The other day, I was having a very fruitful conversation with a gentleman on what I would label it as more or less epistemology and morality. In that particular discussion, the gentleman revealed that St. Augustine of Hippo is cited to have expressed the idea of forced conversions in regards to the Donatist. I have read quite a bit of Augustine’s own work and studied his biography, at least in comparison to the average layperson, so I was a bit surprised at the accusation against Augustine in regards to the Donatist.
Augustine’s written work is quite vast, so much so that I once heard a professor quip, “If anyone has ever said they have read all of Augustine…they are a liar. So I admitted that it’s very possible I just haven’t encountered Augustine’s thought on the matter in a particular document. Again, what struck me odd about the accusation is that the celebrated works of Augustine against the Donatist is his ten homilies on the first letter of St. John. In those works, Augustine illuminated in the conflict what the writer in that particular letter did which is “God is love.” It would be much to my surprise in comparison to that body of work that in another body of work that Augustine should then insist on forced conversion.
(I also think it should be wise at this point to define what is meant by forced conversions, which I would characterize as coercive measures as loss of life, freedom, and property. In regards to being converted by weight of theological ideas—as the Donatist were already Christians– such as Hell, I do not consider that to be a forced conversion.)
The gentleman sent a link from a website which did not cite that particular source from it claimed that Augustine spoke about compelling the Donatist. Nonetheless, it appears that Augustine of Hippo did advocate for forced conversions. My research has led me to a document of collected works called: A Treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatist. In that particular document, there is a letter that I’ve read several paragraphs in which it doesn’t seem to be taking out of context that Augustine advocated for forced conversions:
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;2or 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;4or 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.6In 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.
- 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,”8what 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?
- 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.”4In 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 undisciplined son, must be corrected with stripes, and that with great fruits as the result; for he says, “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell;” and elsewhere he says, “He that spareth the rod hateth his son.”6For, 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,”8many 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.
It’s interesting to note that Augustine did speak of the “argument of those men” who claimed that the Apostles didn’t look for the “state” to incite forced conversions. It appears that in the letter Augustine looks to prove his case by looking through the Old Testament and finding where Jewish Kings use coercive measures. However, as Augustine is a Christian, it would seem much more prudent to look to the message of Jesus Christ, whom he professes is God.
Now those who wish to claim that Jesus makes some sort of comments to support violent measures will often cite: Luke 22:36 and Mt. 10:34. However, it appears in the context that both are symbolic in regard to the context of what Jesus is saying those particular passages. For example, in Luke 22:36, Christ says:
In this particular passage of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is likening himself to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in Is. 53:12. However, as the Apostles’ take him literally by saying “here are two swords,” Christ’s indication that is “good enough” is as Theophylact claims “Very well, leave it” because they did not understand his meaning.
In Matthew 10:34-38, the context of his meaning is a bit more clear as he is speaking to the division caused by his overall message:
34 ¶“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. 37 ¶ He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. 
So, Jesus’ message causes division. Naturally, this would be the case if one claims to have the truth and to be the truth (John 14:6). However, Jesus doesn’t seem to indicate the need for violent coercion for believing in his message. Mark 12:29-34 he teaches that one should love their neighbor as themselves. It is in Lk 10:29 that we find that our neighbor is those who are in need of our mercy regardless of their affiliation. In Mark 10:22, after Jesus proposes that the Rich Young Man give up all his possessions and the young man responded by leaving, Jesus allows him to depart:
22 At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. 
John chapter 6:65-66 also indicates when disciples stop believing in his message are allowed to depart from his presence:
65 ¶ And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Time and Time again, Jesus proposes; doesn’t impose, and allows people to leave and go back to their everyday lives. In fact, Jesus implies in the parable of Wheat and Tares that it isn’t the job of those here to remove the tares as they may uproot the wheat with them, but rather it is reserved for the day of judgment.
So, what about the Catholic Church? During the Vatican II council and during the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it appears that the Church saw the error to the common phrase of more traditional-minded Catholics “error has no right.” Pope John Paul II wrote in On the Value and Content of Freedom of Conscience and of Religion:
3. The Catholic Church has synthesized her thinking on this subject in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration, Dignitatis humanae, promulgated on December 7, 1965, a document which places the Apostolic See under a special obligation.
This declaration had been preceded by Pope John XXIII’s Encyclical, Pacem in terris, dated April 11, 1963, which solemnly emphasized the fact that everyone has “the right to be able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his conscience.”
The same declaration of the Second Vatican Council was then taken up again in various documents of Pope Paul VI, in the 1974 Synod of Bishops’ message, and more recently in the message to the United Nations Organization during the papal visit on October 2, 1979, which repeats it essentially: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and, therefore, bearing a personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2). “The practice of religion by its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a human being directly sets his course towards God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. But man’s social nature itself requires that he give external expression to his internal acts of religion, that he communicate with others in religious matters and that he profess his religion in community” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 3).
“These words,” the UN address added, “touch the very substance of the question. They also show how even the confrontation between the religious view and the agnostic or even atheistic view of the world, which is one of the ‘signs of the times’ of the present age, could preserve honest and respectful human dimensions without violating the essential rights of conscience of any man or woman living on earth” (Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations, no. 20).
On the same occasion, the conviction was expressed that “respect for the dignity of the human person would seem to demand that, when the exact tenor of the exercise of religious freedom is being discussed or determined with a view to national laws or international conventions, the institutions that are by their nature at the service of religion should also be brought in.” This is because, when religious freedom is to be given substance, if the participation of those most concerned in it and who have special experience of it and responsibility for it is omitted, there is a danger of setting arbitrary norms of application and of “imposing, in so intimate a field of man’s life, rules or restrictions that are opposed to his true religious needs” (Address to the UN 34th General Assembly, no. 20).…
6. The Catholic Church is not confined to a particular territory and she has no geographical borders; her members are men and women of all regions of the world. She knows, from many centuries of experience, that suppression, violation or restriction of religious freedom have caused suffering and bitterness, moral and material hardship, and that even today there are millions of people enduring these evils. By contrast, the recognition, guarantee and respect of religious freedom bring serenity to individuals and peace to the social community; they also represent an important factor in strengthening a nation’s moral cohesion, in improving people’s common welfare, and in enriching the cooperation among nations in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
In addition, the wholesome implementation of the principle of religious freedom will contribute to the formation of citizens who, in full recognition of the moral order, “will be obedient to lawful authority and be lovers of true freedom; people, in other words, who will come to decisions on their own judgment, and, in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 8).
Now, as admitted, I’ve not read everything by Augustine, so if anyone wants to correct me on this particular reading on his work feel free to do so. Augustine did write retractions, so perhaps he may have retracted these statements. I see blog posts as a forum to discuss and discover the truth.
Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatists,” inSt. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. R. King, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 640–641.