instruction, was the general cry among the writers. The triumph of reason over error, the overthrow of superstition and slavish fear, freedom from religious and political prejudices, and the establishment of liberty and equality, the natural and unalienable rights of man, were the topics of general declamation; and it was openly maintained, that secret societies, where the communication of sentiment should be free from every restraint, was the most effectual mean for instructing and enlightening the world.

And thus it appears, that Germany has experienced the same gradual progress, from Religion to Atheism, from decency to dissoluteness, and from loyalty to rebellion, which has had its course in France. And I must now add, that this progress has been effected in the same manner, and by the same means; and that one of the chief means of seduction has been the Lodges of the Free Masons. The French, along with their numerous chevaleries, and stars, and ribbands, had brought in the custom of haranguing in the Lodges, and as human nature has a considerable uniformity every where, the same topics became favorite subjects of declamation that had tickled the ear in France; there were the same corruptions of sentiments and manners among the luxurious or profligate, and the same incitements to the utterance of these sentiments, wherever it could be done with safety; and I may say, that the zealots in all these tracts of free-thinking were more serious, more grave, and fanatical. These are not assertions apriori. I can produce proofs. There was a Baron Knigge residing at that time in the neighbourhood of Frankfort, of whom I shall afterwards have occasion frequently to speak. This man was an enthusiast in Masonry from his youth, and had run through every possible degree of it. He was dissatisfied with them all, and particularly with the frivolity of the French chivalry; but he still believed that Masonry contained invaluable secrets. He imagined that he saw a glimpse of them in the cosmo-political and sceptical discourses in their Lodges; he sat down to meditate on these, and soon collected his thoughts, and found that those French orators were right without knocking it; and that Masonry was pure natural religion and universal citizenship, and that this was also true Christianity. In this faith he immediately began his career of Brotherly love, and published three volumes of sermons; the first and third published at Frankfort, and the second at Heidelberg, but without his name. He published also a popular system of religion. In all these publications, of which there are extracts in the Religions Begebenheiten, Christianity is considered as a mere allegory, or a Masonic type of natural religion; the moral duties are spun into the common-place declamations of universal benevolence; and the attention is continually directed to the absurdities and horrors of superstition, the sufferings of the poor, the tyranny and oppression of the great, the tricks of the priests, and the indolent simplicity and patience of the laity and of the common people. The happiness of the patriarchal life, and sweets of universal equality and freedom, are the burden of every paragraph; and the general tenor of the whole is to make men discontented with their condition of civil subordination, and the restraints of revealed religion.

All the proceedings of Knigge in the Masonic schisms show that he was a zealous apostle of cosmo-politism, and that he was continually dealing with people in the Lodges who were associated with him in propagating these notions among the Brethren; so that we are certain that such conversations were common in the German Lodges.

When the reader considers all these circumstances, he will abate of that surprise which naturally affects a Briton, when he reads accounts of conventions for discussing and fixing the dogmatic tenets of Free Masonry. The perfect freedom, civil and religious, which we enjoy in this happy country, being familiar to every man, we indulge it with calmness and moderation, and secret assemblies hardly differ from the common meetings of friends and neighbours. We do not forget the expediency of civil subordination, and of those distinctions which arise from secure possession of our rights, and the gradual accumulation of the comforts of life in the families of the sober and industrious. These have, by prudence and a respectable oeconomy, preserved the acquisitions of their ancestors. Every man feels in his own breast the strong call of nature to procure for himself and his children, by every honest and commendable exertion, the means of public consideration and respect. No man is so totally without spirit, as not to think the better of his condition when he is come of creditable parents, and has creditable connections; and without thinking that he is in any respect generous, he presumes that others have the same sentiments, and therefore allows the moderate expression of them, without thinking it insolence or haughtiness. All these things are familiar, are not thought of, and we enjoy them as we enjoy ordinary health, without perceiving it. But in the same manner as a young man who has been long confined by sickness, exults in returning health, and is apt to riot in the enjoyment of what he so distinctly feels; so those who are under continual check in open society, feel this emancipation in these hidden assemblies, and indulge with eagerness in the expression of sentiments which in public they must smother within their own breast. Such meetings, therefore, have a zest that is very alluring, and they are frequented with avidity. There is no country in Europe where this kind of enjoyment is so poignant as in Germany. Very insignificant principalities have the same rank in the General Federation with very extensive dominions. The internal constitution of each petty state being modelled in nearly the same manner, the official honors of their little courts become ludicrous and even farcical. The Geheim Hofrath, the Hofmareschal, and all the Kammerhers of a Prince, whose dominions do not equal the estates of many English Squires, cause the whole to appear like the play of children, and must give frequent occasion for discontent and ridicule, Mason Lodges even keep this alive. The fraternal equality professed in them is very flattering to those who have not succeeded in the scramble for civil distinctions. Such persons become the most zealous Masons, and generally obtain the active offices in the Lodges, and have an opportunity of treating with authority persons whom in public society they must look up to with some respect.

These considerations account, in some measure, for the importance which Free Masonry has acquired in Germany. For a long while the hopes of learning some wonderful secret made a German Baron think nothing of long and expensive journies in quest of some new degree. Of late, the cosmo-political doctrines encouraged and propagated in the Lodges, and some hopes of producing a Revolution in society, by which men of talents should obtain the management of public affairs, seem to be the cause of all the zeal with which the order is still cherished and promoted. In a periodical work, published at Neuwied, called Algemein Zeitung der Freymaurerey, we have the list of the Lodges in 1782, with the names of the Office-bearers. Four-fifths of these are clergymen, professors, persons having offices in the common-law courts, men of letters by trade, such as reviewers and journalists, and other pamphleteers; a class of men, who generally think that they have not attained that rank in society to which their talents entitle them, and imagine that they could discharge the important offices of the state with reputation to themselves and advantage to the public.

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

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