Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Donatist |
Constantine learns a lesson

Donatist is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 169, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

In his first venture into Christian affairs, he cracks down hard on a dissident sect, meets total failure and leaves them to God

Donatist - Constantine learns a lesson

Donatist - Constantine learns a lesson

Christianity cannot and should not hide the fact that included among its faithful have been many individuals who mistakenly believed their own preoccupations to be those of the Lord, creating mayhem in the process. Few such characters in early Christianity are more colorful or more significant than the Donatists, who roiled the African church for well over two centuries.

The Donatist schism had its roots in the horrendous Diocletian persecution (303—305). Initially, the demands were that Christians give up their holy books; eventually, Christians were required to sacrifice to Roman gods. Those who succumbed to the pressures faced recrimination from other Christians, especially at the hands of a hard-line party formed in Numidia (southern Algeria), which would become known as the Donatists.

They claimed to have found in Bishop Cyprian of Carthage the only true model of grace under pressure: He had greeted his execution order with a shout of “Praise God!” Like Cyprian, this sect agreed that clergy who handed over Scripture–called traditores–must be banned from the church, and that any holy function performed by a traditor was null and void. “Whosever consorts with the traditores will have no share with us in the Kingdom of Heaven,” was their battle cry.

Their wrath soon turned against Mensurius, a successor bishop of Carthage. They especially reviled him for urging, along with his deacon Caecilian, that food parcels be denied a group of Christians who were jailed during the persecution. Mensurius argued that because smuggling food to prisoners was illegal, it would inspire further arrests. His motives were impure, however: He had learned that some of the prisoners were denouncing him, and perhaps the church as well, and he must have thought it would be better to leave them unfed. The storm broke in full after Mensurius died and was replaced, in 311—312, by Caecilian. Among those formally consecrating Caecilian’s ascendancy was Felix of Aptunga. Because Felix was regarded as a traditor for handing over Scriptures, his presence at the ceremony made Caecilian’s consecration null and void, critics charged.

Caecilian already had other troubles. He had earlier rebuked a woman named Lucilla for her odd habit of kissing a human bone–which, she said, was the relic of a martyr–during the Eucharist. Lucilla departed in a huff. But she was quite rich, and besides possessing an eccentric personality, she was capable of carrying a grudge to extremes. She now had her opportunity to repay the slight. With Lucilla’s support, if not her outright financial backing (as some later alleged), Bishop Secundus of Numidia called a council of seventy African bishops in 312. They nullified the election of Caecilian, and they named in his place a man named Majorinus, who was apparently on Lucilla’s payroll. The church was now split.

The schismatic (splinter) movement that pressed these events would take its name the next year from Donatus, who was elected as its leader, and who was by all reports an inspiring figure. He strongly believed that the church was not a school for repentant sinners, but was the refuge of the holy alone. “No mercy for sinners” was a Donatist maxim, one they applied especially to candidates for the priesthood. Right from the start, they made no fetish of mercy.

Constantine, strongly desiring to end this growing internecine dispute in the church, referred it to a council in Rome in 313. The charges were reviewed, and if Donatus had any hopes the assembled bishops would proclaim Donatism the true way, they were quickly shattered. Donatus was criticized for disturbing the discipline of the church and accused of creating outright schism. He and his followers rejected this finding with much vigor. Constantine, who could be very patient, called a synod at Arles the next year to revisit the evidence. This was a massive affair, with six hundred bishops present. Donatus received another sound drubbing (as did, for that matter, the sport of horse racing–banned; and the theatrical professions–excommunicated).

The Donatists responded with what had become their typical disdain. Constantine’s patience was growing thin, but in July 315, he told the Donatists that if they could prove anything against Caecilian, he would treat it as if they had won the case. This they could not do, but neither would they be quieted. By 317, his patience had run out. Constantine exiled their leaders, and soldiers confiscated their property. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops calls this “the first time in history the sword was used in the name of Christ.”

Donatus, to no one’s surprise, raised an army of peasants and thugs from the mountainous regions. These recruits became known as circumcellions (circuit riders, rovers and marauders, who lived on those they tried to indoctrinate). They liked to call themselves “Captains of the Saints,” and referred to the heavy clubs they wielded as “Israels.” Many churches were attacked in Carthage; many clergy and laypeople perished. There was of course retaliation. At one time, imperial troops occupied the three Donatist basilicas at Carthage, and soldiers were accused of taking time from their official duties to rape Donatist women.

All of which had the result of strengthening the Donatist cause. The Donatists argued that they represented the common people and even slaves. Augustine would later comment, “What master was there who was not compelled to live in dread of his own slave, if the slave had put himself under the protection of the Donatists?” By May 321, Constantine–who was waging his military campaign against brother-in-law Licinius–concluded that his attempts to achieve unity were doomed. He granted tolerance, declaring he would leave the Donatists “to the judgment of God.”

This was not the end of their story. Persecution renewed in 346—348; during this time, Donatus is believed to have perished. Many martyrs were created, including Maximian and Isaac, whose bodies were supposedly sunk by their jailers, yet somehow swam to shore, according to the Donatist version of events. There is no disputing the resilience of the group. It survived Constantine, and for a time was the predominant religion in North Africa, with three hundred bishops by some estimates, five hundred by others.

The movement began to collapse around 400; in January 412, the emperor Honorius exiled its clergy and confiscated Donatist property. The circumcellions responded with a new bloodletting, though all of that was rendered largely moot in 429, when the Vandals conquered North Africa and slaughtered Catholics and Donatists without distinction. Donatism finally died out in the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

What is to be made of this bloody upheaval? There was a vital theological difference between the Donatists and the Catholics. The Donatists vehemently, sometimes violently, insisted that the validity of clerical functions, such as baptism, depended upon the character of the administrating clergyman, while the Catholics held that the validity of such functions was based on their endorsement by Christ. The same question–how to determine who is a worthy church member or leader and who is not–has been asked elsewhere, without bloodshed.

This is the end of the Donatist category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 169, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Donatist from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at