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African separatist church. After Caecilian became bishop of Carthage in 312, objectors alleged that one of his consecrators, Felix of Apthungi, had committed traditio, the “surrender, betrayal,” of the Scriptures in the recent Great Persecution. Motivated partly by personal grievances, the opposition-including the Numidian bishops (not all guiltless of traditio), affronted at their primate's exclusion from Caecilian's irregular and precipitate consecration-elected as bishop Majorinus, whose successor was Donatus (313).
When Constantine granted compensation and exemptions only to the Caecilianists, the dissenters appealed to him to arrange adjudication of the dispute. Ecclesiastical and imperial inquiries cleared Felix (and Caecilian), and Constantine, with Catholic connivance, vainly attempted a coerced reunification (317-21). The Donatists rapidly multiplied under the able leadership, unmatched among the Catholics (but cf. Optatus of Milevis), of Donatus (d. c.355), his successor Parmenian (c.355- 91/2), and others (cf. the “unorthodox” Tyconius), and enjoyed the ascendancy throughout the fourth century except following the “Macarian persecution” under Emperor Constans (347-48). The effects of this imposed “unity” persisted until Julian removed restrictions and repatriated exiles (361).
Only in the era of Augustine and Aurelius did the Catholics begin to prevail, but not without imperial coercion in the Edict of Unity (405) and the decrees proscribing Donatism after a great confrontation of the two episcopates at Carthage in 411 under Marcellinus, the imperial commissioner. Though repressed, Donatism survived until the Moorish conquests eclipsed African Christianity. Under the Vandals, Catholics and Donatists probably suffered alike. Increasing mutual toleration heralded a resurgence of Donatism in the Byzantine era, especially in Numidia, and perhaps even an ecumenical rapprochement. Gregory the Great* repeatedly rebuked the African bishops' complacency towards the Donatists, but the African Church as a whole had now recovered its traditional independence of Rome.
Donatism professed authentic African beliefs. Its rebaptisms enjoyed Cyprian's authority, and its rigorism, puritan ecclesiology, adulation of martyrdom, and apocalyptic rejection of state and society bore an African stamp as old as Tertullian. Its fundamentally religious inspiration is all-pervasive. It was “nationalist” only in its hostility to the ruling (and often persecuting) power. The embarrassing violence of Circumcellions* and Donatists' support for the revolts of Firmus (372-75) and Gildo (397-98) hardly betoken political motivation, although such excesses, e.g., under Primian, Parmenian's successor at Carthage, provoked splinter groups like the Maximianists. Cultural particularism, such as the fostering of a Libyan (Berber) language, was unimportant as cause or consequence. The stronger concentration of Donatism in the Numidian countryside by the fifth century was largely due to more effective imperial and episcopal repression in the cities, but the movement naturally gathered up economic and social discontents. Donatism provoked in fourth- and fifth-century Catholicism an uncharacteristically African alignment with ecclesiastical and imperial Rome.
P. Monceaux, Histoire Littéraire de l'Afrique Chrétienne 4-7 (1912-23); H. von Soden, Urkunden zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Donatismus (2nd ed., 1950); W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church (1952); J.P. Brisson, Autonomisme et Christianisme dans l'Afrique Romaine (1958); G. Bonner, St.(1963); E. Tengström, Donatisten und Katholiken: soziale, wirtschaftliche und politische Aspekte einer Nordafrikanischen Kirchenspaltung (1964); E.L. Grasmück, Coercitio: Staat und Kirche im Donatistenstreit (1964); R.A. Markus, “Donatism: the Last Phase,” in Studies in Church History 1 (1964), ed. C.W. Dugmore and C. Duggan, pp. 118-26; R. Crespin, Ministère et Sainteté: Pastorale du Clergé et Solution de la Crise Donatiste dans la Vie et la Doctrine de S. Augustin (1965); P.R.L. Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967) and Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine (1972), part III.