Question: "What is Messalianism?"
Answer: Messalianism was a Christian sect in Mesopotamia that existed from around AD 360 to about the ninth century. The name Messalian—one of many for the group—means “one who prays” in Syriac, as it also does in the Greek version of the name: Euchite. Their beliefs and practices were heavily influenced by Eastern mysticism.
Messalianism taught that, because of Adam’s original sin, every person was born with a demon that incited men to sin and that neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper could expel. The Messalians even taught that Christ was born with a demon. The only means for removing the demon was fervent, constant prayer combined with an ascetic lifestyle. The Messalians had no jobs, only praying—or sleeping, as Theodoret quipped—and they lived by begging.
The asceticism would continue until the Messalian’s prayers produced a passionless state wherein the demon would escape the body through the spittle or mucus, or else as smoke in the form of a serpent. After that, sin was impossible. Because the passions of the body no longer ruled, rich food and luxurious living could not stir evil desires in the heart, so the necessity for an ascetic lifestyle was gone.
Messalianism also taught that the person in the passionless state was able to see the Trinity with his physical eyes. The three parts of the Godhead converged into one, uniting with worthy souls. Further, these “spiritual” people were viewed as almost divine in nature, seeing things invisible to ordinary men like spirits, demons, and prophetic visions.
The first recorded leader of Messalianism was Adelphius, so another name for the group was the Adelphians. Theodoret recorded that Flavian the bishop of Antioch invited the Messalian teachers to his city. The Messalians denied their doctrines and faulted their accusers with slander. Flavian then pretended to sympathize with Adelphius, convincing him that he had found a like-minded ally and conning him into divulging all his beliefs.
The Messalian leader was convicted out of his own mouth; he and his party were beaten, excommunicated, and banished from Syria to Pamphylia. They were not allowed the opportunity for recantation, as they wished, because no one felt they could trust their sincerity. It is probably at this point that Flavian held a synod against them, attended by thirty clergy. Messalianism was also condemned by a synod in Sida, Pamphylia, around the same time, approximately AD 390. Over the next decades, many religious leaders all over the ancient world, notably in Ephesus and Alexandria, also met and condemned Messalianism.
Other leaders within Messalianism included Lampetius, whose followers were called Lampetians. He is said to have been the first Messalian to become a priest, being ordained by the bishop of Caesarea in 458. Eventually, he was accused of inappropriate behavior and Messalian practices and was degraded from priesthood. The next leader was Marcian, a moneychanger in the sixth century. His leadership gave the group one more name: Marcianists. The new name led to some confusion in the West as those in the East condemned it. Upon appeal, the pope pronounced Marcian orthodox because he could not determine what the heresy of Marcianism was.
Whatever name was used, Messaliansim eventually fizzled out as time passed. Nothing more was heard of it until the Bogomil heresy that arose in the twelfth century.