The heresy of Donatism was a rigorist Christian sect named after it’s founder, a Berber bishop named Donatus Magnus.  Donatism had its roots in the long-established rigorist Christian community of the Roman province Africa Proconsularis (present-day Tunisia, the northeast of Algeria, and the western coast of Libya) following the influence of other rigorist groups such as the Tertullianists (named after Tertullian), the Montanists, and the Novatianists.  Donatus believed the church must be a church of “saints” (not “sinners”), and sacraments administered by traditores (Christians who had handed over scriptures under persecution) were invalid.  Donatus argued that clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid.  Donatists thus claimed themselves as the true Church with valid sacraments.

A commission appointed by Pope Miltiades condemned the Donatists and declared Donatism a heresy.  At the heart of the heresy, Donatists had questioned whether the sacrament of Penance could reconcile a traditor to full communion and the church’s position was that the sacrament could.  According to Donatists, apostasy would permanently disqualify a man from church leadership.  Later, Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo and Optatus of Milevis would write that Donatists couldn’t possibly be the one true universal church because it only existed in one small corner of northern Africa.  The true universal Church, on the other hand, was supported by Rome and by the rest of the Catholic Church throughout the world.  According to Augustine and the church, the validity of sacraments was a property of the priesthood independent of individual character.  Donatism would eventually disappear in the seventh- and eighth-centuries under Muslim conquest.


  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Donatists” Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 08 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 410, 411.
  • Augustine of Hippo (2014), “The Writings of St. Augustine Against the Donatists”, in Philip Schaff; Rev. Chester D. Hartranft D.D.; Paul A. Boer Sr. (eds.), The Writings of St. Augustine Against the Donatists, translated by Rev. J. R. King M.A., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First edition

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