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“Turn off the main highway at Morganstown or Hickory, if you plan to visit Valdese. Take the road down into the valley. The little North Carolina town, as you approach it, looks for all the world like a picture of northern Italy. There are the white houses, the red tiled roofs; the rolling vineyards. But it is an American town, too, with prosperous farms, commercial bakeries and a thriving hosiery industry.”¹ There are also Waldensian colonies, about 20,000 strong, in Uruguay and Argentina. Especially are these Valdese people, as they are known, to be found in the Piedmont Valley of Italy. John Milton immortalized them as a result of their persecutions in his sonnet, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont:

Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones 

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold, 

Ev’n them who kept Thy truth so pure of old 

When all our Fathers worship? stocks and stones, 

Forget not: in Thy book record their groans 

Who were Thy sheep and in their ancient fold 

Slain by the bloody Pietmontest that roll’d

Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans 

The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they 

To heaven. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow 

O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway 

The triple Tyrant²: that from these may grow 

A hundred-fold, who having learnt Thy way 

Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

“Whittier . . . (in) his poem. . . The Vaudois Teacher. . . speaks of the Waldenses as going about as peddlers to the houses of noble families and offering first gems and other goods, and then the richest gem of all, the Word of God.”³ For peddlers they were, but at the same time, Bible smugglers. As a result of getting the Word of God into the hands of men in this way, many were converted to the Gospel; Whittier put it this way:

O lady fair, I have yet a gem which a purer lustre flings 

Than the diamond flash of the jewelled crown on the lofty brow of kings; 

A wonderful pearl of exceeding price, whose virtue shall not decay, 

Whose light shall be as a spell to thee and a blessing on thy way. . . . 

And She hath turned from the pride of sin to the lowliness of truth, 

And given her human heart to God in its beautiful hour of youth! . . . 

And she bath gone to the Vaudois vales by lordly feet untrod, 

Where the poor and needy of earth are rich in the perfect love of God!

The Waldensian movement began with an attempt to spread the knowledge of Scripture in the common language of the people. Though outlawed from 1231, the Waldensians were found in every land by 1315. They survive the Inquisition and every form of persecution throughout history to this day. Though regarded as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, they were not mystically inclined, nor Manichean, as the Cathari (or Albigenses), nor pantheistic as some others, nor in any sense a product of Arianism, but were evangelical, “the strictly biblical sect of the Middle Ages . . . a body of believers which has come up out of great tribulation.”4 They translated the Bible into the vernacular of the people before 1179, then went about preaching the gospel, two by two, as street preachers and open-air evangelists, as they still do in Riesi, Sicily. They have carried out this work despite many hindrances from the hierarchical church. They rejected the claims of the Romish church, its totalitarian government and mummery, designating it The Beast, and as having become the false, antichrist church in the time of Constantine. They rejected all the Romish institutions, as, monasticism, mysticism, candles, palms, holy water, Christmas, Easter, fasts and feasts. They condemned images, relics, the blessing of such material things, saint worship, the Mary cult, purgatory, and prayers for the dead. They regarded themselves as a true church, with elders and deacons, within an apostatizing church. They formed a practically organized secret church, of necessity so because of persecution, considering themselves the only Church of Christ. They denied they were ever heretics departed from the historic church, but trace their beginnings to primitive apostolic Christianity, claiming to have preserved the purity of the faith down through the ages, while the Romish church was the degenerate church full of the corruptions against which they had always protested from the first. Beza, intimate friend of Calvin, taught that the Waldensian Church was founded by Paul on his way to Spain, and was the one true church that had preserved the faith of the New Testament church. 

This bit of history will help us to understand the Waldensian motto, not only inscribed over the portal of a Valdese church in Rome, but pervading the very spirit of the denomination, viz., Lux lucet in tenebris (a light shines in a dark place). Romish sources attempt to enervate the thrust of this aphorism by implying that only a coarse wit would refer to it as the place Protestantism plays in Romish Italy, and that Waldensian leaders would themselves be the first to repudiate such harsh humor in connection with understanding their church motto. But when it is taken into account that as to religion, Italy and Sicily are 99.8 percent Romish; as to politics, fascist, socialist or Communist; as to economics, in many places stricken with the worst squalor, filth, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, superstition and crime to be found anywhere in the world, right in the shadow of the bastion-like buildings of the Roman church and under the noses of the priests, then the meaning of this motto, no matter how papists interpret it, is well understood the world over. It is also universally known that the papal power could not tolerate the existence of the Waldensian churches. For ages it tried ruthlessly to destroy the truth. “Not less than five times through the centuries it instigated terrible persecutions and massacres against this obscure and peaceable people, and it also perpetrated uncounted individual martyrdoms upon them!”5 

In days when copies of the Bible were scarce the Waldensians made it popular and prevalent by having among them men who had whole books of the Bible committed to memory. “This period was devoted to committing the New Testament to memory, as well as other books of the Bible.”6 Memorized portions were then frequently orally repeated. As a result, even the illiterate could repeat from memory the entire four gospels and even the book of Job. In this way the Bible was smuggled from heart to heart under the stress of persecution. Forced thus underground, these living Bible depositories disguised themselves, as many of the Reformers later did, as artisans, laborers, merchants in order to carry the Word of God and spread it abroad everywhere. Every believer was regarded as an oral witness to the truth of the gospel. They defended their practice on appeal toJames 4:17, “to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” That Christian women have a place in teaching the Word of God was supported by appeal to Titus 2:3, “the aged women . . . be . . . teachers of good things,” and also by appeal to Luke 2:36-38. They strongly believed in preaching, regarding it their chief duty, but being simple, uneducated men they inadvertently propounded many errors. To correct themselves and keep to pure doctrine, a catechism was used and transmitted orally from generation to generation. 

They also adopted the doctrine of predestination, taking up as Calvin did the Augustinian doctrine without Augustine’s interventionist high church teaching. In 1532 the Waldenses accepted the Calvinistic doctrine, renounced everything Romish and agreed to conformity with the principles of the Genevan Reformer. Their French Bible translation was revised and improved with the help of Calvin’s cousin, Robert Olivetan. In 1655 they adopted a confession of faith based on and abridged from the French Reformed Confession of 1559 by Calvin. 

In the year of that creedal adoption, “Cromwell rescued them from total destruction . . . and instituted a collection which reached the amount of 38,097 pounds, he himself contributing 2,000 pounds.” Milton remembered them not only in poetry, but sent the suffering Protestants 2,000 pounds. “William of Orange. . . assisted their grand return in 1689.. . Holland in 1731 . . . collected 308,199 florins” for their aid. So “they were especially cherished and shielded by sympathetic Protestant Europe, because they were commonly looked upon as the only survivals of the Evangelical primitive Christians of apostolic times . . .”7 

Present history of the Waldensian Church indicates that for the most part, at least, it has had its day. For there are indications of modern ecumenical compromise which reveal involvement in the current stream back to Rome. For example, a news bulletin of the America1 Waldensian Aid Society carries not only on its letterhead the names of such religious liberals as John A. MacKay, Ralph W. Sockman, Eugene Carson Blake and John Sutherland Bonnell, but a statement to the effect that the Protestant program of the Waldensians has its problems in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country,—a statement made in connection with another statement that the movement has World Council of Churches (finance) connections. It is a notorious fact that the WCC is leading the dead, apostate Protestant churches back to Rome. Then there is the fact that the Waldensians had representation in an official observer at the Vatican II Council, and representation, in the moderator, at the third assembly of the World Council of Churches. This is like the sin of Jehoshaphat who made an alliance with apostate Israel, which was to “help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord” (II Chron. 19:2). Waldensians also provide a home for Russian refugees, but they spoil this eleemosynary service by also providing a chapel for Russian Orthodox worship. This is like the sin of Solomon who built heathen shrines for his heathen wives (I Kings 11:7, 8). This modernistic trend is further evident in the ordination of lady pastors. There is also close cooperation, with the Methodist church in Italy to the extent of joint publication of a monthly religious magazine and of exchange of pastors and pulpits. With such Arminian and anti-Calvinist infiltration what meaning can there be in membership in the Reformed and Presbyterian Alliance? For Waldensian history as such is not in the line of Pelagianism, ecclesiastical liberalism or Romanism.

¹ American Waldensian Aid Society reprint, Christian Union Herald, Feb. 26, 1956, “They Speak for Liberty.” 

² Reference to the pope’s crown, the triregnum, implying absolute sovereignty over the three spheres of earth, heaven and purgatory. 

³ Schaff, History of the Christian Church, V, 500. 

4 ibid., p. 493. 

5 Independent journal of the Protestant Episcopal Church, The Churchman, “Waldensians Survive Centuries of Persecution,” Nov. 1961. 

6 New Schaff-Herzog Relig. Ency., XII, 243. 

7 ibid., p. 251.