I. Origins and history – II. Doctrine – III. A protest movement – IV. Donatism outside Africa. Donatism was a schism that affected the church of N Africa in the 4th and early 5th c., but lasted at least up to the turn of the 7th c. It reflected socioeconomic and religious divisions among N African Christians. In refuting the Donatists, Augustine worked out his theology of the church and the sacraments, as well as his ideas on the coercion of religious dissidents by the state.
I. Origins and history. The immediate cause of the schism was linked with events in N Africa during the “great” persecution of 303–305. Many members of the clergy, bishops included, obeyed the authorities and handed over the books of the Scriptures. In the eyes of those who had resisted, they were considered traditores, “traitors” and apostates, unworthy of the clerical state.
The persecution in N Africa was brief but violent Euseb., HE VIII, 6,10, produced “many martyrs” and, when it ended in early spring 305, people recalled the admirable conduct of the confessors, esp. those of Abitina near Membressa, in W Tunisia. These Christians had continued to meet after the fall of their bishop and were arrested and imprisoned at Carthage. Even in prison, they solemnly condemned traditores and those who received the sacraments from traditores. These, they declared, would have no part with them in the kingdom of heaven Acta Saturnini 18: PL 8, 701. Further, the archdeacon of Carthage, Caecilian, was accused of having brutally prevented Christians from bringing food to the imprisoned confessors ibid., ch. 17.