HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
By David Benedict
Review of the History of the Donatists
And the Last Days of Augustine
Besides reviewing the principal events of this history, I propose to examine the common argument of history, on the rise of the community whose beginning, progress, trials, sentiments, and affairs in general the foregoing narratives have briefly described. For a fair discussion of this subject we ought to examine the Catholic policy at the time of the split in their church concerns, compared with that which the Donatists adopted for themselves. In all church history the beginning of this new party under consideration is ascribed to the division at Carthage on the choice of a new bishop, and no other cause has been assigned for the rise of the Donatists as a separate church organization. This may be accounted for from the fact that hitherto no one has studied their history or their principles sufficiently to understand them, or to show that they were actuated by any principles in their new organization aside from those above ascribed to them. But that there was a predisposing cause in the condition of the old body for a separation, on the part of those who desired church purity, and who were tired of the mixture of good and bad members for the sake of church union, is apparent in the early measures of the Donatists, and in all their controversies with their opponents on church discipline. They were all Catholics at first, and if they went off from the old body merely on account of their disagreement about a new bishop, why did they not continue Catholics after their separation, as did the Jansenists and others; and as doubtless the new party will do, which appears to be forming against the dogma of the pope's infallibility? But very different was the course of these ancient reformers, and that they were well prepared for a new organization, with scripture rules of discipline, we may infer from the rapidity of the rise of the churches on these principles over all North Africa.
The views of the church of Christ by the Donatists, and the strictness of their church discipline, may be inferred from the following statements: It was said by the Catholic bishop Albaspin, whose name has often appeared in these narratives, that the Novations and Donatists were called Puritans because they held that the visible church of Jesus Christ does not, and ought not to, consist of any but those who are free from spots and falls, and that all others should be cast out. When the Catholic church was notoriously full of bad members, it was said by Augustine, the Donatist discipline would split it into a thousand schisms. The reformers of North Africa, unlike the reformers of later times, did not leave their work half done. Having repudiated the head of the church which they left, they also disowned its members, its baptisms, its ordinations, and all its official unctions; and all who came to them from the old body, whether bishops, elders, deacons or lay members, were required to be rebaptized, reordained and re-appointed in their new connection, in their different stations. Mosheim asserts that they required re-baptism of all who joined them from other parties. But according to Neander, the requisition was made only of those coming from the Catholics, for the reason that by adhering to Caecilian, the obnoxious bishop, they ceased to have the predicates of a true Christian church.
The Writings of the Donatists
All these writings are lost except the portions which have been preserved by Augustine; and as these portions consist of extracts quoted for the purpose of refuting their sentiments which were in conflict with his own, the said extracts thus providentially preserved are now valuable for information of the real sentiments of the Donatists. In answer to the natural inquiry as to the genuineness of these extracts, I answer: The Donatists often have the best side in argument, and they combat the positions of their opponent in terms exceedingly severe. Many of the most interesting passages in these extracts, thus preserved, are incorporated in the foregoing narratives. The reader should bear in mind that all these passages were recorded by Augustine himself, of which the following may serve for specimens of their plain and censorious style: "The Catholic church is a human figment. "The Good Father, meaning Augustine, sees no difference in a man of faith and an infidel, as a baptizer. "With us bad men may be unknown, as such. "With them, they are well known, to all. "If we are criminals, why are you so clamorous for our communion? "On the other hand, if we are innocent, why do you follow us with the sword? "Why do you continue your vain and fruitless controversy with us? "God created men free; how am I to be deprived of that by human lordship which God hath freely bestowed on me? "You boast of your church union, which is obtained by war and is stained with blood."
Summary of the Persecutions of the Donatists
These began soon after the commencement of the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and they continued at intervals by his successors, with more or less severity, for about half a century. Although Constantine was declared emperor in 306, yet his undivided reign did not commence till the death of his rival, Maxentius, in 312. For a few years he suffered the ruling powers of the Catholic church to persecute the dissenters from it; but this was restrained during the last sixteen years of his reign. But under two of his sons, namely, Constantius and Constans, this people were severely persecuted, especially by the last named.
We now come to a great change in the business of persecuting the Donatists by the Constantine family, all of who but one, who were zealous Christians by profession, were more or less concerned in persecuting the Donatists; while this one, namely, Julian, surnamed the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine the Great, became a most distinguished benefactor of this persecuted people. By his imperial decree all who had been banished by his relatives were permitted to return to their country, their churches and their homes. This was in 361. For many years after this event the Donatists do not appear to have suffered severe persecutions.
Review of the History of the Conference at Carthage
This convocation was literally like the handle of a jug, all on one side. It occurred almost one hundred years after the rise of the Donatists, and but a few years after the then young bishop of Hippo appeared in the field against them. As the history of this conference occupied so large a space in the works of both Optatus and Augustine, and as in its magnitude and design it was the greatest effort of the enemies of the Donatists to suppress them, it is somewhat difficult to account for the silence of history respecting it. The main object of the great undertaking most evidently was to gain possession of all the Donatist churches in Africa by legal authority, under forms of law. Chapters V, VI and VII are wholly occupied with the history of this conference; the manner in which it was formed, the debates of the parties, their accusations against each other, and the final judgment of the president, in which the Donatists were condemned. In their debates during the three days of this conference, so many were their references to their controversies at their different homes, that an observer might have formed a tolerably good history of these home controversies all over the country.
While in other great meetings of disagreeing parties, in their subjects of discussion will be some important topics relative to faith or practice, scarcely anything of the kind came up in this meeting, except on church discipline. On this subject bishop Albaspin, a famous Catholic writer, said all turned on the question whether the field, in the parable of the wheat and tares, meant the world or the church, and, said this bishop, the decision of this question was the main business of the conference. The field means the church, said Augustine, with the wheat and the tares together. This was the favorite system of this famous church leader. Should any doubt the correctness of this statement, he may be convinced of its truth by an examination of all Augustine's writings on the subject in his controversies with the Donatists. A few of his arguments against the strict disciplinarian opponents were in the following terms: "It was foretold of the church of the coming Messiah, that it should be composed of good and bad members, to the end of the world. Bad members in the church will not contaminate the good. Good members, secure of their own salvation, ought to tolerate the bad, in the church, for the furtherance of theirs."
The Painful Labors and Great Distances
Traveled in Attending the Conference
As the Donatists were spread over all North Africa, from the Atlantic ocean on the west, to the borders of Egypt on the east, a distance of about two thousand miles, although its average width was but about three hundred miles, and as Carthage, the place for the conference, was about midway of the long country, it is plain to be seen that many of the bishops had to travel a thousand miles or more. If Carthage was not central, of course those from one end would have to go farther than from the other. The length of North Africa may be shown by comparing it with a territory of equal length on our Atlantic coast, which would extend from Boston a considerable distance into the southern states. And the whole journey both ways was probably on foot, the common mode of traveling in those times. Some who lived near the southern shores of the Mediterranean might have obtained passages by water, as Mr. Perry has suggested. I had supposed that June, the month of the conference, in a warm latitude, was an unfavorable time for travel. The remarks on this subject by Mr. Perry, late consul at Tunis, who spent a number of years in the country, may be found in a note.
As Augustine was evidently the projector of the great convocation under review, for the express purpose of suppressing the Donatists, I could never comprehend why he took such a roundabout way in the business, which subjected all the bishops of both parties to the laborious journeys which have been described; of which, however, the Catholics did not complain, as by the success of the measure they doubtless expected to gain the churches which the Donatists would lose, and thus demoralize their aggressive rivals. But the question returns, why did not the grasping bishop seize upon the churches he coveted at once, with an armed force, as the Catholic managers were accustomed to do in former times? To this question it may be said it was too late in the day for this rough measure. The people had become numerous over all the country, where they were mixed with the Catholics and others in the ordinary pursuits of life; and so well were they esteemed that the magistrates declined to persecute them. Of this fact we have ample evidence from both Augustine and, at a later time, from pope Gregory. In closing this review of the conference the following questions naturally occur: As during the whole time of the conference nothing was alleged against the Donatists which would subject them to a criminal process, why was this method adopted for their suppression? It was doubtless intended to obtain their condemnation by imperial authority. The whole business of the conference was an empty show; none of the subjects of the debates were referred to by the judge in his decision adverse to his opponents.
Again, I could not divine why all the Donatist bishops were called to Carthage, where only about twenty of them found anything to do, but to assist the president in forming a list of their names and the location of their churches, until the thought occurred that the list thus formed might have been an essential part of the conference. This idea was confirmed when I called to mind the great care of the president during the long process in making out the list of the Donatist churches and the names of their absent bishops. From the exparte character of this conference, and from the Catholic gold said to be in the hands of the president, which saying was never disproved, Augustine doubtless confidently expected the churches of the Donatists would be awarded to his party. In that case the apparently useless list hitherto, would be an ample guide to the agents who would be employed to install Catholic bishops in the four hundred Donatist churches. On this theory the obtaining this list was one of the principal objects of the conference. This is the most probable reason I can give for compelling all the Donatist bishops to meet at Carthage, where so few of them found nothing to do but to help form the list of all their churches and bishops, present or absent. In the whole matter of the getting up and management of this unsuccessful Carthaginian convocation there were far too many undeveloped plans for honest and fair-dealing men.
I will now briefly examine a most serious charge of Augustine against the Donatists, which exceeds that of their reputed confederacy with the Circumcellions, so far as they were personally concerned.
The Imputed Suicides of the Donatists
Century after century the charge of these criminal acts against this people has gone the rounds of church history, while no one, to my knowledge, has ever looked it directly in the face or taken any pains to ascertain the truth or the falsehood of the charge. And as it originated with Augustine, all who have repeated it, have done so on his authority; and as I resolved to sift this old story to the bottom, all the works of this voluminous author in which the Donatists were concerned have been carefully examined in the original Latin. And after all my researches in these works for something explicit and reliable on this subject, or from which an inference can be fairly drawn, I found but five cases of deaths which Augustine imputed to suicide; and one more case in which he accused the person of premeditating the act. Of the five cases of actual deaths, all agreed that they occurred in the Macarian war against the Donatists. These are the only cases now to be examined, only two of which were named. These deaths were all charged upon the Catholics by the Donatists, but were denied by Augustine. "Your voluntary deaths, which you inflict on yourselves and then charge them upon us," was the common language of Augustine to the Donatists. Concerning the other three, said he, whose deaths you have equally charged upon us, I suppose there were those who knew why or in what manner they died; I confess, said he, I have not sought to know.
Such was the conclusion of the discussion between the Catholics and the Donatists on the question of three of the five reputed suicides, and of Augustine's strange assertion that he had not inquired concerning the cause of the manner of their deaths. Donatus and Marculus were the names of the other two. The first was a bishop; the other was either a bishop or an elder. They were both prominent men with Donatists in Numidia. This Donatus was not the original man of this name, although he has often been confounded with him. Of this martyr I can only learn, in this connection, that he is said to have been thrown into a well. This was charged upon the Catholics, by the Donatists, as it was done in the Macarian war. On the death of Marculus I find accounts of considerable length, by both parties. Augustine said, he had heard he might have precipitated himself. This, he said, was more credible than that it was done by Roman authority, in the Macarian war, as that punishment was not according to the Roman laws.
The Death of Marculus, By a Donatist Author
"By the command of Macarius he was taken on his own possessions, in the Macarian war, where he was at once scourged with cords; in the next place, by a strong guard he was blindfolded and conducted through a number of the cities of Numidia to the New Rock, where, after four days, by a soldier, he was precipitated from the highest point of the rock." This was doubtless the true account of the death of Marculus. This account is found in a note in Augustine's works, where it must have been inserted by editors more careful and candid than the author. The case of Gaudentius is the only one yet to be examined, in which case the charge of his adversary was premeditating a suicidal act; but this distinction is generally so far overlooked that for unnumbered ages this man has stood in history as a distinguished advocate among the Donatists; and no historian that I have seen has appeared to notice that the original charge by Augustine's own confession was made with other words than those which Gaudentius himself employed. And strange as it may appear, all authors have quoted the identical passage in question against Gaudentius, and have presented his constructed argument to prove him a patron of suicide. The language of this old story, on both sides, with its connections, is briefly given in Chapter IX. Thus ends the whole story of Augustine concerning the reputed suicides of the Donatists.
The Last Days of Augustine
For about forty years this unwearied opponent of the Donatists had sought in various ways to hinder and suppress them. According to Neander, this famous Catholic bishop was the soul of all the bishops of his order in North Africa; and whoever examines his language and measures will evidently discover that he regarded the whole country as the predestinated and lasting inheritance of his party, to the exclusion of all dissenters. But now, near the close of his life, he beheld an army of Vandals making rapid conquests of this country under their ambitious king, Genseric. These Vandals were of German origin. They had a full grown and well-ordered church establishment of the Arian faith. They held to the union of the church and the state. They also held the right and the duty of kings to manage in church concerns, and to punish dissenters. In these respects their ecclesiastical form was much like that of the Catholics. Thus two great hierarchies met on the same round, equally dogmatical and intolerant. Who now, of the Catholic bishops, says Robinson, dare preach a sermon on the text they had so often abused, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; the powers that be are ordained of God."
Augustine did not live long enough under the Vandal government, says Robins, to witness the full extent of the sufferings of his own people; but he lived a sufficient time to witness the effect of that wicked doctrine of persecution, which he had taught the Catholics to practice on those he called heretics, returned with a vengeance on their own heads. Furthermore, says Robinson, he who, through his whole life, had been warring against heretics, now, by a revolution in government, under a zealous Arian head, became a heretic himself. During the progress of the invasion a number of Augustine's associates sought a refuge with him in Hippo. Here, they who had driven the Donatists from their churches, had frequent tidings of a counterpart of these doings, in the expulsion of their own bishops from their seats, and in their imprisonment, and exile, and occasionally capital punishment. This Vandal war was a work of some years. The siege of Hippo lasted fourteen months, in the third of which Augustine sickened and died, at the age of seventy-six, in the year 430. Thus ended the laborious life of the far-famed bishop of Hippo. In my extended researches for the refutation of Augustine's foul charges against the Donatists, I have learned more of their real character than from all other writers; and in his objections to their church polity and discipline, in which they disagreed with his own, their scriptural and evangelical principles are very clearly disclosed.
1. Mr. Perry says: "I do not regard June as an unfavorable time for travel in North Africa, for though the rays of the sun are piercing and the dust trying to the eyes, one will at that season avoid mud and swollen streams which travelers encounter at an earlier period." MS Letter.
2. "Fateor non quaesivi."