One of the most important political secret societies of the nineteenth century, the Philadelphes began life in 1797 as a student literary club in the town of Besançon in eastern France. Like other student societies of the time, it combined rituals loosely modeled on fraternal secret society ceremonies with such innocuous activities as picnics and poetry readings. According to its chronicler, the French writer Charles Nodier, it took on a more political focus when Napoleon seized power in 1799, and gradually mutated into a widespread political conspiracy headed by Jacques-Joseph Oudet, a colonel in the French army. Organized groups of Philadelphes existed in six regiments in the army. The Philadelphes made several attempts to prepare for a rebellion against Napoleon, but none of them went far, and after Oudet was killed in action in 1809 it accomplished little more within France.

The Philadelphes reached Italy sometime after 1807, when a group of Italian exiles in Paris became members and began planning organized resistance to Napoleon. Known as Filadelfi or Adelfi in Italy, the organization played an active role in the complex politics of the early nineteenth century and, along with the Carbonari, helped coordinate preparations for the widespread revolutions of 1820 and 1821. It apparently went out of existence after that time, though many of its members were absorbed by other secret societies with similar aims. See Carbonari.

The accuracy of Nodier’s account of the Philadelphes has been challenged by some modern scholars, but the Philadelphes certainly existed and at least attempted to play the role that Nodier painted for it. The veteran revolutionary Filippo Buonarroti became a member of the Philadelphes while in prison for his involvement in the Conspiracy of Equals, and organized a Philadelphe circle in Geneva after his release in 1806. From 1818 until at least the mid-1820s, another of Buonarroti’s societies, the Sublime Perfect Masters, infiltrated the Philadelphe leadership in Italy and took control of the organization. Certainly material gathered by police spies and informers in Italy in the 1820s claimed that the Adelfi were headed by a secret directorate called the Great Firmament – the name of the governing body of the Sublime Perfect Masters. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Conspiracy of Equals; Sublime Perfect Masters.

The Philadelphe model of revolution by secret society dropped out of use in the 1830s, as mass movements and political parties took up the cause of political liberalization and religious freedom in Europe. A few secret groups of the old style survived in France, where they took over the Rite of Memphis, one of several irregular systems of Masonry active in Europe at the time. After the failed European revolutions of 1848 and 1849, however, many disappointed liberals returned to the secret society tradition. Exiled in London, a group of French expatriates with connections to Buonarroti’s secret societies launched a new Philadelphe lodge in 1850 with a Rite of Memphis charter. When Napoleon III seized power in France in 1852 and proclaimed the Second Empire, the new lodge redefined itself as a Philadelphe Grand Lodge, formed at least 10 subordinate lodges, and launched itself into a vigorous campaign of subversion against the new French regime. See Rite of Memphis.

This last flourish of the old tradition had an unexpected offspring. Starting in 1855, Philadelphe initiates in England began contacting other radical groups overseas, hoping to create an international revolutionary society along the lines of Mazzini’s Young Italy. The International Association lasted from 1855 to 1859 but never attracted much interest outside the French expatriate community. The growth of the labor union movement and the possibilities opened up by international organization inspired another attempt in 1864 – a front organization called the International Workingmen’s Association. Later, control of the Association slipped out of Philadelphe hands into those of a German economist named Karl Marx. See Communism; First International; Young Italy.

Recent conspiracy theorists have almost completely neglected the Philadelphes, even when their tracks run across fields of current interest. One of the few exceptions is The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. In the process of recycling disinformation produced by Pierre Plantard’s audacious Priory of Sion hoax, Lincoln and his co-authors claim that Charles Nodier was a grand master of the Priory, and quote a line from Nodier’s book on secret societies in which he mentions that behind the Philadelphes was another, more secret society, whose name he was oathbound not to reveal. The book implies that this inner circle was the Priory of Sion, but since the Priory was not founded until 1956 that possibility can be discarded. The name Nodier would not mention, rather, was that of the Sublime Perfect Masters. See Priory of Sion.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006