By S.H. Ford
It is difficult to ascertain the true sentiments and character of a people whose writings were destroyed by those who feared them, and whose words can only be caught as they are echoed, with bitterness and misrepresentation, by their implacable foes.
It is, therefore, no wonder if the motives, the faith, and the practices of the Donatists have been misstated and caricatured by nearly all who have written their history.
We have already seen that the Baptists of every age and clime have received names borrowed from men who, holding high positions in the dominant church, suddenly lifted their voices against its corruptions, and were, consequently, driven from its communion. It was so with Claude of Lorraine, Arnold of Brescia, and Wickliffe of England. It is easy to understand how those spiritual churches, which had never symbolized with the great apostasy; how those "hidden ones." who, in obscurity, battled and suffered for the truth, would hail, with enthusiastic gratitude, the appearance of a prominent and bold reformer who, in the midst of a corrupt church, would come forth, as a messenger from God, to plead for the truth. At once those scattered and obscure disciples of Christ would rally around the newly-arisen standard, on which were emblazoned those principles
which they cherished with deathless love. They would soon, in the public mind and on the page of partisan or superficial history, be identified and lost in the new movement, and would receive the name which had been given to the new party. It was thus in the case of the Donatists, as we shall fully see.
In the early part of the fifth century there appeared all over that part of Africa lying along the shores of the Mediterranean, a class of determined men, who "maintained that the church should cast out from its body those who were known, by open and manifest sins, to be called unworthy members." The corruption’s of the so-called church were detailed by an eye-witness (Salvian, who belonged to the church party) in colors the most odious. Iniquity and vice reveled unblushingly under the protection of church sanctity. Forms, borrowed from Judaism and Paganism, were substituted for the spiritual power and voluntary obedience of the gospel. All were received as members who could repeat the Creed and the form of renunciation; and infant baptism already found advocates. Against all this, these Numidians, afterward called Donatists, entered their solemn and powerful protest. Neander says:"They adduced the fifth chapter of Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians to prove that none but those who gave evidence of conversion should be received into or retained in the church. When the church did not act in accordance with these rules, ‘they affirmed’ but tolerated such unworthy members in her communion. She lost the predicates of purity and holiness, which are the predicates of a true church."*Augustine, bishop of Hippo, taking the position of the Catholic Church, replied:"That the good and faithful Christians, certain of their won salvation, may persevere to dwell in unity with the corrupt when it is beyond their power to punish."
* Neander, vol. ii, p. 206.
The Catholics appealed to those passages and parables which speak of the separation of the good and bad being reserved to the last day. The Donatists replied:"That these passages relate either to the mixing of the good and bad in this world, or to the hypocrites who crept in unawares; that Christ himself taught that the field is the world."Their antagonists answered, that "by the world Christ meant the church."
The one plead for a line of demarcation between the church and the world; and that giving baptism to any woe gave no evidence of a spiritual change, obliterated all such distinctions. The Catholics, on the other side, advocated hereditary church membership without moral or spiritual qualifications, and for a complete blending of the church and the world.* The Catholic party triumphed by imperial interference and merciless persecution. It resulted in national church establishments, into which all are received to membership infancy, and from which none are excluded except for heresy.
The other principle, that none but the converted should be received or retained into the churches of Christ, was derided, trampled in the dust, branded as infamous, and its advocates treated as fanatics, apostates, rebels. But it was sheltered amid the mountains of Armenia. It descended through the night of centuries. It gleamed along the path of human progression and civilization. It lit the torch of the Reformers, and blazed upon downtrodden Europe. It finally burst forth in splendor or these glorious States of ours, where thirty millions of freemen enjoy its blessings.
But there was another great principle which distinguished the Donatists. Men who plead for a spiritual church, must necessarily oppose coercion toward the
* This conflict of ages, in all its developments, between a hereditary and spiritual Church, will be historically discussed in a work in course of preparation, called BATTLE OF THE CHURCHES.
passive or the unwilling, the young or the old, all human dictation and constraint in matters of conscience. Petilian, one of the Donatist leaders, says:Did the apostles ever persecute any one? or did Christ ever deliver any one over to the secular power? Christ commands us to flee persecutors, (Matthew x:23). thou who callest thyself a disciple of Christ oughtest not to imitate the deeds of the heathen. Think you thus to serve God by destroying us with your hands? Ye err, ye err, poor mortals, if ye believe this; for God has not executioners for is priests. Christ persecutes no one, for e was for inviting not forcing men to the faith. Our Lord Christ says: ‘NO MAN CAN COME UNTO ME UNLESS THE FATHER WHO SENT ME DRAW HIM.’ But why do you not permit every man to follow is own free-will, since God the Lord himself has bestowed this free-will upon man? He has simply the way of righteousness, that none might be lost through ignorance. Christ, in dying for men, has given Christians the example to die, but not to kill. Christ teaches us to suffer wrong, not to requite it. The apostle tells us of what he had endured, not of what he had done to others. But what have you to do with the princes of this world, in whom the Christian cause has only found enemies?"*
Are not these the principles for which Baptists have pleas and suffered in every age of the gospel era? Are they not the principles for which true Baptists (and they only) contend still? Another Donatist writer says:"God made man FREE, after His own image. How am I to be deprived of that, by human lordship, which God has bestowed on me? What sacrilege, that human arrogance should take away what God as bestowed, and idly boast of doing this in God’s behalf! It is a great offense against God when He is defended by men. What must he think of God who would defend him with outward force. Is it that God is unable to punish offenses against himself? Hear what the Lord says: ‘My peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth give I unto you.’ The peace of Christ invites the willing with wholesome mildness. IT NEVER FORCES MEN AGAINST THEIR WILLS."Here were the glorious principles inscribed on the broad banners of those called Donatists. A church made up of the willing, active, converted believers, professing,
* Augustin Contra Petiliana, in Lardner’s Gospel Testimony, also Neander.
obeying, and associating themselves together in church compact of their own free-will; neither passively while infants, nor by constraint when adults. Is it any wonder that those who had withdrawn from the majorities and formed independent churches, long before the Donatists arose, hailed these defenders of the faith as true yoke-fellows, and that they, consequently, received their name? Where would the advocates of such principles be classed now? By what name would they be called? Among whom would they find co-workers and sympathizers? In the rejection of the baptisms of all other parties, says Hooker, the great defender of Episcopacy:"Good men were followed by the Donatists as they are now followed by the Anabaptists, who rebaptized in infancy."*"The Anabaptists of our day," says the English Church historian, "are the Donatists new dipped."
The fact is thus historically demonstrated, that those branded as heretics and Anabaptists, scattered through Asia Minor, Armenia, Phrygia, and portions of Italy and Gaul, after the subversion of Alexandria and Carthage, and the whole of Numidia, by the Arabs, banished, reproached, anathematized, pursued by clerical vengeance, and condemned as criminals by Greek and Roman, the Donatists were watched by the Shepherd of Israel, preserved by an unseen but almighty hand; and continued, like the bush amid the fires of persecution, unconsumed, undismayed, the true, independent, spiritual churches of Jesus Christ, composed of baptized believers. They were Baptists. With a firmness and fortitude which no disasters could shake and no sufferings appall, they won their title to that celestial nobility, that linked brotherhood, which, with God’s help, has
* Lardner’s Eccl. Polity; also Fuller’s Eccl. Hist., vol. ii, book v.
kept the altar-fires burning through the centuries of blood and gloom, through every trial and through every storm."The Donatists," says Mosheim, "enjoyed the sweets of freedom and tranquillity, as long as the Vandals reigned in Africa; but the scene was greatly changed with respect to them, when the empire of these barbarians was overturned in 534. They, however, still remained in a separate body, and were bold enough to attempt the multiplication of their sect. Gregory the Roman pointiff opposed these efforts with great spirit and assiduity; and, as appears from his epistles, tried various methods of depressing this faction."*Again have we found Baptists in Asia, and Africa and Europe, far up the stream of time, amid the darkness of the sixth century; and again we will inquire where these Donatist Baptists came from?
* Mosheim, Eccl. Hist., cen. vi, ch.5.
[From: Samuel H. Ford, The Origin of the Baptists, 1860, republished by the Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1905 edition, Chapter XI - "Century Six," pp. 76-81. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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