Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones.
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slayn by the bloody Piedmontese that roll’d
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they
To heav’n. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant: that from these may grow
A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
With this sonnet, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” the great English poet John Milton (“Paradise Lost”) commemorated the 1655 massacre of hundreds of Reformed Waldensians in the Italian Alps. Through centuries of severe persecution by corrupt Catholic Church authorities and power-hungry rulers from its humble beginnings in the 12th century, the Waldensian movement persevered and survived to this day.
Who were these Waldensians who, with their small numbers and poverty, defied powerful Rome for five centuries with their firm and clear message of living the Christian faith only according to God’s Word? Who were these faithful believers who would put today’s evangelicals, with their gospel of prosperity and happy-clappy worship, to horrible shame? Who were these people who actually lived their motto, Lux Lucet in Tenebris, “A Light Shining in the Darkness”?
The name ascribed to the movement is widely disputed. Some have ascribed it to the French word for valley, vaux, which gave rise to Vaudois, or the Italian vallis evolving into Valdesi or Valdenses, referring to those who settled in the valleys of the Cottian Alps near Milan and Turin. But the most widely-accepted view is that the name was derived from Valdese or Valdo (or Waldo, died 1218), a wealthy merchant of Lyons who gave away his possessions to the poor in obedience to Christ’s command to the rich man in Mark 10:21, a vow of poverty similar to that of a contemporary, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). In signing a statement of faith required by the Pope’s representative, he said, “We have decided to live by the words of the Gospel, essentially that of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Commandments, that is, to live in poverty without concern for tomorrow.” These medieval believers were described by one of their persecutors as “naked disciples of a naked Christ,” people who possessed nothing but faith in Christ alone.
The “Poor of Lyons,” as they were known at first in their hometown, not only kept their commitment to live as Christ and the apostles lived, but also had a deep love for the preaching of Christ’s gospel. Yet, like many medieval movements, the Waldensians at the beginning were not enemies of Rome, but desired to reform the Roman church whom they viewed as extravagantly wealthy, corrupt and holding to many doctrinal errors. Among the church’s doctrines that the Waldensians rejected included the authority of the pope, salvation by faith and works, prayers for the dead, worship of images, transubstantiation, purgatory, and the value of tradition over Scripture. Having been brought up in these false teachings by the Roman church, it is a puzzle how they saw these errors of the Roman church. Perhaps it is through their diligent study of Scripture.
They held worship services in their homes and had a school for their barbe (“uncles”), their spiritual leaders, who committed large portions of Scripture to memory and traveled far and wide two by two as peddlers and artisans, preaching the gospel as they went on their perilous missions. To equip them for this task, these men were also trained in Latin as well as Italian, and translated God’s Word into their own language as well as Italian, possibly from the original Hebrew and Greek. With such a commitment to preaching the true gospel, the Poor of Lyons movement spread from Italy to France, Germany, and as far as Eastern Europe.
As with Francis of Assisi, the Roman authorities did not have a problem with the Poor of Lyons’ devotion to poverty, but it was their persistence in preaching the gospel without the blessing of Rome that brought the wrath of the Roman church on them, leading to Waldo’s persecution and the excommunication of their members as heretics in 1184. Some have attributed Waldo’s name Peter to his insistence on public preaching as Peter did in Acts 5:29 when the apostle told the high priest, “We must obey God rather than men.” For their love of Christ and his gospel, they became victims of centuries-long extermination attempts by the Roman church and the civil rulers.
Like the Apostles whom they strove to emulate, the Poor of Lyons suffered terribly for spreading of the true gospel. Pursued by the papal Inquisition, they scattered throughout the Alpine mountains and valleys where they continued to hold worship services and meetings for prayer and study in secret caves and forests. Often, they would pretend to conform to the Roman church by attending the idolatrous Mass to avoid torture and death. For three centuries before the 16th century Protestant Reformation, they endured this hardship. One could only imagine these people having to endure false worship which they hated all the more as they learned true worship from Scripture!
Embracing the Reformation
At last, the Reformation came – what wonderful news to their ears that there was a spiritual renewal in other parts of the world! In the early 1520s, after the Waldensians sent messengers from the mountains to the Reformers in Switzerland, there was mutual amazement: it was only by God’s providence that there was a mountain people “who kept thy truth so pure of old” for centuries, and that this true faith was now spreading like wildfire in all of Europe. In 1532, William Farel, a Swiss Reformer and friend of John Calvin, participated in the Waldensian Synod at Chanforan in the Alpine mountains, resulting in the Waldensian pastors embracing the Reformed faith.
In the Confession of Chanforan, signed by “the ministers and heads of Families of the Churches of the Valleys of the Piedmont, assembled in Angrogna,” the Waldensians confirmed the Reformation’s doctrine of predestination in stating that “all those that have been, and shall be saved, have been elected of God, before the foundation of the world,” together with the doctrine of assurance, saying, “It is impossible that those who have been appointed to salvation, should not be saved.” In affirming election, they also rejected the Roman church’s doctrine of freewillism, “Whosoever upholds Free-Will denieth absolutely Predestination, and the Grace of God.” They also agreed with the Reformers on lawful oathtaking – which they detested – saying that it should be done to God’s glory and for the good of others. Rejecting the Catholic tradition of confession before a priest, they affirmed that “auricular confession is not commanded of God,” and that true confession is “to confess to God alone,” to reconcile with the neighbor, and to confess one’s sin.
Farel convinced the Waldensians to come out from their secret meetings in caves and forests and worship openly in their villages just as most of Europe’s Reformed churches did. Heeding this advice bore fruit as they prospered during the time of the Reformation, building churches and schools, and even spreading out to the plains below. They brought with them the Bible in the Waldensian language and sang Psalms set to music by the French Calvinists, the Huguenots. To the benefit of the French Protestants, the poor Waldensians had a significant part in the publishing of the French “Olivetan” Bible.
Thus, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Waldensians grew in number to about twenty thousand in the Cottian Alps in Italy. Under the spiritual leadership of a few godly, well-trained pastors, they tilled the soil and produced as artisans, raising generations of children in the knowledge and discipline of the Lord. Straddling the French and Italian Alpine regions, and living under the sovereigns of France and Italy, Waldensian culture and language flourished as a combination of two cultures: French and Italian.
But coming out in the open also had its tragic results. The French king, Francis I, led a genocide against the Waldensians of Provence that virtually exterminated them in France by 1545. In 1561, the Waldensians in the Italian valleys were granted amnesty, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives were permitted to return home. However, even as they prospered in the Italian valleys and mountains, trouble was already emerging from the jealous Italian ruler, the Duke of Savoy. He issued injunctions and decrees against them, and Rome’s soldiers harassed and pillaged their villages, but the Waldensians’ faith in their Savior would not be shaken. Drastic action would be needed to put to an end to this “heretical” sect.
In January 1655, the Duke of Savoy gave the Waldensians two impossible options: attend the Catholic Mass, or abandon their homes and land in the lower valleys and move to the upper valleys. Rather than abandon their faith, men, women, little children and the sick waded into icy lakes and rivers and ascended frozen peaks to reach the homes of their destitute brethren in the upper valleys. But the Catholics were not done yet with the Protestants.
The Italian army would get help from 5,000 French soldiers. Early on Easter week, the French Catholics, just as they had done in their massacre of French Protestant Huguenots on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, began their attack but had little success against the small Waldensian army. With the help of treachery, they persuaded the Waldensians that they were coming in peace, so that the villagers even housed and fed them. At dawn on Easter Sunday, the Catholic forces began their merciless murder, torture, rape and looting; over 1,700 Waldensians perished in what is known today as the Piedmont Easter Massacre, which prompted Milton to write the sonnet above. James A. Wylie, in his History of the Waldenses, writes a description of this heinous crime,
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged, then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.
“My hand trembles,” says [Pastor John] Lager, “so that I scarce can hold the pen, and my tears mingle in torrents with my ink, while I write the deeds of these children of darkness – blacker even than the Prince of Darkness himself.”
Although some of these reports were said to be exaggerated, the massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Protestant Europe particularly with Oliver Cromwell in England who wrote letters to other European kings, raised contributions, called a general fast, and even threatened military action. The Catholics relented, and survivors were allowed to return to their homes and worship in freedom. The few hundred who escaped the Piedmont massacre regrouped and organized a successful guerilla-type resistance movement based in the nearby mountains under Joshua Gianavello, forcing the Duke of Savoy to negotiate a settlement in 1663, giving the Waldensians a few years respite from persecution.
The Glorious Return
But in 1685, after two decades of relative peace, persecution against the Waldensians was renewed when King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious freedom to French Protestants. All Waldensian inhabitants of the Valleys were again given two impossible choices: renounce their Reformed faith or face death and destruction of their homes and churches. The result of this order was disastrous: 3,000 chose to go into exile in Germany, and 8,000 submitted to the Catholics. Those who chose to remain and fight suffered death and pillaging under the Catholic invaders.
In 1689, a small band of 900 Waldensian and Huguenot exiles led by Henri Arnaud set out from across Lake Geneva to make the 130-mile march into their former Alpine homeland. Fighting in bitter cold and hunger, their number dwindled to a tired band of 300. As they prepared to die in battle against 4,000 Italian Catholics, the Waldensians had God’s providence working for them on two fronts:
First, a thick fog enveloped the valleys, and the battle had to be engaged another day. Second, a more important political event took place: the Italians switched allegiance, and allied with England and Austria against France! Waldensian prisoners and pastors in Piedmont were ordered released, and thousands of refugees from Germany and Switzerland returned to their ancient homeland. God rewarded their centuries of faithfulness and courage with his steadfast love! They reclaimed their beloved valleys, never to be driven away again, their existence as a people never to be seriously threatened again. Today, this is known in Waldensian history as “The Glorious Return.”
Yet, despite all these gains, the Waldensians were still harassed at every turn, resulting in their dispersion all over Europe in the 18th century, particularly to Germany. Thus they were confined to a small area in Italy, and numbered only 6,000 poor farmers in 15 villages with only seven pastors. Laws were still enacted and enforced against them to make life difficult for these second-class, hardy band of “heretics.”
Finally, in 1848, King Carlo Alberto issued the Edict of Emancipation, which granted them political and civil rights.
How the Apostle Peter’s words presaged the sufferings of these faithful 13th-18th century Waldensians, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet 4:12-13). As their wives and children were being hurled down the ravines, how they must have clung to God’s promise that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). As their men were being taken prisoner or slaughtered, their little houses and churches burned, how they must have remembered Christ’s words to the church in Smyrna,
“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:9-10).
But as seen in all of church history, fiery trials refine God’s people, and when the refining is taken away, the God’s people lose their purity. After being refined by five centuries of severe persecution, the Waldensian church started losing their love for the Word of God for which their ancestors so gladly gave up their lives. Instead of maintaining their strong Calvinistic heritage, they accepted with ease the unbiblical ideas of the Enlightenment. Today, the descendants of these faithful Waldensians have not kept the faith of their forefathers, embracing the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th century, and the church is a member of the extremely liberal World Council of Churches. Some of their churches have close relationships or are even affiliated with liberal mainline denominations.
In this postmodern culture, what are we to learn from these courageous, faithful overcomers?
First, let us shun those who teach the false gospel of wealth and health. The history of God’s people is a history of spiritual warfare against the evil forces of hell’s kingdom. From the Garden of Eden all the way to Christ’s return, the sufferings of God’s people will not let up; in fact, Jesus and his apostles warn us that they will intensify as the day of his coming nears. Prosperity gospel peddlers deceive people into a religion of ease and comfort, contrary to what Scriptures clearly present.
Second, let us be ever vigilant against those who would inject the leaven of false teaching in the church. As we can see from the Waldensian experience, as long as they maintained their love for the pure Word of God, they remained faithful to Christ through all their sufferings and deprivation. Once they opened their gates to modern ideas, here a little, there a little, the purity of the church was compromised.
Third, just as the Waldensians memorized large portions of Scripture for their use when they were deprived of God’s Word, let us strive to keep God’s Word in our hearts to make us strong in times of sufferings and temptations.
Fourth, let us beware that the practice of pietism alone without the pure Word of God is not sufficient to maintain the faithfulness of the church. Once the Waldensians lost their love for God’s Word, what remained was an empty shell of pietism, which easily crumbled under the pressure of liberalism.
Fifth, let us remember with our gifts, prayers and words of encouragement our brethren in faraway regions of the world who, like the Waldensians of old, are suffering under the yoke of civil and religious tyrants who “rage, plot in vain, set themselves, and counsel together against the Lord and against his Anointed.”
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
– Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
Euan Cameron, The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps 1780–1580 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
Emilio Comba, History of the Waldenses of Italy, reprint of original 1889 edition published by Truslove & Shirley, London (New York: AMS Press, 1978).
Pius Melia, The Origin, Persecutions, and Doctrines of the Waldensians, reprint of original edition, London: James Toovey, 1870 (New York: AMS Press, 1978).
Antoine Monastier, A History of the Vaudois Church: From Its Origin and of the Vaudois of Piedmont to the Present Day, reprint of the original 1848 edition (Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2008).
Samuel Morland, reprint of original 1658 edition, History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont (Paris, Arkansas: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2001).
Alexis Muston, The Israel of the Alps: A History of the Waldenses, two volumes, reprint of original 1875 edition, London: Blackie and Son, 1875 (New York: AMS Press, 1978).
Giorgio Tourn, et. al., You Are My Witnesses (New York: American Waldensian Society, 1989).
James A. Wylie, History of the Waldenses (London: Cassell and Company, 1860).
“The Waldensians,” Christian History 22 (April 1, 1989).
American Waldensian Society, http://www.waldensian.org.
The Waldensian Church, http://www.waldensian.org.