History of the Donatists
By David Benedict
Du Pin's History of the Donatists
From Du Pin's Monumenta of the Donatists most of the matter of this chapter has been selected. In that work are contained the epistles of pope Gregory, to which it will be seen Du Pin himself sometimes referred. The first twenty pages of the Monumenta are occupied with brief historical sketches of the origin, progress and changes in the affairs of this people. The whole work contains about four hundred pages, and in it their whole history is given in the full manner no where else to be found. There is an English translation in seven quarto volumes of general church history of Du Pin in the library of Brown University, in which but little comparatively is said of the Donatists; but in that work, and in Optatus, and Augustine, I had become somewhat familiar with this history. Now, as I go for passages of new matter, I shall select such as describe events in a more explicit and intelligent form.
The Origin of the Donatists
Donatus, says Du Pin, divided all Africa into two parts, one of which he chose for himself. This laconic sentence comprehends the early operations of the new party. This saying, so descriptive of the Donatist leader, well agrees with that of the famous warrior, "I came, I saw, I conquered." The above statement of Du Pin relative to the rapid spread of the Donatists over all North Africa has been published by many Catholic writers, although not in such strong language. Indeed, as all the writings of the Donatists have been destroyed, all our dependence for information of their doings must be on their adversaries. Augustine and Du Pin give similar descriptions of the parties into which the Donatists were divided, but it was only Du Pin who said the first party went off, on account of baptism. The Donatists, says Du Pin, sent bishops to Rome, Spain and Gaul, and to other lands, to gain proselytes to their sect. In 392, says Du Pin, a Donatist bishop named Crispin was called into the court of justice, having been accused of heresy according to the Theodosian code. In a set speech of three days, Crispin argued his cause from beginning to end before the proconsul, in which he endeavored to repel the charge of heresy against him. But after all the efforts of the resolute bishop he lost his cause, and the fine of ten pounds of gold was imposed upon him. But it was at once remitted by the request of Possidius, his principal accuser, who was a distinguished Catholic. In this case the theory was exemplified which has been previously suggested, that the then heavy fine was threatened against reputed heretics rather to alarm and hinder them, than for ultimate execution. In the next place, Du Pin referred to new commotions, which, he said, were stirred up by the Donatists on the death of their famous and cruel persecutor Stilicho, as if by his death the were free from the persecuting laws he was commissioned to execute. Both Du Pin and Fleury sometimes spoke lightly of the emperor Honorius as a legislator. The former named his issuing two edicts, one for, the other against, the Donatists, as among the versatile laws of princes. Fleury, on the same subject, said, when the emperor issued the first edict he was in great fear from his enemies, and needed the help of the Donatists, but when the fear was over he turned against them. The account of the execution of Marcellinus and the sentiments of the Donatists of his judgment against them are much like those I have given.
Du Pin's Account of a Synod Against the Donatists
So much, said he, did their impudence and audacity increase that the African fathers called a synod to consult on measures for refuting the calumnies of their judge. Allowances must be made for the language of an opponent in the above sentence. In the next place, said Du Pin, the Donatists, not being satisfied with dishonoring the character of Marcellinus, they even sought his life, and by the direction of count Marinus he was beheaded on the 13th of September, 413. This account is not so full as that before given in the writings of Augustine. Thus, said Du Pin, the Donatists found an occasion for casting a useless veto on the judgment against them. I had prepared some remarks on the strangeness of Du Pin's repeating this absurd story without note or comment when the current account of history ascribes the death of the man in question to the command of the emperor. But I concluded to let it stand, as a specimen of Catholic credulity.
Du Pin's References to Pope Gregory's
Epistles Concerning the Donatists
From these epistles, says Du Pin, which were addressed to different men against the Donatists, we are informed that this people, in a weak and languishing condition, survived a long time in Africa. Furthermore, we learn from Gregory's representations, that in his time the number of the Donatists was not small. In the next place, pope Gregory complained of the Donatists for rebaptizing a large number of Catholics, and of their adding them to their own sect. To this complaint, pope Gregory added another of a still more serious and injurious character, that the Donatists drove many Catholic bishops of a canonical order from their own churches. Unhappily for this great historian, there is an entire disagreement in the above complaints which he reported of pope Gregory of the aggressions of the Donatists on the Catholics, and of the previous account of their weak and languishing condition.
Du Pin's Description of Pope Gregory's
Trouble With the Magistrates of Africa
The substance of this trouble was, that the magistrates in question failed to take out and execute the rescripts which he sent against the Donatists. In the details of Du Pin on this subject he says the pope assured the emperor that for the future he would demand of the African magistrates more strict dealing with the Donatists. Du Pin, in his account of the condition of the Donatists while under the Vandals, for almost one hundred years, is not so favorable to them as that of Mosheim. He admits that the Vandals evidently favored them as dissenters from their own church of an Arian creed, and that they were free from the persecuting edicts of the Roman emperors, yet, in his opinion, they drew out a miserable life under the Arian yoke.
The Conclusion of Du Pin's Brief History of the Donatists
"Thus for three hundred years and more the Donatist schism continued in Africa, in which it arose, in an altogether inauspicious time, under Constantine the Great; nevertheless, neither by ecclesiastical nor by civil judgments could it be extinguished. Under the emperor Constans it was restrained; under Julian it was renewed; and for many years it filled a great part of Africa, until, by writings, by disputations, and by the encroachments of imperial laws, it was reduced to a few, whose unhappy followers to the sixth and the seventh century lay concealed in some corners of Africa." Thus while church historians generally limit the existence of the Donatists in Africa to about one hundred years, Du Pin extends it to three hundred years and more. This statement carries us to about the time of the Mahometan invasion of the country. The above summary of Du Pin of the rise and progress of the Donatists till they are lost sight of in history, as an organized and operating community, on the whole, is doubtless well founded; but by following the Catholic dialect this great, and generally fair, historian does not fairly represent this people in what he says of their unhappy and obscure condition. It certainly does not correspond with the descriptions of them as given by pope Gregory.
Remarks on the Epistles of Pope Gregory
These epistles were written almost two centuries after the death of Augustine, who was about as much troubled with the inroads of the Donatists on the Catholic church, as was pope Gregory at this later period, and more so personally, as he lived among them, while Gregory was at Rome. The findings of these epistles has enabled me to extend this history of the Donatists far beyond the common accounts of them; and what must be gratifying to those who feel an interest in this people, they appear as active and successful as in their earlier operations. Without the aid of Du Pin's Monumenta and Gregory's epistles I had traced this history about one hundred years. With these helps I go on about two hundred years more. For about the one hundred years under the Vandal government in Africa, according to Mosheim, they enjoyed the sweets of freedom and tranquillity, although, as we have seen in the remarks of Du Pin, they were annoyed with the Arian yoke. The Vandals were indeed rigid Arians and persecuted the orthodox Catholics on account of their Trinitarian faith, yet it seems to be generally admitted that they treated the followers of Donatus with a good degree of toleration, although of the same orthodox and Trinitarian creed. But in the year 534 the Vandals were expelled from Africa by the famous general Belisarius, who was under the emperor Justinian, and the Catholics regained possession of the country which they held till the Mahometan conquest. From the time of the Catholics re-entering Africa to that of pope Gregory was a period of about sixty years, during which time I cannot gain any information of the affairs of the Donatists, nor of their treatment by the restored rulers. During the threescore years in question, that is, from pope Boniface II to the time of pope Gregory I, surnamed the Great, they had a new pope every few years, and in the contentions of the rival candidates the Donatists were probably permitted to pursue their usual course in augmenting their number, which, according to pope Gregory, was not small in his time. Although this ancient pontiff was a great writer, I have nowhere seen his name mentioned except in Du Pin's Monumenta, and very briefly by Mosheim, in connection with the Donatists. The last named author, in his brief remarks on the condition of the Donatists in the time of pope Gregory the Great, says, "they were pluming their wings anew for the multiplication of their sect;" and his language would indicate that they were then put down. This does not at all agree with what Gregory himself said of their rebaptizing so many of the Lord's flock, and of their scattering and devouring it like wolves and beasts of prey; of their expelling Catholic bishops from their own churches; and of their making inroads upon the dominant state church to that degree that the pope sought the aid of powerful statesmen and of the emperor himself to arrest them in their aggressive course.
Brief History of Pope Gregory
As this pontiff occupies an important position in Donatist history, I will give the following sketches of his character and deeds: Pope Gregory the Great was the first of sixteen popes of that name; he occupied the papal chair fourteen years, and died, as above states, in 604. It was this Gregory the Great who sent the famous Augustin, or Austen, as he is sometimes called, with forty monks into England to convert the Anglo Saxons in 596, the same year in which one of his epistles against the Donatists is dated. This Augustin was an entirely different man from the Bishop of Hippo, who lived about two hundred years before him. Waddington does not favor the theory of Mosheim that pope Gregory suppressed the Donatists, but rather that of Du Pin, who traced them under different rulers in to the seventh century. In the opinion of Waddington, the Saracens or Mahometans might have found the Donatists in Africa when they conquered it.
Comments on What Was Said by Pope Gregory
of the Donatists Driving Catholic Bishops
From Their Own Churches At first view this seems a very loud and valid complaint, which was also often made by Augustine in his times. Charges of this kind were made against the Protestants by the Catholics in later times. Such charges will always be made when new parties arise in the midst of old communities. But if such were the differences of the positions and conditions of the Catholics and the Donatists, in the time of pope Gregory, who had all the power of the church and the state at his command and under his control, how could the proscribed Donatists drive Catholic bishops from their own churches, in the common sense of the term? Bingham, although an Episcopalian, has explained the operation of which both Augustine and pope Gregory so loudly complained. The loss of the Catholic churches was owing to the people in them all turning Donatists. As the complaints under consideration were common with the two great church managers, whose operations were almost two centuries apart, may we not infer that during this long space of time the aggressive Donatists had often become repossessors of churches then occupied by the Catholics which had formerly been taken from them?
Augustine and Pope Gregory Compared
Of course they were both decided opponents to the Donatists. But we do not discover so much of the sharp, vindictive, persecuting spirit of the elevated pontiff at Rome, as in the ordinary bishop of Hippo. The language of Gregory often inclined to the complaining side, to his opponents. To them, denunciation was the ordinary language of Augustine. Gregory often laid much of the blame for the loss of Catholic members to the neglect of his bishops. Augustine laid it all to the reputed unfair means of the Donatists.
1. Ecce lupus domincum gregem, non jam in nocte latenter, sed in aperta luce dilaniat. *** Cernimus a bestia devorari. Du Pin's Monumenta, p. 335.