The term alumbrados is today a linguistic stereotype whose philological origin is certain: from Latin illuminati, illuminatio, illuminare. Its semantic root signifies spiritual or interior illumination, which is attributed to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In its Spanish form—alumbrados—it has a negative and even malicious connotation: it was coined at the dawn of the sixteenth century among spiritual groups who considered themselves “illuminated by the Holy Spirit,” hence privileged or superior to other Christians; the common people appropriated the term to give it a pejorative meaning of fantasists, hypocrites, or false mystics. The intensity of religious sentiment, typical of what is considered the apex of mysticism, explains the appearance of the phenomenon of the alumbrados as the converse of the genuine mystics: they appear or have appeared in all the locales of religious enthusiasm, but in religious historiography the term is applied especially to Spaniards.
Five historical Spanish groups of Alumbrados have been distinguished or classified: (1) those of Toledo, in the first decades of the sixteenth century; (2) those of Estremadura, circa 1575; (3) those of upper Andalusia, at the end of the sixteenth century; (4) those of Latin America (viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru), in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century; and (5) those of Seville, 1520–1530. Because of the many different types of Alumbrados and, at times, their ambiguity, there is no doctrinal core or common denominator of content or doctrine, beyond religiosity. Those of Toledo offer, with their scant numbers, a higher level of doctrine; their fundamental dogma was “the love of God makes man God.” From this principle, held unanimously and without qualifications, they inferred the ethical principle that the Alumbrado, being deified, does not sin, do what he might: he is impeccable. Those of Estremadura insisted on this impeccability; and in a passionate region, short of men because of the outflow of young men to America, it gave to the groups of Alumbrados a marked erotic tinge. Among those of upper Andalusia, in provincial centers like Baeza, Ubeda, and Jaén, the dogma of deification was as prominent as the erotic aspects. Hispanic-American illuminism (Alumbradismo) had, in its two great geographical spheres, different shadings: apocalyptic and millenarian in Mexico, anxious for political-religious liberation in Peru. Finally, Sevillian illuminism, which recruited the greatest number of adherents, was characterized by its folkloric manifestations, including popular superstition.
From a social perspective, it is customary to emphasize the similarity of the Alumbrados with the Protestant reformers and with the Erasmian spiritualists, in order to put into relief their eagerness to return to a noninstitutionalized spirituality. It is also customary to regard them socially as marginal groups, as groups of protest and social denunciation, and (more insistently) as New Christians (Conversos) of Sephardic or Spanish Judaic origin. The analysis of the phenomenon of the Alumbrados does not allow this sort of generalization: if in upper Andalusia the New Christians were many, in America they were extremely rare. One commonality, however, was the high number of beatas (women, generally single, who professed a distinctive spiritual life and wore distinguishing habits without belonging to a religious order approved by the church), obedient and following various leaders, usually priests but occasionally laymen. These priest-leaders generally achieved a relatively high level of learning, given their curriculum of studies; most beatas, however, were illiterate. The relationship of the Alumbrados with other currents of reform—Erasmian spirituality, Lutheranism, Crypto-Judaism, and so on—remains ambiguous; similarities did not originate from doctrinal exchange, but rather from a common religious background and from reaction to the Inquisition, which measured all religious deviations by the yardstick of orthodoxy.
The Inquisition tried to extirpate, in their respective periods, the five groups of Alumbrados. Thanks to the documentation conserved in archives about the trials of Alumbrados, the phenomenon of illuminism can be known and outlined. Of the several hundred trials of Alumbrados, the penalties or punishments imposed by the Inquisition on those convicted of this crime of “heretical depravity” were generally those of exile and abjuration: there were no death sentences (called “relaxation to the secular arm”). Their code of doctrine and practices can be found in the edicts of faith—the regular, publicly posted or announced summons to denunciation and self-denunciation in accordance with a list of current heresies—which extract, based on the indictments or trials, the dogmatic and moral ideology that the Alumbrados taught and practiced.