By S. H. Ford


Century Three

Donatus was elected pastor of the Church at Carthage in the year 306. It was at that great crisis in the conflict between Christianity and Paganism, when the prestige and power of Constantine decided the religion of the Roman empire, and crushed out all independence and spirituality from those societies which were absorbed in the universal, or Catholic Church. But years before the rise of the Donatists, a class of men existed who had separated themselves from the worldly churches around them, and had long stood on the same ground now occupied by the Donatists. Similar in their principles, they were soon merged in them, and received their name; but before that movement they were known by other names, borrowed from the localities where they withdrew from the dominant parties, or, from some distinguished pastor among them.

We have found them before spread over Italy, Greece, and Asia. Among other epithets they were called Novatians. Some of these people were in Carthage up to the year 254, one Florentius Papianus, who having maintained a good confession under the pains of torture, stood in high authority as a martyr, asserted that "he was at a loss to say what he would not part with, sooner than enter into terms of fellowship with Cyprian, then bishop of the Church at Carthage."

Neander continues:

"Conventicles of this party, where the holy supper was distributed, still remained open, as Cyprian himself gives us to understand. Commodian, who wrote his Christian admonitions at a somewhat later period, considered it needful to combat this separatist tendency." (Neander, vol. I, p. 237).

So that there were those in Africa long before the Donatists, who held the same principles, separated from the majority, and contended for independent and spiritual churches. But these were linked in the more general separation, and were consequently lost in the great movement which occurred in Italy in the early part of the third century.

NOVATION was a presbyter at Rome. Of his learning and piety there was no question. It has been said that he made a party to gratify his ambition, and because he could not brook a rival. The facts are these: He protested against the lax discipline of the church in the city of Rome. He objected to Cornelius, its pastor; and, with a minority of that church, withdrew, and formed a new church, of which he was elected bishop. Neander says:

"According to the accusations of passionate opponents, we must, indeed, suppose that, in the outset, he was striving from motives of ambition after the Episcopal dignity, and was thence induced to excite these troubles, and throw himself at the head of a party. The accusations of his opponents should not be suffered to embarrass us, for it is the usual custom with the logical polemics to trace schisms to some outward unhallowed motive.

"The contest at Rome, however, had for its main-spring another individual altogether, one Novatus, who belonged, originally, to the Separatists of Africa."

Neander continues:

"He was the man whenever he might be at Carthage or at Rome to become the moving spring of agitation, although he placed some one else at the head, and caused everything to move under the name of the latter." (Neander, p. 248).

"The controversy with the Novatian party turned on two general points; one relating to the principle of repentance; the other what constitutes the idea of a true church. On the first point Novatian, doubtless, went to extremes. But Novatus never advocated the absolute rejection of every one that violated his baptismal vows.

"With regard to the second main point of controversy, the idea of the church, Novatian maintained that one of the essential marks of a true church being purity and holiness, every church which neglected the right exercise of church discipline, tolerated in its bosom, or readmitted to its communion those guilty of gross sins, ceased, by that very act, to be a true Christian Church. Novatian laid at the basis of his theory the visible church as a pure and holy one." (Neander, p. 248).

Such were the principles of the Separatists of Carthage and Rome in the first great schism, church independence and a spiritual church- membership.

At once the scattered minorities, which had separated from the corrupt majorities, extended fellowship to the independent Church of Novatian and Novatus. They were expelled by the majority parties; but in almost every town and city they flourished in independence, baptizing none but those who gave evidence of renewed hearts, and rebaptizing all who came among them from other organizations.

That all should be called Novatians is easily accounted for. That they should be slandered and vilified by the corruptors of Christianity, might have been expected. But they spread through Europe, through Africa, and Asia. In the mountains of Armenia they still lingered, till the name Donatists was lost in Montenses and Paulicians. In the recesses of the Alps the Novatians (called from the first Puritans) were persecuted as Paterines and Waldenses. Up through the darkness we have traced their crimsoned footprints. We have found them here, in the third century, contending for a pure and independent church, baptized on a profession of faith, and persecuted as Anabaptists. The people called Novatians were Baptists. They may justly be termed another milestone in our upward march. It will again be our inquiry: Where did the Baptists come from?