Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Dominicans from Philip's Encyclopedia

(officially Ordo Praedicatorum, Order of Preachers, O.P.) Roman Catholic religious order, founded (1215) by Saint Dominic. They are also known as Black Friars or Jacobins. Dominicans are one of the four great mendicant orders of Roman Catholicism. Devoted to preaching and study, the order operates worldwide and includes a contemplative order of nuns. Noted scholars include Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Summary Article: Dominicans
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

The Dominicans, officially the Order of Preachers, constitute one of the oldest and largest of the religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. Its founding was occasioned by the emergence of a heretical movement in southern France in the 13th century. The order’s founder, Dominic (1170-1221), was placed in charge of the preaching mission directed to counter the Albigensians. To stave off any possible charges of personal gain, Dominic and his assistants practiced voluntary poverty. This group became the core of what became a permanent organization that in 1215 received the initial approval of the bishop of Toulouse, France. The next year the group adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine and in 1517 received approval of its name and mission from the pope.

The order was established to provide for the spiritual nourishment of its members and to send them upon missions in defense of the Catholic faith, the art of preaching being a primary tool. Shortly after its founding, Dominic sent lieutenants to various locations to open centers, beginning with Paris and Bologna. The first general chapter of representatives for the more than a dozen houses met in 1220. A vow of absolute poverty was adopted, and subsequently a form of governance was adopted and the work divided into provinces. The organization is democratic, but the leadership, especially the master general, is granted considerable administrative power. The general chapter may set broad policies and may on rare occasions modify the constitution.

Dominic’s order was spreading rapidly when he died in 1221. It had penetrated most of Europe, and a number of national provinces were in process of formation. This growth continued under his successors. Dominic encouraged education, and the order obtained the first chair in theology at the Sorbonne. A number of scholars appeared among the Dominicans in their first century.

The order tended to establish its centers in urban areas. From this center, the community would become the target of systematic evangelism, and friars would be sent out to the surrounding countryside. Emerging out of the order were a number of “penitential preachers,” who emphasized penance and reform of life as the major theme of their preaching work. The best known of these is Savonarola (1452-1498), who brought Florence to repent of its worldly ways during the Renaissance. The order quickly gained a reputation for its learning, and it was placed in charge of that major institution designed to stamp out heresy and promote allegiance to the church, the Inquisition.

Dominic’s desire to help reform and revive the church also led him to missions. He sent Dominican brothers to the borders of Christendom. Early efforts were directed to the Jews and Muslims of southern Spain and northern Africa and to the Baltic peoples of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The order also pushed eastward into Poland and the Ukraine. Efforts in the western Mediterranean Basin were directed toward the return of Orthodox Christians to the authority of Rome, as well as to the conversion of Muslims.

As the order expanded, its vow of poverty became a problem, and in 1475, Pope Martin V granted the Dominican priories (not individuals) the right to own property and thus provide for the basic needs of the members. The Protestant Reformation directly affected the order. It lost those provinces in northern Europe, and those in neighboring countries were considerably weakened. At the same time in the east the Dominicans were losing centers in lands overrun by the Turks.

The losses during the first half of the 16th century were partially offset by gains in the Western Hemisphere. The first Dominicans found their way to the West Indies in 1510 and had created a new province a mere 20 years later. That province was the base from which the order expanded through the Spanish colonies, as well as Brazil. Already in 1592 Dominicans had followed the Portuguese to Indonesia and the Philippines, from which they began efforts in China, Formosa, and Japan. From Italy they reestablished work in the Middle East and pushed eastward to Kurdistan.

Like the Jesuits, an order that was suppressed in 1773, the Dominicans suffered from the rise of secularized governments in several European countries. The wars for independence in South America then destroyed most of the work there. In 1804, the king of Spain separated the Spanish houses from the main part of the order, a separation that continued through most of the 19th century.

The initial problems created by hostile secular governments gave way to a new freedom to exist in a liberalized atmosphere that included commitments to religious liberty. Beginning in the late 19th century, the order reestablished itself in most European countries, and there was steady growth through the entire 20th century. Membership increased from 4,472 in 1910 to more than 10,000 in 1963. Much 20th-century growth occurred in the Third World.

The order is led by a general chapter and the master of the order (the successor to Saint Dominic). It consists of provinces, each of which is ruled by a provincial chapter and the prior provincial. Each province includes convents and houses, each of which is governed by a prior or superior. The international headquarters of the order is located in Rome. The master of the order has a website at, but this is only one of many sites representing the many Dominican units worldwide.

The order is organized in three parts: the First Order, which includes priests and lay brothers; the Second Order, of contemplative nuns; and the Third Order, of people who live in the world but adopt the Dominican spirit or live communally but do not take the full vows of the First Order. The primary history has been carried by the First Order but the Second Order can also be traced to Saint Dominic, who authored its original constitution in 1206. The nuns took charge of their own temporal affairs in 1267.

The history of the Second Order has been marked by two periods in which mystical spirituality flowered. The first, in the 14th century, is associated with the preaching of several friars who were their spiritual directors, Meister Eckhardt (ca. 1260-1327), Henry Suso (ca. 1300-1366), and Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300-1361). A second period was noted in the 18th century. Like the First Order, the Second suffered ups and downs during the modern era, beginning with the Reformation, but enjoyed a period of expansion in the 20th century.

The Third Order appears to have emerged from the penitential fraternities that sprang up in response to the preaching of the Dominican friars in the 13th century. At the end of the century, a rule was created for those fraternities that came under the jurisdiction of the order. Some of these fraternities later developed a communal life and dedicated their time to social, educational, and other charitable works. Over the centuries the Third Order produced some notable saints of the church, including Saint Rose of Lima (1586-1617), the first person from the Western Hemisphere who was canonized; Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380); and Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), whose writings laid the foundation for the present emphasis on the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism.

Convento Santa Sabina (Aventino) Piazza Pietro d’Illiria 1 00153 Roma Italy

See also:

Jesuits; Monasticism; Roman Catholic Church.

  • Ashley, Benedict M. The Dominicans. Collegeville, MN: St. Mary’s, 1990.
  • Bennett, R. F. Early Dominicans: Studies in the Thirteenth-Century History. New York: Russell and Russell, 1971.
  • Devas, R. Dominican Revival in the Nineteenth Century. London: Longmans, 1913.
  • Hinnebusch, William. The History of the Dominican Order: Intellectual and Cultural Life to 1500. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1973.
  • Reeves, J. B. The Dominicans. London: Bloomsbury, 1959.
  • Zagano, Phyllis, and Thomas McGonicle. The Dominican Tradition. Spirituality in History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006.
  • Melton, J. Gordon
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Dominicans
    The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature

    A Roman catholic religious order of mendicant friars founded in 1216 by St Dominic. Also known as the 'Black Friars', because of their white...

    Full text Article Dominicans (Latin Ordo Praedicatorum: Order of Preachers)
    The Macmillan Encyclopedia

    A Roman Catholic order of friars, also known as Black Friars, Friar Preachers, or (in France) Jacobins, founded by St Dominic and...

    Full text Article Dominicans
    Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

    The Dominicans, officially the Order of Preachers, constitute one of the oldest and largest of the religious orders of the Roman Catholic...

    See more from Credo