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No, the Jesuits didn’t kill Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: a supposed target of the Jesuits

The election of the first Jesuit pope was unexpected, but the response in some of the more delusional corners of the internet was depressingly predictable. It took no time at all for the conspiracy theorists to dust off their fictions and start warning us against the centuries-old Jesuit plot to take over the world.

The Society of Jesus has been putting up with this kind of nonsense for a very long time and no myth has been quite so persistent as the supposed Jesuit addiction to political assassination. In the mid-17th century, one William Crashaw denounced the burgeoning Jesuit educational project as a sham: the real reason behind all the schools, Crashaw opined, was to “pick out the finest young wits of the world” and “train them up [so] that the pope will never want instruments to kill kings”. The subsequent roster of supposed Jesuit targets (some despatched, others not) is impressive: Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIV of France, various English monarchs and an alarming number of US Presidents: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James A Garfield, William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln among them.

The anti-Jesuit myth-making machine has spiralled out of control. One of the most striking examples is a late 18th-century tract in which every aspect of Jesuit activity was pilloried. Jesuits were very good at science, the author wrote, but this was only because they required chemists and pharmacists to concoct poisons “as shall be able to infect dishes, plates, salt cellars, basins, kettles, and all sorts of utensils, though they be 10 times washed and cleansed”. Jesuits had some impressive buildings, but this was only in order to conceal “magazines of iron bullets, fire balls, ordinance, muskets, harquebuses, pikes and halberds” and “resist force by force should their secret intrigues meet with unexpected resistance”.

At several hundred years’ distance, this is all quite amusing, but there is a significant cultural phenomenon at the heart of the anti-Jesuit myth-making. Anyone interested in the nature of modern-day conspiracy theorising would do well to look at how Jesuit history has been misinterpreted. The perennial themes are all there.

It is crucial to stress that not every Jesuit has been a loyal and upstanding citizen. Some of those missionary priests back in Elizabethan England would presumably have been pleased if a plotter had managed to do away with the Virgin Queen, but these are aberrations and one would struggle to identify any religious order that was entirely free of rotten apples.

Have some Jesuits sought political influence (by non-regicidal means)? Yes, of course they have, but this hardly damns the entire Jesuit enterprise.

Crucially, the notion of a secretive, centuries-old, institutional campaign is bunkum. Are we really to believe the tall tales of hidden silver mines in Mexico and Peru, or the covert rites in which assassins’ daggers were blessed with holy water? Are we to accept that figures as various as Fidel Castro, Cardinal Richelieu, and emperors from China to Ethiopia were little more than Jesuit stooges? Of course we’re not.

The bile and nonsense continue to flow, however. One couldn’t help but notice that, in the wake of Francis’s election, quotations from the infamous Monita Secreta appeared with alarming frequency around the blogosphere. This 17th-century text – a work of pure fantasy – claimed to reveal the sinister “secret instructions” of the Society of Jesus: cosying up to wealthy widows, securing political influence by whatever means necessary, and much worse besides. It is one of the most ludicrous books ever written, but it shows few signs of falling out of fashion.

A counterblast of common sense is therefore called for, so here is a rule of thumb. If a conspiracy theory manages to take in everything from starting the Great Fire of London, to inaugurating the American Civil War, to sinking the Titanic, then you can safely assume it is bonkers. Not that this will silence the fantasists. They are a determined bunch, as I know from personal experience.

Back in 2004 I wrote what I regarded, and still regard, as an even-handed history of the Jesuits. I was scrupulous about identifying both the saints and the sinners, and there have been plenty of both over the past five centuries. This was not enough for some of my internet-based critics. One of them accused me of putting too positive a spin on Jesuit history and of being, no joke, a Jesuit secret agent in thrall to the Society’s dark and ancient machinations. Oh, the glamour! But I’m sorry to report that I was just a historian doing my job by delving into both the gaffes and the glories of a complex religious tradition.
This incident taught me two things. First, try to resist the temptation to Google your name and, second, whenever you encounter an outlandish Jesuit conspiracy theory, shrug your shoulders and get on with the more important business of studying the Jesuit past and present with objectivity. The Jesuits have made enough actual mistakes to keep their critics busy, and have done enough wonderful things to keep their fans happy. There is no need to make things up.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and editor of The Jesuit Suppression: Causes, Events and Consequences (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 12/7/13