The apostasy that darkened Europe was never universal. There never was a time when God left His truth without a witness. When one group of faithful would yield to the darkness, or was cut off by violence, another group would arise in another land. In every age in some country or another of Christendom, there were those who cried out against the errors of Rome and in behalf of the gospel which it sought to destroy.
From the fifth to the fifteenth century, the Lamp of Truth burned dimly. At times, its dim light appeared as if about to go out, yet it never did. There were times it burned most brightly in the cities of northern Italy and again on the plains of southern France. At other times, its beauty shone from along the Danube in Germany or sent its beams of light across Europe from the shores of England. As early as the ninth century, like the breaking of day across the land, its light shone gently across the landscape of Europe from the valleys high in the Alps.
Just as light shines more brightly in contrast with darkness, so error necessitates a fuller development and a clearer definition of truth. As the darkness of superstition and error deepened over Europe, the seed of truth found congenial soil in which to grow in the mountains of northern Italy. From the very country where the darkness was spreading over the world, the truth shone forth, shedding the light of truth amidst the dark apostasy that gripped Europe. It was in the fertile valleys of the mountains of northern Italy that the Waldenses, one of the most ancient groups to oppose the errors and superstitions of Rome, made their home. No group more stoutly defended the truth nor suffered more for the truth’s sake than these simple people of the valleys.
Satan realized that it was impossible to maintain his control of the people while they had the Holy Scriptures, because they would be able to discern his deceptions and withstand his power. He therefore urged the papal bishops and prelates to take the Bible from the world. For hundreds of years the circulation of the Bible was prohibited, and what copies were available were locked up in a language that was not understood by any but the highly educated.
The Waldenses were the first people in all of Europe to obtain a translation of the Scriptures in their native tongue. In their valleys, protected by the surrounding mountains, the Waldenses witnessed the truth for centuries before the light of the Reformation broke forth. Because they had the truth unmixed with error, they were the special object of hatred by the Church of Rome.
The Church of the Alps, in its simplicity of organization, was much like that of the early Christian church. The entire territory of the Waldenses was divided into parishes. Over each parish was a pastor who was helped by laymen. Once a year a conference, or synod, met, which all the pastors and an equal number of lay members attended. Sometimes as many as a hundred and fifty barbs, or pastors, were present.
The barbs were the young people’s teachers. Not only was the Bible their textbook, but they were required to commit to memory and be able to recite accurately whole Gospels and Epistles. This was necessary because before the age of printing, copies of the Bible were very rare. Besides memorizing, they spent part of their time transcribing the Bible by small sections that they would later distribute when they went forth as missionaries.
It was not uncommon for the Waldensian youth, after having completed all the education they could gain in their native land, to go to one of the universities in the surrounding countries. In these institutions of higher education, their purpose was twofold. Not only were they able to extend their field of study but they quietly and with great care opened the truth to the other students as they showed an interest. Converts to the true faith were won, and from these centers of education, they took the seeds of truth back to their native lands. At times the principles of truth were found permeating the entire school, but try as they might, the papal leaders were unable to trace the teaching to its source.
Not content to merely practice the truth, keeping the precious light to themselves, the Waldenses sent out missionaries over the greater part of Europe. Every young person who expected to enter the ministry was required to first gain experience as an evangelist, serving three years as a missionary. Of course, had these men gone out as preachers of the gospel, their purpose would have been defeated. Instead, they traveled as merchants, carrying with them many valuable articles, such as jewelry and silks, not easily obtainable except at far away marts of business. While they would have been despised as missionaries, as peddlers they found entrance. From the humble peasant’s cottage to the baron’s castle, they found a ready welcome.
In preparing for their mission, they took care to conceal among their wares and in their clothing, copies of the Word of God, usually portions they had written themselves. Wherever they found an interest in spiritual truth, they would call the attention of their customers to these portions of Scripture. When means were not available to purchase these portions of Scripture, they gladly left them as a gift to those who were interested in having them.
Their travels took these itinerant missionaries to the west as far as Spain and to Germany, Bohemia and Poland in the north and east. To the south, they successfully penetrated even the city of Rome. During the years that the Church of Rome was expanding its borders, seeking to engulf the whole of Europe, in southern France the simple gospel was taking a hold of the minds of the people. The people who accepted the gospel in this area became known as Albigenses. Disciples multiplied and congregations were formed. In some areas, cities and even whole provinces joined in the movement. For a short time it appeared that all of southern France might become truly Christian, throwing off the superstitions of the Roman Church a full three-hundred years before the Reformation began. Mercifully, providence veiled the future from these devout followers of Christ.
Meanwhile, in Rome the Church suddenly awakened to the fact that while her attention had been directed to far away conquests, right within the dominions that she had considered secure, a new threat was arising. For a number of years the popes had viewed with comparative indifference the small and seemingly insignificant sects that were springing up across Europe and particularly in southern France. For a time the Church even hoped that eventually they could be blended into the larger Catholic Church. After years of fighting the Moslems in the East with little to show for all the blood shed and expense, Rome began to see that the zeal and blood which she so freely shed on distant shores might be turned to a better account nearer to home.
With the ascension of Innocent III to the papal throne, a new policy was adopted. He recognized that the principles of these communities were completely foreign in their nature to those of the papacy and that they would never fit into the Roman Church. More than that, left to themselves these new principles would most certainly result in Rome’s eventual overthrow. The very existence of this people, holding the faith of the ancient church, testified to Rome’s apostasy and therefore excited her most bitter hatred. Accordingly, she set out to destroy them.
In those days, France, rather than forming an entire monarchy, was divided into four great divisions. It was the southern most of these territories that had proved to be most receptive to the preaching of the true gospel. It was a fertile land, plentifully watered by the Rhone River and bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. The people were intelligent and industrious, and under their care the whole area blossomed like a garden.
To stamp out the rival religion, the pope called for a crusade. In exchange for forty days of service, the soldiers were promised that all who engaged in the battle against these enemies of God and the Church would receive forgiveness of all their sins—and atonement for a lifetime of vice and crime. In addition, as a part of the reward, all of the homes and property of the hated sect were to be given to those who helped to destroy them. Going beyond these immediate rewards they had the word of the pope that at death they would find angels prepared to carry them directly through the gates of Paradise where crowns and rich rewards awaited them. Never had heaven been so cheap!
Throughout the years of 1207 and 1208 the preparations for war went on. Like the mutterings of distant thunder, the dreadful sound echoed throughout Europe, reaching the doomed provinces where they were heard with terror.
In the spring of 1909, the armed host was ready to move. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, a French nobleman who had returned from the crusades, was the chief military officer. The army of over 50,000 soldiers was followed by an even larger host of ignorant and fanatical rabble, bringing the total closer to half a million men. The multitude that followed the soldiers, though ill prepared to do battle with knights, were armed with scythes and clubs, prepared to murder the women and children.
It is never safe to compromise with wrong, but Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse, seeing the dreadful storm approaching, was overcome with terror. Quickly he wrote a letter to the pope, offering to come to his terms, whatever they might be. As the price of his reconciliation, he was required to give over to the pope seven of his strongest towns. In addition, he was to appear at the town where a papal legate lay, who had been murdered in his dominions. He was there beaten with rods. Next a rope was placed around his neck and he was dragged by the legate, in the presence of several bishops and an immense multitude of spectators, to the tomb of the friar. After all of this, he was obliged to take the cross and join with those who were plundering his cities, massacreing his subjects, and by fire and sword, turning his territories into a desert waste. Stung by the humiliation, he again changed sides, but it was too late to save himself. In the end, he lost all of his possessions, which were given to Simon de Montfort.
The person next in rank and prestige to the Count of Toulouse to oppose the invading force was young Raymond Roger, Viscount of Beziers. As he watched the horde of murderers draw closer, he realized that submission would only invite destruction. Working quickly, he placed his kingdom in a position of strong defense. Given the number of subjects he had, and their defenses, he had reason to hope that they might succeed in defeating the undisciplined mob that threatened them. A Catholic himself, he called together his knights and told them of his purpose. Though many of them were also papists, they willingly supported him in his determination to resist. The castles were garrisoned and provisions gathered. From the surrounding villages the peasants were brought into the fortified cities, there to await the advancing host.
In the middle of July, 1209, the crusaders arrived before the walls of Beziers. To the defenders it appeared as if the whole world was gathered against them. Deciding that the best defense would be an early attack before the invaders had an opportunity to fortify their encampment, they immediately attacked.
The assault was repelled, and the crusaders, mingling with the citizens as they retreated to the town, entered the gates along with them. Before they had even formulated a plan of attack, the papal army had the city in their hands. The knights, realizing that there were many faithful Catholics in the town, asked the papal legate, the Abbot of Citeaux, how they might distinguish the Catholics from the heretics. In reply, he cried: “Kill all! Kill all! The Lord will know His own.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 42
The city that normally had a population of 15,000 was now filled with more than 60,000 people. As soon as they realized the city was taken, the multitude fled to the churches and began to toll the bells by way of supplication. Instead of gaining mercy for them, the sound only attracted the invaders, and soon the dead bodies of innocent victims covered the floors of the churches. The bodies of the helpless victims were heaped in piles around the altar while their blood flowed out the doors in torrents. In one church alone, 7,000 bodies were counted. When the last living creature in all Beziers had been killed and every home pillaged of anything that was worth carrying off, the city was burned to ashes. Not one house remained inside; not one human was left alive.
In the terrible fate of Beziers, the other towns and villages read the fate that awaited them. Many smaller towns and villages were entirely vacated as the people fled to the caves and forests for refuge. The advancing host burned and destroyed everything in their path.
Finally, on the first of August, the crusaders advanced to Carcassonne. This city stood on the bank of the Aude, and its fortifications were strong. The young count, Raymond Roger, was the leader. There were many defenders inside, and as the multitude advanced, they were met with a stout defense. From inside the walls the defenders poured streams of boiling water and oil on the crusaders and crushed them with great stones and other heavy projectiles. As often as they attacked, they were repulsed. Meanwhile, the forty days’ service for which most of the men had signed up was expiring, and in the face of continued resistance, the army was beginning to melt away. Arnold, the papal legate, seeing that if there was not a sudden change of things all might yet be lost, decided to resort to craft.
In all ages, the righteous have obtained help from God. The enemies of His people can never put down those whom God would lift up, as long as they remain faithful to principle. Time and again Satan has tried to destroy those whom God is leading and guiding, but if the followers of Jesus are faithful, they need not be terrified by the rulers of darkness of this world. The power of the enemy is limited; God has set limits that he cannot go beyond. When unable to destroy God’s people by an open frontal attack, Satan often resorts to policy and deceit, seeking to lead them to concede to a compromise. Our great fear should not, therefore, be the enemies who come against us, but that we will fail to maintain our integrity. There can never be agreement between those who have aligned themselves with error and those who have chosen to defend the truth, but Satan seeks to persuade God’s people to listen to his agents. He knows well that the road to compromise is entered upon as soon as God’s people agree to discuss their differences with those who have shown themselves to be enemies of truth.
The papal legate offered Roger the hope of an honorable surrender and promised to respect his liberty if he would only come out of the city. Listening to God’s enemies is always dangerous, and on coming out, Roger was immediately arrested, along with the 300 knights who had accompanied him. On the inside of the city, the garrison, seeing what had happened to their leader, determined, along with the citizens of the town to make their escape by a secret passage known only to themselves.
The next morning, upon entering the city without meeting any resistance, the papal legate was amazed to find it completely deserted. Though deprived of the full victory he had anticipated, he was determined not to be wholly deprived. He might not have the greater satisfaction he had anticipated, but he could certainly have a measure of triumph. Casting about, he was able to gather together 450 persons, a group made up partly of fugitives whom he had earlier captured and partly of the 300 knights who had accompanied the viscount. Of these, he burned 400 persons alive, and the remaining 50 he hanged.
Though this was the last of the crusades, the next twenty years were dedicated to rooting out any seeds of heresy that remained. In the place of the crusades, Rome introduced a new and more to be dreaded engine of terror—the Inquisition. The rich plains of southern France which had once yielded bountiful harvests were turned into a desert wasteland. The once flourishing towns and villages were swept away, leaving only blood and ashes.
But Rome, with all her violence, was unable to fully arrest the progress of truth. In seeking to crush the flame of truth, she only managed to scatter the sparks that were to later spring up over an even wider area. And though she had succeeded in slowing the movement that would become the Reformation, new instruments of power, unknown to that age, were being prepared to spread the gospel more quickly and over a wider field than had yet been dreamed possible. The divine principles upon which the Reformation was to build, though seemingly extinguished, were yet to burn ever more brightly, filling the whole earth with their light.