Volume III - Church History

Fourth Century

The Donatist Schism

Though the Church was free from external persecution in the era of Constantine, inner troubles soon arose to disturb its peace. First, there was the Donatist Schism that erupted in western North Africa. This was a schism between those who supported a certain Majorinus—soon afterwards succeeded by Donatus—to be the bishop of Carthage, and those who supported the regularly elected bishop, Caecilian. The Donatists opposed Bishop Caecilian because he was willing to grant the possibility of repentance to those who had lapsed during the Diocletian Persecution, and because one of the bishops who consecrated him allegedly had surrendered holy books to the authorities.

In an attempt to help the Church resolve this conflict, Constantine summoned the parties to Rome to appear before a commission led by Pope Miltiades. When this commission decided in favor of Bishop Caecilian, the Donatists refused to accept the judgment. They complained to Constantine that the matter had been judged too hastily and by too few other bishops. Yielding to their request to reopen the case, the emperor summoned a much larger council to address the problem. This Council of Arles (in Gaul—modern day France) in 314 also decided against the Donatists.

But still the Donatists refused to be reconciled with Bishop Caecilian, and in 316 Constantine resorted to the use of force to try to bring the schism to an end. Unfortunately, this gave the movement an aura of martyrdom. Fueled by the anti-Roman feelings of the native Berber population of the region, the schism became more deeply entrenched than ever.

Constantine stopped using force against the Donatists in 321, but the schism continued into the next century. The Church in western North Africa never fully recovered from this grievous schism, so that when the Muslims swept across this region in the 7th century, there was little resistance from the Christians, and Christianity was virtually obliterated there.