Milton once wrote, “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold, even them who kept thy truth so pure of old, when all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones”. His words were an echo of the collective cry of much of Europe. The sonnet they are taken from is a memorial to the massacre of thousands of Waldenses. Europe was numb with shock and disbelief when they heard of the tragedy. What made it worse is that it had been committed with the quiet consent of the King of France and by one of his cousins, Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy.
Ironically the Duke’s grandfather, Henry of Navarre, had been a Huguenot and was the first Huguenot to ascend the French throne. Henry of Navarre later ascended the throne as Henry IV. After his coronation, he chose to convert to Catholicism and allowed France to remain a Catholic nation. Years later one of his own grandchildren slaughtered a group of innocent men and women whose spiritual identity was the same as his own. He left behind a disappointing legacy.
The Waldenses of the lower valley’s had long been a thorn in the Duke’s side and in January of 1655 he gave them a choice: either attend Mass or leave the valleys. The Waldenses were not willing to compromise and so in the dead of winter 2000 of them trekked across snowy rivers and rugged mountain passes to the upper valleys where they were welcomed by their fellow believers.
However, Charles Emmanuel was not satisfied with a refugee migration. He wanted something a little bit more aggressive that would permanently solve his problems. He deployed an army into the Waldensian valleys in April of the same year and without warning on the 24th of April at 4 am the massacre began. It was the worst kind of Genocide that Europe had witnessed since the Albigensian crusades centuries before. Not content with simply killing the Waldenses, the soldiers, and monks who accompanied them resorted to the cruelest and most inhumane tortures. Babies and children were torn apart limb by limb with sheer brute force while their parents were forced to watch. The parents themselves were then murdered in the most brutal ways. Fathers were forced to wear the decapitated heads of their children as they marched to their own deaths while others were literally plowed into their own fields, flayed or burned alive.
The bodies of the dead were strewn across the fields in a horrific display of human cruelty. The Waldenses fled to a large cave in the towering Mount Castelluzzo in order to escape the massacre. The soldiers followed them and marched them all to the top of the mountain and then hurled them over the edge to their death on the rocks below.
When Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, heard of the massacre he called for a general fast in England and proposed to send the English Navy to intervene if the massacre was not stopped immediately. Those who survived were few in number but they rallied together and wrote to the Protestants in Europe for help, penning the awful words “our tears are no longer of water; they are of blood. They do not merely obscure our sight, they choke our very hearts”.
The persecution continued for a period of 34 years between 1655-1689. More than half the Waldenses were driven from their valleys during this period and were forced to settle elsewhere in Europe. In 1689 Henri Arnaud led 800 warriors from Switzerland to the border town of Balaille. They resisted an army of 22,000, in the middle of winter and defeated them in battle. This series of events paved the way for the Waldenses to return to their valleys in a movement that was known as the “Glorious Return”.
Sometimes when we think about incidents like this we can be tempted to gawk at the spectacle, shudder at the carnage and then move along hurriedly with our heads down and our eyes averted, as though we wanted nothing to do with it. But the sheer magnitude of the cruelty that was inflicted on this group of people compels us to not only stop and take a good look but to learn the lessons that such an atrocity demands that we learn.
The most important lesson for us to take away is this; our faith is not a supernatural force field that wards off the attacks of Satan. Instead, our faith is a shield that keeps us from buckling under the attacks of Satan so that we are able to say with faithful Job “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”. When the fiercest storms blow on our lives may we remember the words of that classic little song; “God is too wise to be mistaken, God is too good to be unkind, so when you don’t understand, when you don’t see his plan, when we can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.” May we learn to trust more fully in his heart.