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Donatism (Latin: Donatismus, Greek: Δονατισμός Donatismós) was a schism in the Church of Carthage in 4th - 6th centuries.

Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministrations to be effective and for the prayers and sacraments they conduct to be valid. Donatism had its roots in the long-established Christian community of the Roman Africa province (now Algeria and Tunisia), in the persecutions of Christians under Diocletian. Named after the Berber Christian bishop Donatus Magnus, they flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries.[1]

The governor of Roman North Africa was lenient towards the large Christian minority under his rule throughout the persecutions and was satisfied when Christians handed over their Scriptures as a token repudiation of their faith. Christians who acceded to this were, when the persecutions came to an end, branded traditores, "those who handed (the holy things) over," by their critics, mostly from the poorer classes.[2]

Like the Novatianist movement of the previous century,[3] the Donatists were rigorists, holding that the church must be a church of "saints," not "sinners," and that sacraments, such as baptism, administered by traditores were invalid. In 311, a new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian, was consecrated by someone who had allegedly been a traditor, Felix of Aptungi. His opponents consecrated a Majorinus, a short-lived rival, who was succeeded by Donatus, after whom the schism was named.

In 313, a commission appointed by Pope Miltiades condemned the Donatists. They continued to exist, viewing themselves and not the other Christians as the "true Church," the only one with "valid sacraments." Because of their association with the Circumcellions, they brought upon themselves repression by the imperial authorities, but they drew upon African sentiment, while their opponents had the support of Rome. They were still a force at the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo at the end of the 4th century and disappeared only after the Muslim conquest of the 7th–8th centuries.[4]

Origins and controversy

The primary disagreement between Donatists and the rest of the early Christian Church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303–305), a disagreement that had implications both for the Church's understanding of the Sacrament of Penance and of the other sacraments in general.[citation needed]

The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. During the persecution some Church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned.[citation needed] These people were called traditores ("people who had handed over"). These traditors had returned to positions of authority under Constantine I, and the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests and bishops were invalid.

The first question, therefore, was whether the Sacrament of Penance can effect a reconciliation whereby the apostate, or in some cases specifically the traditor, may be returned to full communion. The Church's position was that the sacrament was for precisely such cases. At the time the Church still followed the discipline of public penance whereby a penitent for such a grievous offence would spend years, sometimes decades. First the penitent would beg for the prayers of those entering, from outside the doors of the church. Next they would be permitted to kneel inside the church building during services. Then they could stand with the congregation, and finally the penitent would receive the Eucharist again in a long progress toward full reconciliation. Even after the forgiveness of baptism, the Donatists would disqualify one from leadership after committing such crimes because the positions required extreme rigorism.

The second question was the validity of sacraments celebrated by priests and bishops who had been apostates under the persecution. The Donatists held that all such sacraments were invalid; by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This is known as ex opere operantis, Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthiness and holiness of the minister confecting. The orthodox position, according to Augustine, was ex opere operato from the work having been worked; in other words, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work, so that any priest or bishop, even one in a state of mortal sin, who speaks the formula of the sacrament with valid matter and the intent of causing the sacrament to occur acts validly. Hence, to the Donatists, a priest who had been an apostate but who repented could speak the words of consecration forever, but he could no longer confect the Eucharist. To orthodox Christians within the Church, a person who received the Eucharist from the hands of even an unrepentant sinning priest still received Christ's Body and Blood, their own sacramental life being undamaged by the priest's faults.

As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations.

Political impact

The sect had particularly developed and grown in northern Africa. There was growing unrest and threats of riots in Carthage connected to the bishop controversy.[5][a] Constantine, hoping to defuse the unrest, gifted monies to the non-Donatist Bishop Caecilian as payment for church buildings that had been damaged or confiscated during the prior period of persecution. No gifts were made to the Donatists (it appeared that Constantine was not fully aware of the seriousness of the dispute, thus his gifts only made matters worse).[5] The Donatists appealed to Rome for equal treatment; Constantine tasked Miltiades to sort the issue which led to the 313 commission mentioned above. The Donatists refused to abide by the decision of the Roman Council and demanded a local council to hear the dispute. This attempt failed to produce a good hearing and the Donatists appealed directly to the Emperor. In a surviving letter, Constantine shows frustration that the church cannot come to a good conclusion and he calls for a larger council, what is now known as the Council of Arles in 314. Again, the decision went against the Donatists and again they appealed to Constantine. The Emperor demanded that all parties be brought to Rome for a hearing; Constantine ruled in favor of Caecilian and warned against unrest.[6] A delegation from Rome traveled to Carthage to seek a compromise, which failed. Donatist extremists were stirring up protests and violence in the streets.[7] The Donatists refused to accept any compromise or decision in favor of the Catholic bishop. After the Constantinian shift, when other Christians accepted the emperor as a leader in the Church, the Donatists continued to see the emperor as the devil. After several attempts to bring reconciliation, in 317 Constantine issued a severe edict that threatened the death penalty to anyone who disturbed the peace of the empire. Another edict followed that called for the confiscation of all Donatist church property. In Carthage, Donatus refused to surrender buildings and the local Roman governor called for a "police" action, sending troops in to deal with the Donatists. The historical records are unclear, but it appears that some Donatists were killed and clergy were sent into exile.

Outside of Carthage, Donatist churches were left undisturbed and the clergy were allowed to remain in place.[8] Ultimately Constantine's efforts to bring unity between the Church and the Donatists failed, and by 321 Constantine granted toleration to the Donatists. In an open letter to the Church, Constantine asked the bishops to show moderation and patience to the Donatists.[9]

More laws against the Donatists were issued by Valentinian I after the defeat of the Donatist usurper Firmus in Northern Africa.

Doctrinal polemic

St. Augustine arguing with Donatists.

The Donatists also drew their beliefs from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian[citation needed].

St. Augustine of Hippo campaigned against this unorthodox belief throughout his tenure as Bishop of Hippo, and through his efforts the orthodox position gained the upper hand. According to Augustine's view, held also by the majority within the Church, the validity of the celebration of sacraments was assigned by the office of the priest and not by the personal character of the incumbent.

Augustine was convinced that men needed firm handling. He summed up this attitude in one word: disciplina. For him this was an active process of coercive punishment, a teaching by inconveniences – a per molestias eruditio.

He based his view on the Old Testament – where it is described how God had taught his wayward Chosen People by checking and punishing their evil tendencies by a whole series of divinely-ordained disasters.[10]

In his Letter to Vincentius, Augustine used the New Testament parable of the Good Householder to justify the use of force against the Donatists: "You are of opinion that no one should be compelled to follow righteousness; and yet you read that the householder said to his servants, 'Whomsoever ye shall find, compel them to come in.'"

The Church would use these texts of Augustine justifying the use of force in the persecution of pagan religions, the persecution of heretics by the Inquisition, and the persecution of Native American religions.

In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the Donatists heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. This was made possible after a collatio, in which St. Augustine, with legal documents, proved that Emperor Constantine had chosen the Church over the Donatists as the official church of the empire. As a result, the Donatists were harshly persecuted by the Roman authorities, and even Augustine protested at their treatment.[11]


The effects of Augustine's theological successes and the emperor's legal action were somewhat reversed when the Vandals conquered North Africa. It is also possible that the gradual decline of Donatism was due to the disappearance of the system within which it was identified as such no longer under imperial authority, Donatists and Catholics were equally marginalised by the Arian Vandals.[12] Donatism survived the Vandal occupation and the Byzantine reconquest under Justinian I. It is unknown how long Donatist belief persisted but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made easier the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century.[13]

Splinter groups

Donatism spawned a number of other groups who took their doctrines to extremes or who recoiled at those extremes. These groups included:

  • The Circumcellions, a name based on "circum cellas euntes", they go around larders, because they roved about among the peasants, living on those they sought to indoctrinate. They were a disparate series of extremist groups who regarded martyrdom as the true Christian virtue, thus disagreeing with the Episcopal see of Carthage on the primacy of chastity, sobriety, humility, and charity. The Donatists were both embraced by their extremism but also found in them useful allies.
  • Rogatists were a pacifist break away faction who rejected the excesses of the Circumcellions and their Donatist allies.
  • Claudianists, who were reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church by Primianus of Carthage.[14]
  • Tyconius was an influential thinker, expelled by the Donatists for his rejection of rebaptism[15] and of the circumcellion as being a superstitio.
  • Maximianists, a short lived extremist but largely non-violent sect.
  • Apostlicals, a sect of which we know very little save that they claimed to emulate the apostles.[14]
  • Urbanists; of Claudianists, who were reconciled to the main body by Primianus of Carthage[14]

In Mauretania and Numidia these separated sects were so numerous that the Donatists themselves could not name them all.[14] The decline in Donatism in the 5th century can be seen to be as much a result of these internal schisms as the pressure exerted by Augustine and the civil powers.

Carthaginian bishops

Donatists followed a succession of bishops.


For several centuries during the High Middle Ages and into the Reformation era, accusations of "Donatism" were often leveled against church reform movements that criticized clerical immorality on theological grounds.

Among the proto-Reformers, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus were both accused of Donatism by their theological opponents. Wycliffe taught that the moral corruption of priests invalidated their offices and sacraments, which was the same belief that had originally characterized Donatism.[16] Hus similarly argued that a prelate's moral character determined their ecclesial authority, a position Hus's contemporaries also compared to Donatism and condemned as heretical at the Council of Constance.

During the Reformation proper, Catholic polemicists like John Eck accused the magisterial Reformers of Donatism, even though these Reformers had partially distanced themselves from Wycliffe's theology precisely to avoid such a charge.[17] At the same time, magisterial Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli remained quite comfortable labeling as Donatist the more radical Reformers, such as the Anabaptists,[18]; the Catholics, on the other hand, were portrayed in Reformation rhetoric as Pelagian, another early Christian heresy.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, Bezpopovtsy (priestless) stream of the Old Believers claimed that, because the Russian bishops acquiesced to Patriarch Nikon's reforms, they had forfeited any claim to apostolic succession, along with the other patriarchs.

More recently, conservative Lutherans are sometimes labeled "Donatist" by liberal Lutherans, as a reference to their doctrine of church-fellowship[19] and position that churches which deny that Jesus’ true Body and true Blood are eaten during the Eucharist do not celebrate a valid Lord's Supper.[20]

Within the contemporary Catholic Church, the breakaway group the Society of St. Pius X is sometimes accused of having a Donatist mentality.[21]

See also


  1. ^ The remainder of this paragraph comes from Frend 1952 text which continues as an authority text. Frend gets his chronology of events mainly from the work of Optatus, "Against the Donatists," a biased presentation, but one of the only surviving ancient sources for these events.


  1. ^ Cantor 1995, pp. 51f.
  2. ^ Cantor 1995, p. 51.
  3. ^ Cross, FL, ed. (2005), "Novatianism", The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church, New York: Oxford University Press .
  4. ^ Cross, FL, ed. (2005), "Donatism", The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church, New York: Oxford University Press .
  5. ^ a b Frend 1952, pp. 144–45.
  6. ^ Frend 1952, p. 156.
  7. ^ Frend 1952, p. 157.
  8. ^ Frend 1952, pp. 159 60.
  9. ^ Frend 1952, pp. 161 62; from the Letters of Constantine preserved by Optatus.
  10. ^ Brown, P. 1967. Augustine of Hippo. London: Faber and Faber
  11. ^ Augustine, Aurelius, "2", Letter (134) .
  12. ^ Mitchell, Stephen (2007). A History of the Later Roman Empire. Blackwell. p. 282. 
  13. ^ "Donatism", Concordia Cyclopedia, CMU .
  14. ^ a b c d Donatists, at New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
  15. ^ Michael Gaddis (2005), There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 122.
  16. ^ Herring, George (2006), Introduction To The History of Christianity, New York: New York University Press, p. 230 .
  17. ^ Pelikan, Jaroslav (2003), Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Yale University Press, p. 474 .
  18. ^ Verduin, Leonard. "1". The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. ISBN 0-8028-3791-3. 
  19. ^ The doctrine of church fellowship, Reclaiming Walther .
  20. ^ Metzger, Paul W, What Constitutes A Valid Celebration Of The Lord’s Supper? (PDF), WLS essays .
  21. ^ "A Case Study In Modern-Day Donatism". Retrieved 2016-03-28. 


  • Cantor, Norman F (1995), The Civilization of the Middle Ages .
  • Daniel, Robin (2010), This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa, Chester: Tamarisk Publications, ISBN 978-0-9538565-3-4 .
  • Frend, WHC (1952), The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-826408-9 .
  • Tilley, Maureen A, ed. (1996), Donatist martyr stories: the Church in conflict in Roman North Africa, Liverpool University Press, ISBN 0-85323-931-2 .
  • ——— (1997), The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World, Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-2880-2 .

Further reading

  • Cameron, Michael (2001), "Augustine’s Use of the Song of Songs Against the Donatists", in van Fleteren, Frederick, Augustine: Biblical Exegete, New York: Peter Lang .
  • Corcoran, John Anthony (1997), Augustinus Contra Donatistas, Donaldson: Graduate Theological Foundation .
  • Gaddis, Michael (2005), There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, Berkeley: University of California Press .
  • Keleher, James P (1961), Saint Augustine’s Notion of Schism in the Donatist Controversy, Mundelein: Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary .
  • Lewis, Gordon R (Spring 1971), "Violence in the Name of Christ: The Significance of Augustine’s Donatist Controversy for Today", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 14 (2): 103–10 .
  • Paas, Steven (2005), A Conflict on Authority in the Early African Church: Augustine of Hippo and the Donatists, Kachere, Zomba .
  • Park, Jae-Eun (Aug 2013), "Lacking Love or Conveying Love? The Fundamental Roots of the Donatists and Augustine’s Nuanced Treatment of Them", The Reformed Theological Review, 72 (2): 103–21 .
  • Russell, Frederick H. (1999), "Persuading the Donatists: Augustine’s Coercion by Words", in Klingshirn, William E, Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press .
  • Scalise, Charles J (Fall 1996), "Exegetical Warrants for Religious Persecution: Augustine vs. the Donatists", Review & Expositor, 93 (4): 497–506, doi:10.1177/003463739609300405 .
  • Shimmyo, Theodore T (1991), "St Augustine’s Treatment of the Donatist Heresy: An Interpretation", Patristic and Byzantine Review, 10 (3): 173–82 .

External links

  • Donatus & the Donatist Schism, UK: Early Church , a list of primary and secondary sources on the Donatists.
  • "Donatists", Catholic Encyclopedia, New advent , goes into some detail about the politics in the early church that was the background for the rise and fall of Donatism.
  • of Cirta, Petilian, Letter, Sean Multimedia , written by a Donatist leader.
  • Merrills, Andrew H (2004), Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa, Ashgate  - new analysis of the textual, epigraphic and archaeological record.
  • Donatism. Online Dynamic Bibliography .
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