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THEO 697





One topic that tends to perplex students and scholars of Augustine is the issue of his
apparent endorsement of state persecution of members of the Donatist heresy that was a vital part

of Northern Africa in the fourth-century AD. For a bishop to advocate such drastic measures
leads to a number of questions.
Prior to AD 321, Constantines alleged conversion to Christianity, members of the
Christian faith were persecuted if identified by the Roman Empire. There is no way that any
Christian during this time would have advocated persecution of anyone due to religious belief.
But after this date, the religious environment of the Roman Empire changed significantly to the
point that it was now popular and rewarding to be publicly counted as a Christian. Church
leaders like Augustine of Hippo (354 430) lamented the presence of these new insincere
Christians who were flooding into the church.1 This was a substantial problem to Augustine.
Another problem that plagued his mind was that of heresies, especially those who were
prevalent within his area and competing with his churches. What was the best way to convert
them to the orthodox Christian faith? This is the issue that this paper will address. Augustine
sought normal evangelistic methods to reach these outside the church. But when they would not
accept Augustines faith, he became increasingly frustrated. Eventually, he adopted the position
that the Roman Empire should use its coercive apparatus to exterminate the heresy forcing
heretical members into the orthodox churches of which Augustine was a bishop.
This paper will delve into this issue and discover many aspects of what Augustine of
Hippo advocated on this topic by examining his writings and activities. There is a difference of
opinion among scholars as the degree to which he advocated state coercion and his underlying
motivations for doing so. Before this paper begins such a discussion, some historical
background to the issue could be helpful to the reader.

1 Smither, Edward L., Persuasion or Coercion: Augustine on the States Role in Dealing with Other Religions and
Heresies (2006). Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 14., p.1. Also see Augustine, Epistula 29.


The Donatist heresy originated around the year AD 303 when the Diocletian persecution
in Africa was ending. Some scholars refer to this sect as an ancient version of Puritanism.2
Roman officers required Christians to hand-over their copies of the Bible in an attempt to
squelch the Faith. Some Christians capitulated to the pressure and did as ordered, even if they
inwardly remained faithful to Christ. Others were obstinate and refused to comply with
government demands and suffered death and/or torture. This happened previously, in the third
century AD, during the Decian persecution, and was known as the Novatian schism. Bishop
Cyprian of Carthage had to defend himself for fleeing persecution and took an active role in
squelching this rigorist faction.3 So, there was a definite precedent for this type of activity within
the Christian church especially within North Africa.
Eventually, the church divided over this issue. The traditores handed-over the Scriptures
and were viewed as apostates. Others, who suffered the torture and failed to hand-over the
Scriptures, made an effort to excommunicate the traditores. These rigorists argued that the
lapsed had completely lost Gods grace due to their moment of weakness the argument was that
they were no longer Christians and were unable to continue to fellowship with other Christians.4
But, there was no clear consensus on this issue. In North Africa, where Augustine lived and
worked, this issue was especially polarizing and the rigorist party was more numerous than the

2 Ronald Christenson, The Political Theory of Persecution: Augustine and Hobbes, Midwest Journal of
Political Science 12, No. 3 (August 1968): 421.
3 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, MA:
Prince, 2008) 151.

4 Jonathan Hill, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)

orthodox churches in many parts of this area.5 This is because they were very missionaryminded thus they grew. Their buildings were often larger than the orthodox Catholic facilities.6
In 311, Caecilian was elected bishop of Carthage. Since one of the bishops who presided
over his ordination was viewed to be a traditor, many opposed his election. A group of the North
African church leaders gathered and elected another person, Majorinus, to serve as a rival
bishop of Carthage. In 316, Donatus of Casae Nigrae was the successor to this bishopric and
filled this post until 347.7 He is described as charismatic, eloquent, tireless, and utterly
convinced of the justice of his cause which led to him succeeding Majorinus.8 Peter Leithart
describes Donatus position as the shadow bishop of Carthage.9 During the reign of Donatus,
this schismatic group continued to pull Christians from the orthodox churches and made the
claim that they, alone, were the true, unblemished Christian church. Kenneth Latourette believes
that this schism was drawn from primarily the non-Latin and the Catholics from the Latin
elements in the population of North Africa. He advocates that Donatism was primarily fostered
by racial and cultural factors.10
But, there were very few differences between the Donatist and the orthodox churches.
Both had almost identical doctrines, calendars, holidays, creeds, liturgies and Scripture. They
venerated the same martyrs. They both shared the same style of biblical interpretation, so that
5 James J. ODonnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) 110. Also see
Francois Decret, Early Christianity in North Africa (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009) 122.

6 Everett Ferguson, Church History: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural,
Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 190.
7 Gonzalez, 152.
8 H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance. (Baltimore: John Hopkins
University, 2000) 213.
9 Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010) 158.
10 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. 1. (Peabody, MA: Prince, 2007) 139.

both group continued to scorn the Manichaeans for their superstitio.11 Their major point of
doctrinal disagreement was over baptism Donatists believed some sins were so grave that only
a fresh baptism could wash these sins away, even if it meant re-baptism. The orthodox church
disagreed with any re-baptism.12 Henry Chadwick stated that the only noticeable visible
difference in their practice was the Donatist custom of whitewashing the walls possibly
because of their puritan disapproval of the incipient practice of painting figures in churches.13
It is interesting to note that the Donatist faction initially appealed to the Emperor to help
resolve the issue before there was a split. They were the first to request assistance of the
Empire.14 It was only after the Empires failure to respond that there was a split.15
Emperor Constantine did not like this division of the church within the Empire. He
consulted with the Bishop of Rome who sided with the orthodox faction at the Council of Arles
in 314. This Council was the first one called by a Roman emperor.16 At this meeting, the bishops
condemned Donatus and reaffirmed Caecilian as bishop of Carthage. Later, in 347, an imperial
commission went to Africa to examine the issue and again ruled against the Donatist faction.
Later, during the latter half of the fourth century, a more violent faction known as the
Circumcellions emerged within the Donatist church. This groups violent activities led the
church to condone the states later efforts to persecute the Donatists.

11 Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews (New York: Doubleday, 2008) 139.
12 ODonnell, Augustine, 14.
13 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin, 1993) 220.
14 J.E. Merdinger, Rome and the African Church (New Haven: Yale University, 1997) 104. Also see Burt,
15 Smither, Persuasion or Coercion , 5-6.
16 Drake, 118.

On January 30, 412, Emperor Honorius issued an edict ordering the suppression of the
Donatist faction by means of governmental sanctions.17 At this point, the war was engaged. But,
before this later development is discussed, it would be helpful to summarize the literary debate
that occurred before state persecution.


When Augustine was consecrated as bishop in 395, the Donatist faction outnumbered the
orthodox members.18 In the rural areas of Numidia, Donatists dominated the religious landscape
due to their missionary zeal. For the next decade, Augustine spent all of his energies in
combating this sect. Initially, he attempted to convert them by arguing with their leaders, usually
by written correspondence, then utilizing general conferences to persuade Donatists to reunite
with the orthodox church.19 Initially, he emphasized mere pacific means of persuasion: personal
contacts, writings, public discussions. He opposed any idea of coercive intervention of the
state.20 Before 400, he is apparently an advocate of religious freedom.21 He insisted on public
debates between himself and a Donatist leader. When they rejected that, he then suggested that
they read his correspondence in public.22 They continued to refuse public debates. He would
have us believe that they feared his rhetorical skills, since he was previously a professor of
17 Hubertus R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction (Peabody,MA: Hendrickson,
2008) 403.

18 ODonnell, Augustine, 110.

19 W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952) 228.
20 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 338. Also see Henry Chadwick,
The Early Church, Revised Ed. (London: Penguin, 1993) 223.
21 Emilien Lamirande, Church, State and Toleration: An Intriguing Change of Mind in St. Augustine
(Villanova: Villanova University, 1975) 12.
22 ODonnell, Augustine, 217.

rhetoric. But, he treated them with disdain and they may have feared a shouting match if they
held a public debate.23 It is also stated that Augustine was known to cover the walls of the local
Donatist basilica with posters declaring the reasonableness of his case.24 W.H.C. Frend states
that Augustines ideas were too intellectual for the rural Donatists.25 Regardless of the rationale
for no public debates, we do know that he composed a long series of letters, pamphlets and
books on this issue and this section will provide a brief review of this correspondence.
During 393, as priest of Hippo, he wrote a book entitled Psalmus contra partem Donati. This
book was written in a song style that mimicked a style of the Donatists. In attempting to reach
out to the rural uneducated population, he tried to encourage them to stop their divisiveness and
return to the orthodox church. In Epistula 34, a letter to Eusebius in 396, Augustine makes clear
that he opposes any coercion as a method to convert Donatists to the orthodox faith. He states in
this letter: not that any one should against his will be coerced into the catholic communion
.26 In 397, Augustine wrote Epistula 44 in which he emphasized his intent to continue
dialogue with Donatist leaders.27 In the next year, Epistula 49 was written to Donatist bishop
Honoratus in which he opposes the notion of a separate church within Christendom. He declares
that there is only one universal church, and offered to debate him as a way to reconcile the
issue.28 In 399, he wrote a letter to Crispinus, the Donatist bishop of Calama, in which he invited

23 Ibid., 218.
24 P.R.L. Brown, Religious Coercion in the later Roman Empire: The Case of North Africa,History 48
(October 1963): 293. Also see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 237.
25 Frend, Donatist Church, 238.
26 Epistula 34.1.
27 Epistula 44.11-14.
28 Epistula 49.2-3.

him to a debate.29 It is in this letter that Augustine first mentions that he might be willing to
support the Empires intervention if the Donatists do not return to the orthodox church.30
Around 400, he wrote a letter to his cousin, Severinus who was a Donatist leader, in
which he attacks division within the Church as well as re-baptism and he pleads with his cousin
to return to the orthodox church.31 Later that same year, he writes back to Crispinus, still
Donatist bishop of Calama, and indicates that if he does not cease dividing the church, he would
face the wrath of God.32 He was attempting peaceful reconciliation33 but was subtly hinting at
violence of the state if they did not comply. His suggestion in this letter was to hold a public
debate and allow the local Donatists, i.e., rebaptized farmers, to choose for themselves.34 It is
possible that this was another indication or warning of the coming violence by the Empire which
would be sanctioned by Augustine.35 In that same year, he wrote a book entitled Contra
epistulam Parmeniani in which he described the unwarranted origin of the schism and attacked
the Donatist practice of re-baptism. He quoted the Donatist theologian Tyconius and the
orthodox Cyprian of Carthage, both were regarded highly by the Donatists, who argued for the
unity of the church.36

29 Epistula 51.1.
30 Epistula 51.3.
31 Epistula 52.
32 Epistula 66.2.
33 Burt, 214.
34 Ibid.
35 Smither, Persuasion or Coercion, 9.
36 Smither, Persuasion or Coercion, 10-11.

In either 400 or 401, he composed De Baptismo in which he taught further on the

sacrament of baptism. He made the point that the efficacy of this sacrament does not depend
upon the actions of the baptizing priest, which is an argument made by the Donatists. He
followed this in 401 with Contra litteras Petiliani to the Donatist bishop in Cirta, Petilian. Once
again, he attacks the legitimacy of Donatism. Between 402 to 404, he wrote Ad Catholicos
fratres in which he claims that the church is worldwide and not just limited to the continent of
Around 404, he composed Epistula 76 to Donatists as a whole and mentioned that it is
not the job of the clergy, i.e., Donatist clergy, to judge the hearts of men, i.e., traditores, and to
bring division to the church.37 He then repeated his invitation for Donatist leaders to join him in
a public debate.38 The next year, he wrote a book entitled Contra Cresconium in which he
attacked the origins of the Donatist schism. His last letter to the Donatists, prior to the start of
persecution in 405, was Epistula 87 and was written to Emeritus of Mauretania in Caesarea. In
this letter, he warns his reader of Gods judgment to come and attempts to make the case that the
government has the right to punish or persecute groups like the Donatists because they disrupt
society. He was reaching out to Emeritus in hopes that he would recognize his error and join the
orthodox catholic church.39
His copious and multi-year writing campaign to reach out to the Donatists was an
evangelistic effort to peacefully bring them into the orthodox church. As a priest and later
bishop, he started with peaceful means to convert them and lead them out of their schismatic
37 Epistula 76.2.
38 Epistula 76.4.
39 Epistula 87.1-10.



In 401, after the Council of Carthage, bishops of North Africa decided to launch an
evangelistic and missionary effort to the Donatists to convert them into the orthodox church. It
was not an effort toward coercion but rather one of persuasion. He participated in this effort to
comply with the wishes of the other bishops.40
Between 403 and 411, there were six church councils in Carthage that dealt with the
Donatist issue.41 At the Council of Carthage in 403, he drafted a document of behalf of North
African bishops inviting Donatists to a public debate in hopes of resolving the schism. The
bishops also contacted Roman leaders and asked that the Donatists be admonished in a kindly
manner so that they could meditate upon their error and not neglect to recognize it.42 When the
request for a public debate was rejected, the bishops were quick to call for state intervention of
religious coercion during another meeting in Carthage during 404. But, Augustine and a few
other bishops convinced the others to request the states protection only against violent aspects of
the Donatists.43 Augustines disciple, Evodius, and another named Theasis were chosen to travel
to the Roman Court at Ravenna to present the request of the Carthaginian council. Being
influenced by bishops of the orthodox church, Emperor Honorius issued the edict of unity in 405,

40 Frend, Donatist Church, 252.

41 Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008) 198.

42 Frend, Donatist Church, 258-9.

43 Frend, Donatist Church, 262.


just after the request of the bishops in Carthage.44 At this point, Augustine modified his rhetoric
and sanctioned the persecution and violence of the state since it benefitted him and his churches.
In June 410, Augustine was present at another council of bishops. The purpose of the
meeting was to oppose the new Edict of Toleration that the Emperor was planning to place into
law which would grant more freedoms to religions throughout the Roman Empire. The council
sent four bishops to Ravenna for the purpose of lobbying against this new law. They were
successful and the law was not ratified. The Emperor ordered a face-to-face meeting with the
Donatists where they were informed that they must vacate their church buildings and must unify
with the Catholic church. Augustine encouraged the seizure of Donatist church properties as this
would help rid any competition he had.45
At the council of Carthage in 411, the Donatists were officially condemned and
Augustine was in agreement with such condemnation.46 James ODonnell asserts that this
council was Augustines greatest personal triumph.47
In 418, the North African bishops met again to discuss how they would keep track of
Donatist movements in North Africa. At this meeting, they commissioned a group of church
leaders to spy on what was left of the Donatist church. Augustine, Alypius and Possidius were
appointed to serve as a spy for the Catholic church.48

44 Smither, Augustine as Mentor, 198-9.

45 Smither, Augustine as Mentor, 199-201.
46 Smither, Persuasion or Coercion, 20.

47 ODonnell, Augustine, 15.

48 Ibid., 202-3.


Early in the controversy, Augustine preferred debate as a means of converting Donatists

as he had the Manichaeans.49 But over time, as Donatists continued to reject his offer to return
to the church, he became impatient with their unwillingness to accept his suggestions. At this
point, he was a bishop in the catholic church and was not used to people rejecting his advice.
Even the government was officially a Christian state.
Eventually, he and the majority of other North African orthodox bishops turned to state
intervention to have them enforce their wishes. Despite all his efforts in using rhetorical devices,
it was not effective in reaching the Donatists. Christians were split, orthodox and Donatist, and
he did not like empty pews in his churches. Out of desperation from his failed evangelistic
effort, he eventually turned to state coercion to fill the pews of his churches. His opinion on
evangelism turned from utilizing only written and spoken rhetoric to utilizing the apparatus of
the government to coerce the heretics to physically enter his church buildings. Donald Burt tells
us that from Augustines perspective, there is no question that the state had the authority to
legislate in matters of religion.50 Because he dedicated a large amount of time and effort in
evangelism toward the Donatists, he grew frustrated over time with the lack of response to his
efforts of reunification.51
But his views of coercion evolved over time. John Bowlin writes that the first phase of
him justifying coercion was that they should be suppressed but not compelled. By this, he
believed that they should be forced to enter the physical church building but that their freedom to

49 W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982) 204.

50 Burt, 210.
51 Peter Iver Kaufman, Donatism Revisited: Moderates and Militants in Late Antique North Africa,
Journal of Late Antiquity 2, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 141.


religious belief could not be deprived. He indicated this in his 392 letter to Maximinus, the
Donatist bishop of Hippo,52 and again in his 396 letter to Eusebius.53
Not long after the edict of unification in 405, he stated:
The repression and correction of [the Donatists] by the powers which are
ordained of God, appears to me to be labor not in vain. For we already rejoice in
the correction of many who hold and defend the catholic unity with such sincerity,
and are so glad to have been delivered from their former error . My first
opinion was that no one was to be forced into the unity of Christ I have, then,
yielded to the facts suggested to me by my colleagues This opinion of mine has
been set aside, not because of opposing arguments, but by reason of proved
At this point, he had accepted the fact of utilizing the government to enforce conversion of
Donatists. It did not come easy to Augustine and he wrestled with the concept for many years.55
But, eventually the practical side of this bishop prevailed it helped to fill pews and increase
church membership under his jurisdiction. That was much too tempting to reject. Also, as
Donatists began filling his pews, he realized that the orthodox Catholic churches, which were a
minority in North Africa, are now becoming the majority because the primary rival church is
now exterminated.56 In addition, the Donatists who were now populating his churches were
devout and virtuous people and he was delighted to add those to his congregations.57 James

52 Epistula, 23.7.
53 Epistula, 34.1.
54 Epistula, selections from 93. This was cited in Smither, Persuasion or Coercion, 16.
55 Chadwick, Early Church, 223.
56 Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University, 2010) 220.
57 Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001) 85.


Wetzel tells us that Augustine used to be against any kind of compulsion in matters of faith.
But, who can argue with results?58
This concept may be completely foreign to those in the 21st Century, but it was not a novel idea
for a Christian bishop in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Peter Brown states that coercion, in some
form, was one of the facts of life for a provincial bishop.59 Most in that society considered
coercion a customary and a morally unproblematic means of structuring human relations. They
appreciated power and expected obedience in their spheres of authority, and they were willing to
use discipline to secure order.60 Coercion was an ordinary feature of the North African moral
But even if it was acceptable in his day, Augustine had difficulty accepting this from a
Christian ethic. It took time to develop and it slowly evolved over time. Herbert Deane
describes three phases in the evolution of Augustines thought regarding religious persecution as
a form of conversion. This first is described above in the literary and conciliar methods. This
first phase, from 391 to 399, was characterized by the belief that no one should be coerced into
the unity of Christ and that any evangelistic methods used to win heretics to Christ should be in
words only, utilizing logical arguments and reason. In 399, there was a shift in his thought to
characterize a second phase. In this period of time, which Deane calls the transitional position,
Augustine argued that the Church could ask the State for protection against violence of the
heretics, but the law cannot compel good actions and can prevent bad actions. He wrote during
58 James Wetzel, Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Continuum, 2010) 121.

59 Peter Brown, St. Augustines Attitude to Religious Coercion, in Religion and Society in the Age of
Saint Augustine (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) 261.
60 Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1995) 38-9.
61 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New
York: Columbia University, 1988) 398.


this period that no one should be compelled to embrace the orthodox faith against his will.
Around 406, Deane characterizes a third and final phase in Augustines thought in which he
believed in strong measures against heresy and schism and he developed a full-blown theory of
persecution in bringing heretics into the catholic church.62
Ronald Christenson points out that Augustine, in his writings, reflected a growing willingness to
use the aggression of the state to not only restrain violence but also to reply to their violence with
state violence.63 But, at the root of Augustines theory of persecution is his anxiety over the
unity of the Church.64
Frend writes that Augustine now supported and appealed to the imperial court at Ravenna for
enforcement of antiheretical laws against Donatism. In 405, the Edicts of Unity legislation was
placed into law which essentially banned this sect. After this event, the bishop supported the
forceful suppression of his Donatist rival.65 One argument in which he justified such state action
was by claiming that the Donatists are the authors of their own suffering since they willfully
resisted the truth that Augustine was attempting to teach to them and they were unrighteously
persecuting Catholics. This was one argument in which he justified his position on state
intervention.66 He also claimed that coercion was necessary because of their stubbornness
they would not listen any other way.67
62 Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia
University, 1963) 185ff. See also Frend, Donatist, chapter 15.
63 Christenson, Political Theory of Persecution, 422.
64 Ibid., 424.
65 Frend, Early Church, 204. Smither in Augustine as Mentor disagrees with Frend by stating that
Augustine never quite fully accepted the Edict.
66 Christenson, Political Theory of Persecution, 427.
67 Smither, Persecution or Coercion, 27.


To remain consistent with his theological perspective, he wanted to find Scripture to support his
new position. He found a verse in Luke that states go out to the highways and hedges and
compel them to come in, that my house may be filled68 which would justify in his mind the use
of state coercion and persecution in his evangelism.69 He went on to explain that it was
necessary to use compulsion outside, so freedom can arise once they are inside.70 He argued
that in the verse, once the guests were forced into the building they enjoyed the feast willingly
and he made a connection to this situation, that the Donatist would eventually be grateful for the
state intervention.71 But to Augustine, the state coercion was not to be used for evangelism of all
-- he never endorsed coercing Jews by state persecution to enter his churches.72 But, he did
support it uniquely for Donatists.73 And, he delivered a sermon during 399 in Carthage in which
he gave explicit support to Theodosius suppression of paganism in North Africa.74 Although he
was less supportive of coercion toward pagans than he was of the Donatist sect.75
At this point, he was making the claim that religious liberty was merely the liberty to err.
Without threat of church and state coercion, mankind was bound to make the wrong choice.76
68 Luke 14:23.
69 Epistula 93.2 and 173.1. Also see Brown, Religious Coercion, 283-305.
70 Sermo 112.8; Quoted in Garry Wills, Saint Augustine (New York: Lipper/Viking, 1999) 103.
71 Sermo 112, 7.8. Also see Against Gaudentius the Donatist 1.25. Also see Burt, Friendship and Society,

72 Paul Weithman, Augustines Political Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine,

Eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001) 246. Also see Burt,
Friendship and Society, 221.
73 Lamirande, Church, State and Toleration, 4.
74 Sermo 62.18. Also see John R. Bowlin, Augustine on Justifying Coercion. Annual of the Society of
Christian Ethics 17 (1997): 53 and 55.
75 Burt, Friendship and Society, 220-1.
76 Epistula 105.16.


This was preparing the way for his monergistic theology and his determinist doctrine of
Donald Burt states that Augustine viewed the Donatist schism as an attack on Gods body and
that civil rulers were bound to use their office to prevent such insults. Therefore, civil
intervention was justified to restore unity to the Catholic church and thereby defend the honor
due to God.state action against the Donatists was justified to protect the life of the empire
itself.78 Previously, in the history of the Roman empire, the state and pagans persecuted
Christians; but now, the opposite was the case Christians were persecuting those outside the
Eventually, when he saw the practical effects of his church pews filling, he was impressed with
the effects of state intervention. The mass conversions, although coerced, convinced
Augustine that state action could potentially result in the church unity for which he desired.
After this, he began to argue for the use of civil forces as an offensive weapon against schism
and heresy.80 He defended this view of righteous persecution in order to save souls and to
restore the unity of the Church.81 He claimed to support these new coercive laws because he said
that they would cure individual heretics/schismatics of the confusion and perversity that leads to
eternal punishment.82 He began to argue that the states intervention and coercion is a form of
healing and loving correction and that the Donatists were being forced to do something that was
77 Frend, Early Church, 205.
78 Burt, Friendship and Society, 212-3.
79 Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 138.
80 Burt, Friendship and Society, 213 and 215.
81 Christenson, Political Theory of Persecution, 419 and also 424.
82 Burt, Friendship and Society, 217-8.


actually good for them.83 He went further to state that the government, the agents of coercion
in this case, existed to serve the church.84 Also, not all forms of persecution are wrong
especially if the purpose is rehabilitation.85 In Epistula 173 written to a Donatist priest, he
defended the states intervention by claiming that coercion must be motivated by love,86 and that
the Donatists were arrested in order to prevent them from perishing.87 He went on in this letter to
state that the purpose of coercion is to compel one to do what is good.88 It would be interesting
to see if such rhetoric led any Donatists to repentance.
Peter Brown, in his article St. Augustines Attitude to Religious Coercion, discusses the Latin
meaning of cohercitio which is the root from which we derive our word coercion. This is not
the word he used in his writings. Augustine actually used correptio which means to set right.
So, Brown claims that in choosing the word, he did not intend a negative idea of punishment but
rather a positive process of corrective treatment. 89
His intent was to inspire terror in the hearts of Donatists.90 Because of the twin doctrines of
original sin and total depravity, humans must be coerced due to a perverse will within each
person. He saw government coercion to be a genuinely corrective treatment for sinful

83 Smither, Persuasion or Coercion, 16. Also see Augustine, Epistula 93.1.3; 2.4-8.
84 Ibid.
85 Frend, The Donatist Church, 242; Lamirande, Church, State and Toleration, 63; Brown, St.
Augustines Attitude to Religious Coercion, 108.
86 Epistula 173.4.
87 Epistula 173.1.
88 Epistula 173.2-4.
89 Brown, St. Augustines Attitude to Religious Coercion, 114.
90 Kaufman, Donatism Revisited, 141.


humanity.91 The state, even though imperfect because it is run by depraved humans, is still
necessary because it must punish those found to be heretics.92
In 411, the Council of Carthage sounded the death knell for Donatism as an organized, public
body. On January 30, 412, an imperial edict of unity was declared and the professing of
Donatism, even in private, was now a crime punishable by civil law. Augustine defended such a
law by stating that its purpose was not to force conversion but to make the unconverted consider
their position more seriously.93 His intent was to make the Donatist ask: Am I so committed to
my belief that I am willing to suffer civil penalties in order to maintain it?94 For him, it was a
way to save the soul as well as filling pews. Any fear placed in the heretics heart would not
change a man from evil on its own, but it will serve as a warning and compel him to examine the
truth. He valued fear as the bond of unity.95
Much of modern Augustinian scholarship has been quite harsh to this church father regarding his
position on this issue. Robert Markus insists that Augustines encouragement of state coercion
for the purpose of conversion is a horrible doctrine.96 Peter Brown states that Augustines
attitude is truly oppressive97 and indicates that he may be the first theorist of the

91 Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California, 2000) 236.

92 Deane, Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, 216-9. Also see Charles Freeman, A.D. 381 (New
York: Overlook, 2008) 171.
93 Burt, Friendship and Society, 215.
94 Contra litteras Petiliani, 2.186. Cited in Burt, Friendship and Society, 215.
95 Christenson, Political Theory of Persecution, 425.
96 Robert Markus, Saeculum (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1970) 142.
97 Cited in Bowlin, Augustine on Justifying Coercion, 54.


Inquisition.98 In an article, Brown states that Augustine can appear as a harsh and cold
victor.99 Garry Wills states that Augustine supplied something that was new a theory of
suppression . He bequeathed a dangerous legacy to later ages. Wills goes on to mention that
scholars view him as the patron of repression.100 Charles Freeman discusses that it was
Emperor Theodosius and Bishop Ambrose who first combined church and state to persecute
heretics and pagans, but it was Augustine, infuriated by the intransigence of the Donatist
majority in his diocese, who provided its theological justification.101 Harry Boer states that this
controversy established a pattern for dealing with any religious issue that threatened the unity of
the empire.102 There is no question that Augustine has been treated harshly by the scholarly
community with regard to his endorsement of state persecution of the Donatist church.

In total, his battle with the Donatists lasted for two decades.103

98 Brown, Augustine, 236.

99 Brown, St. Augustines Attitude to Religious Coercion, 116.
100 Wills, Saint Augustine, 102.
101 Charles Freeman, A.D. 381, 170.

102 Boer, A Short History of the Early Church, 138.

103 ODonnell, Augustine, 5. Joseph Lynch states that Augustines battle with the Donatists lasted about
twenty-five years. Joseph Lynch, Early Christianity, 220. And, Burt in Friendship and Society, p. 213, states that it
lasted over thirty years.


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