In DarkLore Volume II, an anthology of writings on high weirdness and secret history, Mike Jay lays out the birth of the Illuminati conspiracy at the end of the 18th century. The Daily Grail has just published the article, which tells how the modern myth (?) began with a society floundering to understand the French Revolution. From "Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy:"
At the beginning of 1797, John Robison was a man with a solid and long-standing reputation in the British scientific establishment. He had been Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University for over twenty years, an authority on mathematics and optics, and had recently been appointed senior scientific contributor on the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to which he would eventually contribute over a thousand pages of articles. Yet by the end of the year, his professional reputation had been eclipsed by a sensational book that vastly outsold anything he had previously written, and whose shockwaves would continue to reverberate long after his scientific work had been forgotten. Its title was Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, and it launched on the English-speaking public the enduring theory that a vast conspiracy, masterminded by a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati, was in the process of subverting all the cherished institutions of the civilised world and co-opting them into instruments of its secret and godless plan: the tyranny of the masses under the invisible control of unknown superiors, and a new era of 'darkness over all'.
The first edition of Proofs of a Conspiracy sold out within days, and within a year it had been republished many times, not only in Edinburgh but in London, Dublin and New York. Robison had hit a nerve by offering an answer, plausible to many, to the great questions of the day: what had caused the French Revolution, and had there been any plan behind its bloody and tumultuous progress?
Many had located the roots of the revolution in the ideas of Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, who had exalted reason and progress over authority and tradition; but none of these mostly aristocratic philosophes had advocated a revolution of the masses, and indeed several of them had ended their lives on the guillotine. In the early 1790s, it had been possible to believe that the power-hungry lawyers and journalists of the Jacobin Club had whipped up the Paris mob into their destructive frenzy as a means to their own ends, but by 1794 Danton, Robespierre and the rest of the Jacobin leaders had followed their victims to the guillotine: how could they have been the puppet-masters when they had had their own strings so brutally cut? What Robison was proposing in the densely-argued and meticulously documented pages of Proofs of a Conspiracy was that all these agents of revolution had been pawns in a much bigger game, whose ambitions were only just beginning to make themselves visible.
DarkLore Volume II (Amazon)