HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS
Biographical Sketches of Donatist Authors And Distinguished Men
Almost all the facts under this head of a biographical character have been selected from
the works of Augustine, in his controversial writings against the Donatists. A few of
these facts, which are under the head of fragments of Donatist history, are from the works
of Optatus. Of but few of the men whose names appear in the details of this work can I
find materials for this article, as no information is recorded of their early lives, nor
connected accounts of them on the stage of action. Of Donatus himself, who gave name to
this people, all that is said at first is, that he was one of the seventy Numidian bishops
who engaged in the measures out of which the Donatists arose; that his place at home was
Casae Nigrae, which, according to Perry's translation, meant the "Black house"
and that he published many books pertaining to his heresy. Secundus, another of these
seventy bishops, was the primate of Numidia, which name answers to that of archbishop with
the Catholics in later times; by him all new bishops of the province were ordained. This
is all we have of the early history of this distinguished man as a Catholic, and such were
the whole seventy bishops when they went to Carthage; and we find but little more of
Secundus as a Donatist, except that he is said to have been the president of the council
which deposed Caecilian and ordained Majorinus, of whom we have no information except that
he was a deacon of the Catholic church of Carthage, in which, by the new party, he was
suddenly advanced to the episcopal chair.
Of Parmenian, one of the able defenders of the Donatist cause whose writings have been preserved, there is almost an entire absence of facts pertaining to his early history and of his subsequent labors among his people.
The same may be said of Cresconius, the grammarian, the very learned and able defender of his persecuted brethren, who wrote about half a century after Parmenian, and others of whose writings we have less information. Different from my anticipations, my proposed biographical sketches must be confined to Petilian, Emeritus and Gaudentius, and a few of less note.
Of his native place we are not informed. It is said he was born of Catholic parents, that
he was a Catholic catechumen until he became a Donatist, at which time he was a forensic
advocate. The strange account of the manner in which a full grown man, in the execution of
a civil office, was taken from the Catholics by the Donatists, is related by Augustine in
the following terms: "When," said he, "the Donatists were predominant in
Constantina, (the ancient Cirta) they seized with violence Petilian, our catechumen; when
he fled away they sought him in his flight; they found him concealed; they drew him out
fearing; they baptized him trembling, and they ordained him against his will."
"Behold", said Augustine, "what violence they used against a member of our
church. And while they snatch men to death, do not we draw them to salvation?"
This story was told as a veritable fact in Augustine's sermon for the conversion of Emeritus, which event will soon come under review. Such is the absurdity of this story that it requires no neutralizing comments. It was told to a large Catholic audience, by whom it was doubtless believed as were other fabulous accounts, which were designed to operate against the reformers. That Petilian was originally a Catholic is not improbable. He first appears in the history of the Donatists as the bishop of a large church of this people in the city of Constantina, then the capital of Numidia, in which place much has been said of him in our former narratives, as there also has been in the details of the conference at Carthage, where he and Augustine were the principal speakers on their own sides. The most of the able writings of Petilian which have been preserved may be found in the extracts from these writings in Chapter IV, against Augustine. These two prominent men in their parties were of about the same age, and through most of their lives they were in conflict with each other, which began about a century after the rise of the Donatists. Through the whole of the debates of the Carthaginian convocation they met each other face to face, and it was after this meeting that Augustine gave the above account of the forcible conversion of his brother Petilian, as he usually called him, to the party which through all his life he so ably defended. His ability as a writer is shown in his exposition of the principles of his own community, and in all that pertained to the church and state system, the coercive measures, and the lax discipline of the Catholics. It was stated above that Petilian and his life-long opponent were about of the same age. Augustine, at the time of the conference, was 57. In that meeting, the term most venerable2 was applied to Petilian by his opponents. About ten years later we find him in a council of thirty Donatist bishops in consultation about their denominational concerns. The abundant labors and the great influence of Petilian among the Donatists appear in their history during his time.
This eminent bishop was of the seven debaters in the conference, where he was very active,
and, according to Augustine himself, was an able defender of the Donatist cause. We also
find his name often mentioned in all the controversies of his people with their opponents,
but I do not find any account of his early life, or of the circumstances connected with
it. After he was somewhat advanced in years he was exposed to a vexatious assault, which I
have deemed worthy of being briefly described. He was the pastor of a large Donatist
church in the city of Caesarea, in the province of Mauritinia, where he appears to have
continued for seven years after the conference; at the close of which, this church, with
all others of the Donatists, by the decision of the judge, would be lost to them unless
they consented to the Catholic union. At the period under review, which was in the year
418, Emeritus, in the midst of his peaceful pursuits, was beset by Augustine, not for his
church but for himself, as a convert to his own faith, as by a false rumor he had heard
that his brother Emeritus was about ready to go over to the Catholics. Acting upon this
rumor, the zealous bishop engaged in laborious efforts for maturing such a desirable
event. The whole story as related by himself occupies about eight folio pages. In it was a
sermon professedly for the purpose; an account of a meeting in a church full of Catholics,
and many speeches and remarks by the projector of the measure, which he thus described.
Sometime after the conference at Carthage, there arose a necessity of his going to
Caesarea, where Emeritus, as yet, was the bishop of the Donatists. The distance, according
to Butler's atlas, was a few hundred miles. As this was the home of his brother Emeritus,
for whom he expressed a most ardent affection, after mutual salutations, by Augustine's
persuasions he went with him into the metropolitan church of the Catholics, and having
thus freely entered it, "we thought," said he, "he would not refuse the
Catholic communion." Thus suddenly the unsuspecting Donatist bishop found himself the
observed of a crowd of observers, who evidently had collected to witness his profession of
the Catholic faith; instead of which, the report soon went out that he was still in
heretical perverseness. What was said in the church by Augustine and his coadjutors fills
a number of folio pages, while Emeritus was almost wholly silent. Augustine now went back
to their debates in their conference seven years before, and challenged the claim of
Emeritus of being then victorious. To this he replied, "the records will decide that
question." The exparte character of the conference, in the view of the Donatists, by
the concessions of Augustine, was thus referred to: "I know," said he, "you
maintained that the president was under a bribe, and that we bought his judgment against
you. I know," said he, "what you said of the judge being of our communion, and
for that reason you opposed him without restraint. I know that you gave out that you was
put down by power, not by the truth. All these things," said Augustine to his brother
Emeritus, "were thrown abroad by you or those of your communion after the conference;
but since you have well known that victorious truth is against you, why do you still shun
the Catholic union?"
We are near the close of this singular measure, when the proselyting bishop changed his style of addressing his brother Emeritus. "Since you still shun the Catholic union, why have you come here?" said the disappointed bishop. "I came at your request," said the resolute Emeritus. "You came only to deceive us," said the uncivil Augustine. Augustine lived about ten years after this event, but, probably, he never heard the last of it from the Donatist party.
This able defender of the Donatists, and their distinguished sentiments, was also one of
the seven speakers on their side in the conference at Carthage, and although he and his
church were exposed to the same judgment of the president as Emeritus, yet we find him at
his post nine years after said judgment was pronounced. Some extracts from the very able
writings of Gaudentius may be found in Chapter IV. Some brief sketches of his history will
now be given. I find no account of his early life or of his writings except the portions
which are found in the works of his decided adversary, Augustine. He was the pastor or
bishop, as all pastors were then called, of an important church, and his defence of their
cherished sanctuary, and the circumstances of that defence, embrace the substance of the
information I have obtained of this much persecuted man. In the year 420, that is, nine
years after the far-famed conference, Dulcitius, a military tribune, was sent into Africa
to gain possession of Donatist churches, of which that of Gaudentius was early sought.
Preparatory to this undertaking the tribune addressed epistles to Gaudentius, and also to
Augustine; the first to give due notice of his mission, the other for advice respecting
it. Augustine advised the tribune to proceed with severe measures, since, said he, it is
better that some should suffer by their own fires than that the whole body should suffer
in the everlasting flames of gehenna. This cruel advice was not at all followed by the
tribune, but he opened a friendly correspondence with Gaudentius about the church in
question, in which two letters passed between the parties. Some of their contents will be
disclosed in what will appear in our remarks on this subject. In this case we have a rare
instance of condescension of a high state officer in his dealing with a reputed violator
of state laws. The letter of Dulcitius to Gaudentius, and his to the imperial
commissioner, were all reviewed in a quite lengthy treatise by Augustine, from the
contents of which it is evident the persecuting church manager was much annoyed with the
different turn of this business from that he advised; especially with the mild language of
the tribune in addressing Gaudentius, and in his recognizing the religious character of
the tribune. Augustine's Remarks on this singular transaction. In the first place, said
he, we do not undertake to defend the language of the tribune, but our aim is to refute
the heretics. What though a layman of the military order of our communion has been too
incautious in addressing Gaudentius, who of us cannot overlook his fault? Who of us will
prejudge the words of the tribune? Augustine being unwilling to have anything reported in
favor of Gaudentius by the tribune, said he did not read in his letters concerning him,
that he was a man of prudence and innocence, but that he had heard this from others.
Again, said Augustine, the tribune being a military man, he was not well acquainted with
the proprieties of language for his mission. But far be it from me, said the objecting
adversary, that I should insinuate that Gaudentius was deceived by flattery. As the
tribune was on the spot, and knew all that passed, Augustine was in a rather critical
position. Behold, said he, this tribune Dulcitius, who is of our communion. Nevertheless,
said he to Gaudenius, according to your testimony he is not superstitious, but sincerely
religious; and according to your exposition, he is not a false, but a true worshiper of
God. If, therefore, thou hast an entire affection for the tribune, wherefore dost thou
contemptuously refuse to hold with him the unity of Christ? And by rendering evil as it
were for evil, dost thou not long to rebaptize him whom thou dost account thy persecutor?
Gaudentius closed both his epistles to the tribune by wishing him prosperity in the administration of the affairs of the republic, and that he might retire from the causing of disquietude to a Christian people. We can do the same, said Augustine, but we do not desire the tribune to cease from the correction of heretics. In one of the epistles of Gaudentius to the tribune he said: You persuade me to flee from my post to avoid the demands of the laws. Hear, said he, what the Lord said of the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, and what of the hireling who, by fleeing, left the sheep a prey to the wolf. The fleeing policy was highly commended by Augustine, on which he made extensive comments, quoting the example of Paul at Damascus, and what Christ said of fleeing from one city to another. As he greatly desired the peaceable possession of the Donatist churches for his own people, it is easy to comprehend the reason of the wily manager in this case.
The Charge of Threatened Suicide by Gaudentius, by Augustine
In his correspondence with Dulcitius, he was requested to surrender his church to the Catholics. In reply to this request the resolute bishop addressed the tribune in these terms: "In this church, in which the name of God and his Christ is always invoked in truth, as you yourself also have admitted, we will permanently remain as long as it may please God for us to live." This is the whole of the threatened suicide of Gaudentius. The story which has gone the rounds of church history originated in the perverted language of Augustine. "You," said he to Gaudentius, "declared, with other words, I grant, that you would burn your church, with yourself and people in it."
The most I can learn of this Donatist author is found in a small work which he published against the Catholics, in defense of his own people. In this work are many scripture quotations, mostly from the evangelical prophets, who described the church of the coming Messiah, and who foretold that this church should consist of a separate and holy people. He maintained, with the decision of his party, that believers were the only subjects of Christian baptism. He was also very severe on the persecutions of the Catholics, and on their lax and corrupt discipline.
He was the only author among the dissenting parties from the main body of the Donatists of whose writings I have gained any information. To him Augustine addressed an epistle of great length, from which the following extracts are made: You, said Augustine, think that none are to be compelled to the gospel. Did not the Master say, compel them to come in--to the feast? In defence of retaliation of injuries Augustine addressed Vicentius in the following terms: Pharaoh oppressed the people of God with hard labor. Moses afflicted impious Pharaoh's people with severe chastisements. Jezebel killed the Lord's prophets. Elias killed the prophets of Baal. The Jews scourged Christ. Christ scourged the Jews. The impious killed the prophets. The prophets killed the impious. Men delivered the apostles into the hands of the civil magistrates. The apostles delivered men into the power of Satan. No example can be found, said Vicentius, in the gospels or in the apostolic writings, that anything whatever was ever sought from earthly rulers for the church against their enemies. This fact was admitted by Augustine, but he said it was to be the result of prophecies not yet fulfilled. It was to Vicentius that the bishop of Hippo gave the memorable description of his conversion of the Donatist, not by arguments, but in the manner soon to be described. This account was given in reply to the arguments of Vicentius against compulsion in religious concerns. The then persecuting church manager admitted to Vicentius that at first he was of the same mind with him, and was against forcing men into the church lest it should be filled with false Catholics, and that his mind was changed by the arguments of older men who referred to the effect of coercive measures in favor of the Catholics, and also by his own experience in church management, which he thus defined: "When I first came to Hippo, I found the city full of the Donatist party, who were all opposed to me, but they were converted to the Catholic union by the fear of the imperial laws." How decidedly is this statement opposed to the common theory of historians that the Donatists were converted to the Catholics by the logical powers of Augustine, a power, says Robins, he himself did not claim, although he was never backward in sounding his own praise. Vicentius belonged to the Rogatians, but he appears to have been a firm supporter of the primordial principles of the original Donatists.
Fragments of the History of Donatist Martyrs
In Africa, Datinus, Saturnus, Felix Amplius and Others
These fragments are found in the works of Optatus, and are said to have been written by an unknown Donatist, who said the Catholic editor displayed the impudence of his sect in his calumnies of Mensurius and Caecilian. The censures of these men consisted in their cruelty to the martyrs in prison in the Diocletian war, in leaving them without food, and hindering others from supplying them. This complaint is related in detail by Mosheim: "Who," says this writer, "who is instructed in the knowledge of the divine law, is endued with faith, is eminent in devotion, holy inreligion, and is mindful of God his judge, cannot discern truth from error, separate perfidy from faith, show the difference of a false from a well grounded holiness, distinguish between the standing and the fallen, the wounded and the whole, the criminal from the just, the condemned and the innocent, the betrayer from the keeper of the law, the denier from the confessor of the name of Christ, the persecutor from the martyr of the Lord; and can he esteem as one and the same, a church of martyrs, and the conventicles of traitors? No one, verily; since they are as contrary, and opposed to each other, as light to darkness, life to death, a holy angel to a devil, Christ to antichrist."
The Character of the True Church according to the Unknown Donatist Author
It is holy, united and truly Catholic; from this church have proceeded the martyrs by whom the divine testimonies have been preserved. This church alone hath defeated the hostile assaults of its foes, to the effusion of blood, and hath rescued the law of the Lord. In this church the aids of the Holy Spirit are continually present; baptism from the Saviors example is performed, and a divine life is perpetually renewed; for God is always propitious to his own people. The Lord Christ takes delight in his own church; the Holy Spirit, as a conqueror, rejoices among the confessors, and is triumphant among the martyrs.
The Closing Scenes with the Martyrs
At last, worn out with an atrocious famine, these blessed martyrs, by degrees, day after day, departed to the celestial realms, with the palm of martyrdom, to our Lord Jesus, who, with the Father, in endless ages reigns. Amen.
1. Pars Donati * * Petilianum scrutatus est fugientem invenit latentem, extraxit paventem, baptizavit trementem, ordinavit nolentem--S. Augustine Sermon, p. 624.
2. Vir grandissimus.
3. Op. August., Tome 9, p. 638.
4. In hoc autem ecclesia inquit, in qua nomen Dei et Christi Ejus, ut etiam ipse dixisti, in veritate semper est frequentum, nos ant vivi quamdia Deo placuerit permanemus, etc. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 637.
5. Nam primo mihi opponebatur civitas mea, quae cum tota esset in parte Donati, ad unitatem catholicam tirnore legum imperialium conversaest. Op. Aug., Tome 21, p. 237
6. Op. Opta. Fragment Dona. Hist., p. 103. "Ad sidera regna cum palma martyrii migraverunt, praestante Domino nostro Jesu qui cum Patre requat in saecula saeculorum, Amen.
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