The Waldenses

The apostasy that darkened Europe was never universal. There never was a time when God left His truth without a witness. When one group of faithful would yield to the darkness, or was cut off by violence, another group would arise in another land. In every age in some country or another of Christendom, there were those who cried out against the errors of Rome and in behalf of the gospel which it sought to destroy.

From the fifth to the fifteenth century, the Lamp of Truth burned dimly. At times, its dim light appeared as if about to go out, yet it never did. There were times it burned most brightly in the cities of northern Italy and again on the plains of southern France. At other times, its beauty shone from along the Danube in Germany or sent its beams of light across Europe from the shores of England. As early as the ninth century, like the breaking of day across the land, its light shone gently across the landscape of Europe from the valleys high in the Alps.

Waldensian Church

Just as light shines more brightly in contrast with darkness, so error necessitates a fuller development and a clearer definition of truth. As the darkness of superstition and error deepened over Europe, the seed of truth found a friendly climate in which to flourish in the mountains of northern Italy. From the very country where the darkness was spreading over the world, the truth shone forth, shedding its light amidst the dark apostasy that gripped Europe. It was in the fertile valleys of the mountains of northern Italy that the Waldenses, one of the most ancient groups to oppose the errors and superstitions of Rome, made their home. No group more stoutly defended the truth nor suffered more for the truth’s sake than these simple people of the valleys. “In their dispersions over so many lands—over France, the Low Countries, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, England, Calabria, Naples—the Waldenses sowed the seeds of that great spiritual revival which, beginning in the days of Wycliffe, and advancing in the times of Luther and Calvin, awaits its full consummation in the ages to come.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 16, chapter 1

Satan realized that it was impossible to maintain his control of the people while they had the Holy Scriptures, because they would be able to identify his deceptions and withstand his power. He therefore urged the papal bishops and prelates to take the Bible from the world. For hundreds of years the circulation of the Bible was prohibited, and what copies were available were locked up in a language that was not understood by any but the highly educated.

The Waldenses were the first people in all of Europe to obtain a translation of the Scriptures in their native tongue. In their valleys, protected by the surrounding mountains, the Waldenses witnessed for the truth centuries before the light of the Reformation broke forth. Because they had the truth unmixed with error, they were the special object of hatred by the Church of Rome.

The Church of the Alps, in its simplicity of organization, was much like that of the early Christian church. The entire territory of the Waldenses was divided into parishes. Over each parish was a pastor who was helped by laymen. Once a year a conference, or synod, met, which all the pastors and an equal number of lay members attended. Sometimes as many as a hundred and fifty barbs, or pastors, were present.

Troubadour and Barb

The barbs were the young people’s teachers. Not only was the Bible their textbook, but they were required to commit to memory and be able to recite accurately whole Gospels and Epistles. This was necessary because before the age of printing, copies of the Bible were very rare. Besides memorizing, they spent part of their time transcribing the Bible by small sections that they would later distribute when they went forth as missionaries.

It was not uncommon for the Waldensian youth, after having completed all the education they could gain in their native land, to go to one of the universities in the surrounding countries. In these institutions of higher education, their purpose was twofold. Not only were they able to extend their field of study but they quietly and with great care opened the truth to the other students as they showed an interest. Converts to the true faith were won, and from these centers of education, they took the seeds of truth back to their native lands. At times the principles of truth were found permeating the entire school, but try as they might, the papal leaders were unable to trace the teaching to its source.

Not content to merely practice the truth, keeping the precious light to themselves, the Waldenses sent out missionaries over the greater part of Europe. Every young person who expected to enter the ministry was required to first gain experience as an evangelist, serving three years as a missionary. Of course, had these men gone out as preachers of the gospel, their purpose would have been defeated. Instead, they traveled as merchants, carrying with them many valuable articles, such as jewelry and silks, not easily obtainable except at far away marts of business. While they would have been despised as missionaries, as peddlers they easily found entrance. From the humble peasant’s cottage to the baron’s castle, they found a ready welcome.

In preparing for their mission, they took care to conceal among their wares and in their clothing, copies of the Word of God, usually portions they had written themselves. Wherever they found an interest in spiritual truth, they would call the attention of their customers to these portions of Scripture. When means were not available to purchase these portions of Scripture, they gladly left them as a gift to those who were interested in having them.

Their travels took these itinerant missionaries to the west as far as Spain and to Germany, Bohemia and Poland in the north and east. To the south, they successfully penetrated even the city of Rome.

Waldensian Missionaries

The very existence of this people, holding the faith of the ancient church excited the bitterest hatred. Their refusal to surrender the Scriptures was an offense that Rome could not tolerate. Now began the most terrible crusades against God fearing people in their mountain homes. The scene of innocent Abel falling before the murderous Cain was often repeated.

No charge was brought against their moral character. Even their enemies declared them to be a peaceable, quiet, pious people. Their great offense was that they would not worship God according to the will of Rome. When Rome at one time determined to exterminate the hated heretics, a bull was issued contemning them. “This bull, after the manner of all such documents, was expressed in terms as sanctimonious as its spirit was inexorably cruel. It brings no charge against these men, as lawless, idle, dishonest, or disorderly; their fault was that they did not worship as Innocent worshipped, and that they practiced a ‘simulated sanctity,’ which had the effect of seducing the sheep of the true fold, therefore he orders ‘that malicious and abominable sect of malignants,’ if they ‘refuse to abjure, to be crushed like venomous snakes.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 16, chapter 1

“The persecutions visited for many centuries upon this God-fearing people were endured by them with a patience and constancy that honoured their Redeemer. Notwithstanding the crusades against them, and the inhuman butchery to which they were subjected, they continued to send out their missionaries to scatter the precious truth. They were hunted to death; yet their blood watered the seed sown, and it failed not of yielding fruit. Thus the Waldenses witnessed for God centuries before the birth of Luther. Scattered over many lands, they planted the seeds of the Reformation that began in the time of Wycliffe, grew broad and deep in the days of Luther, and is to be carried forward to the close of time by those who also are willing to suffer all things for ‘the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ ” Revelation 1:9. The Great Controversy, 78

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