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Donatists

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(Pars Donati was the name they themselves assumed). During the last half of the third and the first half of the fourth centuries there was a combination of elements at work in the bosom of the Church, which, in consequence of and in connection with peculiar forces operative on the outside, produced a severe strain upon its stability and unity. During this period there were repeated and powerful centrifugal tendencies, which gave birth successively to the Novatian, Meletian, and the Donatist schisms. The outward history of these schisms is long, and its remote causes and outward details must be learned from Church histories.

Of these movements, that of the Donatists in North Africa was by far the most important and widest in its influence. Substantially it had the same ground and character as the Novatian. On this point Neander very clearly and judiciously says: "This schism (the Donatist) may be compared, in many respects, with that of Novatian in the preceding period. In his, too, we see the conflict, for example, of Separatism with Catholicism; and it is therefore important, in so far as it tended to settle and establish the notion of the visible, outward unity of the Church, and of the objective element in things of religion and of the Church. That which distinguishes the present case is the reaction, proceeding out of the essence of the Christian Church, and called forth, in this instance, by a peculiar occasion, against the confounding of the ecclesiastical and political elements; on which occasion, for the first time, the ideas which Christianity, as opposed to the papal religion of the state, had first made men distinctly conscious of, became an object of contention within the Christian Church itself the ideas concerning universal, inalienable human rights; concerning liberty of conscience; concerning the rights of free conviction. The more immediate and local occasion of these disputes lay in a certain spirit of fanaticism, which, ever since the spread of Montanism, had prevailed in North Africa, and also in various circumstances superinduced by the Diocletian persecution" (Neander, Church Hist. Bohn's ed. 3:250). The substance of what was at issue in this movement is given thus by Dr. Schaff: "The Donatist controversy was a conflict between Separatism and Catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the Church, as an exclusive community of regenerate saints, and the idea of the Church as the general Christendom of state and people. It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian Church, and in particular of the predicate of holiness [as in the Novatian controversy it revolved, ultimately at least, more round the predicate of unity]. It resulted in the completion by Augustine of the Catholic dogma of the Church, which had been partly developed by Cyprian in his conflict with a similar schism" [the Novatian] (Schaff's Church Hist. 2:365).

Donatism, starting thus in a time of persecution, when the question in regard to the restoration of the Lapsed brought up under various aspects the question of authority and freedom, and created, too, a severer and a milder theory of discipline, had its roots in the age preceding its actual rise. Embers previously scattered, but still full of latent fire, lay ready all around to create and feed a new fire. Already in the Diocletian persecution the old controversy between the rigoristic and the milder party in regard to discipline was revived. Secundus of Tigisis, the primate of Numidia, led on by one Donatus of Casse Nigre, wrought himself into fury on the subject of severe discipline, advocating prompt exclusion, once and forever, of all who had fled in danger, or delivered up the sacred books to the persecutors. Mensurius, with Cecilian, his archdeacon and successor, headed the milder party, advocating moderation and discretion, and casting suspicion on the motives of the rigorists. This tension threatened schism as early as the year 305 in the matter of an episcopal election for the city of Cirta (Schaff's Hist. of the Christ. Church, 2:361). The actual outbreak was in 311. Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, died in that year, whereupon the clergy and people of that district, in a hasty manner, elected the archdeacon Caecilianus in his place, and proceeded to consecrate him without summoning or consulting the bishops of Numidia, a contiguous and subordinate province. Perhaps courtesy or custom, perhaps some real or imaginary right, was here violated; at any rate, on this ground the disaffected party hastened to resent the slight by refusing to acknowledge the new bishop. In addition to the slight of the, Numidian bishops, they justified their opposition to him on the ground or pretext that Felix, one of the bishops who was prominent in the consecration, was a Traditor that is, one who had delivered up the sacred books to the persecutors. In Carthage, also, the elders of the congregation, besides many others, and among them a noble lady, Lucilla, a widow and very superstitious, were opposed to him. Secundus of Tigisis, with seventy Numidian bishops, assembled at Carthage, summoned Caecilian to appear, which he failing to do, they deposed and excommunicated him, and elected in his place Majorinus, the chaplain and favorite of the wealthy and influential widow, Lucilla. After his death in 315, DONATUS, a gifted man, of fiery energy and eloquence, revered by his admirers as a wonder-worker, and styled THE GREAT, was made his successor. From him the now developed party took their name.

Each party now labored to secure the conquest of churches, and thus the breach was extended, and the schism in the North African Church fully effected. The emperor Constantine, who had just secured the sovereignty in this part of the Roman empire, is supposed to have been prejudiced against the friends of Majorinus, for in his first edict he expressly excluded the party from the privileges which he bestowed on the Catholic Church. Thus condemned without a hearing, the Donatists presented a petition to the emperor, who was at the time in Gaul, asking him to name judges in that country before whom the questions which had arisen in the North African Church might be laid. He "directed that Melchiades (Miltiades), bishop of Rome, with five other Gallic bishops," should inquire into the affair; that Caecilian should appear before them, with ten bishops who were to present the charges against him, and ten other bishops who were to defend him" (Neander, Church Hist. Bohn's ed. 3:268). The trial took place in 313. Melchiades brought fifteen other Italian bishops, and Donatus also appeared on the opposite side as chief accuser of Caecilian, and the soul of the new party. His charges were found to be unsustained, and "he himself was declared guilty of various acts contrary to the laws of the Church."

The Donatists were of course dissatisfied with this result. A second hearing was ordered in 314, at which the charges against Felix, the ordainer of Caecilian, were to be investigated. Felix was declared innocent. The Donatists now appealed from this ecclesiastical decision to the emperor himself. He accepted their appeal, though he answered it with violent expressions against them, and after listening to the delegates of the two parties at Milan, in 316, he also decided against the Donatists. The matter now took a severer turn. The emperor issued penal laws against the Donatists, deprived them of their churches, and confiscated their places of assembly. This exasperated them, and fully developed their enthusiasm. The strife went forward not without the use of carnal weapons on both sides. The Donatists were in spirit unsubdued and determined. Ursacius, who was empowered to carry the laws into effect against them, used forcible measures to compel them to unite with the Church. This produced a powerful ferment, and pushed them to the point of desperation. They declared that no power on earth could induce them to fellowship with the "rascal," as they called Caecilian. The cause of the Donatists was espoused by a band of idle, roving, fanatical ascetics, who wandered about the country among the huts of the peasants (whence they were called by their adversaries Circumcelliones [q.v.]). These half-crazy beggars and plunderers excited the peasants to all sorts of violence, and went forth with fire and sword as the "Christian champions" (agonistici). Their fury cost blood, and the military was required to suppress it. Some of the Donatists were executed, others banished, and their churches were closed or confiscated. Death, met in this way, they regarded as martyrdom, and, instead of avoiding, they coveted it. Many who did not attain to this honor at the hands of their enemies, in their fanatical zeal resorted to suicide, casting themselves from precipices or into the fire, and even hired others to kill them: The emperor saw the mistake of his violent measures, and in 321 granted to the Donatists full liberty to follow their convictions in faith and worship, at the same time exhorting the Catholics to patience and moderation. This somewhat subdued, but did not end the strife. Under the successor of Constantine, Constans, they fared worse again. We read of a battle of Bagniae, in which the Donatists were defeated, and of thirteen years of tumult and bloodshed. In general they were subjected to severe measures.

When Julian the Apostate came into power as emperor, the Donatists were much pleased that Christianity should, under a pagan ruler, cease to be the dominant religion of the state. Thus, in 361, they obtained once more their full freedom in religious matters, and rose to the highest degree of eminence that at any time was attained by them. They took possession of their own churches again with joy; repainting the edifices, and generally cleansing the walls and altars. Towards the close of the 4th century Africa was covered with their churches, and had four hundred Donatist bishops.

To be thus placed on a level merely with heathen religions and all sects was, however, after all, only a negative comfort. It by no means adjusted the difficulties of the Donatists with the Church, and under succeeding emperors their case again became worse. Maximus, a deacon, and Primianus, a bishop of Carthage, coming into conflict with each other, created parties, out of which grew sects taking their names the Maximianists and the Prinzianists. Other divisions and difficulties followed, and there grew up among the more thoughtful and reflecting of the African bishops a desire to have the breach healed. Reason and calm disputation also now more and more took the place of violence. A powerful influence toward reconciliation began to be exerted about 396 by Augustine, first presbyter, and afterwards bishop of Hippo, in Numidia. He wrote, preached, and labored privately and publicly with varied, but still generally increasing success.

From this time forward the cause of the Donatists began gradually to. decline. After a three-days' arbitration at Carthage in 411, attended by 286 Catholic and 279 Donatist bishops, where the old issues were rediscussed, the Donatists again stood defeated. Stringent civil laws were also again passed against them, and in 415 they were forbidden, on pain of death, to hold religious assemblies. Even Augustine, who had depended on calm and earnest discussion before, now advocated force, appealing to Luke 14:23 "compel them to come in" and exhorted the hesitating officer of the law to proceed in the infliction of the appointed penalties, saying that it was "much better that some should perish by their own fires than that the whole body should burn in the everlasting flames of Gehenna, through the desert of their impious dissension" (Waddington, History of the Church, page 153). A new flame of violent desperation broke out. A bishop, Gaudentius, even vindicated suicide, referring in justification to 2 Maccabees 14; and threatened "that if an attempt were made to deprive him of his church by force, he would burn himself, with his congregation, in it." In 428, when Africa was conquered by the Arian Vandals, the Donatists suffered no persecution from them except as adherents to the Nicene Creed; and the great and long controversy was now virtually ended by,the general destruction of the Church in Africa through that invasion. Yet the Donatists continued to survive as a distinct party down to the sixth century.

As may be seen from our sketch, the Donatists were not heretical in any essential articles of faith, nor were they immoral in life, except as their fanaticism led many into excesses, yet these were always disapproved by the better class. Many of the charges of immorality made against them are regarded as unfounded, or at least as highly exaggerated. The schism began in differences of view in regard to discipline, and was continued and widened continually more and more by hasty and severe action on the part of the Church and State, and growing fanaticism, separatistic pride, and passion on the part of the Donatists. A rich lesson for the Church through all ages lies in the history of this remarkable schism and the subsequent controversy.

To the above account of the Donatists, written by the late lamented Dr. Harbaugh, we append a few notices of views held with regard to them by writers who justify their position, more or less fully, from the nonprelatical point of view.

Schenkel, in Herzog's Real-Encyclopä die (art. Kirche, 7:568), speaks of Donatism as an attempt (similar to that of the Novatians) to break the hard shell of external ecclesiasticism, and to bring out again, from the dead mass of simply baptized Christians, the pure Church of the regenerate; to substitute, in a word, the Christian communion for an ecclesiastical corporation. "Augustine, in opposing the Donatists, went so far (Epist. 161:5) as to call separation from the Episcopal Church a crime, and to say that no separatist could be saved." The question turned (Schenkel proceeds), in fact, upon that of Church and State. The Donatists saw that the unity and freedom of the Church were imperilled by its union with the State, and they declared against the State-Church doctrine, then (under Constantine and his successors) a new thing. Augustine not only adopted the State-Church theory, but pushed it to its legitimate consequence, that the State is bound to put down separatists by force. (See AUGUSTINE). It is, perhaps, not too much to say that the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical system rests on Augustine's doctrine of the Church as set forth in his writings against the Donatists.

The Donatist doctrine was that the true Church is composed only of pure Christians; Augustine, on the other hand, held that the "Church consists of the sum total of all the baptized, and that the ideal sanctity of the Church is not impaired hr impure elements externally connected with it. He nevertheless advocated a rigorous exercise of Church discipline" (Hagenbach, History of Doctrines, § 135). Neander maintains that both the Donatists and their opponents confounded the visible with the invisible Church, and placed the predicates of purity and holiness in the former. The Donatists made catholicity to depend upon purity; Augustine made purity depend upon catholicity. The Donatists said, "Whoever is a true Christian is to us a Catholic;" Augustine said, "No man can have Christ for his head who is not a member of his body, the Church." Neander thinks, therefore, that, had the parties fully understood and recognized the "distinction in the idea of the Church as visible and invisible" (which Augustine came near to, but did not carry out), they might have come to an agreement with each other (History of Dogmas, Ryland's transl., ed. Bohn, 1:395). The subject is very well treated from this point of view, but with stronger Independent leanings, in Punchard, History of Congregationalism, N.Y. 1865, volume 1, chapter 2. Litton (an unprelatical Episcopalian) holds that Donatism "sprang from a principle true in itself, but pushed beyond the limits of sobriety" (Litton, The Church of Christ, London, 1851, page 518). See also Cooper, The Free Church of Ancient Christendom (Lond. 1853, page 360 sq.).

The sources for the history of Donatism are given by Dr. Schaff (Hist. of the Christian Church, 2:360. Augustine, works against the Donatists; Optatus Milevitanus (about 370), De Schismate Donatistarum; Du Pin, Monumenta vet. ad Donatist. hist. pertinentia (Par. 1700); Excerpta et Scripta vetera ad Donatistarum Historiam pertinentia, at the close of the 9th vol. of the Bened. ed. of Augustine's works. The literature Valesius, De Schismat. Donat. (appended to his ed. of Eusebius); Walch, Historie der Ketzereien, etc., volume 4; Neander, Church History (Torrey's, 2:282 sq.); Roux, De Augustino adversario Donat. (Lugd. Bat. 1838); Ribbeck, Donatus u. Augustinus, oder der erste entscheidende Kampf zwischen Separatismus u. der Kirche (Elberf. 1858); Tillemont, Memoires (Bruxelles, 1732), 6:1-98; Arnold, Kirchen.-u.-Ketzerhistorie, book 1, chapter 8; and the other works cited above.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Donatists'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/d/donatists.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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