The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 5 (The History of Christianity #110)


Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is 1 Peter 2:5 which reads: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Clement of Alexandria. He said: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 6)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Around the year 340, there appeared among the Donatists a group called the circumcellions – a name of debatable origin, which probably means that they had their headquarters in martyrs’ shrines. They were mostly Numidian and Mauritanian Donatist peasants who resorted to violence. Although sometimes they have been depicted as no more than bandits masquerading as people driven by religious motives, the truth is that they were religious to the point of fanaticism. They were convinced that there was no death more glorious than that of the martyrs, and that now that persecution in the old style had ended, those who died in battle against the perverters of the faith were also martyrs. In some cases, this quest for martyrdom rose to such a pitch that people committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. This may well be fanaticism; but it is not opportunistic hypocrisy.

The circumcellions became an important factor in the schism. Sometimes the Donatist leaders in the towns tried to disassociate themselves from this radical party. But at other times, when they needed activist troops, they appealed to the circumcellions. The time came when many villas and land holdings in secluded places had to be abandoned. The rich and those who represented the empire did not dare travel though the countryside without heavy escort. More than once, the circumcellions appeared at the very gates of fortified towns. Credit suffered, and trade almost came to a standstill.

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