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Failed End-Of-World Predictions of Jesus’ Coming: Montanists and the Ecumenical Council (1000 AD)
Christianity has a long and rich history of failed prophecies about the coming of Christ. Enough to warn Christians that their hope may be misplaced. But what is most remarkable about the Christian belief in the second coming of Jesus is its resilience during bouts of negative feedback about the failure of prophecy. The culture of setting a date for the return of the Lord began in the second century AD (as the records show), Christians have been waiting for the second coming of the Lord since the first century (first century Christians did not actually set a date but only believed that the day of the Lord would come in their generation).
The motto of the Christian Church in the first century AD was “Maratha!” (Our Lord Cometh!). After the Second Coming apocalyptic fervor occurred in the Thessalonian Church of the early Apostolic period, hopes and expectations rose when Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, early in the second century, officially and urgently declared that “the last days are upon us.” Before his announcement Christians were thrown into feverish anticipation of the “coming of the Lord” during the reign of the half-mad Nero, whom many were convinced was the Antichrist; Then again to the right of Domitian who viciously persecuted the Christian Church.
The first major apocalyptic Christian movement of the post-apostolic period was probably the Montanist movement founded by Montanus of Phrygia. The Montanists were a crisis sect (as are all millenarian sects) that arose during the Great Persecution of the Christian Church (156-172 AD). Montanus, along with two prophets, Priscilla and Maximilla, proclaimed that Christ would return around 156 AD and that the New Jerusalem would be from there. Phrygia will be where Jesus will rule the world for a thousand years. The Montanists caused great excitement and unrest among the Christians. He preached extreme austerity, banned marriage, and encouraged Christians to persecute in the service of God. After repeated failures of their prophecies of Christ’s return and the massive disruption in the lives of Christians who abandoned their secular responsibilities in anticipation of The End, the Church excommunicated the Montanist leaders, and the movement itself ended after Maximilla’s death. Before her death in 179, she predicted that the end would come soon after her death.
The two centuries after the death of Charlemagne (768-814), just before the second millennium AD, was one of the most volatile periods in the history of Western Europe. Instability and insecurity arose, first due to the murderous raids of the Vikings (“From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us,” was refrained from prayer in Christian churches throughout Europe). And as if the fury of the Northmen were not bad enough, a new wave of fierce nomads burst into Europe from the east; Magyar relatives of the terrible Huns. They continued their ferocious raids deep into Europe, burning cities and towns, killing men and taking women by the hair in gangs. At the same time, Muslim pirates launched devastating raids on the coasts of southern France and Italy. This, unfortunately, occurred in Europe during the period of decline in the power of the French and German states after the death of Charlemagne who had joined them in the strong Holy Roman Empire.
The poor helpless people, maddened with fear, went into a literal frenzy. Mass hysteria saw all kinds of strange visions in broad daylight: comets, showers of blood, dragons appeared regularly in the sky, and celestial serpents and demons were as common as sheep grazing in fields (Hally’s Comet was seen in Europe in 989). Church officials joined the mass frenzy. The Ecumenical Council sitting in 999 solemnly declared that the world would end on January 1, 1000 AD, a sign of mass madness. On the last day of the year, St. Peter’s in Rome was filled with a frenzy of people weeping, trembling, and shrieking in fear of the Lord’s Day. They thought God would send fire from heaven and burn the world to ashes. Many rich and wealthy people gave their wealth to make heaven for the poor. They wore sackcloth and poured ashes on themselves. On New Year’s Eve St. Peter’s Square was filled with people trying to outdo each other in acts of penance and self-mortification, self-mutilation and flag-raising. Some dyed their skins with a hot iron to prove repentance; Some were killed by overzealous companions.
But the new year came and went and nothing happened.
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