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Schismatic Christian movement in North Africa in the 4th century. It arose out of the debate over the status of church leaders who had cooperated with Roman officials during persecutions of Christians. The movement's leader, Donatus (died c. AD 355), denied the validity of priestly duties performed by such leaders, insisting that lapsed Christians were not in a state of grace and thus had no authority to administer the sacraments. The struggle over the Donatist heresy came to a head in 311, when Caecilian was consecrated bishop of Carthage by a lapsed bishop. The Donatists declared the election invalid, but Constantine I decided in favor of Caecilian, prompting the Donatists to break with the Roman church in 312. Despite persecution, Donatism survived in North Africa until the advent of Islam (7th century).
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on Donatism, visit Britannica.com.