The Donatists were a brotherhood in the church that at the beginning of the fourth century caused a serious division in the Christian Church, until it was forcibly suppressed 100 years later. The initial cause was personal rivalry between bishops; but soon important fundamental differences rose, founded in the newly established relationship between church and state instituted by Constantine, and the ensuing increasing secularization of the Christian Church.
The Donatists, named after their bishop, Donatus the Great (316-346), wished the church to be a holy community; they required moral purity of their members, and especially of their bishops. They taught the following tenets: no one may spend what he does not have; no one shall impart purity who is himself not pure; a bishop or clergyman living in sin cannot effectively administer the sacraments. The church that tolerates in its clergy the "deadly sins" is unclean and spotted, and must be renounced. Their own brotherhood they considered the "pure bride of Christ"; anyone joining them from the Catholic Church must submit to rebaptism. In the Numidian church they grew to great strength. At a disputation at Carthage (A.D. 411) 279 Donatist bishops were assembled. The state, whose right to be concerned with spiritual matters they denied, broke their power by suppressing them; small remnants maintained themselves up to the time of Islam. In the struggle against them Augustine took a leading part, and summoned the might of the state against them. They can hardly be considered representatives within the Catholic Church of the Protestant doctrine of salvation. Among the Mennonites the Donatistic view that the church should be without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5:27) and that bishops and preachers should be "pure" has found wide application.
Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church; a movement of protest in Roman North Africa. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952.
Harnack, A. Gesch. der altchristlichen Literatur I. Leipzig, 1893: 744 ff.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon., 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: I, 459.
Thümmel, W. Zur Beurteilung des Donatismus. Halle, 1893.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 82. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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