Diocletian’s persecutions were not carried out evenly through the Empire. In some provinces, Roman rulers and forces didn’t have the power or resources to carry them out. In others, particularly the large eastern cities, there were so many Christians that the authorities could not carry them out, aside perhaps from a few “examples.”
Northern Africa, however, was home to the confluence of three factors: first, a strong Roman administrative and governing presence capable of carrying out Diocletian’s orders; second, a significant number of Manichaeans who were initially persecuted; and third, a significant nummber of Christians who became later targets. Such a combination of factors did not exist anywhere else in the Empire; hence, the controversy to come was unique to northern Africa.
During the persecutions, any Christian who renounced Christianity, made offerings to the Roman state gods and/or the Imperial divine cult, and who burned any sacred Christian texts they may have had, were spared. Those who refused — especially those caught with Christian texts that they refused to hand over or destroy — were usually killed. That texts were often used to determine who was Christian and who wasn’t, meant that the clergy — those Christians most likely to have such things — were particularly vulnerable to the persecution.
While some Christian clergy resisted and were martyred, many did not. They renounced Christianity, allowed their books to be burned, and were spared. This was, of course, also true of many lay Christians, although a smaller percentage of them were affected because most had no sacred texts to give them away.
In the interim, between the end of Diocletian’s persecution, and the Edict of Milan which made it safe to be openly Christian, the Church in northern Africa had to settle for whichever clergy were willing to “return to the fold.” Some had never been caught by the Roman authorities, but others had renounced Christianity in order to stay alive. At first no one had much choice in the matter; too few clergy were willing to make themselves known again. But as it became ever safer to be Christian, the problem came to a head. Adding to it was the problem of Christians, particularly clergy, who wished to mollify the Imperial regime and thus try to accomodate it. Many who remembered the martyrs found it upsetting that fellow Christians would try to “make nice” with the enemy.
Many of these same north African Christians did not want to allow lapsed clergy (i.e. those who’d renounced their faith) to return. They considered it offensive to the memories of those who’d had the courage to become martyrs by not doing so. They might return to the Church as laymen — after an appropriate penance — but not as clergy ever again. Even prior to the Edict of Milan, this sentiment had been building; the open acceptance by Rome of Christianity merely caused the dam to break.
A cleric named Caecilian was elected Bishop of Carthage in 312, who was of the “pro-Roman” camp. This incensed many, and they refused to accept his appointment, on the legalistic grounds that he hadn’t been properly ordained in the first place, some years prior. These “purists” elected, instead, their own bishop, Majorinus, one who denounced the “Roman collaborators” and refused to restore lapsed clergy. When he died in 315, the purists elected Donatus, also called Donatus Magnus. Due to his long tenure as the purist Bishop of Carthage (from 315 to 355 despite an exile in 347), Donatus ended up being the primary spokesman for the movement, and it bears his name.
Donatus and his faction declared the lapsed clergy ineligible to perform the sacraments, and that any which they may have performed, were invalid. The opposing party declared, again, that lapsed clergy could be restored to full authority — including the perfomance of sacraments — after having performed appropriate penance. They based this idea on the concept of forgiveness for all.
This schism endured long after the point was moot (after all, once the generation after the Edict of Milan had died out, the problem of lapsed clergy no longer existed). With the passage of time, each side in the dispute became increasingly intransigent. Attempts to reconcile them, by a number of Popes as well as respected figures such as St Augustine, all failed.
Most of this time, the Donatists outnumbered the traditionalists, or Catholics. And they drifted apart in matters beyond just the fate of lapsed clergy. Donatist liturgies became increasingly charismatic in nature. They acquired a reputation, possibly deserved but probably not, for having strange and wild services.
The Donatists survived the Vandal invasion which began in 429 CE, and the reconquest of the eastern Emperor Justinian beginning in 533. Their fortunes appear to have dwindled after that, however, they maintained a presence in northern Africa nevertheless.
Of course, other (unaffected) parts of Christendom weighed in on the matter, and came down generally against the Donatists. Forgiveness had to be extended to everyone; although penance was required, and there was no guarantee that any penance would be easy.
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