Montanism was considered a heretical movement by the early church. Founded by the self-proclaimed prophet, Montanus, in the Second Century AD, it began as a ministry within the Christian Church in the region of Phrygia in modern Turkey. Montanism then spread throughout Asia Minor, with many villages and towns converted to the movement. In the next century, Montanism was also established in North Africa under the leadership of the bishop Tertullian.
Although little is known about Montanus himself, it is clear that before his conversion to Christianity, he was a priest of the mystery cult of Cybele. The circumstances of his conversion to Christianity are not recorded. His ministry, however, quickly became separate from conventional Christianity because of its emphasis on ongoing, authoritative prophecy and ecstatic experience, its extra-canonical writings and its independence from the rule of established bishops.
The receptivity of Phrygia to the Montanist message may have been due to the fact that in the pre-Christian era, this region had been a center of several mystery cults whose worship was characterized by ecstatic activities. Since the main Montanist writings have been lost, the chief sources for the history of the movement are found in the Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, the writings of Tertullian and Epiphanius, and various inscriptions in modern Turkey.
The essential principle of Montanism was that the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) was manifesting himself through Montanus and the prophets associated with him. For example, Montanus claimed to speak directly from God in his announcement that the second coming of Christ was imminent. He was often associated with two young women, Prisca and Maximilla, who had left their husbands to be associated with his ministry. They soon became leaders within the movement and exercised their own prophetic ministries. The Montanist prophecies, while rejected by the established church, were recorded and gathered together as sacred documents for use within their congregations. Only about a score of their oracles have survived into modern times. However, Epiphanius comments that these prophecies, “..manifest a kind of enthusiasm that dupes those who are present, and provokes them to tears, leading to repentance”.
The movement did not at first question the authority of church leadership or deny any essential Christian doctrines. Because of this, the Montanists were able to enjoy a brief period of acceptance by the established church, since it had always acknowledged the return of Christ and the gift of prophecy. It soon became clear, however, that the Montanist prophecy was something different from what the church ordinarily accepted. The fact that Montanus claimed to have the final revelation of the Holy Spirit, implied that something could be added to teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Hence, their official condemnation by the established church around the year 177 AD.
Because of his conviction that the end of the world was at hand, Montanus prescribed a strict moral code for his followers in order to detach them from their physical desires and prepare them for Christ’s coming. This code included a renunciation of marriage, fasting, the desire for martyrdom and a rigorous process of penance.
Although Montanism benefited from the endorsement of its most famous convert, Tertullian of Carthage, even his influence could not halt its decline after 313 as the Christian Church, with the backing of the Roman government, increasingly applied pressure upon the movement until its extinction in the Sixth Century.