The mingling of Paganism with Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church sparked a revolution in Christendom. It led those who desired to preserve the purity of true Bible religion to coalesce into a single organized system, geographically spanning northern Italy and south-western France. This group was known as the Waldenses.
The Waldenses were a group of people that formed a resistance against the moral corruption and physically damaging practices advocated by the system of monasticism that blossomed under the papacy. Vigilantius, who is credited with being the leader of this movement, encountered monasticism through his interactions with many of the scholars of his day. He was a peasant from southwestern Gaul which encompassed the areas we now know as France, Northern Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and most of Switzerland.
Vigilantius was first brought into contact with monasticism through his employer Sulpicius Severus and through his interactions with the famous Roman Catholic monk Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate. What he saw was a system of spiritual pride and hypocrisy that rested on outward rites and rituals while the heart was still full of the corruption of sin. In addition to this, he was exposed to the subtleties of how paganism was thinly veiled under the guise of all that was Roman Catholic by witnessing the celebration of pagan holidays under Christian names and the worship of pagan gods under the guise of Christian saints.
He was appalled by what he saw and soon began to preach against this system to those in Gaul who occupied what is now known as Southwestern France and Northern Italy. Vigilantius denounced the hypocrisy and pride of the Roman Catholic Church and called for those who were longing for something more spiritually substantial to join him in making the Bible their only rule of faith and practice.
Many flocked to his standard, choosing to walk away from a religious system that relied on the traditions and dictates of men to stand under the banner of God’s word. One of the earliest known names of these believers was insabbati, demonstrating that they were Sabbath-keepers, being named after the day on which they worshiped.
The Waldenses became the vanguard of a powerful resistance movement that quietly and unobtrusively began to work to educate people about Bible truth and expose the errors and fallacies propagated by Rome. They were known for taking great pains to preserve the Bible, transcribing copies by hand for distribution throughout Europe. They didn’t see themselves as reformers because many of them had rejected the advances of the Roman Catholic Church from the outset. Instead, they saw themselves as champions and curators of biblical truth in the midst of a reign of spiritual darkness and apostasy.
For this they paid dearly, being slaughtered by the thousands and relegated to living in the caves of the alpine wilderness. Their story has been told and retold by countless writers and poets of the Renaissance who witnessed the terrible persecutions they faced. Yet in the face of such ruthlessness, they still clung unwaveringly to their faith in God and His Word, as firm and unyielding as the mighty mountains that had become their home.
One thing that the Waldenses did have in common with the Roman Catholic church was that they both saw the barbarian tribes that occupied Europe as a mission field. The fundamental difference, however, was that while the Roman Catholic Church used the power of the state, the terror of the sword and the inducement of political gain to advance their cause, the Waldenses put their faith in the strength of God’s Word.
They kept a low profile, making the rugged regions of the alpine valleys their homes and moving quietly among those who lived in the great cities of Europe. Eventually, facing relentless persecution in the lower valleys, the Waldenses moved into the higher alpine regions. Here they settled themselves and focused on evangelizing papal Europe, and to this end, they built training schools that covered the rugged mountainous region of the Piedmont Valley.
The College of the Barbs, nestled high in the Italian Alps, is the only remaining example of what must have been a network of educational centers of influence. The college was driven by a singular vision, that of preparing an army of young workers rightly trained and equipped for the missionary work before them.
To accomplish this they trained the children and youth to commit large portions of scripture to memory and to painstakingly copy the Bible by hand.
As they did this they would achieve two goals, the first was of hiding the word of God in their hearts and minds and the second was that of producing written copies of the scriptures that could be distributed.
Once they had completed their training, Waldensian youth were sent to the best universities in Europe and wherever they went they took the word of God with them. Having committed large portions of scripture to memory they had ready access to the truth as the need arose. In addition, they sewed portions of scripture into the folds and hems of their clothing, thus enabling them to distribute the truth as discreetly as possible.
As they went about gaining an education they mingled with a wide variety of people and would make an effort to befriend them. As time went by and they discerned genuine spiritual interest, they would share the Bible either verbally or in the form of small handwritten rolls of parchment. In this way, the light of God’s word spread slowly and unobtrusively throughout a European continent that was teeming with tradition and superstition.
Other Waldenses would learn a trade or sell goods from door to door, and as they bought and sold, traded and repaired they would watch for the moving of God’s Spirit on the hearts of their listeners. When they discerned spiritual interest they would share the truth, either from memory or by handing out those precious portions of hand-copied scripture. Thus, the ultimate focus of the Waldensian way of life was to share the truth with others. They worked, studied and raised families but in the midst of this, their focus was clear and unwavering.
In times of intense persecution, these people of the valleys would gather together in their mountain hideouts, huddling for shelter in the dim and dank caves that crisscrossed the mountains. These caves were not only a place of refuge but a place of worship as well and here shut in by the cold stone walls, in a place of perfect peace and silence they sang their hymns and praises to God and spent time in simple but earnest congregational worship and prayer.
The Waldensian motto was Lux Lucet in Tenebris, light shining in the darkness and theirs was a light that burned steadily without waxing or waning for centuries, even in the face of terrible persecution. They chose to fiercely guard their commitment to the word of God and were willing to bear the cost that came with that commitment. Often that cost was to leave behind their homes and livelihoods to flee into the wild and rugged regions of the Alpine valleys.
Here they braved the most grueling conditions and their children had to learn the hard lessons of self-sacrifice, frugality, and resilience. To Waldensian parents, these lessons became the keystone of the training they offered their children and it was these lessons that forged them into hardy soldiers for the cause of Jesus. From a young age, they were trained in the scriptures, trained to endure privation and hardship to the end that they might be able missionaries for God amidst people held fast in the fetters of falsehood.
Yet even in their high mountain strongholds, the Waldenses were not immune to the fires of persecution breathed against them by the Roman Catholic Church. One of the most chilling and yet poignant examples of this is the story of the Waldensian massacre that took place atop the mighty Mt. Casteluzzo, one of the bloodiest and most horrific acts of genocide ever committed against a group of people.
And yet even in the face of such strong persecution the Waldensian people refused to bow their knees to the darkness and error of the Roman Catholic Church, they refused to be bullied into submission. In his poem “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley wrote:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
The poem is a testament to the man who instead of allowing his circumstances to mold him, takes hold of his circumstances, and by his grit and fortitude, molds them. To a great extent, this was the spirit of the Waldenses, the spirit that made them a light shining in the darkness.
Why were they so vehemently hated? Because they chose to stand for what was right, to stand against a religiopolitical machine that was oppressing the lives of so many innocent people. They were hated because they were unafraid and unashamed of holding up the torch of truth to expose the terrible secrets of darkness. They stood like Daniel in Babylon and weathered the worst storms of persecution and their example is a challenge to us today, presented most poignantly in the words of that old children’s classic that says:
“Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm
Dare to make it known”