Century V, Chapter VI

CHAP. VI.

Augustine's Conduct Toward The
Donatists.

VlT* Th E active spirit of the bishop of Hippo found —' sufficient employment in his long course of private and public labours against the Pelagians, the Manichees, and the Donatists, besides the general care of the African churches, and the peculiar inspection of his own diocese. The two former sects he in a manner eradicated: his own experience in religion fitted him for the work. The last sect he opposed with much success. Vital godliness, it is true, is not so much interested in this opposition, nor does his conduct here merit in all respects that praise in regard to them, which it does in regard to the others.

Let us distinguish the Donatists as theyr ought to be. Some of them were, comparatively speaking, a mild and peaceable people ; others, called the Circumcelliones, were a mere banditti, sons of violence and bloodshed, who neither valued their own lives, nor those of their neighbours, and frequently were remarkable for committing suicide in a fit of frenzy. They had a peculiar malice against the pastorsof the general church, and way-laid them, Cent. from time to time, attacked them with armed force, t v' and mutilated, or even killed them. They burnt the houses of those who would not comply with their sect, and were guilty of many detestable enormities. Augustine himself was several times waylaid by these miserable men, and once by a peculiar providence, through the mistake of his guide, was led into a different road from that by which he had intended to travel, when he was going through one of his usual visitations of his diocese, a work which he was wont to discharge with frequency and labour. He learnt afterwards, that by this means he had escaped an ambush which they had laid for him.

There was nothing peculiarly doctrinal in the whole scheme of the Donatists : they differed from the general church only concerning a matter of fact, namely, whether Caecilian had been legally ordained. Augustine justly observes in his controversy with them, that, if their opponents had been mistaken, such a circumstance justified not at all their separation from the general church, since Jesus Christ, his grace and doctrine, remained the same. Yet for such a trifle, even from the close of the third century to this which is before us, did these schismatics think it worth while to rend the body of Christ, when the articles of belief were the same in both parties. So much had men forgotten to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace ! The peaceable Donatists abhorred the madness of the Circumcelliones, and yet had not the discernment to see and lament the evils which their own needless schism had occasioned. They themselves were crumbled into parties, and subdivided into little bodies which condemned one another, each arrogating to itself the title of the true church, while they all joined to condemn the general church. In the mean time they were extremely active in rebaptizing multitudes in Africa ; for the baptism of

CHAP- the general church was not by them allowed to be valid.

Augustine owns, concerning one party of them, the Rogatians, that they carefully distinguished themselves from the Circumcelliones. Whether the rest did so, is not so evident. This may be safely affirmed, that all truly humble and godly persons of the Donatist name (and I hope there were many such in Africa) must have separated themselves from them entirely. But it was very difficult for others to make the just distinction : Africa was full of these schismatics, and the furious party were undoubtedly very numerous. Let us briefly state the methods used by Augustine with respect to this people.

At first, when he saw the vast numbers of them with which Africa swarmed, his heart was struck with horror at the thought of exposing them to the penal laws of the empire; and he wrote to the Imperial court his sentiments and wishes, which were, that the lawless and savage conduct of the Circumcelliones might be restrained by the civil sword, but that no other arms should be used against the peaceable Donatists, than preaching and arguments ; because, as he observed, compulsive conversions were not genuine, and tended only to harden men in sin.

Other bishops of the general church in Africa were not so moderate : they desired that the civil restraints should be exercised on the whole Donatist name, and signified these sentiments to the Imperial court, at a time when their spirits were heated by the savage treatment of a certain bishop, who had fallen into the hands of the Circumcelliones, and was believed to have lost his life. Under the impression of this belief, on account of many enormities which had been practised by the banditti, l the court issued orders for fines to be imposed on the Donatists, and banishment on their bishops. It was not till after these edicts were promulged, that it appeared, that the injured bishop had escaped with life. Augustine owns that he afterwards retracted Cent. his opinion, when he saw the good effects of the in- ... ^ . terposition of the civil magistrate. Many of the Circumcelliones, he observes, with much humility and joy confessed their error, and returned into the bosom of the church : numbers too, who had never joined in their enormities, and who had nothing to plead for their schism but custom and tradition, and the shame of inconstancy, and the fear of molestation from the Circumcelliones, when they found themselves exposed to the laws for the defence of their schism, began to examine the grounds on which it stood, saw and confessed their error, and united themselves to the general church with every mark of serious repentance. Moved by these considerations, and convinced by the effects rather than the reason of the case, the bishop of Hippo repeatedly supported in his writings the justice and reasonableness of the imperial methods of opposing the Donatists.

It is certain, however, that he continued all the time extremely tender in his conscience Concerning this subject. He repeatedly and earnestly pressed the magistrates on no account to shed blood, and in all his writings and conduct on this occasion demonstrated, that he was led by principle, by the fear of God, and by a charitable compassion for the souls of men, in his contentions with the Donatists. I know it is not easy for men to believe this, who are themselves profane and careless, and with whom all sorts of religion are of equal value, because they are &pt to measure others by themselves. Yet, whoever shall take pains to weigh the writings of Augustine, and to compare them with his practice and general temper, will feel an invincible conviction, that I have not been betrayed into an excess of candour in forming this judgment. In truth, the case was mixed and complicated : one sort of conduct ought to have been held toward the furious, another toward the peaceable. But it was difficult to distinguish in real fact, though none in our times will doubt, that Augustine's first sentiments were more just than his second. He largely insists on the unreasonableness of the Donatists in confining the mercies of salvation to themselves, as if all the world had been unchristian, and Africa alone were possessed of the truth. And he observed, that their absurdity appeared still stronger in confining salvation to some particular spots of Africa, when they had subdivided themselves into little parties, each pretending to monopolize the truth. But then the general church should not have imitated this bigotry, in condemning the whole body of the Donatists. Highly culpable as these were in breaking the unity of the church, the peaceable part of them, who feared God, and wrought righteousness, should have been owned as brethren by the general church, and the furious alone should have been rejected as unchristian, and exposed to the civil law for their crimes. It was an erroneous notion of the unity of the church, and the dread of schism on the one hand, which led Augustine into the mistake; and itwas an abuse of the right of conscience on the other, which seduced the Donatists*.

* It would be equally tedious and uninteresting to take notice of the endless perversions with which Mr. Gibbon has tilled the history of the church. A remark or two may be made, to guard those who read his History against his deceptions. In reading him (chap- xxxiii. Vol. III. Decline and fall of the Roman Empire) I was surprised to meet with two representations, for neither of which I could find any foundation in original records, bolh relating to these Donatists. The first is, that he ascribes the madness, and tumult, and bloodshed, of the Circumcelliones to the imperial persecutions in Augustine's time. 1 will not say how far these outrages might be increased by them; but the Donatists had ever been an unruly and turbulent sect. Their very origin was scandalous, and in Julian's lime their furious conduct deserved the inteiference of the civil magistrate, Aug. ad. Donat. Ep. 105. Fleury, Vol. II. B. xv.C. 32. His second account is still more glaringly false- llo ascribes the success of the Vandals in Africa to the eflcct of the sainc pinsccutiou of the

The bishop of Calama, one of the disciples of Augustine, going to visit his diocese, was attacked by the Circumcelliones, robbed, and so ill-treated, that he escaped with difficulty. Upon this, Crispinus the Donatist bishop of Calama, was fined by the magistrate according to the laws. He denied himself to be a Donatist, and the two bishops of Calama appeared in court, and pleaded before a great multitude, nor did Augustine refuse his assistance to the church on this occasion. The Donatist was convicted, and required to pay the fine. But the disciple of Augustine, satisfied with his victory, begged that the fine might be remitted, which request was granted accordingly. The pride of the Donatist refused to stoop, and he appealed to the Emperor, who ordered the law to be executed with the greatest rigour on the whole party. The bishops of the general church, however, with Augustine at their head, implored for them the imperial clemency, and were successful in their petition.

No doubt it would have been far more agreeable to the maxims of Christianity, had no methods but those of argument been employed against the Donatists. But the difficulties of the case have been stated ; and the conduct of Augustine, and no doubt of other godly persons in Africa, was in general of a piece with the mild behaviour which they displayed on this occasion. Instances, however, of iniquitous and oppressive exactions from the peaceable Donatists would naturally take place, amidst the indignation of men's minds against the Circumcelliones. Nor is there any thing in all this which impeaches the acknowledged sincerity, meekness, and piety of the bishop of Hippo, notwithstanding the mistake of judgment, which happened to him in common

Donatists, who, he supposes, joined the arms of Genseric against the general church. Of this no proof appears at all. He might as justly have ascribed the Pretender's invasion of Scotland; in the last rebellion, to the revival of godliness in Great Britain, which took place about the same time.

with tbe whole church at that time- It is a delicate and difficult matter to settle, in all cases, how far the civil magistrate ought to interfere in religion. Different ages are apt to run into different extremes, as either superstition or profaneaess predominates- doubtless there is a middle path of rectitude in this subject, which I have endeavoured to describe on a former occasion, though, to apply it with exactness to all cases and .circumstances would be difficult in itself, and foreign to the design of this history. Donatism, however, under the charitable and argumentative labours of Augustine, received a blow, from which it never recovered, and the sect dwindled gradually into insignificance; and the roost pleasing part of the story is, that by the suppression of the Circumcellionet, the Ecclesiastical face of Africa must have been abundantly meliorated,and, in all probability, a great accession made to the real church of Christ. *