Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n then who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant1: that from these may grow
A hunder’d-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.2
With the words of this sonnet the blind poet John Milton commemorated the terrible massacre of the Waldensians by the Romish Church.
Even in the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic Church ruled supreme and invincible over all of Europe, it did not always have everything its own way. Throughout these dark times individuals or groups raised voices of protest against the tyranny and corruption of Rome.
The only explanation for such dissenters from Romish teachings is the great work of God in preserving His church. The Confession of Faith speaks of the fact that “this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing.”3
One evidence of God’s preservation of His church is the existence throughout most of the Middle Ages of a group called the Waldensians. They are surely some of the most faithful of all the dissenters in the Middle Ages; and they are one of my favorite groups of saints.
Although there is some dispute over the origin of the Waldensians, most historians consider Peter Waldo, after whom they were named, to be the founder of the movement.
Although almost nothing is known of Peter’s early life, it is known that he was the son of a rich merchant in Lyons, France, and that he inherited his father’s wealth. What the date of his birth is, no one knows, but his death was in 1218; which puts him very early in the Middle Ages, a child of the Twelfth Century.
Troubled by his wealth (which had been increased through usury), and by the obvious worldliness of his life, Peter asked his priest concerning the best way to God. He was told, as was common in those days, that the way to God was to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow Christ.
Peter did not hesitate to follow what to him was a clear command of his Lord. Because he was married, he provided sufficient money for his wife, he placed his daughters in a convent to be cared for there, he paid back all those from whom he had taken usury, and he gave everything else he owned to the poor.
Peter Waldo gathered about him a small group of men who began to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular and began to assume the responsibilities of preaching. They were known by different names: TheBrethren in Christ; The Poor in Christ; The Poor in Spirit. But they finally became known by the name of their founder, Peter Waldo. They lived lives of total poverty and dedication to God.
In 1179, Peter Waldo asked his archbishop for permission to be recognized as a separate and approved movement and asked for permission to be organized as a preaching fraternity. The request was passed on to the pope, Alexander III, who refused their request. They appealed again to the Third Lateran Council in 1179, but this Council also refused their request.
Convinced that they were only doing that which was biblical, they continued to preach any way, and thus incurred the wrath of the church which excommunicated them at the Council of Verona in 1184.
What is particularly interesting about the Waldensians is their views. I doubt whether any group of people in all Europe, prior to the Reformation, understood the truths of Scripture so clearly as these poor people. Philip Schaff even calls them “the strictly biblical sect of the Middle Ages.”4 It is almost impossible to imagine how these simple folk could have come to such excellent knowledge of the truth in the times in which they lived. They were the lowly, the uneducated; they were despised and persecuted; they had been brought up in the chains of Roman Catholic heresy; and yet they were so clear on such important points. So much were they forerunners of the Reformation that when the Calvin Reformation dawned, most of them were quick to join it; it was as if the Calvin Reformation was exactly what they had been waiting for all these centuries. Only the fact that God preserves His church can adequately explain their existence.
At the beginning of the movement the Waldensians did not depart from Roman Catholic teachings. They did not reject the authority of the pope, the entire sacramental system of Roman Catholicism, nor the church itself as the mother of believers. They were, in fact, very much like a religious order. They demanded vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for full membership and insisted on a novitiate5 before becoming full members.
But from the outset their main emphasis was on preaching. It was preaching that got them into trouble with the church, for they preached without permission. But they continued even in the face of excommunication because they were convinced that preaching is decisive for salvation – a Reformation doctrine that stood at the heart both of the Lutheran and of the Calvinistic reform of the church. Rome taught that the sacraments were essential for salvation and that preaching was subordinate to the sacraments. The Waldensians saw the error of this and insisted that the Lord had added the sacraments to the preaching and that, therefore, God saved His people by the preaching of the Word. It was especially this doctrine which Rome hated with a passion, for the sacraments stood at the very heart of the entire papal-sacerdotal system of which Rome was so proud.
It really ought not to surprise us, in the light of the times, that the Waldensians went too far with their idea of preaching. They were opposed to Roman Catholic clericalism, and soon came to see the importance of what Luther later called the office of all believers. With their emphasis on the office of all believers, and failing to distinguish between the special offices in the church and the general office of believers, they gave to the laity, including women, the right to preach. All God’s people were preachers, and they were preachers not by virtue of ordination, but by virtue of a godly and spiritual life which manifested that they were believers.
One benefit of this erroneous viewpoint, however, was the fact that they saw the need for all God’s people to possess the Scriptures. And so they translated the Scriptures into the vernacular, and even insisted on the final and absolute authority of the Scriptures for life, doctrine, and preaching. Preaching had to be exposition of God’s Word.
After persecution and excommunication, their views developed. They saw inconsistencies between the position they had taken and the other teachings of Rome. And so, bit by bit, they rejected the oath, purgatory, prayers for the dead, the mass, and transubstantiation.
Such teachings as these attracted immense throngs to the Waldensians, and the movement spread rapidly into France, Italy, Switzerland and even parts of Eastern Europe. It was exactly because of the threat to Romish power and the popularity of the movement that brought down upon the Waldensians the fury of Rome. The full force of that cruel, unjust, and frightening institution for the suppression of heresy, the inquisition, was brought to bear against them.
The stories of suffering and torture which these folk endured make one weep even today. Their fathers and mothers were torn apart on the rack and burned at the stake. Their children were burned with irons to force them to report evil deeds of their parents. A whole cave of men, women, and children, who had fled to the mountains to escape, was suffocated by a huge fire built at its entrance and smoke being forced into the cave. As the poem at the beginning of this article points out, mothers with their infants clutched in their arms were hurled over the sides of cliffs.
Under the pressures of persecution, they fled into the Alpine Valleys and high plateaus of Switzerland, and there they survived.
Were they so cruelly treated for wrongdoing? An inquisitor himself said of them: “They are modest and well behaved, taking no pride in their dress, which is neat but not extravagant. Avoiding commerce, because of its inevitable lies and oaths and frauds, they live by working as artisans, with cobblers as their teachers. Content with bare necessities, they do not accumulate wealth. Chaste in their habits, temperate in eating and drinking, they keep away from taverns, dances and other vanities. They refrain from anger and are always active. They can be recognized by their modesty and precision of speech.”
One man, suspected of Waldensian error, was able to prove at his trial that he was not and could not be a Waldensian, but had to be a good Catholic, because he lied, swore, and drank.
These saints of God, who stained the Alps with their blood, eagerly embraced the Reformation. But Rome? To this day Rome has not confessed any wrongdoing for shedding the blood of the saints. Nor has Rome changed at heart. It would, I am convinced, do the same today, given the opportunity. But the souls of the Waldensians cry from under the altar. And the Lord will answer their prayer.
1. The pope of Rome.
2. “The Babylonian woe.” The reference is again to the Roman Catholic Church which attempted to destroy the Waldensians. The reference to Babylon is rooted in the notion that the Babylon of Revelation 17 & 18 is a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.
3. Belgic Confession, Article 27.
4. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. V, p. 493.
5 A trial period.