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§ 69. The Donatist Schism. External History.


I. Sources. Augustine: Works against the Donatists (Contra epistolam Parmeniani, libri iii.; De baptismo, contra Donatistas, libri vii.; Contra literas Petiliani, libri iii.; De Unitate Ecclesiae, lib. unus; Contra Cresconium, grammaticum Donat., libri iv.; Breviculus Collationis cum Donatistis; Contra Gaudentium, etc.), in the 9th vol. of his Opera, ed. Bened. (Paris, 1688). Optatus Milevitanus (about 370): De schismate Donatistarum. L. E. Du Pin: Monumenta vett. ad Donatist. Hist. pertinentia, Par. 1700. Excerpta et Scripta vetera ad Donatistarum Historiam pertinentia, at the close of the ninth volume of the Bened. ed. of Augustine’s works.

II. Literature. Valesius: De schism. Donat. (appended to his ed. of Eusebius). Walch: Historie der Ketzereien, etc., vol. iv. Neander: Allg. K. G. ii. 1, p. 366 sqq. (Torrey’s Engl. translation, ii. p. 182 sqq.). A. Roux: De Augustine adversario Donat. Lugd. Bat. 1838. F. Ribbeck: Donatus u. Augustinus, oder der erste entscheidende Kampf zwischen Separatismus u. Kirche., Elberf. 1858. (The author was for a short time a Baptist, and then returned to the Prussian established church, and wrote this work against separatism.)


Donatism was by far the most important schism in the church of the period before us. For a whole century it divided the North African churches into two hostile camps. Like the schisms of the former period,660660   Comp. vol. i. § 115, p. 447 sqq. it arose from the conflict of the more rigid and the more indulgent theories of discipline in reference to the restoration of the lapsed. But through the intervention of the Christianized state, it assumed at the same time an ecclesiastico-political character. The rigoristic penitential discipline had been represented in the previous period especially by the Montanists and Novatians, who were still living; while the milder principle and practice had found its most powerful support in the Roman church, and, since the time of Constantine, had generally prevailed.

The beginnings of the Donatist schism appear in the Dioclesian persecution, which revived that controversy concerning church discipline and martyrdom. The rigoristic party, favored by Secundus of Tigisis, at that time primate of Numidia, and led by the bishop Donatus of Casae Nigrae, rushed to the martyr’s crown with fanatical contempt of death, and saw in flight from danger, or in the delivering up of the sacred books, only cowardice and treachery, which should forever exclude from the fellowship of the church. The moderate party, at whose head stood the bishop Mensurius and his archdeacon and successor Caecilian, advocated the claims of prudence and discretion, and cast suspicion on the motives of the forward confessors and martyrs. So early as the year 305 a schism was imminent, in the matter of an episcopal election for the city of Cita. But no formal outbreak occurred until after the cessation of the persecution in 311; and then the difficulty arose in connection with the hasty election of Caecilian to the bishopric of Carthage. The Donatists refused to acknowledge him, because in his ordination the Numidian bishops were slighted, and the service was performed by the bishop Felix of Aptungis, or Aptunga, whom they declared to be a traditor, that is, one who had delivered up the sacred writings to the heathen persecutors. In Carthage itself he had many opponents, among whom were the elders of the congregation (seniores plebis), and particularly a wealthy and superstitious widow, Lucilla, who was accustomed to kiss certain relics before her daily communion, and seemed to prefer them to the spiritual power of the sacrament. Secundus of Tigisis and seventy Numidian bishops, mostly of the rigoristic school, assembled at Carthage deposed and excommunicated Caecilian, who refused to appear, and elected the lector Majorinus, a favorite of Lucilla, in his place. After his death, in 315, Majorinus was succeeded by Donatus, a gifted man, of fiery energy and eloquence, revered by his admirers as a wonder worker, and styled The Great. From this man, and not from the Donatus mentioned above, the name of the party was derived.661661   “Pars Donati, Donatistae, Donatiani.” Previously they were commonly called “Pars Majorini.” Optatus of Mileve seems, indeed, to know of only one Donatus. But the Donatists expressly distinguish Donatus Magnus of Carthage from Donatus a Casis Nigris. Likewise Augustine, Contra Cresconium Donat, ii. 1; though he himself had formerly confounded the two.

Each party endeavored to gain churches abroad to its side, and thus the schism spread. The Donatists appealed to the emperor Constantine—the first instance of such appeal, and a step which they afterward had to repent. The emperor, who was at that time in Gaul, referred the matter to the Roman bishop Melchiades (Miltiades) and five Gallican bishops, before whom the accused Caecilian and ten African bishops from each side were directed to appear. The decision went in favor of Caecilian, and he was now, except in Africa, universally regarded as the legitimate bishop of Carthage. The Donatists remonstrated. A second investigation, which Constantine intrusted to the council of Arles (Arelate) in 314, led to the same result. When the Donatists hereupon appealed from this ecclesiastical tribunal to the judgment of the emperor himself, he likewise declared against them at Milan in 316, and soon afterward issued penal laws against them, threatening them with the banishment of their bishops and the confiscation of their churches.

Persecution made them enemies of the state whose help they had invoked, and fed the flame of their fanaticism. They made violent resistance to the imperial commissioner, Ursacius, and declared that no power on earth could induce them to hold church fellowship with the “rascal” (nebulo) Caecilian. Constantine perceived the fruitlessness of the forcible restriction of religion, and, by an edict in 321, granted the Donatists full liberty of faith and worship. He remained faithful to this policy of toleration, and exhorted the Catholics to patience and indulgence. At a council in 330 the Donatists numbered two hundred and seventy bishops.

Constans, the successor of Constantine, resorted again to violent measures; but neither threats nor promises made any impression on the party. It came to blood. The Circumcellions, a sort of Donatist mendicant monks, who wandered about the country among the cottages of the peasantry,662662   “Cellas circumientes rusticorum.” Hence the name Circumcelliones. But they called themselves Milites Christi Agonistici. Their date and origin are uncertain. According to Optatus of Mileve, they first appeared under Constans, in 347. carried on plunder, arson, and murder, in conjunction with mutinous peasants and slaves, and in crazy zeal for the martyr’s crown, as genuine soldiers of Christ, rushed into fire and water, and threw themselves down from rocks. Yet there were Donatists who disapproved this revolutionary frenzy. The insurrection was suppressed by military force; several leaders of the Donatists were executed, others were banished, and their churches were closed or confiscated. Donatus the Great died in exile. He was succeeded by one Parmenianus.

Under Julian the Apostate the Donatists again obtained, with all other heretics and schismatics, freedom of religion, and returned to the possession of their churches, which they painted anew, to redeem them from their profanation by the Catholics. But under the subsequent emperors their condition grew worse, both from persecutions without and dissensions within. The quarrel between the two parties extended into all the affairs of daily life; the Donatist bishop Faustinus of Hippo, for example, allowing none of the members of his church to bake bread for the Catholic inhabitants.



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