Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert, but it was Anthony the Great who launched the movement that became the Desert Fathers. Sometime around AD 270, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one's possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ (Matt. 19:21). He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.
Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity—the Diocletianic Persecution in AD 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Only ten years later, Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian's successor Constantine I. Those who left for the desert formed an alternate Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice. Anthony quickly gained followers eager to live their lives in accordance with this solidarity and separation from material goods. From these prohibitions it is recorded by Athanasius that Anthony received special privileges from God, such as the ability to heal the sick, inspire others to have faith in healing through God, and even converse with God on occasion. Around this time, desert monasticism appeared nearly simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria.
Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. They instead focused their energies on praying, singing psalms, fasting, giving alms to the needy, and preserving love and harmony with one another while keeping their thoughts and desires for God alone. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers. By the time of Anthony's death, there were so many men and women living in the desert that it was described as "a city" by Anthony's biographer.
The Desert Fathers advocated three main approaches to monasticism. One was the austere life of the hermit, as practiced by Anthony and his followers in lower Egypt. Another was the cenobitic life, communities of monks and nuns in upper Egypt formed by Pachomius. The third was a semi-hermitic lifestyle seen mostly in Nitria, Kellia and Scetis, west of the Nile, begun by Saint Amun. The latter were small groups (two to six) of monks and nuns with a common spiritual elder—these separate groups would join together in larger gatherings to worship on Saturdays and Sundays. This third form of monasticism was responsible for most of the sayings that were compiled as the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers).