Donatists, a party in the ancient north African church, so called from two of their leaders named Donatus. In 311 Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, died, and the majority of the clergy and people hastened to choose in his stead his archdeacon, Ca?cilian. This election was ratified by the bishops of the province of Carthage, one of whom, Felix of Aptungis, acted as consecrator. All this haste both in the election and consecration was to avoid the interference of the bishops of the neighboring province of Numidia, between whom and Mensurius a bitter strife had existed on the treatment of the lapsed and the validity of all priestly acts performed by an unworthy minister. As Caecilian had been a strong supporter of Mensurius throughout his administration, Secundus, the primate of Numidia, and Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae, his counsellor, were particularly anxious to exclude him from the succession. No sooner had Caecilian been consecrated than Secundus and Donatus arrived at the head of 70 Numidian prelates. Two deacons, competitors of Caecilian, now became his accusers before this assemblage of bishops, to which none of the suffragans of Carthage were admitted.
The validity of Caecilian's ordination was impugned, because Felix of Ap-tungus, they said, was a traditor, that is, one who had given up the Scriptures and sacred vessels to the pagans during the late persecution of Diocletian. As Caecilian, though willing to submit to a new election, refused to acknowledge the Numidian bishops as his lawful judges, he was deposed and the lector Majorinus was consecrated bishop of Carthage. Thus there were two bishops at the same time in the one see, each with a powerful party of bishops and laymen. The disorders which ensued were so great that in 312 Constantine expressly excepted "the party of Majorinus" from the privileges which his first edicts conferred on the churches of Africa. The aggrieved party thereupon appealed to him, and requested to be judged by a court of Gallic bishops. The emperor referred the matter to Melchiades, bishop of Rome, who pronounced the charges against Caacilian groundless, and declared the leading accuser, Donatus of Casae Nigra, guilty of several transgressions of ecclesiastical law. Donatus and Majorinus appealed a second time to Constantine, begging to have the whole matter judged in Gaul, where the late persecution had not raged and no tra-ditors existed.
The emperor acquiesced, appointing a council to meet in Aries, and commanding the proconsul of Carthage, .AElian, to investigate judicially the accusation against Felix of Aptungis. AElian pronounced Felix innocent, and convicted his accuser of having falsified the record in order to sustain his charge. The council of Aries met Aug. 1, 314; bishops from Italy, Spain, Gaul, Africa, and Great Britain heard both parties, and reaffirmed the sentence of the court of Rome. The emperor was once more appealed to, and summoned both parties before himself at Milan in 316. His decision was in conformity with that of the ecclesiastical courts. But Donatus and Majorinus and their followers raised the cry that Constantine had been biassed in his decision by Hosius of Corduba. The emperor now had recourse to legal repression, and severe edicts were issued against " the party of Majorinus." In the same year, 316, Majorinus died, and was succeeded by a second Donatus, a man of great learning, austerity of life, and enthusiastic and headlong disposition. His followers gave him the appellation of Great, and from him called themselves "the party of Donatus," while their opponents styled them Donatists. He excited his followers to resist the imperial edict.
Fearful retaliations followed everywhere the attempts to coerce the Donatists, and at length in 321 Constantine suspended the execution of his edicts, but the conflict between the parties still continued. In 330 upward of 200 Donatist bishops met in council, enacted decrees favorable to the reconciliation of traditors, and proclaimed themselves the only true church of Christ. Unfortunately for their cause, it had been espoused from the beginning by a large class of fanatics known as circumcelliones, "hut-rovers," in the rural and mountainous districts of northern Africa. They had contributed not a little to provoke the barbarities of the pagans during the late persecution, by committing deeds of violence and folly while the persecution lasted, in order to secure martyrdom for the faith. From the beginning of the schism they had been the soldiers of the Donatists. Constans on his accession determined to employ both bribery and coercion against the Donatists. His commissaries Macarius and Leontius distributed everywhere large sums of money and rich presents in the emperor's name, accompanying them with exhortations to Christian unity, and threats of serious repression against recalcitrants.
Donatus of Carthage repelled the imperial officer and his presents. "What has the emperor to do with the church? " exclaimed he, although he and his party had been the first to invoke the imperial intervention. Donatus sent his warning voice through all northern Africa, and the whole country rose in arms. In 349 Macarius defeated the united forces of the Circumcelliones in a pitched battle near Bagaja or Bagais, and then no alternative was left the vanquished but extermination or submission to the emperor's edicts. Their churches were taken from them, and their religious meetings were dispersed by force of arms. The accession of Julian in 361 brought them peace; their churches were restored, and their confiscated property was given back to them. The wild excesses into which they were hurried by this short-lived triumph only made their condition more intolerable under Gratian and his successors. Internal divisions added to their sufferings. In 393, 100 Donatist bishops assembled at Cabarsussi in the Byzacena, deposed Primianus of Carthage, and ordained in his stead Maximian, his accuser.
In 394 a council of 310 bishops reversed this sentence; but still the Donatists continued split into two factions, the "Primianists" and "Maximianists." During the latter half of the century the voice of theological controversy had been heard above the unceasing clash of arms. Parmenian, successor of Donatus of Carthage, had vindicated his followers in works which were refuted by such men as Optatus of Mileve and Augustine of Hippo. But reasoning and argument could not be listened to amid this civil and religious warfare. In 398 Augustine, after trying in vain to bring about a peaceful discussion of their mutual grievances, obtained an order that the bishops of the province of Carthage should meet yearly to devise means of healing the schism. In 411 at length a fortunate concurrence of circumstances led to what is known as the great conference of Carthage, in which, under the presidency of the imperial commissary, Mar-cellinus, 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatists discussed during three days the points which divided them.
Once more the two oft disputed questions were argued on both sides, whether Felix of Aptungis and Caecilian were traditors, and whether the church, by communicating with unworthy members, lost the character of the true church of Christ. What then shook the allegiance of many Donatist bishops to their party was the offer made in the conference by the Catholics to receive the Donatist bishops on a perfect footing of equality with themselves in every episcopal city. This gave a blow to the schism from which it never recovered. The most stringent measures of repression were immediately put in force against the obstinate, with the unavoidable results of agrarian violence and retaliation. In 429 Gen-seric and his Vandals swept over all northern Africa, an invasion which proved equally destructive to Catholics and Donatists. The latter still maintained a foothold along the Mediterranean coast and in the mountains for the remainder of the century, and then disappeared altogether. - The Donatists held that the sacraments from the hand of one not properly ordained for the work were of no value, rebaptized those who came from the Catholic churches into their communion, and consecrated anew the sacred edifices which they took from their rivals.
Donatus and others of his party were accused of denying the Trinity; but from this charge they are absolved by Augustine, who shows that they differed from the Arians in recognizing but one divine substance. - Accounts of the Donatists may be found in the works of St. Optatus; in the writings of Augustine, in the 9th part of the Benedictine edition, the appendix of which also contains monographs relating to them; in Tillemont, vol. vi.; in the "Dissertation" of Collina(Bologna, 1758); in Ballerini's history; in De Potter's Histoire du Christianisme, vol. ii. (Paris, 1836); in Villemain's Tableau de l'eloquence chretienne au Ve siecle (new ed., 1854); and in Ribbeck's Donatus und Augus-tinus (Elberfeld, 1857).