In A Nutshell
Cults are weird things, and Christian cults are absolutely no exception. In the fourth and fifth centuries, a Christian cult called the Circumcellions roamed Northern Africa, killing, torturing, pillaging, and burning, all in the name of Christianity. And when they were done with that, they would either commit suicide or attack an innocent person to goad them into killing them, making them a martyr and securing their place in heaven.
The Whole Bushel
When Christianity was just getting started, there were all sorts of sects and branches of the new religion. The Donatists were a branch of Christians in Northern Africa, and within this sect was a radical, fanatical group called the Circumcellions that existed in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Circumcellions were mostly lower-class peasants, many of whom were illiterate. Most kept watch over and took care of the graves of martyrs, and, thanks to the Circumcellions themselves, there were certainly plenty of those.
Being a martyr was just one of the things that they aspired to. Known for their tendency to gravitate toward extreme violence, members of the sect carried massive clubs that they called Israelites. Those that were completely ready to become martyrs would attack people on the streets with the goal of forcing these random people to fight back and to kill them, fulfilling a lifelong goal of martyrdom. It was the ultimate way into heaven, after all, and it was considered especially good if the person doing the killing was a member of the church or any variety of town official.
And if that failed, they weren’t above crashing a pagan sacrifice party and getting themselves killed that way, either.
Other members of the sect—which welcomed both men and women with open arms—turned to other ways of offing themselves to achieve martyrdom. Drowning and cliff-jumping were always popular choices, and those that were considered really dedicated burned themselves at the stake. The one method that was completely off limits and most definitely not the way to heaven was hanging, as that was the way Judas killed himself, and they certainly didn’t want to be associated with him.
Those who did succeed in offing themselves in the name of Christianity were absolutely honored by the living Circumcellions as the ultimate in martyr.
It wasn’t just random attacks trying to provoke suicide-by-traveler that the Circumcellions were known for. The order absolutely hated Rome and the authority figures that had been officially sanctioned by the church. They also hated slavery, and soon became widely hated by slave owners not only because of their insistence that slaves had rights, too, but because of their seemingly random attacks that freed slaves and gave them the chains that now secured their former masters.
Other Donatists first saw them as the selfless martrys they so badly wanted to be, but as the movement got more and more out of hand, they became increasingly unpopular. Righteous indignation turned into an increasingly violent crime wave fueled by lust, religious ecstasy, and not a little bit of alcohol. They roamed the land armed with not just their massive clubs but an array of other weapons, soon targeting anyone who belonged to the more mainstream branches of Christianity. They stole from the church, blinded clergy, and tortured those who didn’t believe as they did, all the while proclaiming that they were the only true form of Christianity.
The Circumcellions soon fell from favor with the condemnation of other Donatists; later, they would also be on the receiving end of some hate from St. Augustine. Donatism as a whole was officially outlawed by the mainstream church in A.D. 411, but the Circumcellions didn’t completely disappear for another 20 years or so.