By David Benedict


Denominational Character of the Donatists


        In the first place, although from the earliest times the foulest stigmas have rested on this people, when their true character is developed they may well compare with any evangelical people of this or of any age or denomination, so far as their morals and evangelical principles were concerned, all that has been published of them to the contrary notwithstanding. My position as to the discussion of the question of the denominational affinities of the Donatists when I engaged in their history, is stated in the early part of this work, where may also be seen the description of the unexpected development of facts which induced me to forego my non-committal position, so far as the baptistical affinities of this people were concerned. According to my knowledge, the Episcopalians and the Baptists are the only communities who have claimed the Donatists as denominational kindred. The Episcopal claim on the score of the Donatist diocese will be examined in treating of the nature of the early dioceses at large. To the ordinary Baptist claim of agreement in baptism, and other matters of faith and practice, we now may add the rejection of infant baptism. In this stage of this discussion it may be proper to notify the reader that not only the Donatists, but all others then, whether Catholics or dissenters, practiced immersion in baptism; and the practice also was prevalent with all parties of requiring faith before baptism. Augustine is the only exception I find in all the writings now under review. The early subjects of baptism will soon be described. The trinity and the believer were two essential things with Optatus for a valid baptism.

No Infant Baptism in Primitive Times, Says Neander

        "Baptism," says he, "was administered at first only to adults, as men were accustomed to conceive baptism and faith as strictly connected. We have all reason for not deriving infant baptism from apostolical institution, and the recognition of it which followed somewhat later as an apostolical tradition serves to confirm this hypothesis. In the last years of the second century, Tertullian appears as a zealous opponent of infant baptism, a proof that the practice had not as yet come to be regarded as an apostolical institution; for otherwise, he would hardly have ventured to express himself so strongly against it. But if the necessity of infant baptism was acknowledged in theory, it was still far from being uniformly recognized in practice. As the church of North Africa was the first to bring prominently into notice the necessity of infant baptism, so, in connection with this, they also introduced the communion of infants." In the above quotations we have a general, and doubtless a correct, view of infant baptism in the early ages, as they are from one of the best church historians, who was himself very intimately connected with the system, being a member of the Lutheran church, the largest body of Protestant pedobaptist. But we should bear in mind that it is quite common for German theologians, both the orthodox and the liberals, to reject the doctrine of the apostolical origin of infant baptism.

Various Matters Pertaining to Infant Baptism,
from the Writings of Augustine Against the Donatists

        The best historians trace the first baptism of infants to Africa. We have seen above that Tertullian of Carthage was the first who opposed the practice. Nothing is said of it among the Donatists for almost a century from their origin, pro or con, when we read that Augustine, in his controversy with the Donatists on baptism, published some books concerning the baptism of little ones.

Augustine's Description of Infant Baptism in His Time

        The universal church, said he, holds that when little infants are baptized, who certainly, not yet, can believe with the heart unto righteousness, and with the mouth make confession unto salvation, but otherwise, by weeping and squalling even when the baptismal mystery is solemnly performed for them, they drown the mystic words themselves; nevertheless, no Christian would vainly say they were not truly baptized.

        At that time there was a greater reason for the weeping and squalling of infants in their baptism than at present, except among the Greeks, by whom they are always immersed; since, according to Du Pin, it is certain that in the time of Augustine, in the administration of baptism, all, both infants and adults, were three times dipped in water.

Defence of Infant Baptism by Augustine

        "That which the universal church holds, which was not instituted by councils but has always been retained, it is most rightly believed was not transmitted save only by apostolical authority." his famous defence was made for any one who might seek for divine authority for infant baptism, in a treatise of the author against the Donatists. This fact gives this article significance as to the sentiments of this people on the subject of the infant rite of baptism in an objective form. This defence is put in small capitals in the original. This might have been done by the author, or his editors at a later period after the document became of so much importance with pedobaptists. Since writing the above I have found in Du Pin's Monuments of the Donatists that the treatise in question on baptism was formed according to the promise of Augustine, which agrees with his own words. Du Pin also says that he wrote a smaller work before that which he published, which is quite lengthy. It is mostly occupied in defence of Cyprian's rebaptizing policy, and against the use of it by the Donatists. To refute the objections of the Donatists was the professed object of this treatise, in which is contained Augustine's defence of infant baptism. That the above mode of argument was common with Augustine in his controversy with the Donatists, so far as baptism was concerned, is apparent from the following remarks of a learned and well-informed Catholic writer When, says Friar Baldwin, Augustine disputed with the Donatists on baptism, he did not allege so much of scripture as of apostolical tradition, church usage, custom, testimony and authority. Again, says the Friar, Augustine knew that Optatus was willing to define the question of one baptism against the Donatists, from the naked, sacred scriptures; but, unhappily, he did not acknowledge that rule. After all that was said by Augustine of the universality of infant baptism in the Catholic church, it is a fact worthy of particular notice that he himself was not baptized in infancy, nor till he was more than thirty years old, although his mother was a zealous member of that church, of which he was a catechumen from early life. Similar cases somewhat frequently occur in ancient church history. It has already been stated that Optatus placed faith before baptism. But, says Du Pin, this was said of adult persons only. In this case Du Pin evidently uttered a paraphrase according to his own creed as a pedobaptist, not with his usual caution as to historical facts; but bishop Albaspin, also a decided Catholic, in commenting on this passage of Optatus says: The person baptized should have faith and should believe, which, he says, was not required of him who administered baptism. In the last sentence is the Catholic doctrine, both then and now, against which the Donatists contended most earnestly with Augustine.

Remarks on the Quotations from Augustine
on Infant Baptism, Against the Donatists

        The above defence of the baptism of infants by this ancient author, as a professedly apostolical institution, has gone the rounds of the baptismal controversy, but who ever read, except in the Latin original, his peculiar description of the baptism of infants, in his time, by trine immersion, and his labored arguments in support of the baptism of little ones; and furthermore, who ever supposed that the defence itself, and the arguments connected with it, were all originally addressed directly to the Donatists, in reply to the inquiry for a divine authority for infant baptism; thereby implicating them as thorough going anti-pedobaptists? Such, however, is most evidently an historical fact, and of course the baptistical character of this people is a logical and inevitable conclusion. The treatise in which the above details are found was professedly against the Donatists. What was said of the books published by Augustine on the baptism of little ones in his dispute on baptism against the Donatists, is found in the preface to the ninth volume of his works, where it was, of course, inserted by the editor. These books are said to be lost. But the question naturally arises, why did Augustine publish books concerning the baptism of little ones, and why all the concern indicated in the above described efforts of this zealous advocate of infant baptism to set the Donatists right on the subject; did he not know them to be opposed to the infant system? This is said of the main body of the Donatists. That the baptism of infants was practiced in one or more of the other parties, is inferred from the fact that in a few cases we read of men being ordained to the clerical office by the Catholics who were baptized in infancy among the Donatists. Only two such cases, however, can I find in all Augustine's writings on the affairs of the Donatists. The widespread people who bore the general name of Donatists, according to Augustine, in his time operated in four divisions. In the main division, which he calls cardinals, that is, the chief or principal, there were said to be four hundred bishops; in the second, one hundred bishops; in the third, only twelve; in the fourth, the number is not named, but it was probably still less. The two last named divisions did not go out from the original company, but arose from subdivisions. Of the three smaller divisions we have but very little information.

        The Maximianists, so called from Maximianus, their founder, was the largest of these divisions. Although they are often mentioned by Augustine in his writings against the Donatists, by which name they were distinguished, yet of them he has given no facts of sufficient importance for these narratives. It is not to the subdivisions, but to the main body of the Donatists, that we are to look for the denominational character of this people, and of them the following facts are very conspicuous in their whole history: To them all the writings of Optatus and Augustine on the affairs of the Donatists were directed.

        By them were published all the able writings of the Donatists in the defense of their cause and against their opponents.

        Against them all edicts were issued, and by them all persecutions inflicted on the Donatists were endured.

        They, to the neglect of all the other parties, were summoned to the conference at Carthage.
        To them was imputed the union with the Circumcellions.
        To them Augustine addressed his defense of infant baptism.

Church Government of the Donatists

        As I have no other information on this subject, with the following paragraphs from writers, who doubtless entertained different opinions of this ancient community, I begin this article. Long, a clergyman of the Church of England, in his small Donatist History, described their church government in the following terms: "The Donatists rejected the Catholic liturgy and set up for themselves in a more congregational way."
        Robinson, an English Baptist, thus described the church policy of this people: "The Catholics were for a national church for the sake of splendor. The Donatists were for a congregational church for the sake of purity of faith and manners."

Remarks on the Above Statements

        Long was a severe opponent of the Donatists as dissenters from the national hierarchy, and what he says of their rejecting the Catholic liturgy, and of their setting up for themselves in a more congregational way, was doubtless intended as a censure; while we may conclude that a similar imputation by Robins, himself a dissenter, was intended as an approval, although, of course, he would not approve the orthodox creed of the Donatists; nevertheless, he did them ample justice in saying they were for a congregational church for the sake of purity of faith and manners, since these were among the primordial principles for which they contended with the Catholics. If we admit the correctness of the above statements of Long and Robinson, of the arguments of the Donatists in favor of a congregational, or an independent church polity, we at the same time concede their form of church government; and their statements, I am confident, will be corroborated by a general survey of the Donatist church order and management; of their cherished principles of freedom and equality; of their strict adherence to apostolical rules and customs; and of their decided and outspoken opposition to all ecclesiastical control or domination. In all their operations as a religious community I have discovered nothing peculiar to episcopacy, or the episcopal regimen, except the diocese, which in early times was deficient in what in later times became essential to diocesan episcopacy, namely, three preaching orders, a plurality of churches, and the power and control of their other orders by the bishop. What was said by Mosheim and archbishop Whately of the station and duties of bishops, of the independence of churches, and of the identity of a church and a dioceses, in the earlier ages, I think will well apply to the Donatists, from all I can learn of the services and stations of their bishops, and of the order and management of their churches. "A bishop," says Mosheim, "during the first and the second century, was a person who had the care of one Christian assembly. In this assembly he acted not so much with the authority of a master, as with the zeal and diligence of a faithful servant. The churches in these early times were entirely independent; none of them were subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each one was governed by its own rulers and its own laws."

        "A church and a diocese," says archbishop Whately, "seem to have been, for a considerable time, coextensive and identical; and each church or diocese, and consequently each superintendent, though connected with the rest by the times of faith and hope and charity, seems to have been perfectly independent, as far as regards any power and control."

        The address of Petilian to his fellow elders and deacons contains something of the episcopal dialect, not enough, however, to make him of that order, in its later and present form. This address, in our language, reads thus: Petilian, bishop: To the most beloved brethren, fellow-elders and deacons, constituted servants with me (nobiscum) in the holy gospel, through the diocese: Grace be with you, and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. If the term diocese could have had the same meaning in the times of the Donatists as it subsequently acquired, and is now attached to it, the use made of it in Petilian's address might be of some avail on the episcopal side, but unquestionably the term in question was then used interchangeably with that of church, to designate episcopal jurisdictions, according to the foregoing statement or archbishop Whately. Many examples occur in the records of the conference of Carthage where the terms church, people and diocese are found in juxtaposition, of similar import. Again, Petilian's deacons were not of the preaching order, but were executive officers, the appropriate station and service of the deaconship from its origin. Furthermore, I do not find any evidence that Petilian had more than one church organization in his diocese, elsewhere called a church. Petilian, in the conference, when referring to Fortunatus, one of his rival bishops in his diocese, said of him: "He is a persecutor of the Church, in the same city where I am a bishop." One church for a bishop appears to have been the common custom of the Donatists. Complaints of Petilian of the Manner of Forming New Dioceses by the Catholics . The reader not familiar with ecclesiastical distinctions should bear in mind that bishopric means the jurisdiction of a bishop, and that the term diocese is of the same meaning. The parties were, in the midst of their debates in the conference of Carthage, full of their complaints of each other. Petilian complained to the president that among his people, in the midst of his diocese, in the city of Constantina, his adversaries, at different times, had ordained two bishops, and formed two dioceses of their own; but as the second was among the same people of the first, your excellence, said he to the president, plainly perceives it is an imaginary concern. Petilian again complained of the Catholics for forming three of their own dioceses among the people of the bishop of Mileva, who was present. A third time the resolute complainer referred to a still more extensive invasion of the Catholics on the Donatists. "Among one people," said he, "in the single diocese of his colleague, who was present, they had ordained four bishops against him; and thus it now stands, four Catholic bishops to one Donatist." Of course there were five dioceses on the ground where there was but one before.

Complaints of the Donatists by the Catholics

        Let it be recorded, said Alypius, a Catholic, that the Donatists have ordained bishops in all the villages and country towns, and not in any cities. So you, said Petilian, have many bishops dispersed through all the fields; yes, said he, you verily have bishops frequently where you have no people. His meaning, says Bingham, was, that the people had all turned Donatists.

        In all the above named transactions Petilian accused his adversaries of seeking to augment the number of their bishops for the conference; and this, it is presumed, was done under a mistaken apprehension that the majority would gain the victory, whereas it had nothing to do with the case, or, in the judgment of the president, against the Donatists.

        That the dioceses formed as above describe passed for valid organizations then, may be inferred from the fact that the bishops attached to them were evidently admitted as members of the conference. Many of the bishops in the council of Trent were similar to those in the conference at Carthage; in some cases they were mere boys. According to Bingham, the policy of the Catholics in forming so many small dioceses was to outdo the Donatists.

        In these times the Catholics themselves could not have a diocese of three orders of preachers in Africa according to the following account: "Till the time of Augustine," says Bingham, "preaching was the appropriate business of the bishops in the African churches, and Augustine himself was complained of for beginning to preach while only a presbyter, and before he was ordained a bishop." And none but bishops could administer baptism and the Lord's Supper without an episcopal license. Thus the presbyter, instead of being of the preaching order, could not preach at all without special permission from the bishop. And although Valerius, then the bishop of the Catholic church of Tagasta, in Numidia, Augustine's native place, had authorized him to begin to preach before he received his episcopal ordination, yet, says Bingham, "many bishops were highly offended at it, and spake against it."

        The scenes and events above described relate to transactions almost one hundred years after the rise of the Donatists, and a little before we begin to read anything about the diocese in the history of this people, respecting whose presbyters or elders I find but little information as to their stations and duties. I am, however, inclined to think they were of the preaching order, as they were in primitive times.

A Brief History of the Diocese

        As this system has often been referred to in the foregoing remarks, and as the denominational character of the Donatists may in some measure be inferred from the nature of the institution in their time, I have judged it proper at this point to speak of its origin, and its changes in the hands of statesmen and theologians. Although for most of the age of Christianity the diocese has been an ecclesiastical institution, yet in its origin it was altogether secular, and had no respect to church divisions; it was applied to domestic relations and management, and to the province, and provincial affairs. The term diocese was derived from the Greek noun which signifies direction, government, civil administration, etc., and from the Greek verb, which strictly means, to manage all the house, to direct, govern, etc. Before the Christian era the term in question was applied to one of the lesser provinces of the Roman empire; elsewhere, it was employed to designate a district, or a part of a province. Under the emperors, several provinces under one governor were called a diocese. About the time of Constantine the whole Roman empire, then consisting of about one hundred and twenty provinces, was divided into thirteen civil dioceses. About this time they began in the west to use the term diocese in the ecclesiastical sense. In the east, the term was thus employed at a much earlier date, according to Mosheim. Respecting the changes and the magnitude of the metropolitan churches, which were sometimes called provinces, it is sufficient to say that they all began with one single church. This was the beginning of all the great metropolitan establishments in the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and of Rome itself, and elsewhere.

        The rise of the Donatists was about the time when the term diocese began to be applied to church divisions in the west, in which Africa was included, the principal country of the Donatists. As this people were distinguished for following the examples of primitive times, we may well suppose that from their origin their ecclesiastical regimen was of the character described by Mosheim and archbishop Whately, namely, that their bishops, instead of having a number of churches under their care and control, had each the care of one Christian assembly or church, which was governed by its own rules and its own laws. Such was evidently the congregational or independent character of the churches of the Donatists, as it is of those of the Baptists. Neither of these communities, whose relationship seems quite intimate, were of the episcopal order, only as of old their pastors were called bishops. Thus it appears that the main body of the Donatists agreed with the Baptists in their form of church government as they did in opposing infant baptism, thereby confirming the claim of the Baptists of denominational kindred.



1. Church History, vol., I, pp. 311-312. Boston Ed.

2. Quin etiam fiendo et vagiendo cum in eis mysterium celebratur, ipsis mysticus vocibus obstrepunt. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 140.

3. Du Pin's Ecclesiastical History, Century 4, p. 289.

4. Et si quisquam in hoc re auctoritatem divinam quaerat, quamquam quod universa tenent ecclesia, nee conciliis institutem, sed semper retentum est, non nisi auctoritate apostolica traditum rectissime creditur. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 140.

5. De Baptismo contra Donitistas. Op. Aug., as above.

6. "The History of the Donatists," by Thomas Long, B.D., London, 1677, p. 55.

7. Robinson's Researches, Chap. 8, p. 125 sq.

8. Mosheim's Eccl. Hist., Vol. I, pp. 91-92.

9. Whatley's Kingdom of Christ, p. 172.

10. Petilianus episcopus delectissimis fratibus, compresbyteris et dia conibus ministris per diaccesim, nobis cum in sancto Evangelio Constitutis: Gratia vobis et pax a Deo Patri Nostro et Domino Jesu Christo. Op. Aug., Contra litteras Petiliani, Tome 9, p. 217.

11. Ipse est Ecclesiae persecutor, in eadem civitate ubi ego Episcopus sum. Col. Cartha. Cum Donatistis, in Optatus, p. 50.

12. Bingham's Antiq., vol. I, p. 51.

13. Bingham's Antiq., Vol. I, p. 76