Augustine and Violence

Professor Jennifer Ebbeler described Saint Augustine’s mission to unify the Catholic Church in a keynote address for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters’ Undergraduate Student Symposium.

PROVO, Utah (April 1, 2016)—Saint Augustine of Hippo is best known among students today for the Confessions, his autobiography covering his youth and conversion to Christianity. But the fourth-century bishop was much more than an author. His efforts helped to establish the Caecilianist church’s claim as the Catholic – meaning “unified” – Church. Though he initially believed that he could achieve unity through conversation, Augustine eventually turned to the law to win out over opposing faiths.

As keynote speaker for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters’ Undergraduate Student Symposium, Professor Jennifer Ebbeler of the University of Texas at Austin described Augustine’s evolving tactics to unify the church.

The Caecilianists’ greatest opponents in Africa were the Donatists, a sect with whom they had broken in the third century over a disagreement of priestly election. By the time Augustine was elected as bishop of the Caecilianist church in Hippo, the Donatists were the dominant church, and the two churches maintained a more or less peaceful coexistence.

“Why did he, in essence, pick a fight that would be very difficult to win?” Ebbeler asked. “Even more odd was Augustine’s audacity in casting the Donatists as errant Christians. He offered himself up as their corrector and as the person who would heal African Christianity.”

Augustine began by trying to establish what he called a “corrective correspondence” with the Donatist leaders and laymen alike. “Before resorting to less friendly tactics . . . Augustine did his best to heal the schism in African Christianity through conversation, both written and oral,” Ebbeler said. “A philosopher at heart, Augustine never lost his faith in the power of reason and argument to persuade interlocutors to recognize their errors and change their ways.”

However, the correspondence was only ever one-way, as Donatist clergy repeatedly refused to answer Augustine’s letters, seeing no obvious benefits in conversation. Ebbeler explained that, faced with the failure of conversation, Augustine “changed his tactics and actively embraced the possibility of state-sanctioned forcible correction and conversion.”

Augustine began to stir up anti-Donatist sentiment in Rome by publishing letters detailing acts of violence committed against Caecilianists. This ultimately resulted in the “edict of unity” issued by Roman emperor Honorius. The edict caused many Donatists to join Caecilianist congregations. Though the edict was repealed, it was eventually reimplemented, along with strong punishments for Donatists. State action against the church culminated in 411 AD with a legal disbandment of the Donatist faction.

As Donatists were forcefully converted into the Caecilionist church by the Roman state, Augustine maintained that his motivations remained charitable. “He justified this form of seeming persecution against the Donatists by claiming that it was intended to assist the sinner’s personal progress,” Ebbeler said. “Although the state enacted and enforced the legal sanctions, the punitive measures were intended to return the sinner to the church, which was now healed from the century long schism.”

Though scholars have questioned his methods, Augustine never doubted the virtue of his mission to save the souls of his brethren. Ebbler said, “He compared himself to a doctor trying to heal a very sick patient. He might have preferred a less invasive approach but the patient’s health required painful surgery. He is very clear that he will stop at nothing to save his patient – even if it means amputating a few limbs or removing chunks of flesh.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Photo by Daderot