Introducing The Montanists

Origins and Early History

The movement probably developed during the 160’s, or earlier, but confrontation brought it to the attention of the wider church in the 170’s. It emerged from a context where some of its distinctive features were already present in embryonic form. Montanism emerged in a proto-Montanist environment containing:

  • Deep interest in prophecy and apocalyptic. Montanism arose in the same area in which were the churches to which the biblical book of Revelation is addressed.
  • An expectation of the experience of charismatic phenomena and visionary revelations and concern that these were absent from many congregations.
  • Debate about the relationship between ‘the Spirit’ and ‘the letter’, between form and freedom, between liberty and authority.
  • Commitment to radical discipleship, including celibacy, disciplined living and readiness to suffer martyrdom; the martyrdom in 156 of Polycarp of Smyrna.
  • Resistance to the growing influence of bishops and the diminishing role of prophets in the churches.
  • Concern about the increasing accommodation to Greek and Roman culture taking place in second century churches.

Montanist ideas probably flourished within the churches for many years before emerging within a separatist movement. Nevertheless, a catalyst was needed to crystallise some of these concerns and to give rise to such a movement. In about 157 somewhere near the borders of Mysia and Phrygia, a man named Montanus who may have previously been a pagan priest was baptised. As he came out of the water, it is reported, he had a powerful spiritual experience in which he claimed to have been seized by the Holy Spirit. He began to speak in tongues and then to prophesy. His claim was that just as the ‘dispensation of the Father’ had given place to the ‘dispensation of the Son’ when Christ came to earth, so now this had given place to the ‘dispensation of the Spirit’, with Montanus himself being the prophet of the Holy Spirit. Two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, had similar spiritual experiences and became leaders with him of a movement that claimed to be in line with the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and to be restoring the power and standards of New Testament Christianity. The movement was known by its members as ‘The Prophecy’. The prophets spoke about the return of Christ and called for a period of preparation for this event that involved repentance, fasting and prayer, sexual abstinence, courageous witness and openness to spiritual revelation.

At first only the original three were regarded as prophets and their prophecies were written down and collected as sacred documents. Subsequently the prophetic gift was accepted as being available to all and many others began to prophesy. We know little about the lives of the three original leaders and we have only a few other names and fewer details about the lives of other early members of the movement – Alcibiades, Themiso, Miltiades, Alexander, Aeschines and Theodotus.

If there were precedents for such a movement in groups which had expressed concerns from within the churches about the degeneration of spirituality since the times of the apostles, there were also various social and cultural elements that provided a milieu within which the movement might flourish. These included:

  • Phrygian pagan practices emphasised the ecstatic dimension of religious experience.
  • Significant social upheavals in the 160’s: widespread plagues, wars and earthquakes.
  • Resentment about increased taxation.
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The Spread of the Movement in Asia Minor

Local Christians were initially unsure how to react to Montanism. Some rebuked Montanus and considered him a false prophet, but gradually many accepted this as a new move of the Holy Spirit and over the next fifteen years the Prophecy spread rapidly through Phrygia and beyond. The sources speak of crowds of people attending Montanist meetings. The Montanist movement established its headquarters in the country towns of Pepuza and Tymion and from there sent out missionaries who spread this new movement across the Roman Empire. Dismissed initially as a marginal rural movement, Montanism found increasing support in the towns of Asia Minor, in several of which confrontations with opponents were reported. Infiltration of Montanist ideas into the churches was widespread, even if congregations did not officially join the movement.

There is evidence that Montanus was a brilliant organiser and that fairly soon an alternative church system was in place. Although the descent of the New Jerusalem was anticipated, it is not clear that this was expected imminently and its delay does not appear to have particularly disconcerted the developing movement. Clearly the movement succeeded in attracting significant financial support, to the chagrin of the official churches, and this enabled it to introduce the innovation of salaried missionaries and church leaders. It is unclear whether the original leaders were itinerant at any stage, but there are some indications that Priscilla travelled as far as Thrace and was involved in a confrontation there.

The impact on the churches of Asia Minor was divisive, with some churches becoming and long remaining Montanist, whereas others steered well clear of the movement. Many churches were unsure how to respond to this movement, which was seemingly schismatic rather than heretical. Its doctrinal stance appeared to be orthodox, but it was separatist and disturbing the unity of the church. It was claiming fresh revelation, but was rooted in Scripture and had none of the complex speculations and Gnostic tendencies of other fringe movements.

One result of the Montanist challenge was the development of Catholic ecclesial structures and solidarity between churches. Initial hesitancy gave way to firm action to counter Montanist ideas and to curtail their missionary activities. Anti-Montanist writings were circulated widely, within and beyond Asia Minor. Montanists were expelled from the churches and debarred from communion. And as opposition to the movement grew, attitudes in the New Prophecy movement hardened and their criticism of the Catholic churches increased.

Montanism beyond Asia Minor

The fact that bishops from as far afield as Thrace and Antioch felt it necessary to oppose the movement is indicative of its widespread influence by the start of the third century. Whether or not there were Montanist congregations in these places, church leaders were sufficiently concerned about the spread of Montanist ideas to oppose these publicly. Montanist ideas had also reached Rome and Southern Gaul. Although the Gallic churches did not accept Montanist ideas unreservedly, they valued some of its emphases and wanted the movement dealt with constructively. In Rome itself, which had a large Asiatic community, the movement was gaining strength, although its adherents there appear to have been quieter and more restrained than their Asian counterparts. It grew considerably in the last decade of the second century, with two Montanist schools there, led by Eschines and Proclus, spreading its teachings.

However, during the episcopate of Zephyrinus, opinions turned against the Montanists. In part, this was because Montanist ideas became caught up in the Monarchian controversy. Furthermore, rivalry between Rome and the churches of Asia Minor did not make Roman church leaders well-disposed towards an Asiatic movement. The Prophecy was rejected by the Catholic churches and officially condemned by Zephyrinus. This condemnation did not lead to the imminent demise of the Prophecy in Rome: there is evidence that Roman Montanist groups persisted at least until the fifth century.

By around 200, the movement had reached Carthage and had won many adherents in North Africa, including its most famous convert, Tertullian. Perpetua, a young mother, and her slave girl, Felicitas were members of a Montanist group who suffered martyrdom. What is not known is how Montanism reached Africa. It may have come via Rome, or directly from Asia Minor. It is likely that Tertullian was sympathetic to Montanism for some time before his open identification with the movement in 207. But this identification did not mean that he distanced himself from the Catholic churches. For several decades, it seems that Montanists co-existed peacefully with Catholics in North Africa, perhaps as conventicles within the churches.

The Development and Demise of Montanism

Despite opposition, Montanist groups continued to function throughout the Mediterranean region through the following three centuries and developed their own alternative ecclesial structure. By the fourth century, the Montanist hierarchy consisted of patriarchs, cenonoi, bishops, presbyters, deacons and ‘other clergy’. Little is known about the relationships between these orders or their specific functions. There is evidence also of diversity and division within the movement.

With regard to relations between Montanist groups and other churches, and Montanists and pagans, there appears to have been some difference between official policy and local action. But during the first half of the third century, as the churches came under the renewed pressure of imperial persecution, relations between the Montanists and other churches deteriorated further. Several Montanists had already been martyred in the reign of Emperor Severus and many more suffered under the widespread persecution organised by Emperor Decius.

New prophetic figures also emerged within the movement. In Asia Minor in about 235, a new prophetess appeared in eastern Asia Minor and rekindled the expectations of the movement. But a synod at Iconium condemned the Montanists and, for the first time, refused to accept the validity of Montanist baptisms – in effect excommunicating the movement. Perhaps shortly after this, another prophetess, Quintilla, also exercised a significant ministry. Information about the movement after this is sporadic, but it is clear that from early in the fourth century the movement came under renewed pressure. Laws enacted by the emperor Constantine outlawed the Montanists along with various other sects and commanded their eradication, but this did not happen quickly, although few remained in the cities where ecclesiastical control was tighter.

There is little evidence of Montanist groups in the West after the middle of the fourth century, and by the middle of the fifth century they had disappeared from almost everywhere except parts of Asia Minor. Montanism seems finally to have been suppressed in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian, although there is even a surprising reference to an order from emperor Leo III in 721 that Jews and Montanists should be forcibly baptised. Montanism may have survived as a memory and inspiration long after its organisational demise.

Beliefs and Practices

(1) The gift of prophecy.  The gift of prophecy was fundamental to the Montanist movement. Although it seems that the gift of tongues was also practised, it was the prophetic gift and the authority accorded to the prophetic ministry of the three founding members that distinguished this movement and gave it direction. In Montanism, the prophetic ministry was given a central role, whereas in other churches it was becoming marginal and leadership was increasingly in the hands of pastors and administrators. But their contemporaries were concerned about the way they prophesied, the form of the prophecies, and some of the statements they contained. If the prophecies have been accurately reported, there are certain elements that might continue to concern us: the apparent passivity and sense of compulsion and the language that fails to distinguish clearly between the prophet and the Spirit speaking through him or her.

(2) Eschatology. The prophecies contained eschatological elements and early Montanists were reputed as placing emphasis on the return of Christ. But it is far from certain that Montanism emphasised that Christ’s return was imminent or that they did more than share general late second century beliefs.

(3) Ethical rigour. Montanism, in common with many later charismatic movements, had a strong ethical component. Reacting against the moral laxity as well as the spiritual lethargy that seemed to him to be infesting the churches, Montanus called for a more rigorous lifestyle. At its best, Montanism called the church back to New Testament discipleship and ethical clarity, although on some issues and among some groups, this ethical rigour seems to have developed into asceticism: prolonged periods of fasting, the exaltation of celibacy, a total ban on second marriages (even where a previous spouse had died), severe penance for minor sins, and perhaps a desire for martyrdom. But Tertullian regarded the Montanist approach as a wise balance that avoided the self-indulgence of Catholics and the asceticism of Gnostics.

(4) The role of women. Priscilla and Maximilla and other women were prominent and an unusually egalitarian attitude towards women was a feature of the movement, not only in its early years but much later. Various writers refer to Montanist women participating in church activities. Throughout the movement and through the centuries, women played an active and public role in Montanist worship; some women exercised the gift of prophecy, in particular, which would have included a teaching dimension; there were women leaders within the movement – deacons, presbyters and bishops; and women were able to baptise and celebrate communion. There was much greater freedom for women within Montanism than within contemporary Catholic churches, and this scandalised their critics, who attempted to exorcise Montanist women.

(5) Church activities. Montanist gatherings were probably characterised by enthusiasm, colour, participation and energy. Critics concentrated on unusual elements: processions of virgins carrying lamps and prophesying, pricking with needles, the use of cheese in communion and gestures described pejoratively as ‘nose-pegging’. It is unclear what some of these rituals involved or symbolised, and uncertain how widespread they were. Other innovative practices were organisational rather than liturgical: the development of an alternative ecclesiastical system, the role of the cenonos, prophets in leadership roles, and the financial support of church leaders and missionaries.

The Impact of Montanism

The influence of Montanism on the development of Christianity in the second and third centuries is not easy to assess. In some areas, the movement was a powerful and disturbing challenge, calling churches back to the spiritual vitality, ethical standards and eschatological expectations of the earliest Christians. Some churches embraced this challenge and allowed Montanism to function as a renewing and reforming influence. But most rejected it and tended to move further towards institutional consolidation, setting up mechanisms to marginalise such elements, as a safeguard against what was perceived as a dangerous and divisive movement. It has been suggested that the closure of the canon of the New Testament was prompted, at least in part, by a determination not to allow contemporary prophecies to be accorded biblical authority.

Although Montanism as a movement may have had a limited following, its emphasis on whole-hearted discipleship was taken up by a number of other groups, in particular the followers of another Phrygian, Novatian, who formed churches in Rome and many other cities in the third century. Donatism in North Africa can also be seen as heir to the spirit of Montanism. The similarity between Montanism and the development of fourth century monastic movements has also been recognised.

Further Reading

W. Nigg: The Heretics (Dorset Press, 1990)
C. Trevett: Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (CUP, 1996)