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Montanus |
Montanus, the prophet, lured away thousands and saw himself as Father, Word, and Spirit

Montanus is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 166, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Though the chosen date and place for the world’s end didn’t see it happen, his sect flourished, then fell, but such ecstatic spirituality was far from finished

Montanus - Montanus, the prophet, lured away thousands and saw himself as Father, Word, and Spirit

Montanus - Montanus, the prophet, lured away thousands and saw himself as Father, Word, and Spirit
The religious ecstasy and visions at the heart of mid-second-century Montanism survive into modern times. This photo from 1942 shows delegates to the Twentieth Annual Convention of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel in Los Angeles. Some lie on the floor and sob in religious fervor, while others seek comfort from sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the founder of the church.

The Christian faith has never suffered from a lack of dissent and dispute, or of colorful and compelling individuals who insist they have gained unique insight into the most profound questions of human existence and theological truth. The apostles were not beyond questioning Jesus when the Way did not accord with their way. This attitude of independence was perhaps in part inherited from Jewish forebears, including Abraham, who famously questioned God about the upcoming destruction of Sodom. “You will sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” This spirit of independent thought is very much with us in the twenty-first century, belying the charge that people of faith are participants in a massive exercise of groupthink.

On some occasions, however, individual “revelations” run so contrary to accepted Christian doctrine that they threaten the coherence of Christ’s message. Few have been more interesting and colorful than the Montanist movement, which appeared between the 150s and 170s. It sprang to life in the Asia Minor district of Phrygia and eventually spread to Rome, Lyon, Syria, and North Africa. Though it was largely extinguished within a few centuries, echoes of Montanism are heard to the present day.

Montanus was apparently a neophyte presbyter, increasingly given to visions and states of “ecstasy.” In and of itself, this would not have set him apart from other Christians of his region. Montanus, however, claimed to be about much greater things. “I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete,” he insisted. “I am the Lord God omnipotent” who has descended into man. In this case, into Montanus.

These were grand and startling assertions, and the focus of Montanus’s message was on an equally epic scale: He claimed to know the time and place of the appearance of the New Jerusalem promised in the Book of Revelation. According to Montanus and his two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, the Heavenly City would descend on the Phrygian village of Pepuza in the year 177. The Day of the Lord was indeed at hand. The believer’s duty was to prepare the soul for this event.

These prophecies, while perhaps harrowing to modern ears, were powerful balm to many who heard them. For most people in second-century Phrygia, life was not distinguished by its luxury. Apart from the usual poverty and disease, survival itself was always tenuous. For Christians there was the added fear that a great persecution was on the way. Polycarp of Smyrna, the preeminent Christian leader in Asia Minor, had been executed in 155. If one so great as Polycarp could be killed, what Christian was safe?

The Montanist message put these earthly worries into perspective. Yes, Christians should expect persecution at the hands of the Romans, who, after all, were agents of the devil, Montanus said. Yet the devil would be getting his due soon enough, and for the martyrs, a life of eternal peace and heavenly bliss would follow.

Even so, Montanism should not be confused with “pie-in-the-sky” escapist eschatology. Quite the contrary. It set a hard path for adherents, establishing a host of new fasts, including dry fasts–food taken without water. It advocated a diet whose centerpiece was the radish. It counseled the abandonment of family and worldly possessions and forbade second marriages. It also called for a turning away from public life and military service, as well as a full and willing embrace of persecution. “Do not look forward to dying in your bed, in childbirth, or in lassitude of fever,” Montanus counseled, “but in martyrdom, so that he who has suffered for you may be glorified.” Such teachings were to face hard scrutiny, but initially, they attracted thousands to worship services whose drama and ecstatic vibrancy matched that of the doctrines espoused.

Women were central to Montanist worship, as one would expect of a movement with two prophetesses at its core, and that alone set these services apart. One can imagine the additional sense of awe, wonder, and perhaps daring, when at a climactic moment, seven white-clad virgins appeared before the assembly. Their faces were brilliantly painted, as if they were beings from a higher sphere. Their hands bore beautiful lamps, and their tongues bore divine prophecy. The congregation was often borne away to states of high excitement, many falling into fits of ecstasy, tears, and tongues. They had received the Truth directly from the Holy Spirit. How else could they respond?

Not everyone was ecstatic, of course. Soon enough, authorities both secular and ecclesiastical turned their scorn on the Montanists, for reasons obvious and, in some respects, entirely defensible.

The secular authorities viewed the Montanists, with their demands to shun military service, and indeed, anything having to do with the state, as dangerously subversive. So profound was their concern that they began viewing all Christians as being in league with these radicals–a clear case of overreaction, as historian Marta Sordi explains in The Christians and the Roman Empire: “In reality, of course, it was a tragic misunderstanding. Neither the Great Church nor the majority of Christians actually shared the anti-Roman, anti-state ideal of the followers of the New Prophecy,” as Montanists sometimes described themselves. Nonetheless, Rome would bar conversion to Christianity, as well as Judaism, in 201, largely as an attempt to suppress these intimations of independence.

Christian leaders were perhaps even more disturbed, for reasons both institutional and theological. “As time went on,” writes historian W. H. C. Frend in Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, “Montanism took on more and more the character of a revolt, the prophetic and eschatological religion of the native countryside against the Hellenized Christianity of the towns.”

At the heart of the problem posed by Montanus’s extravagant assertion of his personal indivisibility with the Holy Spirit lay some disconcerting implications. After all, if a man truly enjoyed such status, who could question his authority? Who was to stop him from revising Christianity in any way he pleased? Montanus may have provided religious cohesion and leadership to his followers, but to other Christians, he represented nothing less than spiritual anarchy.

Indeed, to his growing host of critics, Montanus represented something much worse. Aviricius Marcellus, a Phyrgian merchant and devout Christian, charged that Montanus, “in the unbounded lust of his soul for leadership, gave access to himself to the Adversary”–a charge of demonic possession that would be echoed by others, including two bishops, who attempted to exorcise the occupying demon. The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, with his typical literary flair, observed that Montanus spoke in an “ecstasy, in which he is without shame or fear. Beginning with purposed ignorance, he passes on to involuntary madness of soul.”

Meanwhile, rumors and gossip were circulated to undermine the movement: Its leadership had expended church funds on rich living; a trustee of the church had floated into the sky during a period of ecstasy, only to suddenly drop to earth and die from his injuries. Bishop Claudius Apollinarius of Hierapolis took special interest in Montanism, initially attempting, it is believed, to persuade Montanus to return to the fold. When that failed, the bishop’s denunciations became white-hot. Then in 193, Bishop Serapion of Antioch pronounced that “the lying organization called the New Prophecy is held in abomination by the whole brotherhood in the world.” In 200, Bishop Zephyrinus of Rome added his voice to the condemnation.

Though the chosen date and place for the world’s end didn’t see it happen, his sect

While traces of Montanism could be found six centuries after its beginning, especially in Phrygia, these early attacks took their toll, and were greatly bolstered in 331, when the emperor Constantine ordered public prayer sites maintained by the Montanists expropriated. Just to make sure, in 550, the bishop of Ephesus ordered the bones of Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla exhumed and burnt. Montanus’s date of death is not known, though detractors claimed that he and Maximilla, whose death supposedly occurred in 179, had hanged themselves. Evidence for that charge remains elusive.

Yet for all these efforts, the spirit of Montanism was never eradicated. Bold and independent voices calling for repentance, rejection of worldly security, and dedication to the faith, even in the face of death, have been heard throughout the Christian centuries. Theologian Richard J. Foster in his Streams of Living Waters hears an echo of the yearnings of Montanism in the Gregorian Liturgical Movement (seventh century to present), the Franciscans (thirteenth century to present), the Pentecostal Movement (begun in the twentieth century), the Charismatic Renewal (twentieth century), and the Modern Liturgical Renewal (twentieth century).

He hears the voice in individuals as varied as Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen, and Oral Roberts.

What is this voice? It proclaims that the spirit of God animates each believer, no matter what his or her standing in society. It proclaims that the Good News is found not only in ancient texts and ecclesiastical pronouncements, but springs eternal in this moment and in all moments. It is a voice that sometimes reaches the level of obvious falsehood, but it has also, to some degree or another, echoed in every Christian soul.

This is the end of the Montanus category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 166, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Montanus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at