Sometimes one reads a book that stays on your mind, and that was the case for me with one I borrowed recently from our church library. Its title: "History of the Waldenses", by J. A. Wylie.
One reason for choosing such a book was a flier announcing a day of prayer for the persecuted church. Such a day may be a good thing, although I like to think that the persecution of Christians is a matter for our daily prayer concern.
Do not read this book if you cherish tranquility of mind.
Waldensian territory is the mountains and valleys west of Turin in the North of Italy. The Waldenses were faithful Bible believing Christians long before the time of the Reformation. In the 12th century they had already the New Testament in their own language (Romaunt). That was the work of Peter Waldo. They were active in sending out missionaries, under the guise of peddlers. "They sought to drive back the darkness, and re-conquer the kingdom which Rome had overwhelmed."
But the Roman Catholic church under pope Innocent III would not tolerate their pure religion. It was natural that Rome would wish to destroy the proof of her apostasy. The year 1332 marks the beginning of persecutions, when John XXII was the reigning pope. The era of papal captivity and schism did not reduce their zeal: one inquisitor, named Borelli, had 150 Vaudois men, besides many women and children, burned alive. At Christmas of the year 1400 the same Borelli unexpectedly attacked the Valley of Pragel. The inhabitants were pursued and had to flee in haste, so that many froze to death.
Persecution never stopped. Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull in 1487, with the result that a joint army of 18,000 men converged on the peaceful Christians of the valleys. The French under La Palu came from the west, the Piedmontese under the equally cruel Cataneo from the east. The poorly equipped Waldenses (also called Vaudois) offered heroic resistance. Gruesome massacres took place, but the invaders suffered heavier losses. At the end (1489) a period of relative peace followed, a time of spiritual prosperity. The years 1560/61 brought another wave of persecution. A large Piedmontese army under La Trinita came to destroy the Waldenses. But the hand of the Lord was with his people.
Around the year 1500 Waldensian colonies were begun in Calabria (in the South of Italy). A reason for this migration was crowding of the valleys due to the influx of Albigense refugees. Initially, the colonists were welcomed and left alone, but there too persecution came. At the end, the Protestant church was trampled upon. In 1630 the plague broke out in the valley, brought in by a French army. It devastated the population: some 10,000 died, including most of the pastors. The year 1655 brought a new wave of massacres and cruelty. Yet this was not the end of the tragedies, for in 1685 the edict of Nantes was revoked. The French Protestants suffered horribly, but the Waldenses were also attacked. Large Piedmontese and French armies killed many and captured and imprisoned 12,000. The 3000 survivors were forced to leave the country in winter, and many perished on their way to Geneva. They were the feeble remnant of a population of 14,000. Some moved on to Germany. Before long they yearned to return to their home country. In 1689 a group of 800 men ventured to return to their homeland, under Henri Arnaud. They fought heroically against Piedmontese and French attackers, but had to withdraw into a mountain stronghold. When the armies, under Catinat, returned they used cannon and destroyed the fortifications. The Waldenses, under cover of a providential mist, managed to escape and reached Pra de la Tor. To their great surprise and happiness they found there deputies of the Duke of Savoy with an overture of peace. What had happened? The duke had been forced by a coalition of Germany, Great Britain, Holland and Spain to choose between Louis XIV and the League. He took part with the coalition, hence the overture. The towns and lands of the Vaudois were restored. God works in wonderful ways.
The revolution of 1848 ended many restrictions which they still had to live with.
So far a very brief review of the almost endless persecutions suffered by these courageous Protestants, leaving out gruesome details. I do not know what happened later on.
Now, what is the purpose of recounting this history? Well, a few aspects come to my mind:
Lest we forget. Can persecution be avoided? Why persecution?
LEST WE FORGET
It behoves us to remember with gratitude God’s faithfulness in preserving a remnant of his church in a time of rampant apostasy. The church today is linked to the church of the past, to whom we owe so much. The faith and courage of these earlier saints should encourage us.
One can not also help wondering how those times are remembered by the Roman Catholic church. Is there a sense of guilt and repentance? However, let us be careful not to boast. In St.Jacobs, Ontario, Canada, is a Mennonite museum in which the history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement is portrayed. In the 16th century they were persecuted for their faith; not only by the Roman Catholics but also by Protestants.
IS PERSECUTION AVOIDABLE?
We mentioned the establishment of a Waldensian colony in Calabria. These settlers were respected, hard working and honest people who did not thrust their opinions upon the notice of their neighbours. Still the priests could not help observing that the manners of these newcomers were peculiar. Upon request of the colonists the mother church sent them a young minister from Geneva, named Jean Louis Paschale. His preaching was with power; the light formerly hid under a bushel was now openly displayed. This awoke the fanaticism of the region. Paschale was imprisoned. At the end he was burned, in the presence of pope Pius IV A horrible persecution followed, in which the colonists were slaughtered and the Calabrian church exterminated.
The lesson of this history is obvious: to avoid persecution it is not necessary to absolutely deny the faith, just keep a low profile and avoid exposure. John the Baptist was killed because he dared to denounce Herod’s adultery.
Persecution is a recurring theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament Abel was the first martyr, followed by prophets (Matt.23:35). The New Testament begins with the murder of infants in Bethlehem; it continues with the crucifixion of the Lord. In Acts 7 we read of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The apostle Paul before his conversion persecuted the church. It appears that persecution was intensified in NT times, as the dragon increased his attempts to destroy the Church In the beatitudes Jesus calls them blessed who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matt.5:10), and commands us to pray for them that persecute us (v.44). In John 15 he says:
"The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…" Paul confirms this in 2 Tim.3:12: "all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." The saints described in Heb.11:36/38 have their followers in the NT.
Yet we are not told the "why" of persecution. Neither were the saints under the altar. The souls of those martyrs "cried with a loud voice, saying, How long
O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth!’ (Rev.6:10). It was said to them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled " (v.11). Just as Job of old had to confess his lack of understanding) so we have to leave the answer to the sovereign Lord.
He does test our faith, and we have the promise (‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness "(2 Cor. 13: 9), and "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28 :20)
Mr. N. Gazendam is a member of the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, and a member of the Editorial Board of The Trumpet where this article appeared (October 2003), and is reprinted by permission. email@example.com
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