The fact is that when Augustine and other Christians embraced the wholesale persecution of every religion other than their own, and even went so far as to persecute all sects that claimed to be Christian, except the one officially approved by the State – they were doing something completely new – and something that at least Augustine felt some moral qualms about, at least at first. It is a grim testament to the power of Christianity’s hold on the modern human psyche that today so many people just assume that this kind of violence against people on the basis of religious belief is the norm, rather than a pathological aberration.
After his “conversion to coercion”, Augustine became a leading proponent and even a theoretician of persecution. According to Zagorin “Augustine insisted that the emperors and political authorities had the God-given right to crush the sacriledge and schism of the Donatists, since they were as obligated to repress fals and evil religion as to prevent the crime of pagan idolatry.” [p.28]
Augustine made use of the so-called “parable of the tares” from the Gospel of Matthew to provide scriptural justification for the use of force against heretics. The most obvious interpretation of this parable, however, is that it actually encourages tolerance – leaving it up to God at the Last Judgment to separate the “wheat” from the “tares”. But Augustine said that the parable instead meant the exact opposite – that the “tares” (heretics) needed to be uprooted – so long as this can be done without damaging the “wheat”.
Again according to Zagorin “Augustine elaborated his position in favor of coercion in religion in a number of letters. In a lengthy epistle to the Donatist Vincent, he argued for the utility of coercion in inducing fear that can bring those who are subject to it to the right way of thinking.” [p.29]
The quintessential expression of the Augustinian “Christian theory of persecution” is to be found in a letter to Boniface, a Roman governor in Africa, dated 417 AD: “There is the unjust persecution which the wicked inflict on the Church of Christ, and the just persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts on the wicked.”
Below are lengthy excerpts from two of the letters referred to above. First the one to Maximinus in 392, expressing opposition to coercion, followed by the one to Boniface in 417, expressing enthusiastic support for coercion.
From Augustine’s letter to Maximinus (letter # 23, dated 392 AD) (link)
6. Let us put away from between us those vain objections which are wont to be thrown at each other by the ignorant on either side. Do not on your part cast up to me the persecutions of Macarius. I, on mine, will not reproach you with the excesses of the Circumcelliones. If you are not to blame for the latter, neither am I for the former; they pertain not to us. The Lord’s floor is not yet purged—it cannot be without chaff; be it ours to pray, and to do what in us lies that we may be good grain. I could not pass over in silence the rebaptizing of our deacon; for I know how much harm my silence might do to myself. For I do not propose to spend my time in the empty enjoyment of ecclesiastical dignity; but I propose to act as mindful of this, that to the one Chief Shepherd I must give account of the sheep committed unto me. If you would rather that I should not thus write to you, you must, my brother, excuse me on the ground of my fears; for I do fear greatly, lest, if I were silent and concealed my sentiments, others might be rebaptized by you. I have resolved, therefore, with such strength and opportunity as the Lord may grant, so to manage this discussion, that by our peaceful conferences, all who belong to our communion may know how far apart from heresy and schism is the position of the Catholic Church, and with what care they should guard against the destruction which awaits the tares and the branches cut off from the Lord’s vine. If you willingly accede to such conference with me, by consenting to the public reading of the letters of both, I shall unspeakably rejoice. If this proposal is displeasing to you, what can I do, my brother, but read our letters, even without your consent, to the Catholic congregation, with a view to its instruction? But if you do not condescend to write me a reply, I am resolved at least to read my own letter, that, when your misgivings as to your procedure are known, others may be ashamed to be rebaptized.
7. I shall not, however, do this in the presence of the soldiery, lest any of you should think that I wish to act in a violent way, rather than as the interests of peace demand; but only after their departure, that all who hear me may understand, that I do not propose to compel men to embrace the communion of any party, but desire the truth to be made known to persons who, in their search for it, are free from disquieting apprehensions. On our side there shall be no appeal to men’s fear of the civil power; on your side, let there be no intimidation by a mob of Circumcelliones. Let us attend to the real matter in debate, and let our arguments appeal to reason and to the authoritative teaching of the Divine Scriptures, dispassionately and calmly, so far as we are able; let us ask, seek, and knock, that we may receive and find, and that to us the door may be opened, and thereby may be achieved, by God’s blessing on our united efforts and prayers, the first towards the entire removal from our district of that impiety which is such a disgrace to Africa. If you do not believe that I am willing to postpone the discussion until after the soldiery have left, you may delay your answer until they have gone; and if, while they are still here, I should wish to read my own letter to the people, the production of the letter will of itself convict me of breaking my word. May the Lord in His mercy prevent me from acting in a way so contrary to morality, and to the good resolutions with which, by laying His yoke on me, He has been pleased to inspire me!
From Augustine’s letter to Boniface (Epistle #185), c. 417: De Correctione Donatistarum, A Treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatists, using the translation of Rev. J.R. KIng, M.A.
(please refer to the very nicely annotated version at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, hosted by Calvin College)
Chapter 2.—6. I would add, moreover, that they themselves, by making it the subject of an accusation, referred the case of Cæcilianus to the decision of the Emperor Constantine; and that, even after the bishops had pronounced their judgment, finding that they could not crush Cæcilianus, they brought him in person before the above-named emperor for trial, in the most determined spirit of persecution. And so they were themselves the first to do what they censure in us, in order that they may deceive the unlearned, saying that Christians ought not to demand any assistance from Christian emperors against the enemies of Christ. And this, too, they did not dare to deny in the conference which we held at the same time in Carthage: nay, they even venture to make it a matter of boasting that their fathers had laid a criminal indictment against Cæcilianus before the emperor; adding furthermore a lie, to the effect that they had there worsted him, and procured his condemnation. How then can they be otherwise than persecutors, seeing that when they persecuted Cæcilianus by their accusations, and were overcome by him, they sought to claim false glory for themselves by a most shameless life; not only considering it no reproach, but glorying in it as conducive to their praise, if they could prove that Cæcilianus had been condemned on the accusation of their fathers? But in regard to the manner in which they were overcome at every turn in the conference itself, seeing that the records are exceedingly voluminous, and it would be a serious matter to have them read to you while you are occupied in other matters that are essential to the peace of Rome, perhaps it may be possible to have a digest of them read to you, which I believe to be in the possession of my brother and fellow-bishop Optatus; or if he has not a copy, he might easily procure one from the church at Sitifa; for I can well believe that even that volume will prove wearisome enough to you from its lengthiness, amid the burden of your many cares.
7. For the Donatists met with the same fate as the accusers of the holy Daniel. For as the lions were turned against them, so the laws by which they had proposed to crush an innocent victim were turned against the Donatists; save that, through the mercy of Christ, the laws which seemed to be opposed to them are in reality their truest friends; for through their operation many of them have been, and are daily being reformed, and return God thanks that they are reformed, and delivered from their ruinous madness. And those who used to hate are now filled with love; and now that they have recovered their right minds, they congratulate themselves that these most wholesome laws were brought to bear against them, with as much fervency as in their madness they detested them; and are filled with the same spirit of ardent love towards those who yet remain as ourselves, desiring that we should strive in like manner that those with whom they had been like to perish might be saved. For both the physician is irksome to the raging madman, and a father to his undisciplined son,—the former because of the restraint, the latter because of the chastisement which he inflicts; yet both are acting in love. But if they were to neglect their charge, and allow them to perish, this mistaken kindness would more truly be accounted cruelty. For if the horse and mule, which have no understanding, resist with all the force of bites and kicks the efforts of the men who treat their wounds in order to cure them; and yet the men, though they are often exposed to danger from their teeth and heels, and sometimes meet with actual hurt, nevertheless do not desert them till they restore them to health through the pain and annoyance which the healing process gives,—how much more should man refuse to desert his fellow-man, or brother to desert his brother, lest he should perish everlastingly, being himself now able to comprehend the vastness of the boon accorded to himself in his reformation, at the very time that he complained of suffering persecution?
8. As then the apostle says, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, not being weary in well-doing,” so let all be called to salvation, let all be recalled from the path of destruction,—those who may, by the sermons of Catholic preachers; those who may, by the edicts of Catholic princes; some through those who obey the warnings of God, some through those who obey the emperor’s commands. For, moreover, when emperors enact bad laws on the side of falsehood, as against the truth, those who hold a right faith are approved, and, if they persevere, are crowned; but when the emperors enact good laws on behalf of the truth against falsehood, then those who rage against them are put in fear, and those who understand are reformed. Whosoever, therefore, refuses to obey the laws of the emperors which are enacted against the truth of God, wins for himself a great reward; but whosoever refuses to obey the laws of the emperors which are enacted in behalf of truth, wins for himself great condemnation. For in the times, too, of the prophets, the kings who, in dealing with the people of God, did not prohibit nor annul the ordinances which were issued contrary to God’s commands, are all of them censured; and those who did prohibit and annul them are praised as deserving more than other men. And king Nebuchadnezzar, when he was a servant of idols, enacted an impious law that a certain idol should be worshipped; but those who refused to obey his impious command acted piously and faithfully. And the very same king, when converted by a miracle from God, enacted a pious and praiseworthy law on behalf of the truth, that every one who should speak anything amiss against the true God, the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, should perish utterly, with all his house. If any persons disobeyed this law, and justly suffered the penalty imposed, they might have said what these men say, that they were righteous because they suffered persecution through the law enacted by the king: and this they certainly would have said, had they been as mad as these who make divisions between the members of Christ, and spurn the sacraments of Christ, and take credit for being persecuted, because they are prevented from doing such things by the laws which the emperors have passed to preserve the unity of Christ and boast falsely of their innocence, and seek from men the glory of martyrdom, which they cannot receive from our Lord.
9. But true martyrs are such as those of whom the Lord says, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It is not, therefore, those who suffer persecution for their unrighteousness, and for the divisions which they impiously introduce into Christian unity, but those who suffer for righteousness’ sake, that are truly martyrs. For Hagar also suffered persecution at the hands of Sarah; and in that case she who persecuted was righteous, and she unrighteous who suffered persecution. Are we to compare with this persecution which Hagar suffered the case of holy David, who was persecuted by unrighteous Saul? Surely there is in essential difference, not in respect of his suffering, but because he suffered for righteousness’ sake. And the Lord Himself was crucified with two thieves; but those who were joined in their suffering were separated by the difference of its cause. Accordingly, in the psalm, we must interpret of the true martyrs, who wish to be distinguished from false martyrs, the verse in which it is said, “Judge me, O Lord, and distinguish my cause from an ungodly nation.” He does not say, Distinguish my punishment, but “Distinguish my cause.” For the punishment of the impious may be the same; but the cause of the martyrs is always different. To whose mouth also the words are suitable, “They persecute me wrongfully; help Thou me;” in which the Psalmist claimed to have a right to be helped in righteousness, because his adversaries persecuted him wrongfully; for if they had been right in persecuting him, he would have deserved not help, but correction.
10. But if they think that no one can be justified in using violence,—as they said in the course of the conference that the true Church must necessarily be the one which suffers persecution, not the one inflicting it,—in that case I no longer urge what I observed above; because, if the matter stand as they maintain that it does, then Cæcilianus must have belonged to the true Church, seeing that their fathers persecuted him, by pressing his accusation even to the tribunal of the emperor himself. For we maintain that he belonged to the true Church, not merely because he suffered persecution, but because he suffered it for righteousness’ sake; but that they were alienated from the Church, not merely because they persecuted, but because they did so in unrighteousness. This, then, is our position. But if they make no inquiry into the causes for which each person inflicts persecution, or for which he suffers it, but think that it is a sufficient sign of a true Christian that he does not inflict persecution, but suffers it, then beyond all question they include Cæcilianus in that definition, who did not inflict, but suffered persecution; and they equally exclude their own fathers from the definition, for they inflicted, but did not suffer it.
11. But this, I say, I forbear to urge. Yet one point I must press: If the true Church is the one which actually suffers persecution, not the one which inflicts it, let them ask the apostle of what Church Sarah was a type, when she inflicted persecution on her hand-maid. For he declares that the free mother of us all, the heavenly Jerusalem, that is to say, the true Church of God, was prefigured in that woman who cruelly entreated her hand-maid. But if we investigate the story further, we shall find that the handmaid rather persecuted Sarah by her haughtiness, than Sarah the handmaid by her severity: for the handmaid was doing wrong to her mistress; the mistress only imposed on her a proper discipline in her haughtiness. Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error. Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die, so their madness endeavors either to slay us, that they may feed the lust of their own cruelty, or even to kill themselves, that they may not seem to have lost the power of putting men to death.
Chapter 5.—19. But as to the argument of those men who are unwilling that their impious deeds should be checked by the enactment of righteous laws, when they say that the apostles never sought such measures from the kings of the earth, they do not consider the different character of that age, and that everything comes in its own season. For what emperor had as yet believed in Christ, so as to serve Him in the cause of piety by enacting laws against impiety, when as yet the declaration of the prophet was only in the course of its fulfillment, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and their rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His Anointed;” and there was as yet no sign of that which is spoken a little later in the same psalm: “Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” How then are kings to serve the Lord with fear, except by preventing and chastising with religious severity all those acts which are done in opposition to the commandments of the Lord? For a man serves God in one way in that he is man, in another way in that he is also king. In that he is man, he serves Him by living faithfully; but in that he is also king, he serves Him by enforcing with suitable rigor such laws as ordain what is righteous, and punish what is the reverse. Even as Hezekiah served Him, by destroying the groves and the temples of the idols, and the high places which had been built in violation of the commandments of God; or even as Josiah served Him, by doing the same things in his turn;or as the king of the Ninevites served Him, by compelling all the men of his city to make satisfaction to the Lord; or as Darius served Him, by giving the idol into the power of Daniel to be broken, and by casting his enemies into the den of lions; or as Nebuchadnezzar served Him, of whom I have spoken before, by issuing a terrible law to prevent any of his subjects from blaspheming God. In this way, therefore, kings can serve the Lord, even in so far as they are kings, when they do in His service what they could not do were they not kings.
20. Seeing, then, that the kings of the earth were not yet serving the Lord in the time of the apostles, but were still imagining vain things against the Lord and against His Anointed, that all might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, it must be granted that at that time acts of impiety could not possibly be prevented by the laws, but were rather performed under their sanction. For the order of events was then so rolling on, that even the Jews were killing those who preached Christ, thinking that they did God service in so doing, just as Christ had foretold, and the heathen were raging against the Christians, and the patience of the martyrs was overcoming them all. But so soon as the fulfillment began of what is written in a later psalm, “All kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him,” what sober-minded man could say to the kings, “Let not any thought trouble you within your kingdom as to who restrains or attacks the Church of your Lord; deem it not a matter in which you should be concerned, which of your subjects may choose to be religious or sacrilegious,” seeing that you cannot say to them, “Deem it no concern of yours which of your subjects may choose to be chaste, or which unchaste?” For why, when free-will is given by God to man, should adulteries be punished by the laws, and sacrilege allowed? Is it a lighter matter that a soul should not keep faith with God, than that a woman should be faithless to her husband? Or if those faults which are committed not in contempt but in ignorance of religious truth are to be visited with lighter punishment, are they therefore to be neglected altogether?
Chapter 6.—21. It is indeed better (as no one ever could deny) that men should be led to worship God by teaching, than that they should be driven to it by fear of punishment or pain; but it does not follow that because the former course produces the better men, therefore those who do not yield to it should be neglected. For many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment), in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching, or might follow out in act what they had already learned in word. Some, indeed, set before us the sentiments of a certain secular author, who said,
“’Tis well, I ween, by shame the young to train,
And dread of meanness, rather than by pain.”
This is unquestionably true. But while those are better who are guided aright by love, those are certainly more numerous who are corrected by fear. For, to answer these persons out of their own author, we find him saying in another place,
“Unless by pain and suffering thou art taught,
Thou canst not guide thyself aright in aught.”
But, moreover, holy Scripture has both said concerning the former better class, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear;” and also concerning the latter lower class, which furnishes the majority, “A servant will not be corrected by words; for though he understand, he will not answer.” In saying, “He will not be corrected by words,” he did not order him to be left to himself, but implied an admonition as to the means whereby he ought to be corrected; otherwise he would not have said, “He will not be corrected by words,” but without any qualification, “He will not be corrected.” For in another place he says that not only the servant, but also the undisdained son, must be corrected with stripes, and that with great fruits as the result; for he says, “Thou shall beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell;” and elsewhere he says, “He that spareth the rod hateth his son.” For, give us a man who with right faith and true understanding can say with all the energy of his heart, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” and for such an one there is no need of the terror of hell, to say nothing of temporal punishments or imperial laws, seeing that with him it is so indispensable a blessing to cleave unto the Lord, that he not only dreads being parted from that happiness as a heavy punishment, but can scarcely even bear delay in its attainment. But yet, before the good sons can say they have “a desire to depart, and to be with Christ,” many must first be recalled to their Lord by the stripes of temporal scourging, like evil slaves, and in some degree like good-for-nothing fugitives.
22. For who can possibly love us more than Christ, who laid down His life for His sheep? And yet, after calling Peter and the other apostles by His words alone, when He came to summon Paul, who was before called Saul, subsequently the powerful builder of His Church, but originally its cruel persecutor, He not only constrained him with His voice, but even dashed him to the earth with His power; and that He might forcibly bring one who was raging amid the darkness of infidelity to desire the light of the heart, He first struck him with physical blindness of the eyes. If that punishment had not been inflicted, he would not afterwards have been healed by it; and since he had been wont to see nothing with his eyes open, if they had remained unharmed, the Scripture would not tell us that at the imposition of Ananias’ hands, in order that their sight might be restored, there fell from them as it had been scales, by which the sight had been obscured. Where is what the Donatists were wont to cry: Man is at liberty to believe or not believe? Towards whom did Christ use violence? Whom did He compel? Here they have the Apostle Paul. Let them recognize in his case Christ first compelling, and afterwards teaching; first striking, and afterwards consoling. For it is wonderful how he who entered the service of the gospel in the first instance under the compulsion of bodily punishment, afterwards labored more in the gospel than all they who were called by word only; and he who was compelled by the greater influence of fear to love, displayed that perfect love which casts out fear.
23. Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction? Although even men who have not been compelled, but only led astray, are received by their loving mother with more affection if they are recalled to her bosom through the enforcement of terrible but salutary laws, and are the objects of far more deep congratulation than those whom she had never lost. Is it not a part of the care of the shepherd, when any sheep have left the flock, even though not violently forced away, but led astray by tender words and coaxing blandishments, to bring them back to the fold of his master when he has found them, by the fear or even the pain of the whip, if they show symptoms of resistance; especially since, if they multiply with growing abundance among the fugitive slaves and robbers, he has the more right in that the mark of the master is recognized on them, which is not outraged in those whom we receive but do not rebaptize? For the wandering of the sheep is to be corrected in such wise that the mark of the Redeemer should not be destroyed on it. For even if any one is marked with the royal stamp by a deserter who is marked with it himself, and the two receive forgiveness, and the one returns to his service, and the other begins to be in the service in which he had no part before, that mark is not effaced in either of the two, but rather it is recognized in both of them, and approved with the honor which is due to it because it is the king’s. Since then they cannot show that the destination is bad to which they are compelled, they maintain that they ought to be compelled by force even to what is good. But we have shown that Paul was compelled by Christ; therefore the Church, in trying to compel the Donatists, is following the example of her Lord, though in the first instance she waited in the hopes of needing to compel no one, that the prediction of the prophet might be fulfilled concerning the faith of kings and peoples.
24. For in this sense also we may interpret without absurdity the declaration of the blessed Apostle Paul, when he says, “Having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.”25182518 2 Cor. x. 6. Whence also the Lord Himself bids the guests in the first instance to be invited to His great supper, and afterwards compelled; for on His servants making answer to Him, “Lord, it is done as Thou hast commanded, and yet there is room,” He said to them, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in.” In those, therefore, who were first brought in with gentleness, the former obedience is fulfilled; but in those who were compelled, the disobedience is avenged. For what else is the meaning of “Compel them to come in,” after it had previously said, “Bring in,” and the answer had been made, “Lord, it is done as Thou commanded, and yet there is room”? If He had wished it to be understood that they were to be compelled by the terrifying force of miracles, many divine miracles were rather wrought in the sight of those who were first called, especially in the sight of the Jews, of whom it was said, “The Jews require a sign;” and, moreover, among the Gentiles themselves the gospel was so commended by miracles in the time of the apostles, that had these been the means by which they were ordered to be compelled, we might rather have had good grounds for supposing, as I said before, that it was the earlier guests who were compelled. Wherefore, if the power which the Church has received by divine appointment in its due season, through the religious character and the faith of kings, be the instrument by which those who are found in the highways and hedges—that is, in heresies and schisms—are compelled to come in, then let them not find fault with being compelled, but consider whether they be so compelled. The supper of the Lord is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the bond of peace. Of the Donatists themselves, indeed, we can say that they compel no man to any good thing; for whomsoever they compel, they compel to nothing else but evil.
Also see the previous post in this series: The meaning of “heresy” and its significance in Pagan history, Part One.