HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
The Donatists Were Accused of a Confederacy
with the Circumcellions
This being one of the foulest charges against this people, I determined, if possible, to ascertain its truth or falsehood; and having resolved on the thorough investigation I have made, I judged it best to give all the facts I could collect pertaining to the subject, under one head.
Formerly, in my few remarks on this ancient people, I, with others, had ascribed to them evangelical traits of character with all their reputed faults, in which, from the silence of history, I was led to infer they were in some way implicated. Such were my early and long continued views of the character and position of the Donatists, whose want of consistency I tried to overlook, as they were accounted sound in the faith. But as time went on, I was more and more embarrassed with the acknowledged union in history of sound Christians with the worst of men; and the utter incompatibility of this union induced me to undertake this laborious investigation. For the purpose of a full view of Augustine's accounts of the race of men by him called Circumcellions, and his authority for representing them as the soldiery of the Donatists, as Mosheim has it, by the aid of the copious indexes to the works of this voluminous author, I examined them all so far as the Donatists were concerned in any way, especially in their reputed confederacy with the Circumcellions. As the result of my examinations, I will give a few specimens of the descriptions, and then give the disclaimers of the accused party.
The Bad Character of the Circumcellions
"Furious flocks of drunken youth, armed first with clubs, and next with swords, under the well-known name of Circumcellions daily wander through all Africa, committing savage deeds, in violation of all laws of order, and of the authority of the magistrates. I will not speak of the fury of the Circumcellions, and of their fatal precipitations; nor of their sacrilegious and profane worship; neither of their bacchanalian inebrieties. At the sepulchers of the Circumcellions, droves of males and females, in iniquitous mixture, by day and by night, bury themselves in wine, and hence go forth to iniquitous deeds."
The Reputed Confederacy of the Donatists
with the Circumcellions
"What," said Augustine to Petilian, "does the sobriety of Donatus profit you, since you are contaminated with the drunkenness of the bad Circumcellions? We justly rebuke the inordinate, the licentious and haughty extravagances of your Circumcellions. Your savage and most violent audacity," continued this false accuser, "with your Circumcellions, the satellites of your clergy, is known to all men; and," said he to the grammarian Cresconius, "it was for the suppression of this audacity that imperial laws have been issued against you, and," said he, "if you complain of persecution from our side, I will demonstrate that we, from your side, suffer much more. Do you not have your portion with adulterers, who suffer drunken flocks of your own sanctimonious people to wander, day and night, with drunken flocks, in shameful mixture, with the Circumcellions? We," continued this accuser, "daily suffer acts worse than those of thieves and robbers from your clergy and your Circumcellions." What author has ever questioned the correctness of any of the above impeachments, that have so often been republished?
The Disclaimers of the Donatists
"When," said Augustine, "the savage deeds of the Circumcellions are presented to the Donatists, they feign their ignorance of such a race of men, or, in opposition to all men, they most impudently affirm they are not at all concerned in their savage deeds." Augustine, in his first remarks on the disclaimers of the Donatists, in which he accused them of speaking in a most impotent manner, appears to have had respect to the whole people. In the next place, he said the bishops of the Donatists in Africa itself, assuredly either said that they were ignorant of the acts of the Circumcellions, or that they themselves had no concern in their acts. These statements were evidently intended to operate against the Donatists with his own people, but how decidedly do they operate for them with their friends?
In this case it seems there was a question of veracity between the parties; but as the subject will soon be presented in a different form, we will leave them at present in their adverse positions. But whether the disclaimers in question were true or false, we have the authority of Augustine himself that they were really made, which discloses an important fact in favor of a long calumniated people, who hitherto have appeared in history as having silently assented to the truth of the foul charges of a most infamous confederacy with the abominable Circumcellions; or, at least, as having made no protest against the charge.
Strange as it may appear, neither by Mosheim nor Milner, nor any other writer who has made some lame apologies for this reputed confederacy, do we find any mention of the important fact that the whole body of the Donatists, both their bishops and laity, disclaimed any knowledge of such a race of men as the Circumcellions, or of any concern with them. The only way to deprive the memory of this people of the benefit of these disclaimers is that of Augustine, who declared they were most impudently made. This their opponents will readily do. But nowhere, except in the original Latin, have I seen any mention of them, in any manner. Besides the foregoing disclaimers of this much-abused people of any knowledge of or concern with the Circumcellions, we find by Augustine's statements that they had free and frequent disputes about their denominational concerns, and from what follows it is evident that Augustine expected the Donatists would repel his impeachments. In proof of this I will give the following examples. Augustine had associated Petilian with the use of the savage clubs of the Circumcellions; instead of waiting for his reply, You, said he, will say, what is that to us? and what concern have we with these bad men?2 Questions of this kind, on the part of the Donatists, were quite frequent while repelling the charges of their adversary; and a serious charge on their part was, that he impeached all whom he chose, and would not hear them in their turn, in their own defense.
Accusations on Both Sides of not
Proving their Charges Against Each Other
You, said the Donatists, do not prove your charges against us relative to the Circumcellions. Neither, said Augustine, do you prove your charges against the church.
A Great Change in the Whole Business
In the midst of the most severe charges against the Donatists, of their complaints of unfair treatment respecting the Circumcellions, Augustine, by a sudden change of speech, addressed Petilian in the following terms: Let us, said he, come to this agreement, if you please: That you shall not throw against us the bad men whom you think belong to us, neither will I throw at you the bad men supposed to be with you. And so you will see by this agreement, so just, placid and firm, you will have nothing to object to the seed of Abraham in all nations. But why have you impiously thus separated from the seed of Abraham? This you certainly cannot defend.
An Agreement Quite Similar Was Proposed with Maximinus
Let us, said Augustine, throw from our midst the insane objections and reproaches which, by unskillful parties, according to their custom, by turns, are thrown against each other. You shall not throw at us Macarian times, nor I against you the savageness of the Circumcellions. If the one does not pertain to you, neither does the other to me; that is, if the savageness of the Circumcellions does not belong to you, neither do the Macarian times belong to me. The Lord's threshing floor is not as yet cleansed of chaff. Let us pray and labor as much as we are able that we may be wheat instead of chaff. But, said he, I cannot remain silent respecting your rebaptizing that deacon of ours, since I well know how pernicious to me my silence on that subject might be. In this last sentence Augustine doubtless had reference to the great complaint by his own people of the Donatists for their rebaptizing one of their deacons.
The name of Augustine's bad men was of a singular origin, as was their character described by him at different times. His treatment of the Donatists with respect to these men was also very changeable, as it varied from the foulest charges to offers of fraternal intercourse. But his most censurable treatment was in making false charges, according to his own confession. This name was formed of the three Latin words, "circum", around, "cellas", cellars or huts, and "iens", going. As the men thus named were originally lazy beggars who went around the huts of the peasants for their daily food, they thus acquired their name, which was doubtless formed and applied to them by Augustine himself. According to his account they were peculiar to Africa; and it may be said the name is peculiar to his writings. What a different character did he afterwards give them? The concessions of Augustine to Donatist bishops, by their tenor and implication were sufficient to neutralize all his charges of the confederacy of the Donatists with the Circumcellions in all sorts of crimes. But the following concession is still more to the point: You, said Augustine, complain loudly of Macarius and Macarian times; and we do the same of the Circumcellions. That the design in this announcement was an offset in reproaches, on the principle of retaliation, is sufficiently plain on the face of the terms, but Augustine elsewhere said, that while the Donatists reproached his people with Macarian times, he would reproach them with the wicked and savage deeds of the Circumcellions.
As Augustine has never given his readers any detailed accounts of the bad men, a late historian has described them in the following terms: "They were lawless ruffians, the refuse of Africa, of no sect and probably of no faith." Such is the description of the Circumcellions by Waddington in his Church History, a clergyman of the English church, who was well acquainted with all ancient church history, and who does not appear to have been partial to the Donatists, as a dissenting community. As a member of an established church, if he was under any bias, it would naturally be against dissenters, as men of national churches generally are. The bad men in question, instead of being an organized company of any creed, were doubtless like their rough kindred of other countries, although they might have been preeminent in lawless acts, since, according to Beausobre, the morals of Africa were terrible in the time of Augustine. It is a fact worthy of notice that in all Augustine's descriptions of the foul deeds ascribed to the Circumcellions, whether by themselves or in the reputed company of the Donatists, that he has never mentioned one name, nor the time, nor place, nor any of the circumstances connected with their lawless transactions.
It is not a little singular that, with the exceptions of a moderate amount of the facts of this history of the Donatists, they have been selected from the works of their decided opponents, Optatus and Augustine. In ordinary uses the defenders of accused parties are found among their friends. This anomalous event occurred from the different standpoints of the parties, not so much in their doctrinal creeds as in church building, management, and other matters. What the Donatists deemed scriptural and true, their opponents denounced as heretical and false; and their arguments against them disclosed their evangelical principles.
Strange diversities appear in Augustine's dealing with the Donatists. One would think by most of his writings about them, they were the worst of men, but when he met them fact to face, there was an entire change in his language towards them. Then he said to them, "Be brothers in the Lord's inheritance." He fought them as criminals, and sought them as innocent. He followed them with the sword, was still was clamorous for their communion. This was the language of this people to their adversary. Similar discrepancies are found in many of Augustine's descriptions of the character and the doings of the Donatists. These descriptions are scattered over hundreds of folio pages of the original, of which it is presumed but few, even of historians, have ever carefully examined; but instead of that, one has followed another in endless succession in presenting the worst features of this old story.
I began this article with Augustine's well known impeachment of the Donatists of a criminal connection with the Circumcellions. In the foregoing protracted survey of the facts pertaining to this case, I have traced the remarks of this accuser in their various forms, also his pacific proposals to the Donatist bishops, and also, with no little surprise, I have read his announcement that he associated his opponents with the men of a bad name as an offset for what they said of his own people. From this concession, and others of a kindred character which have been repeated, it is presumed that all candid and impartial readers will agree with the writer, that Augustine himself made void his own impeachment of the Donatists, and that they are justly entitled to an acquittal from the charge of their imputed confederacy with the Circumcellions, respecting whom, according to Augustine's own record, they disclaimed any knowledge of, or concern with, such a race of men.
1. Quorum scelera cum ad eos deferuntur, fingunt se ignorare tale homineum genus, etc. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 22.
2. Dicturus es, quid ad nos pertinet? Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 260.
3. Paciscamur ergo, si placet, ut nec tu nobis malos objicias quos putas nostros, nec vobis ego vestros. Ita videbis hoc pacto tam justo placito atque firmato, nihil te habere quod objicias semini Abrahae in omnibus gentibus. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 239.
4. Tollamus de medio inania objecta, quae a partibus imperitis jactari contra invicem solent, nec to objicias tempora Macariana, nec ego saevitiam Circumcellionum. Si hoc ad te non pertinet, nec illud ad me. Op. Aug., Tome 2, p. 33.
5. Clamatis vos de Macario, et nos de Circumcellione. S. Augustini Episcopi Psalmus contra partem Donati, p. 5.
6. Waddington's Church History, p. 168. (Library of Useful Knowledge.)