Sabbateans (Sabbatians) is a complex general term that refers to a variety of followers of, disciples and believers in Sabbatai Tzevi (1626–1676), a rabbi who was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah in 1665 by Nathan of Gaza. Vast numbers of diaspora Jews accepted his claims, even after he was forced to renounce Judaism and convert to Islam in 1666. Sabbatai Tzevi's followers, during both phases of his spiritual career, are known as Sabbateans. While several followers converted to Islam along with him, others turned their backs in disappointment. The movement continues, and there are still a small number of followers of Sabbatai to this day.
Sabbateans in "The More it Changes"
After Sabbatai Tzevi convinced Sultan Mehmed IV that he was indeed the Messiah (converting Mehmed in the process), the Sabbateans flourished in the Ottoman Empire. When Sabbatai died in 1676, they proclaimed a new calendar, and continued to spread into Eastern Europe. By the 1770s, Sabbateanism had taken hold in Poland, Russia, Austria, and even Prussia.
The Sabbateans were firmly convinced that Sabbatai had been the Messiah. As such, they had no qualms about forcing conversions through violence. Even though Sabbatai had himself been a Jew, the Sabbateans, through roving bands known in Eastern Europe as haidamacks, attacked isolated towns, burning all houses of worship, including synagogues, churches, and mosques, and murdered those who opposed them.
By 1772, the possibility that Sabbateanism could supplant Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as the dominant religion in Eastern Europe seemed very real.