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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Taken from A General History of the Baptist Denomination, 1853
My first account of the people who bore this name I shall take from Jones' Church History. His information was derived from Dr. Lardner, who says he has collected into a few pages almost everything that is now interesting relative to this denomination of Christians.
The Donatists appear to have resembled the followers of Novatian more than any other class of professors in that period of the church of whom we have any authentic record; but their origin was at least half a century later, and the churches in this connection appear to have been almost entirely confined to Africa. They agreed with the Novatians in censuring the lax state of discipline in the catholic church, and though they did not, like the former, refuse to readmit penitents into their communion, nor like them condemn all second marriages, they denied the validity of baptism as administered by the church of Rome, and rebaptized all who left its communion to unite with them.
In doctrinal sentiments they were agreed with both the Catholics and the Novatians; while the regard they paid to the purity of their communion, occasioned their being stigmatized with the title of puritans, and uniformly treated as schismatics by Optatus and Augustine, the two principal writers against them in the Catholic Church.
"The Donatists are said to have derived their distinguished appellation from Donatus, a native of Numidia, in Africa, who was elected bishop of Carthage about the year 306. He was a man of learning and eloquence, very exemplary in his morals, and, as would appear from circumstances, studiously set himself to oppose the growing corruptions of the Catholic Church. The Donatists were consequently a separate body of Christians for nearly three centuries, and in almost every city in Africa there was one bishop of this sect and another of the Catholics.
“The Donatists were very numerous, for we learn that in the year 411 there was a famous conference held at Carthage, between the Catholics and the Donatists, at which were present two hundred and eighty-six Catholic bishops, and of the Donatists two hundred and seventy-nine, which, when we consider the superior strictness of their discipline, must give us a favorable opinion of their numbers, and especially as they were the subjects of severe and sanguinary persecutions from the dominant party.
“The Emperor Constans, who reigned over Africa, actuated by the zeal of his family for the peace of the church, sent two persons of rank, Paul and Macarius, in the year 348, to endeavor to conciliate the Donatists, and, if possible, to restore them to the communion of the Catholic church. But the Donatists were not to be reconciled to such an impure communion! To all their overtures for peace they replied, “Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia?” That is, 'What has the emperor to do with the church?' An excellent saying, certainly, and happy had it been for both the church and the world, could all Christians have adopted and acted upon it.
“Optatus relates another maxim of theirs, which is worthy of being recorded. It was usual with them to say, “Quid christianis cum regibus, ant quid episcopis cum palatio?" What have Christians to do with kings, or what have bishops to do at court?' These hints are strikingly illustrative of the principles and conduct of the Donatists, who had among them men of great learning and talents, and who distinguished themselves greatly by their writings."
These sentiments of the old Donatists relative to the union of church and state, and the interference of the civil powers in religious concerns, are precisely those which the Baptists have always maintained. In a number of other points a striking resemblance appears between these African dissenters and the Baptists of the present day.
“The Donatists and Novatianists very nearly resembled each other in doctrines and discipline; indeed, they were charged by Crispin, a French historian, with holding together in the following things:
"First, for purity of church members by asserting that none ought to be admitted into the church, but such as are visible true believers and true saints.
"Secondly, for purity of church discipline.
"Thirdly, for the independence of each church; and,
"Fourthly, they baptized again those whose first baptism they had reason to doubt. They were consequently termed rebaptizers and anabaptists.
"Osiander says our modern Anabaptists were the same as the Donatists of old. Fuller, the English church historian, asserts that the Baptists in England, in his day, were the Donatists new-dipped and Robinson declares they were trinitarian Anabaptists.
"The disputes between the Donatists and Catholics were at their height when Constantine became fully invested with imperial power, A.D. 314.
"In 362, after a long series of persecutions from the dominant party, Julian, commonly called the apostate, permitted the exiled Donatists to return and enjoy the sweets of liberty, which revived the denomination; and, by their zealous and unceasing efforts, brought over, in a short time, the greatest part of the African province to espouse their interest. From various sources of information, it is most evident that the Donatists were a most powerful and numerous body of dissenters, almost as numerous as the Catholics, which, considering the strictness of their discipline, and their close adherence to the laws of Zion, is a subject of pleasing reflection. Their influence must have been considerable, since, as Mr. Jones remarks, 'There was scarce a city or town in Africa in which there was not a Donatist church.”
The Catholics found by experience that the means hitherto used had been ineffectual against the Donatists. They now (413) prevailed on Honorius and Theodosius, emperors of the East and West, to issue an edict, decreeing, that the person rebaptizing and the person rebaptized, should be punished with death. In consequence of this cruel measure, martyrdom ensued. Gibbon remarks on these edicts, that three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches, stripped of their ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, proscribed by laws, if they presumed to conceal themselves in the provinces of Africa. Their numerous congregations, both in cities and the country, were deprived of the rights of citizens and the exercise of religious worship.
According to Long, they were professed Anabaptists. They did not only rebaptize the adults that came over to them, but refused to baptize children contrary to the practice of the Catholic Church.
In 415, the council of Mela, in Numidia, with Augustine at its head, passed a solemn decree in the following words: “We will that whoever denies that children by baptism are freed from perdition and eternally saved, that they be accursed.”
The history of the Donatists is much like that of the Novatianists as to the changes, trials and persecutions to which they were exposed, except that the power of the anathemas of the church were often enforced by imperial statutes. There was this difference, however, in their location and operations. The Novatian churches extended all over the Roman empire, while those of the Donatists were principally confined to Africa. As both parties had abjured the established church, and uniformly rebaptized all who came over to them from it, this made them continually obnoxious to the ruling party, by which they were treated in a most severe and unchristian manner.
Under the long reign of the Vandals in Africa, the Donatists, with other dissenters, were allowed the sweets of civil and religious freedom; but, on the restoration of the old dynasty, their sufferings were renewed, and it is supposed a portion of them retired into the interior, or emigrated into Spain and Italy. In the seventh century, they were dwindled almost into obscurity; and, in the century after, the whole coast of Africa along the shores of the Mediterranean, which, for many ages, had been renowned for Christian churches, was overrun by the religion of the false prophet, under which it still remains.
"To review," says Orchard, "the history of such a people, so correct in morals, simple in spiritual worship, scriptural in faith and practice, for the period of above four centuries, is a pleasing employment. The continued preservation which the Donatists realized amidst trials the most formidable, from crowned and mitred heads, is a satisfactory proof of their character, as forming part of that church against which the gates of hell shall never successfully prevail. We cannot help realizing a sacred respect for the memories of this body of people, whose religious profession and views were so nearly allied to our own; and some feelings of pleasure may be lawfully indulged at the remembrance of being their legitimate successors.
“For a thousand years after the rise of the Donatists, we find them spread along in all parts of Europe under different names, but recognized by friends and foes as substantially the same people; and, in the middle of the seventeenth century, Fuller, the English ecclesiastical historian, says of the English Baptists that they were Donatists new-dipped."