This movement was founded on May 1, 1776, in Ingolstadt (Upper Bavaria), by Jesuit-taught Adam Weishaupt (d. 1830), who was the first lay professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. The movement was made up of freethinkers, as an offshoot of the Enlightenment, which some believe was a conspiracy to infiltrate and overthrow the governments of many European states. The group's adherents were given the name Illuminati, although they called themselves "Perfectibilists". The group has also been called the Illuminati Order, and the Bavarian Illuminati, and the movement itself has been referred to as Illuminism. In 1777, Karl Theodor, Elector Palatine, succeeded as ruler of Bavaria. He was a proponent of Enlightened Despotism and in 1784, his government banned all secret societies, including the Illuminati.
While it was not legally allowed to operate, many influential intellectuals and progressive politicians counted themselves as members, including Ferdinand of Brunswick and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack. Although a few Freemasons were known to be members there is no evidence that it was supported by Freemasonry as an institution. Indeed, membership in the Illuminati, unlike that in Freemasonry, did not require belief in a Supreme Being. As a result, atheists having only the former organization open to them, congregated disproportionately in it; this over-representation, taken along with the Illuminati's largely humanist and anti-clerical bent, likely accounts for many of the claims of atheism leveled at the alleged world conspiracy of which the Illuminati supposedly remain a part.
The Illuminati's members pledged obedience to their superiors, and were divided into three main classes: the first, known as the Nursery, encompassed the ascending degrees or offices of Preparation, Novice, Minerval and Illuminatus Minor. The second, known as the Masonry, consists of the ascending degrees of Illuminatus Major and Illuminatus dirigens. It was also sometimes called Scotch Knight. The third, designated the Mysteries, was subdivided into the degrees of the Lesser Mysteries (Presbyter and Regent) and those of the Greater Mysteries (Magus and Rex). Relations with Masonic lodges were established at Munich and Freising in 1780 by Alexander Gibson and Joseph Vincent respectively.
The order had its branches in most countries of the European continent; it reportedly had around 2,000 members over the span of 10 years. The scheme had its attraction for literary men, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder, and even for the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar. Internal rupture and panic over succession preceded its downfall, which was effected by The Secular Edict made by the Bavarian government in 1785.