The Donatists

by Stuart Murray Williams

Origins of the Donatist movement

When Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, died in 311, senior church leaders in the province of Africa engaged in an unseemly scramble for power and eventually Mensurius’ archdeacon, Caecilian, was chosen to succeed him. This choice divided the Christian community, many of whom felt Caecilian was not suitable. His personality was not the main factor, but he was widely regarded as arrogant, cowardly, shallow, cruel and intolerant. Of greater significance was his strong pro-government stance that did not go down well among those who wanted greater independence from Roman culture and control. But the main concern was suspicion that he was either a traditor or that he had been ordained by a traditor. This term was used to describe those who had handed over copies of the Scriptures to the pagan authorities during times of persecution. In North Africa, where there was a tradition of courageous resistance, such conduct was inexcusable and no traditor was considered suitable for church leadership.

Although Caecilian’s consecration was welcomed elsewhere, trouble was not long appearing. In 312, a council of bishops declared his consecration invalid and appointed Majorinus, a lector in Caecilian’s office, as bishop. News of this was announced to the churches in Rome, Gaul and Spain as well as to the rest of Africa. This produced a schism, since Caecilian was not prepared to accept the decision. He and his supporters appealed to Constantine, claiming that the schism was a threat to public order. Constantine was concerned that Africa did not become unsettled and act as a destabilising influence. He acted swiftly, before listening to the other side, and Caecilian was assured that he enjoyed communion with the Roman church and was regarded as the legitimate bishop of Carthage.

Majorinus and his supporters appealed against this decision. Constantine was surprised by this but invited representatives of both parties to Rome to put their arguments to a council of bishops. When Majorinus died before this could be convened, Donatus of Casae Nigrae was appointed in his place. The council vindicated Caecilian and ordered Donatus not to return to Africa. The decision was not welcomed in Africa and many continued to refuse to recognise Caecilian. Donatus appealed again to Constantine, arguing the proceedings had been flawed. The emperor was displeased but referred the matter to a council at Arles in 314, for a final decision. The decision went against Donatus and the rebels were ordered to conform to this decision and submit to Caecilian, but the tensions continued and repression followed.


Our information about Donatus is remarkably limited for a man who for forty years led a movement that vied for recognition as the legitimate church of North Africa. During his lifetime, he was unchallenged as leader of the Donatist church, and his writings were quoted and his memory revered long after his death. He was exiled in 347 and died in about 355, widely regarded as a martyr. He was accorded the epithet ‘Donatus the Great’ and his significance in Africa has been compared to that of Athanasius in Egypt. Unlike Athanasius, however, he was not on the side which eventually emerged triumphant, so his name has been associated with schism. He was widely acknowledged as a vigorous leader, a man of learning, intelligence, integrity, wisdom, passion and oratory. His extensive writings were destroyed by his opponents, but even his adversary, Augustine, acknowledged their brilliance, referring to him as a ‘precious jewel’ in the church and ‘the man who reformed the church in Africa.’

Fluctuating fortunes

(1) The first repression (317-321). Constantine decreed that Donatist leaders were to be exiled and their churches confiscated. Donatus refused to comply with this, so Caecilian persuaded the Roman authorities to put troops at his disposal. Churches and their leaders in and around Carthage were attacked, at least one Donatist bishop was killed, but in Numidia the imperial decree had little impact. The use of military force took the alliance between church and state into new territory and resulted in permanent schism. The Donatists saw this resort to force and persecution as clear evidence that the Catholics were the schismatics and that their own movement, the church of the martyrs, was the true church. In 321 Constantine recognised the failure of this attempt to repress the Donatist movement and issued a further decree granting toleration to the Donatists.

(2) Growth and consolidation (321-346). Caecilian continued to enjoy imperial recognition, but little is heard of him after 325. Donatist churches were established all over Africa and Numidia. Converts were made from all classes, including philosophers and civic leaders. In many towns and villages they were unchallenged. The growth of the movement is attested by the attendance of 270 Donatist bishops at a council summoned by Donatus in about 335. A further short-lived attempt at repression in 336 petered out in the face of Donatist resistance. Some attempts were also made to establish congregations outside North Africa, although with one important exception these were unproductive. The exception was Rome, which had a large African community, and for a hundred years Rome had a Donatist bishop.

(3) The Circumcellions. The divergent concerns of educated urban and oppressed rural Donatists resulted in the emergence in about 340 of the Circumcellions, a revolutionary organisation drawn from the peasantry of Numidia and Mauretania, and loosely connected to Donatist churches. Reacting against financial hardship and social injustice, but energised by religious convictions, the Circumcellions engaged in direct action against landowners. They saw themselves as Christian ‘athletes’ and operated as shock troops in the battle against the devil – identified with the rich and powerful. Regarded by their opponents as terrorists and by their supporters as freedom fighters, they were alternately courted and disowned by Donatist leaders: their activities both enhanced and discredited the Donatist cause.

(4) The second repression (347-361). In 346 Donatus felt confident enough to petition the emperor, Constans, for recognition as bishop of Carthage. Constans sent Paul and Macarius to investigate this claim. However, despite instructions to treat Catholics and Donatists equally, they immediately acted in support of the Catholics. Feelings throughout North Africa ran high and a Donatist bishop asked the Circumcellions for support and defied the imperial delegates. Their troops stormed the fortified church in which the Donatists were based and massacred them. Macarius issued decrees proscribing Donatism in Numidia, ushering in a second period of repression. Despite riots and instances of resistance, the movement collapsed under severe and determined repression. Donatus and many other leaders were exiled. Some returned to the Catholic fold and new Catholic churches were established in hitherto Donatist areas. But the Catholics lacked an effective leader and seemed unable to apply effective measures beyond the region of Carthage. In Numidia, Donatist leaders retained the loyalty of the population but decided to wait for opportunities to restore the fortunes of the Donatist movement.

(5) Recovery (361-363). In 361, the new emperor, Julian, allowed church leaders exiled by his predecessors to return home, including the Donatists. Their return was greeted with popular enthusiasm and Donatism was restored to pre-eminence almost as suddenly as the movement had collapsed earlier. Catholic churches were returned to the Donatists and rebaptism was restored. Catholic leaders were deposed and congregations absorbed into Donatist churches. Prospects for any further attempt to reunite the two African churches seemed bleak: they would not be reunited again before the tide of Islam swept them both away.

(6) The Donatist movement under Parmenian (363-391). Parmenian had little sympathy with the use of violence. He was a committed but moderate Donatist, concerned to maintain the intellectual vigour of the movement and to provide instruction for congregations at a popular level. Although decrees against Donatism continued to be issued, they were ignored in Africa. For most of Parmenian’s leadership, the movement was left in peace. The hostility between the two communities gradually faded and there is evidence of growing respect, toleration and good relationships. The other influential leader in this period was Tyconius, a lay philosopher and Donatist theologian. His writings espoused a view of the relationship between church and society which seemed to allow for greater integration than Donatism had allowed in previous generations. Tyconius was excommunicated in 385. His rejection was a fateful step for the movement, representing the triumph of conservatism over creative theological discussion.

The Demise of Donatism

(1) Rise and fall (391-398). During the final decade of the fourth century, Donatism was at its peak, with over 400 bishops, but trouble was brewing. Primian, a more extreme and less able leader succeeded Parmenian. Then in 396, Optatus, the Donatist bishop of Thamugadi, joined forces with Gildo, the imperial appointee in Africa, in a revolt against Rome and attempted to establish a nationalist government in Africa. But an invasion force was assembled, the forces met in 398 and Gildo’s army was routed. Optatus was seized and executed. Roman rule was restored and the Catholics were able to re-emerge under the leadership of two very able men, Aurelius of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo.

(2) The tide turns (399-402). Augustine was an influential figure in this period, calling for reform and renewal, and writing books against the teachings of Donatus. But the lead was taken by Aurelius, who decided to hold councils annually in order to maintain momentum and keep the leadership of the churches in close contact. Over the next few years able bishops were appointed in many Donatist centres of influence: gradually they won over the local inhabitants to the Catholic churches, and some Donatist bishops even transferred allegiance. The Donatist movement was now under the leadership of Primian of Carthage, Emeritus of Caesarea and Petilian of Constantine. Their resilience, determination and courage ensured that Donatism would survive, but they were no match for the new Catholic leaders. The Donatist movement, compromised by its involvement in the recent revolt, was proscribed and edicts of previous years were applied with a vigour that had previously been impossible. Finally, in 399, laws against heretics were, at Augustine’s instigation, applied to the movement, even though it was not yet officially designated as a heresy.

(3) Increasing pressure (403-411). Frustrated by the continuing resistance of the Donatists and secure in their enjoyment of imperial support, the annual council at Carthage decided in 403 on a policy of persecution, but chose to apply economic pressure rather than making further martyrs. These measures had hardly been implemented before the emperor, Honorius, issued an edict of unity in 405, proscribing Donatism as a heresy, prohibiting services, confiscating property and exiling the clergy. The death penalty was not used, but flogging was. But by 410, it was clear that persecution had been no more effective than throughout the past century in suppressing Donatism. A Catholic delegation requested Honorius to convene a conference in Carthage to settle the conflict once and for all. The emperor agreed and sent Marcellinus as his mediator to convene this. There was never any doubt about the outcome of this conference. Marcellinus, a friend of Augustine, declared in favour of the Catholics. A single day of debate resolved a century of division. The decision was broadcast throughout Africa, proscribing Donatist meetings and confiscating their property.

(4) Repression and resistance (412-429). Augustine now led a concerted campaign to enforce the decision and to reunite the church throughout North Africa. But Donatism was far from becoming defunct. In some urban centres, the Catholics made significant progress, but even here their success was limited. The countryside remained loyal to Donatism and the Donatists resisted in various ways. Progress was slower than many wanted, and a council in Carthage in 418 threatened dilatory clergy with censure if they failed to act against Donatist churches. The Circumcellions continued to operate freely and were never effectively suppressed.

(6) Donatism in the fifth and sixth centuries. In 429 the Vandals invaded and the history of the church in North Africa entered a new phase. We have little information about the next 150 years. We simply do not know whether Donatism lay dormant, was absorbed into the Catholic churches, or continued to thrive. It is likely that the dividing lines and antagonism between the sides faded in the face of a common enemy (the Vandals were Arian Christians) and that the situation varied from province to province. The re-conquest of North Africa by Justinian in 534 cleared the region of Vandals and re-established the dominant position of the Catholics. An imperial edict in 535 proscribed the Donatists, suggesting that Donatism was still perceived as a problem in the middle of the sixth century. Evidence from the end of the century indicates that it enjoyed a period of revival during the latter part of the sixth century: there are reports of Donatists baptising converts, Catholic churches being handed over to the Donatists, and new Donatist bishoprics being established. As long as Christianity survived in North Africa, the schism provoked by Caecilian’s election remained unhealed.

Donatist Beliefs

The writings of Donatist theologians were largely destroyed by their opponents: very little has survived, except as quotations in works of their adversaries. Catholics and Donatists were not divided by the doctrinal issues which exercised fourth- and fifth-century theologians. Although anti-heresy laws were eventually used against them, their adversaries generally recognised that the Donatists were orthodox Trinitarian Christians. But they disagreed profoundly about some issues of ecclesiology.

(1) The nature of the church. The Donatist church regarded itself as the legitimate church in Africa, ‘the church of Peter’, rather than ‘the church of Judas.’ Catholics had allowed the church to be corrupted and had lost any claim to legitimacy, whatever imperial officials or bishops of Rome might decree. Schism had taken place, but from a Donatist perspective it was not their fault – they remained faithful to the tradition of the African church as represented by Cyprian and Tertullian. As far as they were concerned catholicity flowed out of purity, rather than legitimacy out of catholicity. The Donatist vision of the church included the following features: the church was a ‘mystical union of the righteous inspired by the Holy Spirit and instructed by the Bible’; discipleship was to be taken very seriously by all church members, so monasticism, whereby higher standards were expected of some than others, was rejected; repentance and readiness to suffer were key components in this, as was meditating on the Bible; the church was to be a people of joyful praise; the ministry of the Holy Spirit was emphasised; the agape meal was celebrated; and feasting as well as fasting was encouraged. Church leaders were regarded very highly and the standards expected of them were equally high: they must live exemplary lives and be willing to suffer for their faith; any compromise, morally or in the face of persecution, made someone unworthy to be a church leader.

(2) Church and society. As Christianity became socially acceptable, it was difficult to retain earlier expectations and standards. The schism in North Africa was due to different responses to this radical change: accommodation or continuing separation. The emperor was no longer a personification of the devil but an agent of Christ, according to Catholics: Donatists regarded him still as the devil. The Donatist view of church and society included: the church was a suffering people, expecting persecution, whether from pagans or false Christians; the church was to be separate from the world; the church should not rely on state power or patronage, and, though resistance was acceptable, it certainly should not persecute its opponents; the church was a missionary community, concerned to spread geographically through making converts.

(3) Ethics. Donatist sermons frequently deplored the low moral standards in the Catholic churches. Some Donatist churches were wealthy, some resorted to violence. But there were those who argued for non-violence, and for voluntary poverty. Furthermore, they were more sensitive to social injustices and the oppression of the poor, and their interests tended to coincide more often with the interests of the peasants and revolutionary movements. The Donatists had a strong belief in the nearness of the return of Christ, but this did not make them indifferent to present social conditions. Instead, they called for social justice in the light of the approaching judgement.

(4) The sacraments. Maintaining the purity and thus the authenticity of the sacraments was of fundamental importance within Donatism. The true church was the church whose sacraments were pure and untainted. Unlike the Catholics, who taught that sacraments remained valid and effective despite unworthiness on the part of the officiating church leader, Donatists regarded the worthiness of the church leader as critical. Thus, any who had been baptised by those who belonged to churches tainted by fellowship with traditors, had to be re-baptised when they joined the Donatist churches. Similarly, consecrations in such circumstances were null and void. They rejected the Catholic argument that the sacraments were gifts of Christ and were valid despite shortcomings in ministers.