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Little is known of his earlier life because of the complete loss of his correspondence and written works. He first appears in Church records as Donatus of Casae Nigrae in October 313 when Pope Miltiades found him guilty of re-baptizing clergy who had lapsed and of forming a schism within the Church.
These events may have taken place before Donatus arrived in Carthage, probably before 311.
Donatus was consecrated in 313 AD as Bishop of Carthage and Primate of North Africa, the leader of the Christian sect which came to be known as the Donatist sect, even though Donatus was not the founding leader, but rather followed the founding leader Majorinus.
The background to the controversy was the wave of persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. At that time some Church leaders - unwilling to endure torture or death and become martyrs - had been ready to take such acts as worshipping the gods of the old pantheon, considered idols by Christians, or surrendering church books and property to the imperial authorities. Such people became known as “traditors” ("surrenderers"). One of these "traditors", named Caecilian, had returned to the fold of the Church once the persecutions ended, and was consecrated Bishop of Carthage and Primate of North Africa. Those of the faithful who refused to accept the authority of such a spiritual leader raised Majorinus as a rival bishop; however, Majorinus died shortly after being consecrated, and it fell to Donatus to take his place and continue the struggle.
The schism between the two Christian wings centered on the status of traditore clergy. The Donatists contended that traditores could not be reinstated without being re-baptized and re-ordained to take office. They also contended that church rituals performed by traditores were invalid. Therefore persons who were baptized, ordained or consecrated should not be recognized by the Church.
Donatist thinking was relatively consistent with that of Saint Cyprian, who died a martyr during an earlier wave of persecutions, over half a century earlier.
Effectively, the Roman Church believed that lapsed clergy could perform rituals such as baptism as long as they followed church ritual.
During his tenure of some 40 years Donatus oversaw the expansion of the Donatist Christian sect but struggled unsuccessfully against the Roman Christian wing to obtain Church recognition as the legitimate Primate of North Africa.
This effort failed because the Donatists were unable to prove to a series of the councils that considered the case that Caecilian had been a traditor or that his consecration was invalid because he was consecrated as bishop by a tradito, Bishop Felix of Aptunga.
The issue was complicated because there it was not only Catholic bishops who were suspected of being traditores; some Donatist bishops were also suspected of the same, in contradiction to their sect's basic teaching. Further, bishops suspected of being traditores refused to be challenged.
Donatus succeeded in expanding the Donatist sect in spite of lack of success in removing Caecilian from office, in large part due to the unpopularity of Caecilian and the Roman administration - particularly amongst the rural population.
Donatist priests and bishops were much closer to the rural agricultural population which consisted of Roman farmers and the Berber and Phoenician descendants of the indigenous people who lived there before the Romans conquered North Africa.
Most Donatist clergy in rural Numidia spoke the vernacular languages (Libyan or Punic) as well as Latin, whereas the Catholic clergy usually spoke only Latin.
During the Diocletian persecution in Carthage there had been many who were imprisoned, some of whom were voluntary martyrs. These people claimed falsely to be in possession of Church property which they refused to give up to officials.
The Bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, who was very much opposed to what he considered the fanaticism of the voluntary martyrs, sent his Archdeacon, Caecilian, to the prison to disperse by force the militant crowds gathered in support of volunteer martyrs.
This action by Caecilian created many enemies in Carthage who were staunchly opposed to him.
Donatism after Donatus
After a conference held at Arles in which Donatus' appeal failed, he was in 347 exiled to Gaul until his death in 355. At the time when Donatus' tenure ended, the Donatist Church was the dominant Christian Church in North Africa - but suffered from internal dissensions as well as the actions of the Catholic Church aimed at reincorporating the sect and thus unifying North African Christianity.
The Circumcellions were bands of nomadic anti-Roman rebels, Punic-speaking bandits from the lower strata of society, who supported Donatism and were sometimes led by Donatist clergy. However, they broke out of control, attacking Roman landlords and colonists and redistributing goods acquired through the sweat of poor native peasants. Their support for the Donatists caused the Donatists to be identified with them, leading officials to take punitive action against the Donatist Church.
Further, the Donatist church splintered into two main groups, reducing its effectiveness as a church.
Later theological thought
- Beaver, R. Pierce, “The Donatist Circumcellions”. (Church History, Vol. 4, No.2 June 1935) pp. 123–133.
- Edwards, Mark ed. trans. Optatus: Against the Donatists. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.
- Frend, W. H. C., “The Donatist Church”. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
- McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought, an Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, Third edition: January 1999.
- Gaddis, Michael. There is No Crime for Those Who have Christ. Berkeley: University of California Press: 2005. pp. 103 – 130.
- Tilley, Maureen A. trans., Donatist Martyr Stories – The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press: 1996.
- Tilley, Maureen A., Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: The Trial at the Conference of Carthage (Church History, Vol. 60, No.1 Mar. 1991) pp. 11 – 19.
- Donatus & the Donatist Schism. http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/donatism.php