The Church In the Wilderness, Part 3

“The Waldenses stand apart and alone in the Christian world. Their place on the surface of Europe is unique; their position in history is not less unique; and the end appointed them to fulfill is one which has been assigned to them alone, no other people being permitted to share it with them.” The Waldenses, by J.A. Wylie, 19.

The testimony of the Waldenses carries a two-fold message. In the first place their teachings and lives are in direct contrast to the apostasy of the papal church resulting in that power’s attempt to eradicate the hated “heretics.” In the second place their witness strengthened the position of the Protestant reformers. This is another reason why the Roman church persecuted the Waldenses.

The first incident we will describe occurred on Christmas of 1400. It took place in the Valley of Pragales in the Alps of northern Italy. The people felt safe because the snow lay very deep around them. An inquisitor named Borelli had previously caught 150 men as well as women and children and burned them alive. His army came suddenly, at night, upon those living in this valley. The Waldenses fled in the icy cold. Some lost hands and feet to frostbite, while others froze to death.

In 1487, Pope Innocent VII issued a bull denouncing the Waldenses as a “malicious and abominable sect of malignants.” He appointed Albert Canteneo, Archdeacon of Cremona, to carry out the bull and destroy the “venomous snakes.”

The plan of attack was to approach the Valley of Angrogna from two directions. The army was made up of two divisions, one French and the other Italian. One was to approach from the French side of the Alps while the Piedmontese from the Italian side were to converge in the valley. As the inhabitants of the Loyse valley saw the French coming, they retreated to a cavern nearly six thousand feet up a mountainside. This cave became their graves as the soldiers built a fire at the entrance, suffocating all within.

The people in other cities and valleys realized their only recourse was to resist and they prepared to defend themselves. The magnitude of the defenses set up discouraged the French army from attacking, so they continued on their way to Angrogna pillaging and burning as they went. Pragales was once more attacked and obliterated.

Cataneo led his Italian division on various excursions in an attempt to bring his mission to a victorious end. But it was not to be so. As he entered the Valley of Angrogna, the inhabitants prepared themselves for battle. They had tried to obtain a peace settlement with Cataneo, but were unsuccessful. Therefore, they decided to fight for their very lives.

The Waldenses moved further up the valley to a place that was easily defended. The papal army had to traverse a narrow defile with steep mountains on one side and a precipice on the other. The people climbed up the mountain so they were looking down on the path the army was to follow. As Cataneo moved along, a fog descended and enshrouded them. The Waldenses rolled rocks down on the soldiers, killing many of them, and followed by attacking and killing most of the remaining men; few escaped alive. These godly people now enjoyed a short respite from persecution.

The sword was sheathed for a time but the artful plots of the papal power continued. To secure their peace, the persecuted ones compromised themselves by attending the Romish mass and having their children baptized by the priests. The church in the wilderness appeared to fall but it did not, for the Reformation had already begun. Most of the countries of Europe had been stirred by the reformers before the tidings reached the Waldenses. “The blessed God hath never left Himself without witnesses in the world; and even during the reign of Antichrist—a period of the most general and awful defection from the purity of His worship, He had reserved to Himself thousands and tens of thousands of such as kept His commandments and the faith of Jesus. Nor is there any thing in this to occasion our surprise. The real followers of Christ are subjects of a kingdom that is not of this world.” The History of The Christian Church, 234, 235.

We have arrived at the time of the opening of the Reformation. Upon hearing of this the Vaudois were ecstatic. Eager to know what was happening, they sent a Pastor Martin of the Lucerna valley on a mission to discover the extent of the reform. He returned in 1526 revealing that the yoke of Rome had been cast off in Germany, Switzerland, and France and that every day many were being added to those who openly professed the same faith as the Waldenses. To prove that what he said was true, he brought back books he received in Germany containing the teachings of the Reformers. Later, two more pastors were sent from the French side of the Alps to Germany and Switzerland. The reformers were overjoyed to hear from these two men the voice of the primitive, apostolic gospel. The Alpine confessors had believed they were the only people who kept the true faith of the Bible, and they were very happy to find there were many others who believed and taught the same truth.


Peace and War


In 1532, a Synod was called and representatives from both sides of the Alps, attended along with deputies from churches in Switzerland and Bohemia. A confession was drawn up which contained seventeen articles with the main ones being: “Moral inability of man; election to eternal life; the will of God, as made known in the Bible, the only rule of duty; and the doctrine of two Sacraments only, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Ibid., 60. A resolution was passed to translate the Bible into French making it available to the churches of the Reformation. It was printed in Switzerland in 1535.

Near this time, a quarrel occurred between Francis I of France and the Duke of Savoy, resulting in Francis gaining control of both sides of the Alps. The Waldensian people enjoyed a twenty-eight year time of partial peace with incidents of persecution and destruction here and there. Then persecution once again broke out on a large scale. The Inquisition continued to do its terrible work selecting individuals—one here and another there for extermination. A man named Bersour attacked the Valley of Angrogna but was repulsed. He then turned to the Vaudois living around his residence in Turin, seizing many of them and putting them in prison, and burning others.

Then there came a change in the politics of Europe that brought peace to the valleys. A treaty was signed in 1553 restoring Piedmont to the House of Savoy and a new monarch was placed on the throne. In 1560, he issued an edict forbidding his subjects to hear Protestant preachers on pain of death. There followed, shortly, another edict demanding all to attend mass under pain of death. Carignano was the first town to feel the tempest. The wealthy were dragged to the flames resulting in the rest of the people being scattered to various places including Turin. Wherever a Vaudois congregation existed there the persecutor turned. Rumors of confiscation, arrest, cruel tortures, and horrible deaths preceded the coming of the armies of destruction into the Waldensian Alps. The Waldenses decided to appeal to the throne. They sent a petition in the hands of M. Gilles, Pastor of Bricherasio, to the king’s Counsel, asking that they be allowed to live in peace and enjoy liberty of conscience.

The pastor was well received by the Duke of Savoy, but the requirements that the Duke made were not acceptable. In October of 1560, he declared war against the Vaudois. They determined to depend upon God for their defense. On October 31, as the Papal army appeared at Burbiana, the entrance to the Waldensian Valleys, the population humbled themselves in a public fast and partook of the Lord’s supper. They packed their belongings, and singing psalms as they traveled, made their way to the Pra del Tor. It was here they made their stand and successfully defeated the enemy in a number of battles and skirmishes, resulting in a considerable slaughter of the Papal army.

The leader of the Papal forces, Count La Trinita, recognizing the futility of pursuing the use of force, turned to diplomacy to achieve his ends. He made promises that if the Waldenses would compromise a little here and a small amount there, the persecutions would cease. But, having acceded to the wishes of La Trinita, they discovered, as had occurred so many times before, that the promises were empty. The terrible torture and murder continued unabated, their houses and lands were pillaged and destroyed.

Once more the Alpine churches determined to stand firm for truth and to defend themselves to the death. The Waldenses of Italy made a pact with those on the French side of the Alps to assist each other at all costs. An order from the Duke had been issued on January 20, 1561, that all people of the valleys were to attend mass or die. La Trinita knew he had to control the Pra del Tor in order to conquer the Waldenses. His attempt to accomplish this was completely defeated and his forces nearly destroyed. A treaty of peace was signed between the deputies of the valleys and the Duke of Savoy on June 5, 1561. Seedtime and harvest had been hardly restored when another calamity struck. In August of 1629, a flood occurred, wiping out the villages of Bobbio and Prali, followed by an icy dry wind in September, destroying all crops.

Yet another tragedy took place in the same year, even worse than persecution. The plague was brought into the valleys by members of the French army who had contracted the disease. Nearly half of the population of the valleys died from the plague.

Another settlement was signed and peace reigned for fifteen years. Then the valleys were invaded by a swarm of Capuchin monks sent to convert the heretics. As long as the people had their pastors to keep them on the true path, the monks had little success in their endeavors. To accomplish their goal, the pastors and leaders of the Vaudois were banished and driven into exile. The population was forbidden to go outside their territory, on pain of death. Even then, the conversion of the people moved ahead very slowly, so the Waldenses were commanded to leave and go to other areas where they were welcomed by the Vaudois of other valleys.


Deception and Death


Again the appeal was made to the House of Savoy for relief, and once again they were ignored. On April 15, 1655, an army of 15,000 men led by the Marquis de Pianeza, invaded the valleys only to meet total disaster time and time again. Recognizing the uselessness of carrying out any more forays into the valleys, the Marquis used craft and deceit to gain his objective. He made an agreement with the Vaudois that if they would allow a regiment of soldiers to be stationed in each valley for a few days, peace would come. On the Sabbath of April 24, at four in the morning, the blow fell upon the unsuspecting populace. The assassins did their work of murder and torture. “ ‘Our valley of Lucerna,’ exclaims Leger, ‘which was like a Goshen, was now converted into a Mount Etna, darting forth cinders and fire and flames. The earth resembled a furnace, and the air was filled with a darkness like that of Egypt, which might be felt, from the smoke of towns, villages, temples, mansions, granges, and buildings, all burning in the flames of the Vatican.’ The soldiers were not content with the quick dispatch of the sword. They invented new and hitherto unheard-of modes of torture and death. No man at this day dare write in plain words all the disgusting and horrible deeds of these men; their wickedness can never be all known, because it never can be all told.” Ibid., 142, 143.

Following this massacre, the Waldenses were relatively free from persecution for thirty years, though it never completely ceased. They still suffered annoyances and harassment at the hands of the papacy.

As Louis XIV came to the close of his life, he asked his confessor what he might do to atone for his sins. The reply was that he must extirpate Protestantism from France. A treaty was signed between the king of France and the Duke of Savoy in which the king promised to aid the Duke in eliminating the Vaudois. On January 31, 1686, an edict was issued containing the following:

  1. Vaudois to cease practicing their religion.
  2. No religious meetings under pain of death.
  3. All ancient privileges removed.
  4. All churches and religious buildings to be destroyed.
  5. All pastors and schoolmasters to embrace Romanism or be banished.
  6. All children to be raised as Roman Catholics.
  7. All Protestant foreigners to leave the country or become Roman Catholics within fifteen days.
  8. Persons who had acquired property in Piedmont were to sell it to Roman Catholics.

The Vaudois sent delegates to Turin seeking redress for their grievances from the Duke. The Protestants of Switzerland, Germany, and Holland interceded with the Duke on behalf of the Alpine populace to no avail. The Swiss counseled the Waldenses to leave their country to save their lives and to carry the torch of truth elsewhere. They chose rather to remain and defend themselves. They were attacked by a force of 15,000 men, who, at first, were defeated with a loss of 500 to two Vaudois. Then the army fell upon less strongly fortified villages and valleys and murdered and pillaged unmercifully. Wherever the army met a strongly fortified area, they told the defenders their neighbors had capitulated. The unsuspecting people believed this lie and they surrendered. The result of giving up resulted in a wholesale massacre with the loss of 3,000 persons, and the remaining 12,000 were imprisoned. The land of the Waldenses stood empty for the first time in its history.

In December of 1686, when the prisoners were released at the intervention of the Swiss Protestants—only 3000 were left alive. They were commanded to leave the country in the depth of winter. Many lost their lives on this journey. Small parties were released at intervals so that the last to leave arrived in Geneva in February of 1687. They were invited by some German princes to settle in their estates, but the influence of Louis XIV was too strong for them to remain at peace, so they had to move from place to place.

The Vaudois yearned to return to their valleys, and so on June 10, 1688, they made their way toward their homeland. But, they were discovered by the French forces and were then scattered throughout Germany. Then war broke out between France and Holland, drawing the attention of their enemies away from the Waldenses. They saw the hand of God intervening in their behalf and decided to once more return to their homeland. The return began on August 16, 1689, with Henry Arnaud leading 800 men. On their journey they met the enemy many times, but without defeat. Their last battle was at the crossing of the Dora River where they met 2500 French soldiers. In the battle that followed, 500 French died, while only fifteen Vaudois died and twelve wounded. Twelve days after leaving Switzerland they reached the borders of their land having lost only 100 men. “This great exploit is called the ‘Glorious Return.’ By the time the 1260-year period had run out, this faithful branch of the Church in the Wilderness had secured religious toleration.” Truth Triumphant, by Benjamin G. Wilkinson, 266.

The Waldenses still had many a battle to fight to regain their homeland, but they were successful in the end. However, it was not until 1870, with the disappearance of the French empire and the establishment of Germany and Italy, that they had complete freedom from harassment and persecution. Now, even the city of Rome was open to the Waldensian colporteur.

“The persecutions visited for many centuries upon this God-fearing people were endured by them with a patience and constancy that honored their Redeemer. Notwithstanding the crusades against them, and the inhuman butchery to which they were subjected, they continued to send out their missionaries to scatter the precious truth. They were hunted to death; yet their blood watered the seed sown, and it failed not of yielding fruit. Thus the Waldenses witnessed for God centuries before the birth of Luther. Scattered over many lands, they planted the seeds of the Reformation that began in the time of Wycliffe, grew broad and deep in the days of Luther, and is to be carried forward to the close of time by those who also are willing to suffer all things for ‘the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ Revelation 1:9.” The Great Controversy, 78.

A lesson to be learned from these experiences of the Waldenses is succintly revealed in the writings of St. Hilarius against Auxentius. “Of one thing I must carefully warn you, beware of Antichrist! It is ill done of you to fall in love with walls. It is ill done of you to reverence the church of God in buildings and stately edifices; it is wrong to rest in these things. Can you doubt that it is on these Antichrist will fix his throne? Give me mountains, forests, pits, and prisons, as being far safer places; for it was in these that the prophets prophesied by the Spirit of God.” The History of the Christian Church, by William Jones.