Donatus & the Donatist Schism

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DONATISTS. As a direct result of the persecution of Diocletian, there arose among the Christians a great enthusiasm for sufferings, and even for death, for the sake of the faith. They were demanded to surrender their sacred books; but not only did many refuse to comply with this demand, but some even stepped forward purposely, and boasted that they had the books, and could by no means be forced to give them up. The name of a traditor, that is, one who has surrendered his Bible, became extremely odious. Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, openly opposed the fanaticism of the voluntary martyrs and the extravagant reverence shown to confessors. He sent his archdeacon, Cæcilianus, into the prisons where the confessors sat, and had the crowds which gathered there in enthusiastic devotion dispersed by force. But thereby the fanatics became only so much the more excited, and it was to be expected that they would seize upon the first opportunity to avenge themselves. In 305 a synod was convened at Cirta; but, before the synod was opened, the primate of Numidia, Bishop Secundus of Tigisis, proposed that an investigation should be made, whether there were any traditores among the assembled. The result of the investigation was, that nearly every one of the bishops present was proved guilty of the crime, in some form or other. Suspicion fell even upon Secundus himself. He was consequently compelled to drop the investigation; but he, nevertheless, saw fit to assume the attitude of a guardian of the discipline of the Church, and, when he heard of the troubles which had occurred in Carthage, he sent a warning to Mensurius and Cæcilianus. Mensurius died 311, and, according to the common course of affairs, the archdeacon succeeded the bishop; and, as Cæcilianus was known to hold the same views as Mensurius, the moderates hastened to elect him, without awaiting the arrival of the Numidian bishops, and without inviting the primate, Secundus of Tigisis, to perform the consecration. The Numidian bishops felt much offended at the slight shown to them, and allied themselves with the rigorists. Secundus convened a synod, and summoned Cæcilianus to defend himself. As Cæcilianus did not appear before the synod, he was deposed and excommunicated, and Majorinus was elected in his stead. When Majorinus died (in 313), Donatus, called the Great, became his successor.

Thus the schism originated in the Church of Carthage. There were two bishops and two congregations. From the capital it spread through the whole province. A majority of the country people, and a considerable number of bishops, declared in favor of Donatus. Outside of Africa, however, Cæcilianus was generally recognized as the legitimate bishop; and the


opposite party (the pars Majorini, afterwards the pars Donati, the Donatiani, or Donatistæ) were considered as schismatics who had separated from the true Catholic Church. In an edict of 313 Constantine the Great promised the Church of Africa his protection; but the Donatists were expressly excluded from the imperial favor. They immediately addressed themselves to the emperor, and begged him to examine their complaints against Cæcilianus. He consented, and appointed a committee of five bishops from Gaul, with Melchiades, Bishop of Rome, at its head. The committee summoned, Cæcilianus, and ten African bishops of each party, to its presence. Donatus of Casæ Nigræ was the spokesman of the Donatists; but, in spite of all his exertions, Cæcilianus was acquitted, and Donatus was de posed. The other Donatist bishops were allowed to retain their office and dignity, on the condition that they returned to the Catholic Church. But the condemned would not submit. They complained to the emperor of the partiality of the verdict, and begged that some juridically educated persons might be sent to Africa, to hear witnesses, and gather evidence, and the case be laid before a synod of bishops. Their request was granted, and imperial commissioners appeared in Carthage. But the commissioners decided in favor of Cæcilianus. The Donatists became extremely excited on account of this verdict, and in an unfortunate moment they appealed directly to the emperor. Constantine was astonished and disgusted, that he, a Pagan, was asked to decide upon the internal affairs of the Christian Church; but he accepted, nevertheless, the appeal, summoned Cæcilianus and his accusers to Milan (316), and condemned the latter as guilty of calumny. All further resistance now became a crime against the imperial majesty; but the Donatists, nevertheless, refused to submit. Constantine referred, however, to ignore the whole affair; and, although no less than two hundred and seventy Donatist bishops were present at a synod held in 330, the policy adopted by the emperor would probably have proved the best way of healing the schism.

Constans, however, did not continue his father's policy, and the severity with which he treated the Donatists immediately produced very strange effects. Africa suffered at that time much from a vicious kind of ascetics, -the so-called Circumcelliones. An affiliation took place between these Circumcelliones and the lower elements of the Donatist party; and the result was a complete uproar, which, however, was speedily suppressed by Taurinus (345). At this time Cæcilianus died, and an opportunity. presented itself of healing the schism by recognizing the Donatist bishop. But the Donatists had made themselves so despised and hated, that a compromise was impossible. Gratus succeeded Cæcilianus as Catholic bishop, and the schism continued. Soon a new uproar broke out. As most of the Donatists belonged to the poor class, and many were completely destitute, Constans sent (in 348) Paul and Macarius to Africa to try to reconcile them by means of a liberal support. But Donatus the Great declared with vehemence against this attempt of seduction; and Donatus of Bagai met the negotiators at the head of a swarm of armed Circumcelliones. The commotion, however, was speedily suppressed. Donatus of Bagai was decapitated, Donatus the Great was banished, and the Donatist churches were closed. A complete change took place in the condition of the party when Julian ascended the throne. It was his policy to fight the Catholic Church by means of heretics and schismatics. The Donatists were immediately allowed to use; their churches, and their banished bishops returned. Donatus the Great had died; but Julian appointed Parmenianus his successor, and estab lished him in Carthage by means of force. The Donatists had for a short time the power, and they did not use it sparingly. But Valentinian I. and Gratian issued again very severe laws against them (373 and 375).

Meanwhile the inner decay of the sect had begun. One of its most prominent members, Tychonius, distinguished for his great learning, and appreciated as the author of the Regulas septem ad investigandion intelligentiam Sacrarum Seripturarion, rejected the Novatian views held by most Donatists, and objected to the ostentatious exclusiveness of the party. Such milder and more moderate views found many adherents; and Primianus, the successor of Parmenianus, belonged. to the moderate side of the sect, and came soon in conflict with the extremists, at whose head stood the deacon Maximianus. The conflict was. very bitter; and, when he ventured to excommunicate Maximianus, the extremists convened a synod (393), deposed him, and elected Maximianus bishop in his stead. Thus there were three bishops in Carthage; and, just as the sect in this. way was gliding down into a state of dissolution, it encountered its most decided and most powerful adversary, Augustine. After writing several books against the sect, as it would seem, without any great effect, Augustine himself consented to an appeal to force, referring to Luke xiv. 23. A synod of Carthage (405) petitioned the Emperor Honorius to issue penal laws against the Donatists. The petition was granted: laymen should be fined, clergymen banished, and the churches. closed. But Honorius could not afford to make any more enemies than those he already had, and in 409 he issued an edict of toleration; but this. edict raised such a storm in the Catholic Church,, that it had to be immediately repealed. A disputation was then arranged in Carthage (411), Collatio cum Donatistis. Two hundred and eightysix Catholic and two hundred and seventy-nine Donatist bishops were present: Augustine and Aurelius were the speakers of the former; Primianus and Patilianus, those of the latter. For three days the debate lasted, but no result was. arrived at. Finally the imperial commissioner declared the Donatists vanquished, and very severe measures were decided upon against them. In 414 they lost all civil rights; in 415 they were forbidden to assemble for worshipping, under penalty of death. Nevertheless, they had not become extinct, when, in the seventh century, the Saracens occupied the country, and destroyed the African Church.

LIT. - OPTATUS MILEVITAYUS: De Schismate Donatistarumi, edit. by Du Pin, Paris, 1700; AUGUSTIN.: Contra epistolana Parnaeniani, De baptismo Contra literas Petiliani, Contra Cresconium; NORISIUS: Historia Donatistarum, edit. by Ballerin,


Verona, 1729; RIBBEK: Donatus u. Augustinus, Elberfeld,1858; [DEUTSCH: Drei Actenstucke s. Gescla. d. Donatismus, Berlin, 1875]; VOLTER: D. Ursprung d. D., Freib.-im-Br., 1883.

Albrecht Vogel, "Donatism," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn, Vol. 1. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.659-661.

Primary Sources

Book or monograph "The Anti-Donatist Works of St. Augustine," M. Dods, trans. Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, Vol. 4. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.
Book or monograph J.G. Cunningham, Letters of St. Augustine, 2 Vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.
On-line Resource Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (Tertullian.org)

Secondary Sources

Article in Journal or Book J.S. Alexander, "The Motive For a Distinction Between Donatus of Carthage and Donatus of Casae Nigrae," Journal of Theological Studies 31.2 (1980): 540-547.
Article in Journal or Book J.S. Alexander, "Aspects of Donatist Scriptural Interpretation at the Conference of Carthage of 411," Studia Patristica 15 (1984): 125-30.
Article in Journal or Book Catherine Batten Balk, "Augustine and the Donatists," Chicago Theological Seminary Register 86.3 (1996): 12-23.
Article in Journal or Book Gerald Bonner, "Towards a Text of Tynconius," Studia Patristica 10,1 (1970): 9-13.
Article in Journal or Book James Breckenridge, "Augustine and the Donatists," Foundations 19.1 (1976): 69-77.
Article in Journal or Book P. Brown, "Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 58 (1968): 85-95.
Book or monograph Augustine of Hippo: A BiographyPeter Brown: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, revised. University of California Press, 2000. Pbk. ISBN: 0520227573. pp.576.
Article in Journal or Book W.H.C. Frend, "Donatus `paene totam Africam decepit.' How?" Journal of Ecclesiastical History 48.4 (1997): 611-627.
Book or monograph W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church. Oxford University Press, 1971. Hbk. ISBN: 0198264089. pp.384.
Article in Journal or Book Matthew Alan Gaumer, "Augustine’s Feud with the Donatists & Pelagians: A Problem of Interpreting Paul?" Annali Di Storia Dell’Esegesi 30.2 (July 2013): 439-448.
Book or monograph Stanley Lawrence Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church, 2nd edn. Ams Press, 1983. Hbk. ISBN: 0404623840.
On-line Resource Gordon R. Lewis, "Violence in the Name of Christ: The Significance of Augustine's Donatist Controversy For Today," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14.2 (Spring 1971): 103-110.View in PDF format pdf
Article in Journal or Book R.A. Markus, "Donatism: the Last Phase," C.W. Dugmore & Charles Duggan, eds., Studies in Church History, Volume 1. Papers read at the first winter and summer meetings of the Ecclesiastical History Society. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1964. Hbk. pp.118-126.
Book or monograph R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1970. Reprinted: University Microfilms International, 2000. Pbk. ISBN: 0608157503.
Article in Journal or Book Darryl J. Pigeon, "Cyprian, Augustine and the Donatist Schism," Ashland Theological Journal 23 (1991): 37-47.
On-line Resource Robert Rainy [1826-1906], The Ancient Catholic Church from the Accession of Trajan to the Fourth General Council [A.D. 98-451]Robert Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church from the Accession of Trajan to the Fourth General Council [A.D. 98-451]. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902. Hbk. pp.539. View in PDF format pdf [This material is in the Public Domain]
Article in Journal or Book Charles J. Scalise, "Exegetical Warrants for Religious Persecution: Augustine vs. the Donatists," Review and Expositor 93.4 (1996): 497-506.
Article in Journal or Book Maureen A. Tilley, "Dilatory Donatists or Procrastination Catholics: The Trial at the Conference of Carthage," Church History 60.1 (1991): 7-19.
Article in Journal or Book Maureen A.Tilley, "Sustaining Donatist Self-Identity: From the Church of the Martyrs to the Collecta of the Desert," Journal of Early Christian Studies 5.1 (1997): 21-35.
Book or monograph Warmington: The North African ProvincesB.H. Warmington, The North African Provinces from Diocletian to the Vandal Conquest. Greenwood Press, 1971. Hbk. ISBN: 083715202X. pp.126.
  Robin Whelan, "African Controversy: The Inheritance of the Donatist Schism in Vandal Africa," The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65.3 (July 2014): 504–21.
Book or monograph G.G. Willis, St. Augustine and the Donatist Controversy. London: SPCK, 1952.

Related Subjects

Alogi | Apollinarianism | Arianism | Docetism | Donatism | Ebionites | Gnosticism | Manicheaism | Marcion | Monarchianism | Montanism | Nestorianism | Pelagianism

Heresies | Apostolic Brethren | Arnoldists | Beguins | Flagellants | Bogomils | Cathari | Henricians | Humiliati | Hussites | Lollards | Manichees | Passagians | Paulicians | Petrobrusians | Speronists | Spiritual Franciscans | Waldensians


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