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Baptist History Notebook
By Berlin Hisel

Chapter 7

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      We come now in our Notebook to the study of another group of our Baptist ancestors. Within the group called "Donatists" we find the true churches of our Lord Jesus Christ. Among them we find the doctrines that Christ gave to His church. We also find them suffering much for their beliefs at the hands of the Catholics who now had the sword of State behind them. They take their name from one Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigiae in Numidia, an able leader among them. While they were located primarily in North Africa, they were scattered everywhere.

      James Wharey, a Presbyterian gives the following sketch of them as to their origin, persecution and peculiarities:

     "In the year 311 arose the sect of the Donatists, so called from Donatus their leader. This schism had its rise as follows. Mensurius, the deacon, was elected to the vacant chair, by the people and clergy of Africa proper, and consecrated without the concurrence of the Numidian bishops, who ought, according to custom, to have been present. This gave great offence to the Numidians, who held a meeting, deposed Caecilian and in his room, consecrated Majorinus, bishop of Carthage. Hence the Carthaginian church was divided into two factions, headed by two bishops. This schism spread all over Africa, most cities having two bishops, one taking sides with Caecilian, the other with Majorinus. The Donatists were condemned by several special councils, held by order of the emperor, and finally by the emperor himself; who, provoked by their continued contumacy and reproaches, deprived them of their churches, sent their seditious bishops into banishment, and punished some of them with death. This produced very violent tumults and commotions in Africa. Amongst these commotions arose the Circumcelliones, so called because they were accustomed to hover round the cellae, or cottages of the peasants, without any fixed habitations. They were "a furious, headlong, sanguinary set, composed of the peasantry and rustic populace, who espoused the cause of the Donatists, defended

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it by the force of arms, and roaming through the providence of Africa, filled it with slaughter, rapine and burnings, and committed the most atrocious crimes against the adverse party."

     It does not appear, however, that the Donatist bishops, especially the better sort of them, excited or approved of the violent and irregular proceedings, which brought great reproach upon their cause. The sect was greatly weakened toward the end of the century, as well as by a schism that arose among themselves, as by the activity and zeal of Augustine against them. The Donatists were in the main orthodox, but held no communion with any not of their party. They re-ordained and re-baptized such as came over to them."1

J. M. Cramp

     The Baptist historian, J. M. Cramp says: "The Donatists first appeared in the early part of the fourth century. A dispute against an election to a bishopric was the occasion of their separation from the catholic church. Caecilian was chosen bishop of Carthage in a somewhat irregular manner and hastily ordained. Among those who officiated at his ordination was Felix, bishop of Aptunga. This man was said to be a traditor, that is, one who had delivered up copies of the Scriptures to the civil authorities during the Diocletian persecution. His concurrence in the ordination was thought by some to vitiate the service. They refused to regard Caecilian as a regularly appointed bishop. A secession took place, which spread rapidly and extensively, so that, in a short time the Donatist churches in Africa were nearly equal in number to those of the hitherto dominant party."2

     It is wrong to suppose that any one incident gave birth to either the Montanists, Novatianists or the Donatists. Numerous disagreements already existed. It is right to suppose that one incident was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. These people, as a group, did not originate with Donatus. They simply were called after his name because he was a leader of great ability and gave voice to what they believed. Neander says: "They (the Donatists) declared

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that they called themselves after the name of Donatus, not as the founder of a new church, but as one of the bishops of the ancient church derived from Christ."

Identified With The Novatians

     Almost all of the church historians tell us the Donatists were of the same opinion and practice as the Novatians at whom we have already looked. Neander says, "This schism may be compared in many respects with that of Novatian in the proceeding period. In this, too, we see the conflict, for example, of Separatism with Catholicism. . . ."3

     William Jones, using Dr. Lardner as a source, says, "The Donatists appear to have resembled the followers of Novatian more than any other class of professors in that period of the church, of whom we have any authentic records. . . ."4

     D. B. Ray writes, "The Donatists of Africa possessed the same peculiarities with the Novatians, and, on this account, may be called the Novatians of Africa."5

     A. H. Newman gives the following: "The Donatists follow in the same general line with the Montanists and the Novatianists."6

     G. H. Orchard: "The Donatists and the Novatianists very nearly resembled each other in doctrines and discipline..."7

     In our chapter on the Novatianists we showed their relationship to the Montanists. These three groups, Montanists, Novatianists and Donatists believed and practiced the same things. They were Baptists. We come now to take up their doctrinal beliefs.

The Church

     What the Donatists believed about the church identifies them as the Lord's churches and separates them from the Catholic church. We have ample proof from the historians that these Donatists believed in a pure church - a regenerated church membership. They believed strongly in a

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strong church discipline and a strict baptism. These things prove they believed that the church was a local group of baptized believers and not something universal and invisible.

     Let us quote Hagenbach: "Two causes contributed to determine the doctrine about the church: 1. The external history of the church itself, its victory over paganism, and its rising power under the protection of the state. 2. The victory of Augustianism over the doctrines of the Pelagians, Manicheans, and Donatists, which in different ways threatened to destroy ecclesiastical unity. The last mentioned puritanic period, maintained that the church was composed only of saints."8

     It is easy to see that Hagenbach was no friend to Baptist truth. To assume Augustine defeated the Donatists would be to assume there are no Baptists today. He does show how Augustine helped to develop Catholicism. He is quoted merely to show that the Donatists, like the Novatians, believed in a regenerated church membership.

     Thomas Armitage said, "In this region the inner dependence of the churches had been more firmly maintained than in many other places, and the late encroachments upon it had aroused the churches to a determined defense. Merivale says of the Donatists: 'they represented the broad principle of the Montanists and Novatianists, that the true church of Christ is the assembly of really pious persons only, and admits of no merely nominal membership.' They dreaded any form of un-Christian membership which eats out the spiritual fellowship of a Gospel Church."9

     J. M. Cramp writes: "The Donatists pleaded for purity. They maintained that Christian churches should consist of godly persons and no others, and that in all the arrangements made for their management that important principle should be kept in view. They followed the example of the Novatians in rebaptizing those who joined them from other churches. They baptized new converts on a profession of faith, as a matter of course, for that was the practice of all churches."10

Separation of Church and State

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     Their correct view of the church led them to the true belief of separation of church and state. Kurtz writes: "Like the Novatians, they insisted on absolute purity in the church, although they allowed that penitents might be readmitted to " the communion of the church. Their own churches they regarded as pure while they denounced the Catholics as schismatics, who had no fellowship with Christ, and whose sacraments were therefore invalid and null. On this ground, they rebaptized their proselytes. The part which the state took against them , and prevailing confusion between the visible and invisible church, led them to broach the view that State and Church -the Kingdom of God and that of the world -had nothing in common, and that the state should not in any way take notice of religious questions." 11

     According to Neander "the bishop Donatus of Carthage repelled the advances of the imperial officer with the remark: 'What had the emperor to do with the church?' ...In their sermons, the Donatists' bishops spoke of the corruption of the church, which had originated in the confusion of the church and state." 12

     Landmark Baptists of today believe exactly alike with these Donatists of old on this subject. Surely, we see clearly our ancestors of truth here.


     We have already noticed much of the Donatist belief concerning baptism. David Benedict wrote The History of the Baptists with which most are familiar. He also wrote A History of the Donatists with which most are not familiar. It is a very good book and a very rare one. In that book he searched out the beliefs of the Donatists from the writings of their opponents, especially Augustine -the arch-enemy of the Donatists. The Donatists wrote much against the Catholics which Augustine attempted to answer. He has gathered many quotations from Petillian, a Donatist, against the Catholics. These were gathered from among the writings of Augustine. Let us read a few that will tell us what they believed about baptism.

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     "They who throw against us a two-fold baptism under the name of baptism, have polluted their own souls with a criminal bath."

     "He who accused me of baptizing twice, does not himself truly baptize once."

     "We by our baptism put on Christ; you by your contagion put on Judas the traitor."

     "The character of a baptizer must be well known."

     "The apostle Paul says there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; this one baptism we openly profess, and it is certain that they who think there are two, are insane." 14

     A further quote of Petillian by Benedict: "Come to the true church, O ye people, and flee away from all traitors, if you are not willing to perish with them. I baptize their members, as having an imperfect baptism, and as in reality unbaptized. They will receive my members, but far be it from being done, as truly baptized, which they would not do at all, if they could discover any faults in our baptism. See, therefore, that the baptism which I give you may be held so holy that not any sacrilegious enemy will have dared to destroy it." 15

     How about that? This Donatist preached our sermon before we ever had it. Thank God for Benedict's History of the Donatists! How sad that we hear Augustine praised in so many Baptist churches today. He was the enemy of truth and the cause of thousands of Donatists (and Baptists later on) being martyred. Benedict lists several writers from among the Donatists who opposed him. Get his book if possible. Mine is not for sale.

     Thus, we have seen that the Donatists were Baptists under a different name. We have observed this true by their connection with the Novatianists and Montanists. We have observed it true by their doctrinal beliefs.

Donatist Persecution

     If the Donatists were true churches of our Lord, holding fast the truths He gave to His churches, they would certainly fall under the persecution of Satan. Do we find them suffering persecution?

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     Let us hear Orchard first: "The disputes between the Donatists and the Catholics were at their height, when Constantine became fully invested with imperial power, A.D. 314. The Catholic party solicited the services of the emperor, who, in answer, appointed commissions to hear both sides, but this measure not giving satisfaction, he even condescended to hear the parties himself; but his best exertions could not effect a reconciliation. The interested party that Constantine took in the dispute led the Donatists to inquire, 'What has the emperor to do with the church? What have Christians to do with kings? Or what have bishops to do at court?' Constantine, finding his authority questioned and even set at naught by these Baptists, listened to the advice of his bishops and court, and deprived the Donatists of their churches. This persecution was the first which realized the support of a Christian emperor, and Constantine sent so far as to put some of the Donatists to death." 16

     Kurtz writes: "In 414 the Emperor deprived them of their civil rights, and in 415 forbade their religious meetings under pain of death." 17 First one emperor gave them toleration and the next persecuted them.

     We must return to Benedict for the fullest account of these persecutions.

     "In the year 340, the emperor directed his two commissioners, Ursacius and Leontius, to endeavor by the distribution of money under the name of alms to win over the Donatist churches; and as the said emperor at the same time issued an edict whereby he called upon the North African Christians to return back to the unity of the church which Christ loved, it was the less possible that the object of these measures should remain concealed from the Donatist bishops.

     On the failure of this covert scheme for gaining the Donatists, forcible measures were the next resort. The Donatists now were to be deprived of their churches, and they were actually fallen upon by armed troops while assembled in them for the worship of God. Hence followed the effusion of blood, and the martyrdoms of which the Donatists so often complained of their adversaries. Those who fell victim to these persecutions, says Neander, were honored by their party as martyrs, and the annual celebration of the days of their

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death furnished new means of enkindling the enthusiasm of the Donatist party. In the time under consideration Gratius had succeeded Caecilian as bishop of Carthage. Both he and the emperor Constantius, says Robinson, persecuted the Donatists with great severity." 18

     Listen to how Optatus, a Catholic who wrote against the Donatists, justified the Macarian War of 347 A.D. against the Donatists, in which many Donatists were slaughtered: "Optatus argued that the killing of the Donatists by Macarius (so-called Christian emperor) in his war against them for heresy, was sanctioned by Moses killing three thousand for worshiping the golden calf, and Phinehas and Elijah for those they killed. Macarius, said Optatus, did not persecute like the heathen emperors, whose policy was to drive the Christians out of their churches, while that of Macarius was to drive the Donatists into the Catholic churches, where they might worship God together in the spirit of peace and unity." 19

     The Catholics have always, when they had the power, killed the Baptists, claiming while doing it that they were doing God a service. "In the record of a council in Carthage in 404 we find the following statement: 'it is now full time for the emperor to provide for the safety of the Catholic church, and prevent these rash men from terrifying the weak people, whom they cannot seduce. We think it is as lawful for us to ask assistance against them, as it was for Paul to employ a military force against the conspiration of factious men.' This is a new version of the conduct of the apostle Paul in the case here referred to." 20

     Benedict and others tell us we are indebted to Augustine for the history of these councils for this time. At that time, even though young in the episcopal office, he was evidently their principal manager. The law of infant baptism in 416 A.D., enacted at a council at Mela, had Augustine behind it. It specifically accursed all those who denied forgiveness to accompany infant baptism. In 413 A.D. the emperors Theodosius and Honorius, issued an edict "declaring that all persons rebaptized and the rebaptizers should be both punished with death. Accordingly, Albanus, a zealous minister, with others, was punished with death, for

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rebaptizing. The edict was probably obtained by the influence of Augustine, who could endure no rival. . . ." 21 It seems to me that the main one who led in the persecution and death of many Donatists was Augustine. How I hate to hear Baptists brag on this man!

The Donatists on Persecution

     The Donatists wrote much about their own persecution when they attacked Augustine. Benedict gives quotations from the Donatist Gaudentius: "All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. The time will come when whosoever killeth you will think he doeth God service. Our enemies boast of being in peace and unity, but their peace is gained by war, and their union is stained with blood. For the teaching of the people of Israel the omnipotent God sent prophets; he did not enjoin this service on kings; the Lord Christ, the Saviour of souls, sent fishermen, not soldiers for the propagation of His gospel; He Who alone can judge the quick and the dead has never sought the aid of a military force." 22


     We could and would like to add more on the Donatists, our faithful unto death Baptist ancestors. But we most move on to the Baptists of other ages and places. How I pray that this brief bit of history might move you, the student, into a more detailed study of the people called Donatists.

Notes on Chapter 7

1 Sketches of Church History, pages 68-69.
2 Baptists History, pages 59-60.
3 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume 1, page 208.
4 History of the Christian Church, page 222.
5 Baptist Succession, page 328.
6 A Manual of Church History, Volume 1, page 208.
7 A Concise History of Baptists, page 87.

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8 Text Book on the History of Doctrines, Volume I, page 352.
9 The History of the Baptists, Volume 1, page 200.
10 Baptist History, page 60.
11 Church History, page 246.
12 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume, 2, page 195.
13 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume 2, page 191.
14 History of the Donatists, page 49.
15 History of the Donatists, page 56.
16 A Concise History of Baptists, pages 87-88.
17 Church History, page 246.
18 History of the Donatists, page 32.
19 History of the Donatists, page 36.
20 History of the Donatists, page 38.
21 Orchard, A Concise History of the Baptists, pages 60-61.
22 History of the Donatists, page 60.

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