Christianity / Orientations / Heresy /
Through the 4th century, the Donatists came to represent half of the Christians in North Africa.
The background for Donatism were the tensions following the persecutions of Christians early in the 4th century under Roman Emperor Diocletian. During these, many Christians laymen, priests and bishops had renounced their faith. Some had even turned fellow Christians over to the Romans and handed over religious texts to be publicly burned.
Donatism was named after Donatus Magnus, the most important leader during its earliest stages. Donatus was, however, not the founder of Donatism; this was Majorinus.
The Donatists refused to forgive those who had given in to the persecutions, while the rest of the Church chose to forgive. They refused the legitimacy ceremonies led by fallen priests and bishops.
Connected to this question was whether sacraments given by the priests and bishops were of value if the cleric had been a fallen. While they accepted that a priest could return to Christianity, they refused that he could perform central parts of the Christian rituals, like the Eucharist.
For the Catholic Church, it was the sacrament itself that was holy, a sinful priest could not destroy the value of a sacrament. Augustine declared that it was the office of the priest that gave validity to the ceremonies.
Donatists developed their own styles in worship, adding mystical parts to the rituals, allowing the participants to become inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Much of the foundations of Donatist learning was derived from the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.
Also, Donatism accused the Catholic Church for impurity and corruption.
Donatism was a strong force, and many towns had their own Donatist and Catholic congregations.
Donatism was as much a political force as a religious, although no absolute divisions can be reconstructed. To a large extent, there was a link between Berber identity and religion and Donatism. To some extent, there may even have been a link to the rural population and the urban poor. Donatism appear to have permitted more of pre-Christian customs. As Monophysitism appeared as an important counter-movement of Egypt and Syria, Donatism may have served the same purpose in North Africa.
The conflict between the Donatists and Catholics is often suggested as a central reason for the easy conquest of North Africa by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century.