By David Benedict


The Conference at Carthage, in Africa,
between the Catholics and the Donatists


        We now enter upon the details, of considerable length, of one of the most singular and laborious transactions in the history of the Donatists. It was now about one hundred years since their origin as a separate community, during which time their churches were spread over all North Africa, amidst persecutions of various kinds. Their churches had often been taken from them by armed men, but now a plan was laid to gain possession of them for the Catholics, by a legal process. The bishop of Hippo, the contriver of the plan, was then in the full exercise of his episcopal powers over the whole country, in which Honorius, a son of the then late Theodosius the Great, occupied the imperial throne. This young emperor was a zealous Catholic, and Augustine easily obtained an edict for the conference, to be described, which was to be composed only of the bishops of North Africa, all of whom, both Catholics and Donatists, were included in the summons.

The Form of the Edict

        Within four months the parties were commanded to meet at Carthage. Marcellinus, a friend of Augustine, was to preside in the conference, and to act as judge. He was appointed to this office in the edict, in which he was recognized as the special and confidential friend of the emperor. At this time the Donatists were numerous, and in a prosperous condition, notwithstanding the many persecutions to which they had been exposed, and the vexatious hindrances to their progress during the reigns of all the Constantine dynasty except that of Julian. Augustine valued himself on his logical skill, which having failed to induce the Donatists voluntarily to engage in what they deemed useless disputations, the present plan was devised, and to secure their attention, in the edict was inserted the following rule: "If the Donatist bishops, after being three times invited, still declined taking any part in the conference, their conduct should be interpreted to signify a consciousness of being unable to defend their cause, and their communities therefore should be compelled to unite with the Catholic church. On the other hand, any who might comply with the invitation, should at some future time receive again the churches of which they were then deprived." This promise, says Neander, was shamefully violated. What conditions for what Augustine maintained was a free meeting by the request of the Donatists! But as the measure was by an imperial edict, the entrapped people, rather than hazard the loss of their churches, complied with the demand, and early in June, 411, there might be seen in Carthage two hundred and seventy-nine Donatist bishops, with two hundred and eighty-six bishops of the Catholics. This company comprised all the bishops of both parties except the aged and infirm, and those who were hindered on the way. It was a long time, however, before this singular meeting was organized.

The Overtures of the Catholics to the Donatists

        These I will give according to Neander's views, not my own. “Their bishops," says he, "made overtures to the Donatists which were calculated to inspire their confidence." All hollow, in my opinion. "These bishops declared they were ready to resign their bishoprics, and to surrender them into the hands of the Donatists alone, in case the latter gained the victory in the conference. Such a proposition, it may be granted, required but little self-denial, since, beyond doubt, they were well convinced that the case supposed could never happen. There was more in the other proposals, that if the cause of the Donatists was lost, and if their bishops would come over to the Catholic church they should be recognized in their episcopal character, and stand on the same level with the Catholic bishops in the exercise of their functions. But if the communities were not satisfied with this, both should resign their dignities, and the Donatists and Catholics, now united, choose a new bishop. 'Be brethren with us in the Lord's inheritance,' said Augustine; 'let us not, for the sake of preserving our own stations, hinder the peace of Christ.'" What would all this hollow talk amount to with the non-confiding Donatists? "Augustine preached in Carthage before the commencement of the conference, two discourses, in which he endeavored to inspire the Catholics there with love and gentleness towards the Donatists, and called on them sedulously to avoid everything which might be calculated to give offence to their excitable feelings, or to arouse their passions. `Their eyes are inflamed,' said he; `they must be treated prudently and with forbearance. Let no one enter into controversy with the other--let no one at this moment even defend his faith by disputation, lest some spark from the controversy kindle into a great flame; lest occasion of offence be given to those who seek occasion. Do you hear reviling language, endure it; be willing not to have heard it; be silent. Do you say he brings charges against my bishop, and shall I be silent? Yes, be silent; repay not revilings with revilings, but pray for him.'" Let the bishops, said the president, signify to the people in their sermons to keep themselves quiet and be silent; I will publish my sentence, and expose it to all the people of Carthage. Thus far the whole company appears to have been merely an informal gathering from all parts of North Africa, who were engaged in quite free remarks on the business for which they had been collected together; many of them, we may suppose, had never before met each other face to face, and from Augustine's efforts to hinder the parties from disputes, we may infer that he feared his whole project would be defeated. The most solemn preparations, says Waddington, were made by the people of Carthage to give dignity and weight to this great and unusual convocation. This, of course, was by the Catholics. The undignified and unpropitious character of this primary meeting is doubtless well described in the following terms: "Amidst such a multitude on both sides," says Neander, "the transactions could hardly be conducted in a quiet and orderly manner." But in what he terms "wearisome and fruitless disputes about matters relating to the form of transacting the business," the greater part of the first day was spent. As yet no organization was formed, and the whole company of almost six hundred bishops, doubtless with many of their friends, were concerned in this promiscuous assembly.

The Order of the Conference Announced

        This order, according to imperial command, Marcellinus announced was arranged according to the common mode of judicial proceedings, in which deputies were chosen by each of the parties in controversy, to act and to plead for them; accordingly, he said: "There shall be seven bishops on each side to manage the debates. There shall be seven other bishops on each side for their counsel if needed, on condition that they be silent while the first are speaking. There shall be four ecclesiastical notaries on each side, to make the records, who shall succeed each other by turns. For a further safety there shall be four bishops on each side, to observe the notaries and preserve the records." Thus only forty-four bishops were retained of the whole number who came to Carthage. The names of the seven debaters on the Catholic side were Aurelius, Alypius, Augustinus, Possidius, Vicentius, Fortunatus, and Fortunatianus. On the Donatist side the debaters were Primianus, Petilianus, Emeritus, Deodatus, Montanus, Gaudentius, and Probatus. I have thus given the full Latin names of the principal debaters, and as they were selected each party for its own side, they were doubtless accounted among their most able men, for defending their causes. Augustine was the chief speaker among the Catholics, and Petilian with the Donatists. The distrustful Donatists, says Neander, who were prejudiced against the whole business, at first positively refused to enter into such an arrangement. They declared that the judicial mode of proceeding was not applicable to their spiritual concern. But at length, being compelled to yield, they chose their own men. At this point I will give a brief description of the manner in which it is supposed, from the history of these times, the records of this conference were made and preserved, about a thousand years before the art of printing was discovered. The scribes, or notaries, as they were called, made their entries in short-hand, somewhat like modern reporters. This was done with styles or gravers, on strips of boards waxed over for the purpose. These strips were called tables or tablets. The records thus made were afterwards transferred to parchment, the material for ancient books. When one set of tables was full, another was brought in with new notaries. As fast as these singular records were full, the tables, or books, as they were also sometimes called, were rolled up in wrappers and sealed, to preserve them from injury or corruption. All speaking was suspended while they were changing the notaries. "We have filled the books," was the signal for the change.

The Enrollment of the Names of the Delegates To the Conference

        This was a long and tedious business, which I will briefly describe. In the first place, there are no indications that those who came to the conference had certificates of their appointment, or that there were lists of the members on either side; but instead of this, they went promiscuously to the president, where their names were enrolled, and the places of their churches. The same was done with respect to the names of absent bishops, and the location of their churches. Besides answering to their names, the members on both sides often had much to say of their difficulties at their homes, on the same ground, and of their complaints of each other, of which the following sharp speeches may serve as specimens: Alypius, a Catholic, said he wished that in his place they might rejoice in their former union, as they rejoiced in other places. A bad union, said the Donatist Petilian, of innocence and crime, which cannot be in union. I have no traitors among my people, said a Donatist, meaning the Catholics. There have never been any Donatists among my people, said a Catholic. Because they have all been excluded by violence, said a Donatist. I call God to witness that is a lie, said a Catholic. Your holiness, said the president, will deign only to say whether there is a Donatist bishop now in your place. Among the complaints of the Catholics of the Donatists was that of their rebaptizing one of their bishops who was a nonagenarian. The accounts of these singular transactions preparatory to the full organization of this professedly religious convocation occupy about twenty folio pages of the "Works of Optatus," in which they are recorded.

The First Session of the Conference

        All the meetings now were held with closed doors, in a hall of one of the public baths of Carthage. With the company to manage the debates, there entered about twenty men of various ranks in the imperial government of Africa. This large company of state officials was in attendance according to the edict of the emperor, as coadjutors, if necessary, of the president, Marcellinus. In the opening of this first session of the conference, the president, by the order of the emperor, made a proposal to the Donatists in the following terms: If they wanted confidence in him, they were at liberty to choose another person of equal or superior rank to preside along with him. It is none of our business, said Petilian, to ask for another judge, since in fact we did not ask for the first. This business belongs to those who have been the contrivers of this whole affair. Petilian, in the next place, made an urgent request of the president for a definite statement of the subjects to be discussed in the debates, that they might understand what answers they ought to make. The only reply of the president to this very proper and reasonable request was, that the subjects for discussion would best be made known as the business went on. At this point Petilian commented with his usual boldness and freedom on the injurious effects of the imperial court's decrees which called men from their quiet homes, and subjected them to the pains and privations of distant journeys from all parts of a wide-spread country. Although the Donatists had chosen their men, and had entered the hall with the company above described, yet they now made an effort to free themselves from their unwelcome position by pleading that the time was past in which the conference was to be finished, which was not yet begun. In reply to this argument, the president informed them that by a second edict the emperor had extended the time for the conference, if it should be found needful. Having failed in this effort, these reluctant men, who were thus shut off from all intercourse with their companions, again urged their request that the conference should be managed with open doors. If they must engage in the proposed verbal controversy, they desired that their companions, who were not permitted to take any part in its doings, and also the public, might have an opportunity to witness them, that they might judge of the principles and merits of the parties. The only argument of the Catholics against an open door was the danger of tumult and disturbance. For almost a whole day, said the Donatist bishop Emeritus, we have been together in an open and promiscuous assembly, and instead of any tumult and disturbance from us, prayer has been continually ascending to God and heaven from our hearts. There has not been, neither will there be, any tumult or disturbance on our side with open doors, said the Donatist bishop Petilian. But as the president favored the excluding system, the discussion of the subject was at once closed. The fear of danger to the Catholic cause, by a public exposure of their treatment of the Donatists, was probably at the bottom of the opposition to the open door for which the Donatists so earnestly contended. After a moderate amount of debating by the parties of a preliminary character, and the reading of a number of very lengthy documents by the Catholics to forestall their claim to an apostolic succession, the conference was adjourned for six days, that the notaries might put their records in order.



1. "Codices binos implevimus." Opta. p. 90.

2. In the hall in which the Conference was held it is said that the famous Cyprian was condemned to martyrdom.