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(Redirected from Donatism)

The Donatists (founded by the Berber christian Donatus) were followers of a belief considered a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. They lived in Roman Africa, and flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Their primary disagreement with the rest of the Church was over the treatment of those who forsook their faith during the Persecution (303 - 305 AD) of Diocletian. The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. They refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone as far as turning in Christians to the Roman authorities and had handed over sacred religious texts to authorities to be publically burned. These people were called traditores ("people who had handed over"). These traditores had returned to positions of authority under Constantine, and the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests and bishops were invalid. As a result, many towns were divided between Donatists and non-Donatists congregations. The sect had particularly developed and grew in North Africa. Constantine, as emperor, began to get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a council at Arles in France; the issue was debated and the decision went against the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council, their distaste for bishops who had collaborated with Rome came out of their broader view of the Roman empire. After the Constantinian shift when other Christians accepted the emperor as the head of the church, the Donatists continued to see the emperor as the devil. In particular, the birth of the Donatist movement came out of opposition to the appointment of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 312 AD because of his pro-government stance. In 317 Constantine sent troops to deal with the Donatists in Carthage, for the first time Christian persecuted Christian. It resulted in banishments and even executions. It failed completely and Constantine had to withdraw and cancel the persecutions in 321.

Donatists were more than just an opposition movement. They also had a distinctive worship styles, emphasizing ‘mystical union of the righteous inspired by the Holy Spirit and instructed by the Bible.1 Anabaptists and other radical church traditions have looked to Donatists as historical predecessors because of their opposition to the union of state and church, their emphasis on discipleship and, in some cases, their commitment to nonviolence and social justice. Like those in the Radical Reformation in the 16th century, the Donatists saw the Catholics as impure and corrupted.

The Donatists also drew their beliefs from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.

Augustine campaigned against this heterodox belief throughout his tenure as bishop of Hippo, and through his efforts the Church gained the upper hand. His view, which was also the majority view within the Church, was that it was the office of priest, not the personal character of the incumbent, that gave validity to the celebration of the sacraments. This is the view that prevailed and has persited to the present day. In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the group heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. They were harshly persecuted by the Roman authorities, and even Augustine protested at their treatment. Nevertheless, his successes were reversed when the Vandals conquered North Africa. Donatism survived the Vandal occupation and the Byzantine reconquest under Justinian. It is unknown how long this belief persisted into the Muslim period, but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made the takeover of the region by Islam easier.2


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