Book Reviewed: History of the Donatists
Author: David Benedict, Reprinted by The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc ~ Paris, Arkansas, 72855
ISBN: # 1-57978-995-1 pp. 212
Reviewed By: Pastor Tim Crockett
Overview – Benedict labored to “prepare from original sources an authentic history of the Donatists”; in other words, Benedict labored to bring a fresh historical perspective to the origin of the Donatists and the challenges that they faced. He began this project in 1864 (at 84 years of age) and completed it just months before his death – at 95 years old! To the very last, Benedict was a historian’s historian! His background in Baptist history is extensive, and he has produced numerous works; with his magnum opus being, in my opinion, his Fifty Years Among Baptists. Space will not allow for a more comprehensive review of this book so just three areas will be covered: the Historical, Persecution and Denominational Structure of the Donatists.
Historical Background – Benedict does a good job at giving us a glimpse into the spiritual and political climates of his day, both of which are the sine qua non of any dependable church history. Citing reputable historians such as Mosheim, Gibbon, Neander, etc. he brings to bear upon this work knowledge and insight found little elsewhere.
The political background: Next to the Novations who preceded them, the Donatists were the largest and soundest community of the “sound evangelical class” of their time. pgs.4,5 The movement started with Donatus who, at the time, was bishop of Casae Nigrae, Numidia. In seeing the winds of change politically and spiritually, a new religious class was formed; and as was the custom with many small groups, they took on the name of their founder – Donatist. With this community of believers taking root in North Africa, they grew in influence and numbers both within and without the religious community resulting in a “memorable schism” which affected most, if not all, of North Africa both politically and spiritually for the three hundred years plus of their existence. pg.9
The spiritual background: Benedict points out that a number of issues regarding the Catholic Church regarding its practices concerning church discipline, purity of the believer and church government were not only in conflict with the word of God, but also with their consciences. pg.16 It’s interesting to note these and other issues can be traced with other groups throughout church history leading up to and following the Reformation.
Persecution – As is typical of many of our Baptist forebears, there is very little written history, particularly with their persecution these people except within the records of their enemies.pg.33 so while there is little info on their sufferings, there is enough to give us a glimpse into the causes and effects of their position. The first attempt that was made to get them back into the Catholic Church was to try and manipulate them through money that was donated under the guise of offerings. Of course this didn’t wor`k – they refused! pg.32
As a result of their refusal, more drastic measures were taken and severe persecution followed. The military became involved and many of the Donatists went to receive their martyr’s crown. This was in the year 340. pg.32
Augustine: One could not mention persecution during 4th and 5th (and beyond) centuries and not run into this character. According to Benedict there was “at no point which they were more at variance with Augustine than on his coercive and persecuting policy” pg 35 historian Waddington Benedict states further that: “the exertions of Augustine against the Donatists have attached to the character of that father the stain of persecution.” This “persecuting policy” was seen in the Dark Ages and also during the Reformation.
Denominational Structure – According to Benedict “the Episcopalians and Baptists are the only communities who have claimed the Donatists as denominational kindred”. pg 129
There are many things which tie Baptists together. The author highlights three things: believer’s baptism, church government and a pure church membership.
Believer’s Baptism: The Donatists believed in baptism by full immersion with evidence of faith first. Keeping in mind that this is the fourth and fifth centuries, not only did the Donatists practice immersion in baptism and evidence of faith was required, but so did others including Catholics. Augustine was the only exception to this practice. pg 130 One can imagine the great offense that was taken by the Catholics because their converts were being re-baptized thus indicating that “their” baptism was inferior.
Church Government: For the Donatists this was congregational rule as opposed to the Catholics who were for a state church. They refused priestly rule and ordinances and they wanted to be independent of the state church. pgs.136-137
Church Purity: The Catholics believed in mixed multitude in regard to church membership. “Wheat and tares will grow up together until the Lord comes,” was their belief. Donatists on the other hand believed that the church should be pure and holy and perspective members must give evidence of their faith before they can join.
I was a Baptist for many years before I took an interest in finding out why. I am glad that I did. Our history is rich with the testimonies of faithful of those who have gone on before us, suffering for the cause of Christ and liberty of conscience. Their sacrifices and pursuit of liberty paved the way for us in America to be privileged with LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE – the right to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience. The Donatists serve as yet another reminder of the great cost paid in blood to live according to truth and worship God freely. I recommend Benedicts’ work to all who are interested in Baptist History particularly this people. Many lessons are learned from these great examples of faith and endurance.