« Prev Chapter XIII. Last Recrudescence of… Next »



The great day, in spite of the affirmations of Jesus and of prophets inspired by him, refused to come. The Christ was slow in showing himself; the ardent piety of the first days, which had for its mainspring the belief in this approaching appearance, had grown cold among many. It was on such a world as this, in the very bosom of that Roman society, so corrupted but so preoccupied by reform and progress, that people dreamed of founding the Kingdom of God. Christian morals, from the moment they aspired to be those of a complete society, began to relax themselves in many points from their primitive severity. Men did not become more Christian, as in the first ages, under the force of a strong personal impression; many were born Christians. The contrast became each day less decided between the Church and the surrounding world. It was inevitable that some rigorists should be found who would sink into the mire of the most dangerous worldliness, and that there should arise a party of pietists to fight with the general coldness, to continue the supernatural gifts of the Apostolic Church, and to prepare humanity, by a redoubling of austerities, with proofs of the last days.

Already we have seen the pious author of the Hermas weeping over the decay of his time, and calling by his vows for a reform which should make the Church a convent of holy men and women.

There was, in fact, something rather inconsistent in the kind of quietude in which the orthodox Church slumbered, in that tranquil morality to which the 117work of Jesus was more and more reduced. People neglected the very precise predictions of the founder as to the end of the present world and on the Messianic reign which should follow. The speedy appearance in the clouds was nearly forgotten. The desire for martyrdom, the taste for celibacy, results of such a belief, grew weak. People accepted relations with an impure world, condemned soon to end; they temporised with persecution and sought to escape from it by the price of money. It was inevitable that the ideas which formed the basis of budding Christianity should reappear from time to time, in the midst of this general depression, in the shape of what was severe and terrifying. Fanaticism, which softened good orthodox judgment, made some kinds of eruption, like a slumbering volcano.

The most remarkable of these very natural returns to the apostolic spirit was that which was produced in Phrygia, under Marcus-Aurelius. It was something quite analogous to what we have seen in our time in England and America among the Irvingites and the Latter Day Saints. Some simple and enthusiastic minds believe themselves called to renew the prodigies of individual inspiration, beyond those already heavy chains of the Church and the episcopate. A doctrine for a long time spread through Asia Minor, that of a Paraclete who should come to complete the work of Jesus, or, to speak more correctly, to take up the teaching of Jesus, to establish it in truth, to purge out the alterations which the apostles and bishops had introduced into it; such a doctrine, I say, opened the door to all innovations. The Church of the saints was conceived of as always progressive and as destined to run through successive degrees of perfection. Prophetism passed for the most natural thing in the world. The Sibyllists, 118the prophets of every kind, ran through the streets, and in spite of their gross artifices found credence and acceptance.

Some little towns of the poorest districts of Phrygia, Brûlée, Tymium, and Pepuza, whose site even is unknown, were the theatre of this late enthusiasm. Phrygia was one of the countries of antiquity the most carried away by religious dreams. The Phrygians were generally looked on as silly and simple. Christianity had among them, from its origin, a mystic and ascetic character. Already in the Epistle to the Colossians Paul fights with errors, where the precursory signs of Gnosticism and the excesses of a badly understood asceticism seemed to be mixed up. Nearly everywhere else Christianity was a religion of the large cities; here, as in Syria or beyond the Jordan, it was a religion of clowns and countrymen. A certain Montanus, of the town of Ardaban, in Mysia, on the confines of Phrygia, contrived to give to these pious follies a contagious character which they did not possess till then.

Doubtless imitation of the Jewish prophets, and of those who had produced the new law at the beginning of the apostolic age, was the principal element of this re-birth of prophetism. There was mixed with it also perhaps an orgiastic or corybantic element, peculiar to the country, and entirely outside the regulated habits of ecclesiastical prophecy, already subjected to a tradition. All this credulous world was of the Phrygian race, and spoke Phrygian. In the most orthodox parts of Christendom, besides, the miraculous passed for quite a simple thing. Revelation was not closed; it was the life of the Church. The spiritual gifts, the apostolic charismas, were continued in many communities; they were cited in proof of the truth. They quoted Agabas, Judas, Silas, the daughters 119of Philip, Ammias of Philadelphia, and Quadratus, as having been favoured by the prophetic spirit. They declared from the first that the prophetic charisma would remain in the Church by an uninterrupted succession until the coming of Christ. The belief in a Paraclete, conceivedly as a source of permanent inspiration for the faithful, kept up these ideas. Who cannot see how full of dangers such a belief was? Thus the spirit of wisdom which directed the Church tended more and more to subordinate the exercise of its supernatural gifts to the authority of the presbyterate. The bishops were credited with the discernment of spirits, the right to approve some and to exorcise others. This time it was a prophetism quite popular which arose without the permission of the clergy, and sought to govern the Church outside of the hierarchy. The question of ecclesiastical authority and of individual inspiration, which fills up all the history of the Church, especially since the sixteenth century, took up its position from that time with distinctness. Between the believer and God is there or is there not an intermediary? Montanus said no, without hesitation. “Man, said the Paraclete, in an oracle of Montanus, is the lyre, and I fly like the bow; man sleeps, and I awake.”

Montanus justified no doubt by some superiority this pretension of being the elect of the Spirit. We willingly credit his adversaries when they tell us that he was a believer of recent date; we even admit that the desire of the primacy was no stranger to his singularities. As to the debauches and the shameful end they say he had, they were the ordinary calumnies which were never wanting under the pen of orthodox writers when the blackening of dissentients was concerned. The admiration which he excited in Phrygia was extraordinary. Some of his disciples pretended to have learned 120more from his books than from the law, the prophets, and the reunited evangelists. It was believed that he had received the fulness of the Paraclete; sometimes they took him for the Paraclete himself, that is to say, for this Messiah, in some things superior to Jesus, whom the churches of Asia Minor believed to have been promised by Jesus himself. They went so far as to say, “The Paraclete has revealed the greatest things by Montanus, as Christ by the Gospel.” The law and the prophets were considered as the infancy of religion; the Gospel was its youth; the coming of the Paraclete was considered to be the sign of its maturity.

Montanus, like all the prophets of the new alliance, was full of curses against the age and against the Roman empire. Even the seer of 69 was surpassed. Neither hatred of the world nor the desire of seeing Pagan society destroyed had yet been expressed with such a distinct fury. The only theme of the Phrygian prophets was the approaching judgment of God, the punishment of persecutors, the destruction of the profane world, the reign of the thousand years and its joys. Martyrdom was praised as the highest perfection; to die in one’s bed seemed unworthy of a Christian. The Encratites, condemning sexual connection, recognised in it importance from the natural point of view; Montanus did not even take the trouble to forbid an act become absolutely insignificant, from the moment that its humanness came to an end.

The gate was thus opened to the debauch, at the same time as it closed to the pleasantest duties. By the side of Montanus appeared two women, the one called sometimes Prisca, sometimes Priscilla, sometimes Quintilla, and the other Maximilla. These two women, who, from what appeared, had all quitted the state of marriage to embrace the prophetic 121career, entered into their position with an extreme boldness and a complete misunderstanding of the hierarchy. In spite of the wise prohibitions of Paul against women taking part in the prophetic and ecstatic exercises of the Church, Priscilla and Maximilla did not draw back before the brilliancy of a public ministry. It seems that individual inspiration had had, this time as usual, licence and boldness. Priscilla had some features which made her like St. Catharine of Sienna and Maria Alacoque. One day, at Pepuza, she slept and saw Christ come towards her, clothed in a shining robe and having the appearance of a woman. Christ was asleep by her side, and, in this mysterious embracing, inoculated her with all wisdom. He revealed to her especially the sacredness of the town of Pepuza. This privileged spot was the site where the heavenly Jerusalem, in descending from heaven, would be placed. Maximilla preached in the same way, announcing fearful wars, catastrophes, and persecutions. She survived Priscilla, and died maintaining that after her there would be no other prophesy till the end of time.

It was not only prophecy, it was all the functions of the clergy, which this bizarre Christianity claimed to belong to women. The Presbyterate, the Episcopate, the charge of the Church in all degrees devolved on them. To justify this pretension they instanced Miriam, the sister of Moses, the four daughters of Philip, and even Eve, for whom they pleaded extenuating circumstances, and of whom they made a saint. What was strange in the worship of the sect was the ceremony of the weepers or virgin lampadophores, who recalled in many points of view the Protestant “revivals” of America. Seven virgins, bearing torches and clothed in white, entered the church, uttering penitential groans, pouring forth torrents of tears 122and deploring by expressive gestures the wretchedness of human life. Then began the scenes of illuminism. In the midst of the people the virgins were seized with enthusiasm, preached, prophesied, and fell into ecstasies. The audience sobbed and went forth penetrated by compunction.

The influence these women exercised over the crowds, and even over a portion of the clergy, was extraordinary. They went so far as to prefer the prophetesses of Pepuza to the apostles, and even to Christ. The most moderate saw in them those prophets foretold by Jesus as coming to finish his work. All Asia Minor was troubled. From neighbouring countries people came to see these ecstatic phenomena, and to give an opinion on the new prophetism. The feeling was so much the greater that no one rejected à priori the possibility of prophecy. The only question was whether it was real. The most distant churches, those of Lyons and Vienne, wrote to Asia to be informed on the subject. Many bishops, especially Ælius Publius Julius of Debeltus, and Sotas of Anchiale in Thrace, came forward as witnesses. All Christendom was set in motion by these miracles, which appeared to bring back the Christianity of a hundred and thirty years before, in the days of its first appearance.

The greater number of the bishops, Apollinaris of Hierapolis, Zoticus of Comane, Julian of Apamia, Miltiades the famous ecclesiastical writer, a certain Aurelius of Cyrene, described as “martyr” by his life, and the two bishops of Thrace, refused to look seriously upon the enlightened of Pepuza. Nearly all of them declared individual prophesying to be subversive of the Church, and treated Priscilla as “possessed.” Some orthodox bishops, in particular Sotas of Anchiale and Zoticus of Comane, wished even to exorcise her; but the 123Phrygians would not allow it. Some notables, moreover, such as Themison, Theodotus, Alcibiades, and Proclus, yielded to the general enthusiasm and betook themselves to prophesying in their turn. Theodotus, especially, was the chief of the sect after Montanus and his principal zealot. As to the simple people they were all enchanted. The dark oracles of the prophetesses were carried away and commented on. A real Church formed itself around them. All the gifts of the apostolic age, especially the gift of tongues and the ecstasies, renewed themselves. They allowed themselves to go too easily into this dangerous reasoning: “Why should that which had a place not have place still? The present generation is not more disinherited than the others. The Paraclete, representing Christ, is he not an external source of revelation?” Innumerable little books spread these chimeras to a distance. Good people who read these found them finer than the Bible. The new exercises appeared to them superior to the charismas of the Apostles, and many dared to say that something greater than Jesus had appeared. All Phrygia became nearly mad; ordinary ecclesiastical life was as if suspended.

A life of lofty asceticism was the consequence of this burning faith in the approaching advent of God to the earth. The prayers of the saints at Phrygia were unceasing. They wore from affectation a sad air, and they were very bigoted. Their habit of holding the index finger against the nose while in prayer, to give themselves a contrite appearance, obtained for them the nickname of “nose-pegs” (in Phrygian tascodrugites). Fasts, austerities, rigorous xerophagy, abstinence from wine, absolute reprobation of marriage, such was the morale which logically imposed itself on these pious people in retreat in the hope of the 124last day. Even for the Supper they only used, like certain Ebionites, bread and water, cheese and salt. Austere disciplines are always contagious in crowds incapable of high spirituality; for they bring certain salvation at a good price, and they are easy for simple people (who have only good intentions) to practise. On all sides these habits spread about; they penetrated even into Gaul with the Asiatics, who numbered so many adherents in the valley of the Rhone. One of the Lyons martyrs in 177 showed himself attached to them even in prison, and it required either good Gallic sense or, as one may believe, a direct revelation from God, to make him renounce them.

What was most troublesome, indeed, in the excesses of zeal of these ardent ascetics was that they showed themselves intractable against all those who did not share their affectations. They spoke only of the general falling away. Like the flagellants of the middle ages, they found in their exterior practices a principle of foolish pride and rebellion against the clergy. They dared to say that, since Jesus, at least since the Apostles, the Church had lost its time, and that it only required a little time to sanctify humanity and to prepare it for the Messianic reign. The Church of the whole world, according to them, was no better than Pagan society. It sought to form within the general church a spiritual church, a nucleus of saints, of which Pepuza should be the centre. These elect ones showed themselves supercilious towards the simple believers. Themison declared that the Catholic Church had lost all its glory, and obeyed Satan. A church of saints, that was their ideal, very little different from that of the pseudo-Hermas. He who is not a saint does not belong to the Church. The Church, they said, is the totality of saints, not the number of bishops.


Nothing was further, it may be seen, from the idea of Catholicity, whose tendency was prevalent and whose essence consisted in opening the doors to all. The Catholics took the Church as it was, with its imperfections; one could not, according to them, be a sinner without ceasing to be a Christian. As to the Montanists, these two terms were irreconcilable. The Church should be as chaste as a virgin; the sinner is excluded from it by his very sin, and loses from that time all hope of re-entering it. The absolution of the Church is of no value. Holy things ought to be administered by the saints. The bishops have no privilege in what concerns spiritual gifts. Only the prophets, organs of the Spirit, can assure that God forgives.

Thanks to the extraordinary manifestations of an external and barely discreet pietism, Pepuza and Tynium became indeed a kind of holy towns. They were called Jerusalem, and the sectaries wished them to be the centre of the world. People came there from all directions, and many maintained that, conformably to the prediction of Priscilla, the ideal Sion was already created. Was not ecstasy the provisional realisation of the kingdom of God, begun by Jesus? Women quitted their husbands, as if at the end of human affairs. Every day they believed they should see the clouds open and the New Jerusalem appear in the blue heavens.

The orthodox, and especially the clergy, sought naturally to prove that the attraction which drew these Puritans to eternal things did not detach them altogether from the world. The sect had a central treasury for their propaganda. Collectors went out in all directions to seek offerings. The preachers received a salary; the prophetesses, in return for interviews they gave or audiences they vouchsafed, received money, dresses, and handsome 126presents. We can see what a handle this would give against the pretended saints. They had their confession and their martyrs, and this was what annoyed the orthodox most; for these would have desired that martyrdom should be considered the criterion of the true Church. Thus they spread slanders to lessen the merits of those sectarian martyrs. Themison having been arrested escaped, this being followed up by the payment of money. One Alexander was also imprisoned, and the orthodox had no peace till he was represented as a thief who perfectly deserved his lot, and had a judicial sentence against him in the archives of the province of Asia.

« Prev Chapter XIII. Last Recrudescence of… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection