This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (April 2011)
The Circumcellions or Agonistici (as called by Donatists) were bands of Berber Christian extremists in North Africa in the early to mid-4th century. They were considered heretical by the Catholic Church. They were initially concerned with remedying social grievances, but they became linked with the Donatist sect. They condemned property and slavery, and advocated free love, canceling debt, and freeing slaves. Donatists prized martyrdom and had a special devotion for the martyrs, rendering honours to their graves.
The Circumcellions regarded martyrdom as the true Christian virtue (as the early Church Father Tertullian said, "a martyr's death day was actually his birthday"), and thus disagreed with the Episcopal see of Carthage on the primacy of chastity, sobriety, humility, and charity. Instead, they focused on bringing about their own martyrdom.
On occasion, members of this group assaulted Roman legionaries or armed travelers with simple wooden clubs to provoke them into attacking and martyring them. Others interrupted courts of law and verbally provoked the judge so that he would order their immediate execution (a normal punishment at the time for contempt of court).
Because it is written in the Gospel of John that Jesus had told Peter to put down his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:11), the Circumcellions avoided bladed weapons and used clubs, which they called "Israelites". Using their "Israelites", the Circumcellions would attack random travelers on the road, while shouting "Laudate Deum!" ("Praise God!" in Latin). The object of these random beatings was to provoke the victim to kill them, thereby becoming "martyrs".
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This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.