HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
Historical Sketches of North Africa,
The Principal Country of the Donatists
For a number of centuries this country has been called the Barbary States, or simply Barbary, a term probably derived from the Barbary, who were long the ruling people of the country, and whose descendants are still numerously found among the fastnesses of the Atlas mountains. Under the Romans, at first this was one province; in the time of the Donatists it was divided into six; its divisions now are the empire of Morocco; Algeria, belonging to France for more than a third of a century; Tunis, under a Bey, who claims to be an independent sovereign; Tripoli, and the Desert of Barca. The last two belong to the Ottoman empire. In the time of the Donatists, the provinces most distinguished for this people were the Proconsular, in which were Carthage, Numidia, and the two Mauritinias. They cover a long and narrow strip of land extending about two thousand miles from the borders of Egypt on the east, to the Atlantic ocean on the west. Its average width is probably less than three hundred miles. It has the Mediterranean sea on the north, and the Sandy Desert on the South. Although this territory is situated in the temperate zone, mostly between the thirtieth and the thirty-seventh degrees of north latitude, the heat is often rendered exceedingly oppressive, during the summer months, by the proximity to the Great Desert, whose winds have a withering effect on the vegetables and animals of the country. The Atlas mountains extend great distances, running mostly parallel to the Mediterranean coast, and have several peaks and spurs, whose relations to the main chain are broken. The climate, soil and productions are exceedingly various. Some delightful spots are found among the mountains, whose coolness and verdure are a perpetual source of enjoyment. But the general aspect of the country is sad, bearing unmistakable marks of ruin and decay. Africa Felix, embracing an extensive district of North Africa, is described by old Roman writers as the granary of Italy, and the jewel of the empire; but it now seems, when seen under a July and August sun, but little better than a desert. Indeed, the desert is gradually advancing towards the sea, dispersing the population and producing a widespread solitude. Populous cities and flourishing fields that once greeted the traveler are now hard to find. Remarks on the Original Inhabitants of the Country Under Consideration This region, says Mr. Perry, in his history of Tunis and Carthage, was early settled by a primitive race, of whose name and character we have but feeble traces. Its history, he says, begins only with the arrival of the Phoenician colonists, ten or twelve centuries before the Christian era. From that time great and marvelous changes began to take place. The natives were absorbed by the more powerful colonists, and great cities and states were founded, the most important of which were Carthage and Utica. The former of these cities brought under its sway all its rivals upon the continent of Africa, including Cyrenaica, founded by the sturdy Greeks, who were finally overcome by intrigue rather than bravery. Carthage, launching her forces upon the Mediterranean for the conquest of Sardinia and Sicily, was met in the latter island by the soldiers of Rome, which was then just emerging from the period of infancy. We are now on the eve, or the commencement, of the long and bloody contests between Carthage and Rome.
The Three Punic Wars
These wars, in which the generals, Hannibal on the side of the Carthaginians, and Scipio, surnamed Africanus, on that of the Romans, were conspicuous, lasted nearly one hundred and twenty years, ending about a century and a half before the birth of Christ, with the ruin of Carthage and the reduction of her people and territory under the Roman rule. Under Rome, Carthage was rebuilt, and probably attained greater splendor and magnificence than when it was the capital of a mighty empire. As a Phoenician city, Carthage was the abode of princely merchants, intriguing politicians, and mighty warriors. As a Roman city, it was the resort and abode of learned men who cultivated the fine arts, and made theses African shores as distinguished for civilization and refinement, as they had been, at an earlier period, for military glory and commercial enterprise. But still it was notorious for the most horrible acts of idol worship, in the midst of which Christianity was introduced at an early period, at which time we are not informed, as we are of the persecutions of Christians by the heathen rulers; especially by Tertullian in his able defense of the Christian cause. It was in this country that Felicita and Perpetua, two noble females, suffered martyrdom while it was under the heathen rulers. But in process of time Christianity spread over the whole land. In this country, says Perry, where today the Koran reigns, arose innumerable churches, from Egypt to Tangiers, from the desert to the coast.
The Rise of the Donatists
With the exception of the Novatians, who were in the field as dissenters from the main body of professed Christians, about half a century earlier, the Donatists were the largest community of the sound evangelical class, in early times. The circumstances of their origin, and events connected with it, I will relate in the language of Mosheim, although some of his statements may not altogether agree with other statements less tinctured with Catholic prejudices: "Mensurius, bishop of the Catholic church of Carthage, in Africa, died in the year 311; and the greatest part of the clergy and people chose in his place the archdeacon Caecilian, who, without waiting for the assembly of the Numidian bishops, was consecrated by those of Africa alone. "This hasty proceeding was the occasion of much trouble. The Numidian bishops, who had always been present at the consecration of the bishops of Carthage, were highly offended at their being excluded from this solemn ceremony, and assembling themselves at Carthage, called Caecilian before them, to give an account of his conduct. The flame thus kindled, was greatly augmented by certain Carthaginian presbyters who were competitors with Caecilian, particularly Bostrus and Celesius. "Lucilla also, an opulent lady, who had been reprimanded by Caecilian for her superstitious practices, and had conceived against him a bitter enmity on that account, was active in exasperating the spirits of his adversaries, and distributed a large sum of money among the Numidians to encourage them in their opposition to the new bishop. In consequence of all this, Caecilian, refusing to submit to the judgment of the Numidians, was condemned in a council, assembled by Secundus, bishop of Tigisis, consisting of seventy prelates, who, with the consent of a considerable part of the clergy and people, declared him unworthy of the episcopal dignity, and chose his deacon, Majorinus, for his successor. By this proceeding, the Carthaginian church was divided into two factions, and groaned under the contests of two rival bishops, Caecilian and Majorinus. "The Numidians alleged two important reasons to justify their sentence against Caecilian; first, that Felix of Aptungus, the chief of the bishops who assisted at his consecration, was a traditor, that is, one of those who, during the persecution under Diocletian, had delivered the sacred writings and the pious books of the Christians to the magistrates to be burnt; and that having thus apostatized from the service of Christ, it was not possible that he could impart the Holy Ghost to the new bishop. "A second reason for their sentence against Caecilian was drawn from the harshness and even cruelty that he had discovered in his conduct, while he was a deacon, towards the Christian confessors and martyrs, during the persecution above mentioned, whom he abandoned in the most merciless manner, to all the extremities of hunger and want, leaving them without food in their prisons, and hindering those who were willing to succor them, from bringing them relief. To these accusations they added the insolent contumacy of the new prelate, who refused to obey their summons, and to appear before them in council to justify his conduct." The Donatists having brought this controversy before Constantine the Great, that emperor, in the year 313, appointed Melchiades, bishop of Rome, to examine the matter, and he named three bishops of Gaul to assist him in the business. In this case, said the Donatists, the bishops shut themselves up, and in a hurry passed sentence against them, refusing to hear their complaints. Similar meetings by the order of Constantine were convened in a number of different places, all ex parte, in all of which the Donatists were condemned. Instead of continuing the prolix and extended narratives of Mosheim on the subject under consideration, which are according to the version of the Catholics, with whom he appears to have been identified, I will give extracts from the descriptions of a secular author, who, as an outside observer, was not identified with either side. Previous, however, to introducing these extracts, I will relate this author's report of the amount of money the famous Lucilla is reputed to have paid the Numidian bishops, toward advancing her servant, so called, Majorinus, to the bishopric of Carthage. The details are given in the note. As Majorinus is said to have been Lucilla's reader or chaplain, this may account for the term servant being applied to him.
The Rise and Early History of the Donatists
Although in the following descriptions we have not only Catholic versions, but also those of a changeable secular writer; yet, as some of the sentences are very appropriate, I will not omit those of different mold. "The complaints and mutual accusations which assailed the throne of Constantine, as soon as the death of Maxentius had submitted Africa to his victorious arms, were ill adapted to edify an imperfect proselyte. He learned with surprise that the provinces of that great country, from the confines of Cyrene to the columns of Hercules, were distracted with religious discord. The source of the vision was derived from a double election in the church of Carthage; the second, in rank and opulence, of the ecclesiastical thrones of the west. Caecilian and Majorinus were the two rival primates of Africa; and the death of the latter soon made room for Donatus, who, by his superior abilities and apparent virtues, was the firmest support of his party. "The advantage which Caecilian might claim from the priority of his ordination was destroyed by the illegal, or at least indecent, haste with which it had been performed, without expecting the arrival of the bishops of Numidia. The authority of these bishops, who, to the number of seventy, condemned Caecilian and consecrated Majorinus, is again weakened by the infamy of some of their personal characters, and by the female intrigues and bargains and tumultuous proceedings imputed to the Donatists in the council of the Numidians which condemned Caecilian."
The above reproachful terms were evidently copied by Gibbon from Catholic history, as were all his descriptions of the kind. In the following passages we have specimens of unusual candor for a secular author of Mr. Gibbon's class: "Both parties," says Gibbon, "accused each other of being traitors. The controversy," says he, "in which Constantine was concerned, improperly," as he has elsewhere suggested, "lasted three years." "As," says this writer, "the cause of the Donatists was examined with attention, perhaps it was determined with justice; but perhaps their complaints were not without foundation, that the credulity of the emperor was abused by the insidious acts of his favorite, Otius." This is a candid and sensible remark. "The rise of the Donatists, which scarcely deserves a place in history," says Gibbon, "was productive of a memorable schism, which afflicted all the provinces of Africa above three hundred years, and was extinguished only with Christianity itself." "The inflexible zeal of freedom and fanaticism," continues our author of a two-fold dialect, "animated the Donatists to refuse obedience to the usurpers whose election they disputed, and whose spiritual powers they denied." I will leave the above descriptions without comment at present. "Notwithstanding this irreconcilable aversion, the two parties, who were mixed and separated in all the cities of Africa, had the same language and manner; the same zeal and learning; the same faith and worship. Proscribed by the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the empire, the Donatists still maintained in some provinces, particularly in Numidia, their superior numbers, and four hundred bishops acknowledged the jurisdiction of their primate." In the foregoing remarks, it is plain to be seen, this writer is partial and impartial by turns. While he had but little affection for the Donatists as a dissenting party of Christians, he had less for the Catholics as such, and as persecutors. His stigmas on the Donatists are merely repetitions of the language of their adversaries. What was said by Gibbon of the Donatists afflicting Africa, or, in other words, the Catholics, for above three hundred years, is in direct opposition, as to time, to all Catholic history on this subject, which allows them but about one hundred years. Gibbon's date is doubtless correct; and what he says of their being extinguished only with Christianity itself, has reference to the Mahometan conquest and invasion of the country, which they have held for about twelve centuries. Du Pin's Monumenta was Gibbon's authority in general. My account of this work is given in Chapter XIV. The foregoing statements of the reputed facts concerning the doings and affairs of the Donatists are for the most part from the writings of Optatus, the earliest writer against this people. They have been quoted by authors generally with apparently full confidence in their correctness; while Friar Baldwin, a semi-modern Catholic writer, whose comments on some of the positions of Optatus, and also of Augustine, will be candidly criticized in these narratives, quite often convicts them of historical errors. Of one subject which he named, he said he doubted whether Optatus, secluded in a corner of Numidia, ought to have said anything whatever on the early affairs of the Donatists, of which he had no records, by his own account. A brief account of the different kinds of treatment of the Donatists, first and last, by the then newly proclaimed emperor Constantine, will now be given. This proclamation was made by the Roman army in 306. At this time the whole empire was full of the temples of idols, in whose worship the ruling powers and the great mass of the people were involved. As was stated by Gibbon, the newly proclaimed emperor did not gain control of the whole empire till after the death of his rival, Maxentius, which event happened in 312. Constantine now having control of the whole empire, and having openly professed the Christian religion, proclaimed freedom of conscience to all parties who professed it. Such was the fair prospect for dissenters from the main body of professed Christians, in the commencement of the reign of the first Christian emperor. But the new ruler, instead of pursuing a course so just and fair, in his attempts to reconcile the parties by meddling with their disputes, soon became a partisan himself, in opposition to the Donatists, and in his support of the dominant party, by splendid patronage and coercive measures. "From this time," said Neander, "the whole matter took another turn; laws of the state now appeared against the party of Majorinus; they were deprived of their churches, and the places where they assembled were confiscated. They were treated as transgressors of the imperial laws. The forces by which it was sought to destroy them, as usually happens, only proved the means of giving them a new impulse, and pushed the spirit of enthusiasm already existing among them in the bud, into full development." Majorinus, indeed, died in the year 215; but with him the schism, which had struck deeper root, by no means ceased. Besides, he had rather served to give an outward name to the party, than really constitute the head and soul of it. The latter had until now been Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae in Numidia, who stood in the same relation to Majorinus as, under similar circumstances, Novatus had done to Novatian at the beginning of the Novatian schism. But Donatus, the successor of Majorinus, was himself the head and soul of the sect. "When now the Donatists, in addition to what they had done already, transmitted to the emperor, in the year 321, a petition, in which they declared that nothing would induce them to enter into church fellowship with that scoundrel, his bishop (meaning Caecilian); that they would rather suffer everything he might choose to inflict on them; Constantine became convinced, doubtless, still more than ever, by the tone of this document, of the dangerous consequences which must follow, if violent measures for the restoration of the peace of the church were pursued any farther. "Experience led him to act according to the principles which, in obedience to the voice of reason and the spirit of Christianity, he ought to have pursued from the beginning. In a rescript addressed to the Vicar Verinus, in North Africa, Constantine granted the Donatists full liberty to act according to their own convictions, declaring that this was a matter which belonged to the judgment of God. To these principles Constantine remained firm to the end." The persecutions above described continued about five years. Constantine died in 337, and for the last sixteen years of his reign the Donatists were not harassed by any persecuting laws. This was the first great temporal state ruler who embraced the Christian cause, and his bad example in dealing with the Donatists has been followed, and very often much surpassed, by countless numbers of professedly Christian rulers in all succeeding ages. While such a statement is highly discreditable to Christianity itself, that is still more so which places the clergy, in most cases, at the bottom of persecution. Temporal rulers always have enough of their own various affairs to engross their attention without meddling with religious controversies, which they generally as little understand as did Constantine the reason of the Donatists for dissenting from the Catholic church, or the difficulty of forcing them to return to it.
A Great Change in the Odious Business Of Persecution
By the Aid of the Secular Powers
In the early age of Christianity the persecution of Christians, by pains and penalties, was by the worshipers of the false gods of the heathen. Different parties had their controversies, but they could have no aid from the secular powers against their opponents, had they desired it; but no sooner was the first emperor, who professed himself a Christian, seated on the throne, than there was an entire change in the business of persecution, so far as its subjects were concerned. Formerly, it was the heathen persecuting the Christians; now, it was Christians persecuting their recusant brethren, who were worshipers of the same God. This bad example of the first Christian ruler, who was not naturally a persecutor, was doubtless through the influence of persecuting court bishops, of whom a countless number has existed in all nations, of every age. Events in the Early Operations of the Donatists. As some of these events will be referred to in our subsequent narratives, at present I shall have respect only to Donatus himself. He was not only condemned at Rome, but retained there, for what reason, or how long, we are not informed. It is said he was condemned by the council, so called, on his confession that he had rebaptized and reordained fallen bishops; "lapsed," was then the term. This old story, which has gone the rounds of all church history, was not credited by Friar Baldwin, the Catholic historian before referred to.
Donatus At Rome
After the council at Rome, according to Fleury, the Donatists waited on the emperor and complained of not being heard in that meeting; that the few Catholic bishops shut themselves up, passed sentence against them in a hurry, and refused any examination of Felix, the ordainer of Caecilian. At length Donatus sought and obtained permission of Constantine to return to Carthage. Then, says the historian, Filumin, an officer of the emperor's household, suggested that, for the sake of peace, Caecilian should be retained at a place called Brixia, which was accordingly done. At the same time the emperor sent two bishops, named Eunomius and Olympius, into Africa in search of the true church among the contending parties, which being done, they were to remove the two rival bishops, and place another in the episcopal chair. To abridge a long account, the two bishops spent forty days in Carthage on their mission without deciding which was the prevailing party; but being true Catholics, in the end their report favored that side, and of course they aided Caecilian in his contest for the episcopal seat. The inexperience of Constantine appears in his appointing two bishops of the same party to decide which side was the strongest. Du Pin, in commenting on the plan of Filumin to keep Caecilian away from Carthage while the search of the above named bishops was being made, says he was a partisan of Donatus. On this hypothesis he had a friend in Caesar's household. This plan for the absence of Caecilian, on the part of the prudent Filumin, indicates a decidedly unfavorable opinion of the man; and the fact that the two bishops above referred to, after forty days' search among the Catholics and the Donatists, could not decide which party prevailed, affords conclusive evidence of the multitude of the reformers in the populous city of Carthage, in the very beginning of their operations. Not only in Carthage, the seat of the controversy about ordaining Caecilian, did a numerous party arise, but the Catholics themselves say that from this ordination the whole of Catholic Africa was split into two parties, and in most of the churches a bishop was designated for each party. In all the accounts, the origin of the Donatists is wholly attributed to a disagreement in the choice of a new bishop at Carthage. That this was the occasion of the schism out of which the new party arose is very plain, but that the real cause of it may be traced to the opposition of the reformers to the old system of church building and management, and to a radical change in church discipline and purity, will fully appear in our subsequent narratives, especially in the last chapter.
1. This is an exparte story, and very doubtful.
2. The Latin traditor and the English traitor have the same meaning; the Latin term above is well defined as then used. But in this whole history we shall find the Donatists very often apply the term to their opponents in a more extended sense. "Our traitors and persecutors" was with them a very common expression. Traditores persecutoresque nostri was their language.
3. The amount was four hundred foles. Every foles contained one hundred and twenty-five pieces of silver, and the whole sum may be computed at about two thousand four hundred pounds sterling. Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Vol. 1, page 314. Note. Harper's Ed. Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Vol. 1, pp. 436
4. Nullo modo se communicationes, antistiti ipsius nebuloni. Neander's Church History, Vol. 2, p.193.
5. Ex hac ordinatione scissa est in duos parets universa Africa, constituti in plerisque ecclesias duo pro utraque parte episcopi. Op. August, in tomum nonum praefacio.