We're used to hearing complaints that secular commentators have a difficult time understanding religion, but no less obvious is the chasm that separates different styles of Christian belief and worship. Many Christians, who would be quick to rally against the atheistic attacks of a Richard Dawkins, are themselves perplexed by charismatic or Pentecostal traditions: witness the controversies over Sarah Palin's faith in the 2008 presidential election. When they encounter the idea that prophecy and charismatic gifts are widely accessible in the modern world, it's not only outspoken liberal Christians who readily resort to familiar "Holy Roller" stereotypes of gullibility, chicanery, and mental derangement. Evangelicals also have their doubts.

Doubts about continuing prophecy are nothing new in the church, and at least since the time of the Montanists in the early second century, they have repeatedly spawned schisms. In modern history, though, a defining moment occurred at the start of the 18th century with the affair of the so-called French Prophets. It was three hundred years ago, in fact, that Western Christians drew sharp battle lines that in broad terms survive today. In 1709, the English religious world was defined by three-sided debates between moderate Christians, charismatics, and secularist liberals, and their exchanges look uncannily modern. Those struggles—and the profound ill feeling they engendered—reverberated through the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries in both the British Isles and North America. The affair of the French Prophets has an excellent claim to mark the beginning of modern religious discourse in the English-speaking world.

"Agitations, ecstasies, and inspirations"

The story of the Prophets is an aftermath of the great religious wars of the 16th century. By 1598, the Catholic party secured its hold on France but granted generous toleration to the Protestants—the Huguenots—through the royal Edict of Nantes. In 1685, however, the French king Louis XIV was determined to prove his Catholic credentials by formally revoking the edict and unleashing a savage persecution. In 1702, some radical Protestants, ensconced in the mountains of southern France, organized the desperate and bloody rebellion of the Camisards. Hundreds of thousands of Protestant refugees were soon dispersed over the lands of Protestant Europe.

As a thriving commercial center, London was a particular magnet for French refugees, who built a thriving culture there, complete with their own churches. But besides the sober Calvinists, there were also millenarian preachers who believed that King Louis's persecutions were a sign of the end times. In the present apocalyptic age, they believed, signs and wonders were becoming common: toddlers reputedly preached; the dead were raised; the sick were healed. Believers spoke in strange tongues; hearers swooned and went into ecstasies. The London stories of 1707 and 1708 harked back to the Book of Acts, but also foreshadowed the American revivals of 1740 or 1798. Soon, English converts like John Lacy carried on the work of the French pioneers and spread the movement to provincial cities. The apocalyptic revival created a public sensation and drew massive attention from the print media, which were expanding rapidly. Believers' "agitations, ecstasies, and inspirations" were discussed in newspapers and magazines and have left a rich legacy in pamphlet literature, broadsides, and cartoons. The Prophets were early stars of a burgeoning celebrity culture.

The skeptics

In most earlier periods of Christian history, such prophets would likely have received a respectful following, and perhaps even have launched a mass movement. But in religious terms, England in 1700 was like no society that had ever existed before. Religious skeptics have long existed, of course, as have atheists, but never before had claims to supernatural authority been subject to such withering criticism. After generations of religious warfare, English elites were profoundly suspicious of attempts to invoke God's will in earthly affairs, while the upsurge of experimental science gave unprecedented status to the language of reason and rationality. (England executed its last witch in 1684.) Not only were scholars boldly pursuing biblical criticism, placing scriptural stories in their historical context, but their efforts were reaching a general literate audience. Extreme liberals moved towards Deist positions, acknowledging that God might have created the world, but that he certainly did not intervene in human affairs or reveal his truths to humanity. Religious conservatives were appalled at the general atmosphere of skepticism—the triumph of the "Sadducees" who denied both angels and spirits.

Not surprisingly, then, most coverage of the Prophets was very hostile and had more in common with sensational True Crime literature than hagiography. An outpouring of books and pamphlets reached flood tide in 1708 and especially 1709. Many attacked the scandalous "enthusiasts" —that is, people who believed themselves to be possessed by a god (Greek en-thous). Enthusiasm, most held, was on the borderlands of overt insanity and should be treated as a medical condition rather than a theological issue. This was the time of the Earl of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, of Francis Lee's History of Montanism, of titles like The New Pretenders to Prophecy Examined and The Spirit of Enthusiasm Exorcised. A play called The Modern Prophets even hit the London stage.

For the religious debates of the time, the prophets offered superb ammunition. Deists and skeptics were overjoyed to see Christianity represented by individuals they saw as flagrantly insane, or at best crooked. Not only did their antics discredit the faith, but they also raised grave doubts about Scripture. Enthusiasts boasted that their leaders were modern successors of the Old Testament prophets. True enough! mocked the Deists. If only we could actually see venerated figures such as Isaiah or Jeremiah, surely they would look and behave exactly like the babbling fools in contemporary London. And were biblical miracles any more convincing than the hysterical delusions of the modern Prophets? For a philosopher like Shaftesbury, religious extremism had dire real world consequences: it spawned fanaticism and persecution.

Defending rational Christianity

Mainstream Anglicans were aghast both at the Prophets and at the Deist attacks. They believed in revealed religion and prophecy, but had to distance themselves at all costs from the extremists. Above all, they had to maintain the credibility of the faith for a public that had little patience for such extravagance. Accordingly, moderates too joined in the mockery of the Prophets and their outrageous claims to heal and resurrect and to speak in tongues. True Christianity, for these critics, had to be rational, not enthusiastic: signs and wonders ended with the closing of the New Testament. Of course, moderates based their views on biblical warnings against false prophets and on Christian tradition, but they also had good practical reasons for concern. Rhetorically, any attempt to assert supernatural themes in a secular age has to draw a very sharp line to separate mainstream faith from the religion of ecstasy and personal revelation.

By 1709, for most respectable society, the revivalists were a disreputable joke, but the story had a long afterlife. The Prophets' movement merged into Pietism, and ultimately into the great Euro-American evangelical revival. In fact, the Shakers claim the French Prophets as their spiritual ancestors. But the group left a mixed heritage for later preachers and revivalists, who were repeatedly accused of dabbling with "enthusiasm"—a charge that embarrassed them. Both Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley had to make it very clear that the holy signs they saw in revivals and awakenings were quite different from the excesses of London in 1707.

The prophetic impulse did not die out, of course, and "enthusiasm" has revived in every generation. In our own time, it is best represented in the Pentecostal movements that are gaining ground so rapidly around the world. Often their practices unsettle other Christians, but as we have seen, the conflict is a very old one: 2009 marks its tricentennial.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.