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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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Ancient schismatics, in Africa, so denominated from their leader, Donatus. They had their origin in the year 311, when, in the room of Mensurius, who died in that year, on his return to Rome, Caecilian was elected bishop of Carthage, and consecrated, without the concurrence of the Numidian bishops, by those of Africa alone, whom the people refused to acknowledge, and to whom they opposed Majorinus, who accordingly was ordained by Donatus bishop of Casae Nigrae. They were condemned, in a council held at Rome, two years after their separation; and afterwards in another at Aries, the year following; and again at Milan, before Constantine the Great, in 316, who deprived them of their churches, and sent their seditious bishops into banishment, and punished some of them with death. Their cause was espoused by another Donatus called the Great, the principal bishop of that sect, who, with numbers of his followers, was exiled by order of Constans. Many of them were punished with great severity.

See CIRCUMCELLIONES. However, after the accession to Julian to the throne in 362, they were permitted to return, and restored to their former liberty. Gratian published several edicts against them, and in 377 deprived them of their churches, and prohibited all their assemblies. But, notwithstanding the severities they suffered, it appears that they had a very considerable number of churches towards the close of this century; but at this time they began to decline, on account of a schism among themselves occasioned by the election of two bishops, in the room of Parmenian, the successor of Donatus: one party elected Primian, and were called Primianists; and another Maximian, and were called Maximianists. Their decline was also precipitated by the zealous opposition of St. Augustine, and by the violent measures which were pursued against them by order of the emperor Honorius, at the solicitation of two councils held at Carthage, the one in 404, and the other in 411. Many of them were fined, their bishops were banished, and some put to death.

This sect revived and multiplied under the protection of the Vandals, who invaded Africa in 427, and took possession of this province: but it sunk again under new severities, when their empire was overturned, in 534. Nevertheless, they remained in a separate body till the close of this century, when Gregory, the Roman pontiff, used various methods for suppressing them: his zeal succeeded, and there are few traces to be found of the Donatists after this period. They were distinguished by other appellations, as Circumcelliones, Montenses or Mountaineers, Campetes, Rupites, &c. They held three councils, that of Cita in Numidia, and two at Carthage. The Donatists, it is said, held that baptism conferred out of the church, that is, out of their sect, was null; and accordingly they rebaptized those who joined their party from other churches; they also re- ordained their ministers. Donatus seems likewise to have embraced the doctrine of the Arians; though St. Augustine affirms that the Donatists in this point kept clear of the errors of their leader.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Donatists'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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