Donatism was a controversy that arose within the Orthodox Church during the early fourth century. The controversy resulted in a schism that later was condemned as a heresy. The controversy was largely an issue with actions of an ascetic, extremist sect in the western Church, confined mostly to the Roman province of Africa. The controversy centered on a single issue arising out of the persecutions of the early fourth century. That was how should those who lapsed during the persecutions be accepted back into the Church, especially lapsed clergy. Doctrine was not involved.
The origins of the schism resulted from the disagreement between members of the sect, later called Donatists, and other members of the Orthodox Church. The Emperor Diocletian, during his rule of the late third and early fourth centuries, instituted persecutions, particularly those of 302 to 305 that centered on Christians. He blamed them for the plagues and pestilences that swept western empire that caused economic and social instability. These persecutions were most intense in Roman north Africa, around Carthage. Those Christians who lapsed, that is made offerings to the Imperial divine cult and Roman state gods and destroyed their sacred Christian writings, were spared by the government. Those who did not were imprisoned and usually killed. As possession of Christian literature was often the factor used to determine who was a Christian, the members of the clergy were among those most vulnerable to persecution. While many were martyred, many had lapsed.
With the death of Diocletian in 305 and Constantine the Great’s declaration of the Edict of Milan in 313, the persecutions ended. As peace came to the Church, the Church had to face reconciliation of those who had lapsed and wished to return to the Church, particularly among the clergy. While the Church, in general, followed the course of penance and forgiveness, in Africa a strong sense of ascetic purity arose. The members of this “purity” sect expressed strong feelings against those who had lapsed, referring to them as traditors, Christians who had betrayed other Christians. The sect members would not accept any repentance by those whom they considered too be traditors and were not fit for further membership in the Church.
The issue came to a head in 311, Caecilian was consecrated bishop of Carthage. His consecration was disputed by many Carthaginians because one of the three consecrating bishops, Felix, bishop of Aptunga, had surrendered copies of the Scriptures to Roman persecutors and was considered a traditor. A subsequent council of some seventy “purist” bishops formalized the dispute and declared Caecilian’s consecration invalid. They then elected as bishop Majorinus, who had denounced “Roman collaborators” and refused to reconcile clergy who had lapsed. After he died in 315, the schismatics elected Donatus of Casae Nigrae, a Berber Christian, as bishop of Carthage. In his long tenure (315 to 355) he became the spokesman for the sect and lent his name as the identity for the schismatics, the Donatists.
In addition to their practice of aesthetic and extreme purity, the sect’s practice of re-baptizing lapsed Christians was offensive to the Orthodox. While the established church would accept lapsed clergy back to serve after a period of penance, the Donastists declared that they were ineligible to perform the sacraments. The sect’s practices were condemned at the Orthodox Synod of Arles in 314 and by the emperor, Constantine I. In 316, the Donatists formed their own hierarchy and split from the Church.
The Donatists schism grew until, by 350, they outnumbered the Orthodox in north Africa. Each city had both an Orthodox and a Donatist bishop. The tide did not turn against the Donatists until the fifth century when St. Augustine in his writings and debates with Donatist bishops in Carthage strongly challenged their position. The Donatist movement then waned greatly, and they completely disappeared under the force of the Muslim conquests of the seventh century.