was bishop of Casa Nigra, in Numidia, in the early part of the fourth century (A. D. 312), and from him, together with another prelate of the same name, the successor of Majorinus in the disputed election to the see of Carthage, the Donatists
derived their appellation.
This was the first important schism which distracted the Christian church; and, although in a great measure confined within the limits of Africa, proved, for three centuries, the source of great confusion, scandal, and bloodshed.
The circumstances which gave rise to the division, and the first steps in the dispute, are given in another article. [CAECILIANUS.] Condemned, punished, but eventually tolerated by Constantine, fiercely persecuted by Constans, and favoured by Julian, the followers of this sect appear to have attained to their highest point of prosperity at the commencement of the fifth century, about which period they were ruled by four hundred bishops, and were little inferior in numbers to the Catholics of the province.
The genius and perseverance of Augustin, supported by the stringent edict of Honorius (A. D. 414), vigorously enforced by the civil magistrates, seem to have crushed them for a time; but they revived upon the invasion of Genseric, to whom, from their disaffection to a hostile government, they lent a willing support; they were of sufficient importance, at a later date, to attract the attention, and call forth the angry denunciations of Pope Gregory the Great, and are believed to have kept their ground, and existed as an independent community, until the final triumph of the Saracens and Mohommedanism.
We ought to observe, that even the most violent enemies of the Donatists were unable to convict them of any serious errors in doctrine or discipline. Agreeing with their opponents upon all general principles and points of faith, they commenced simply by refusing to acknowledge the authority of Caecilianus, and were gradually led on to maintain, that salvation was restricted to their own narrow pale, because they alone had escaped the profanation of receiving the sacraments from the hands of traditors, or of those who, having connived at such apostacy, had forfeited all claims to the character of Christians. Asserting that they alone constituted the true universal church, they excommunicated not only those with whom they were directly at variance, but all who maintained any spiritual connexion with their adversaries; and adopting to the full extent the high pretensions of Cyprian with regard to ecclesiastical unity and episcopal power, insisted upon rebaptizing every one who became a proselyte to their cause, upon subjecting to purification all places of public worship which had been contaminated by the presence of their opponents, and upon casting forth the very corpses and bones of the Catholics from their cemeteries.
This uncharitable spirit met with a fitting retribution ; for, at the epoch when their influence was most widely extended, dissensions arose within their own body; and about one-fourth of the whole party, separating from the sect under the denomination of Maximianists, arrogated to themselves, exclusively, the prerogatives claimed by the larger faction, and hurled perdition against all who denied or doubted their infallibility.
Our chief authorities for all that concerns the Donatists are the works of Optatus Milevitanus and Augustin.
In the edition of the former, published by the learned and industrious Dut Pin, will be found a valuable appendix of ancient documents relating to this controversy, together with a condensed view of its rise and progress, while the most important passages in the writings of Augustin have been collected by Tillemont, in that portion of his Ecclesiastical Memoirs (vol. vi.) devoted to this subject. For the series of Imperial Laws against the Donatists from A. D. 400 to 428, see Cod. Theod.