Donatists Dug in Heels in North Africa

Published Apr 28, 2010
Donatists Dug in Heels in North Africa

Under the beating sun, two slaves of Carthage pulled their master and mistress in a cart. As they drew abreast of some rocks, they turned their heads with dull curiosity for they heard a noise. Armed men leaped out, yelling. While some pulled the owners out of the cart, others released the slaves from their harnesses. Within moments the social world was turned upside down. Two uncertain slaves were seated in the cart and the frightened owners were harnessed to the cart shafts. "Pull," shouted the men, brandishing swords and spears.

This was not an isolated incident. The turmoil in North Africa was the result of an ugly instance of spiritual pride. It began in 303 with one of the most horrific persecutions ever unleashed against the church. Its buildings were demolished, Christians tortured, clergymen arrested, and scriptures confiscated. The instigator of this onslaught was Galerius, the co-emperor of the Roman Empire, who insisted that Christians were disloyal. Diocletian agreed to crush them.

During the persecutions, many Christians apostatized, offering sacrifices to Roman gods, and some cooperated with pagan authorities as far as their consciences allowed. Here and there, bishops canceled public worship, intending to lie low until the trouble passed over. Some gave up scriptures, considering lives worth more than manuscripts. Others gave up heretical books, pretending they were scriptures. But staunch Christians refused to cooperate at all with the authorities, and were tortured or killed.

Galerius finally called a halt to the terror and asked for Christian prayers. By then he was dying, eaten alive by worms. His successor renewed the oppression, but the next emperors, Constantine and Licinius agreed on a policy of religious toleration.

At once the church quarreled over what should be called betrayal of Christ and who should be allowed back into the church. In North Africa, hard-liners said that any bishop who had forfeited scriptures under persecution, had forfeited his holy office and its powers.

When the church as a whole refused to apply this stringent rule to offenders, the hard-liners set up rival bishops. In Carthage, the Catholic bishop was Caecilian and his rival was Marjorinus, soon succeeded by Donatus. Donatus considered Caecilian an illegal bishop, because he had supposedly gone so far as to picket against martyrs held in prison and because one of the bishops who consecrated Caecilian was considered a traitor.

Constantine ordered a council to meet at Arles to decide the issue. On this day, August 1, 314, the council met. It handed down a decision in favor of Caecilian.

Donatus and his followers dug in their heels. Private feuds fueled their schism. For instance, the bishops of Numidia joined Donatus because they felt slighted by the church and a leading woman joined him because she resented Caecilian for rebuking her for kissing the relics of a saint not recognized by the church.

Bitter division resulted in North Africa. The behavior of the Donatists suggests that pride had more to do with their stand than principle. They actively sought martyrdom and (according to their opponents) even engaged in suicidal behavior to win death. When Constantine ordered their property confiscated, the Donatists joined forces with groups who sought to abolish class distinctions and set up communes. They used violence and intimidation to right social wrongs and even forced masters out of carriages, making them pull their slaves.

Although divisive, the Donatists had some good ideas. For instance, it seems that they believed that church and state should be separate. Donatus asked, "What has the emperor to do with the church?" But the sum effect of their breakaway was to weaken North Africa so that it was more easily overrun first by the Vandals and then by the Muslims.


  1. Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
  2. Chapman, John. "Donatists." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. "Donatism." New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954.
  4. "Donatism." Encyclopedia of the Early Church, produced by the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum and edited by Angelo Di Berardino; translated from the Italian by Adrian Walford ; with a foreword and bibliographic amendments by W.H.C. Frend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  5. "Donatists." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  6. Fuller, Thomas. "The Rigid Donatists." The Holy State and the Profane State Volume II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938; p. 396ff.
  7. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.


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