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1180's - A Secret Pre-Protestant Flock In The Mighty Alps

The Alps are known for their beauty and grandeur, their stark snowcapped peaks, and the sheltered remote valleys nestled at their base. They are lovely, but sometimes harsh. They can nurture, kill, and shelter. And it is this sheltering ability that makes them key to this account. Once they sheltered a group of Christians, who became known as the Waldensians.

The Waldensians were named after a man named Peter Waldo, from the French town called Lyons. Peter Waldo was a merchant, and he was quite wealthy, having been very succesful in his commercial dealings. But he never felt that successful. He was aware of an emptiness that his wealth and family couldn't seem to fill.

It is said that everything changed for him one certain day, as he listened to a musician - a minstrel - sing a ballad. Since the ballad is important to the story, and it's subject matter is about a real historical personage, here it is briefly:

In the early 4th century, there was a wealthy Roman senator named Euphremian, who had a wife named Aglae. They were obviously of high status, but genuine in their Christian faith. They had a son named Alexis, whom they raised in the Christian tradition.

When Alexis reached the age of marriage, a wife was selected for him and the wedding arranged. She was a young aristocratic woman related to the Roman Imperial family of that time. But Alexis held inside himself a desire to escape his arranged life, to serve God more closely. On the night of his wedding, after the ceremony, he returned the wedding ring to his bride, and with her consent, he fled.

He went to Edessa, Syria. For 17 years he lived as a beggar there, in near constant prayer at the church. In the daytime he accepted no alms, wishing to fast. In the evening he stood at the church door accepting alms only until he had enough for a scant meal, then he begged no more until the next day. He told no one about his former life or identity.

One day, at church, an apparition appeared saying "Seek the man of God." They understood that this referred to Alexis. He was no longer able to live his simple anonymous life. Apalled at this unsought celebrity, he boarded a ship for Tarsus. But an unexpected storm blew it off course and they struggled until they were eventually able to make port in Italy. Thinking it was God's hand, Alexis returned to visit his parents at Rome.

He found them alive, but he was so changed in appearance by 17 years of severe deprivation and coming of age to manhood that they did not even recognize him, and they offered him only the kindness they always showed to the poor. Accepting this as God's will also, Alexis enquired if he might sleep beneath the foot of their stairs and work in their kitchen. Of his identity, he said nothing. They allowed him this humble lodging, as to an unknown beggar in need.

For the next 17 years he lived beneath the stairs, worked for his father's servants in the kitchen (they often treated him disrespectfully) and when not working he prayed for many and did good deeds in the streets of Rome as he was able.

One day after these many years Pope Innocent I was giving mass, and suddenly heard the words "Seek the 'man of God'." Following his spiritual guidings, he came to the home of Euphremian the senator. He and the Senator knew the beggar described, of course, and his wife discovered the beggar, who's name they had never known, under the stairs. He had died.

They withdrew Alexis' body from beneath the stairs, and found upon his deceased person a sort of a diary which he had kept. It revealed who he really was - their very own son.

(And that is the story of Alexis, though I've fund several accounts, which vary somewhat. Today Alexis is known as Alexis of Rome, patron saint of beggars.)

Returning to Peter Waldo, who heard this story sometime in the 1160's , he could not get it out of his mind. The thought of repudiationg all importance and wealth, and living for Jesus and His kingdom excited him. He could not serve both God and mammon (wealth). He acted!

He gave over all of his property to his wife and family. His remaining money he distributed to the poor. He began to preach openly and boldly in the streets of Lyons, in their local language, from a written gospel he had talked a local priest into translating from the Latin. Within a few years, this new thing had drawn the hearts of some to follow his example. They became known as the Poor Men of Lyons, and were quite known and popular among the people.

This caught the attention of the Pope, naturally. He approved of their life of poverty, but did not condone them preaching. Preaching was for Catholic clergy only! He ordered them to stop.

Though they felt themselves loyal Catholics, they believed that their preaching was right in God's eyes, perhaps because the early church in Jesus's time had emphasized spreading the 'god news' of the Gospel. They continued their lay-preaching. So they were excommunicated from the Catholic Church and villainized as heretics by the next Pope, Lucien III, at the Council of Verona in about 1184 A.D.

Peter Waldo died around 1218 A.D.; his activities are somewhat obscure in his final years. But his group continued and grew, and soon they met so much resistence and persecution from the Catholic church for spreading the gospel without permission that they ended up fleeing. At some point in time they reached the foothills of the Alps and took up a simple agricultural life and worshipped in freedom there in those valleys.

Concerning their doctrines, they began to rid themselves of those trappings of the Catholic church which they could not find taught in scripture. Soon, they were a scripturally based faith - a small group praticing a somewhat simplified and purified version of Christianity. They did not teach purgatory, or infant baptism. They believed in public reading of scripture. They were said to observe Sabbath on Saturday and to meet on Sunday during at least part of their history. They broke bread together, celebrating the Lord's Supper. From there, their peaceful bases in the mountains, they made it their habit to send out pairs of volunteer missionaries into the lands of Europe.

Posing as traders, so as not to excite the local church and civil authorities, they would trade their wares and keep an eye out for people who seemed to be hungering spiritually for something more. When they found such, they would converse with them, teach them the gospel, and tell them that there was freedom in Christ to be had by those who would claim it. Freedom to read the scriptures and hear the teachings of the Lord in their own familiar language. They would tell them about their valleys in the Alps, where they tried to live in obedience to Jesus.

Some listened. To these they often gave hand copied Gospels. It was quite a thing at that time to have a copy of the Gospel - this was a privelage reserved almost exclusively to the Catholic Church clergy. These Waldensians, by passing out these translations of scripture, allowed some small part of the people to hear of God from His own words. It kept the lamp of true scriptural living burning, however small their little candle may have been, during a time of great darkness in the church and the world.

There were early Catholic missionaries that went into those remote regions to spread the doctrine of the Pope's Christianity, and they were surprised to find a quite civil and hardworking society of mountain farmers who centered their lives around Jesus and read from their own Gospel texts, forbidding none to read the scriptures as freely as they wished. And they did not believe in adding to the scripture any laws of requirements that it did not contain.

After politely reviewing what the Catholics brought, they declined, finding fault with much of the changes and additions to the religion brought by the outsiders. And this planted the seed for a deadly hatred that Rome quickly came to bear against them. Before it was over, various Popes had tried time and again to have them murdered and exterminated from their mountain strongholds for believing in the Word with nothing added to it, preaching it, and giving copies of it to others. 

These Waldensiens (or Vaudois as some called them in the language used near their mountains) were basically the forerunners and the seed of the great Protestant movement which would arise in a few centuries. But Satan was not unaware of them. As they grew in their mountains from a few hundreds to a good number of scattered mountain villages adding up to many thousands, great persecutions began to arise against them, though they were just farmers seeking Jesus and teaching of Jesus. They paid their taxes and minded their business and obeyed their local authorities in all respects not restricting their spreading the gospel and obeying God.

The surviving descriptions of them are that they were simply but respectably dressed, hardy and hard working, and careful and deliberate in their speech, with great esteem for truthfulness. Several times throughout their hundreds of years of history those rulers of their region who were actually acquainted with them referred to them as being among their best subjects - they paid their taxes and did not make trouble, and they fulfilled their military obligations when asked to. This worked in the Waldensian's favor. Sometimes when Popes tried to pressure the local Dukes to eradicate the Waldensians, the Dukes quietly disobeyed their Pope, finding no fault with these people.

Popes, however, began to see them as a threat to their control. Whatever their reasons, they had no intention of letting Jesus's words be heard straight from his Gospels, and they were absolutely willing to murder and destroy the men and their families who dared undertake such villainy. They branded these Waldensians as heretical monsters first, to legitamize the atrocities they intended. And then they sent their killers. As usual, the Catholic church worked on multiple fronts against their enemy, in this case Waldensians; they employed both the military and politics, sending ambassadors to the rulers local to the Waldensians mountains, threatening those who would not help them to exterminate the Waldensians, and rewarded those who would.

The Popes allocated money at various times from their coffers to buy soldiers (for people gave to the Catholc Church in the name of Jesus, and this money the Popes found useful in destroying those who tried to actually follow Jesus. But the Waldensians were never fully destroyed - very close at times - but never fully.)

In the beginning many parts of Europe had no idea that there even were secret valleys in the foothills of the alps - valleys hard to reach and little traveled, valleys that connected to each other through narrow canyon paths that really only the locals knew. But there were, and still are today. They are described as stunning and secluded, sequestered, and with other such words as these. They are high, but can grow grains and grapes and support livestock. They are really quite productive little valleys if you knew how to farm them, and those who lived there did know the secrets - they had dwelt there for many generations. While the Waldensian presence seems to be mentioned by others from at least the 12th century onward, some historians have suggested that Peter Waldo's followers had joined an already existing group. Which is true I don't know. It seems more generally agreed that the Waldensians were the original settlers, but who really knows?

But as to their persecutions, in the early 1330s there are records saying that Pope John XXII sent Inquisitors on expeditions into the Waldensian valleys, but in this case, the details of what happened are not known. But it marks a period in history when the Popes began to send mercenaries, soldiers, and inquisitors against these mountain Christians. Sometimes to survive the Waldensian's fought back. Sometimes to help them survive, God fought with them. Examples of both sorts include:

In the late 1300's about 150 Waldensian men, women, and children were brought by Inquisitors to Grenoble and burned alive. Note that children were cheerfully burned just as adults were.

In the cold days of December on Christmas Day itself, in the year 1400, an army working for the Pope ambushed the Waldensians (Vaudois) in the valley of Pragelas when they had expected no danger. The Vaudois quickly gathered their children, and carrying their babies and with their old people on their backs they fled as quickly as they could for the high mountain reaches of the nearby Valley of San Martino. They could not all get out in time, and many were cut down as they fled. Of those who made it to the high elevations where the soldiers chose not to follow, they had no shelter and on the first night over 50 froze to death, with mothers holding their babies as they died.

In 1487 came another round. Only 5 years before Columbus's epic first voyage Pope Innocent VIII began laying the verbal groundwork to justify murdering more of the Vaudois. He referred to them as heretics, and suggested they may have to be killed like 'venemous snakes'. Quite 'Innocent' indeed!

The Pope assigned a man named Cantaneo to lead the army, supplied him with Papal letters of authority to show to any local authorities, commanding them to do whatever they were able to support the planned murderings. Then to help Cantaneo raise his army, the Pope issued what might be termed a 'general pardon and absolution' saying that anyone currently in hot water with the Catholic Church for any crime or infraction would have it pardoned if they would join the expedition. This drew all the best sorts of people for the intended murder of the Vaudois. Over 15,000 actual soldiers and maybe just as many desperados joined up together for the massacre of the detested Vaudois. This force of nearly 30,000 troops were told they could keep the property of their defeated foe, thus sweetening the pot.

Cantaneo atacked in two groups, intending to drive in towards different valleys from different directions, and eventually meet somewhere in the midle valleys to finish off the last of the Waldensians.  A man named Lord La Palu was in charge of the second half of Cantaneo's forces.  He came upon a Valley called Loyse and the Waldensians there had time only to flee for the high mountain called Mt Pelvaux which towered  over 5,000 feet above their valley.  Some were killed as they fled, carrying their old and their infants and their belongings as they did.  But over 3,000 made it up to a very large cavern where they had enough provisions for over a year.  And in this cavern - called Aigue-Froid because of the cold water pouring through it - they expected to be safe as it was a hard place to approach safely from below.  But Lord La Palu was crafty, and climbed above their cavern with his troops.  Soldiers lowered suddenly to the cavern's entrance on ropes, catching this group of Waldensians by surprise, so they retreated deeper into the cavern with their families.  The soldiers didn't want to go into the dangerous and unfamiliar depths of the cavern after their quarry, so they lit large fires at the cavern mouth and let the smoke do the work.  The 3,000 Waldensians were killed by the smoke, over 400 infants among them, there in the cavern.    

But the Vaudois/Waldensian farmers and pastors (their pastors were called 'barbas') of the other Waldensian valleys, hearing of the fate of this first valley attacked by La Palu, decided to fight. Praying and singing songs, they climbed to the higher elevations, built shelters and settled into caves, stored some supplies in case it went long, and began to ready the weapons they would use, which were largely home-made wooden pikes, clubs, and the bow and arrow. Their shields were of animal hides fortified with tree bark in many cases.

But though the horse is made ready, the battle belongs to the Lord, right? The first major push up into the heights was met by this rag-tag Vaudois army, and the Papal forces were repulsed. Angry and shamed, Cantaneo prepared for another round. This time, in great numbers, he pushed deep up into their hideout country, and following a narrow little path below which was a steep drop off and above which was a high cliff, he moved towards them. The Vaudois saw his numbers and worried greatly. But an odd thing occurred: above their perilous and narrow path and high up near the mountain peak, a little cloud began to form. It grew, quickly turning into a large cloud, and then a very dark large cloud. Then it descended down upon the enemy soldiers white-knuckling their way along the unfamiliar mountain path.

To the watching Vaudois, this seemed to surely be help from God, so, knowing the terrain well, they quickly moved to places above and all along the path their frightened enemies clung to, blind in the heavy fog. The Vaudois began to fling down rocks and boulders of all sizes upon them, and they panicked, trying to retreat, tangling with each other, falling down the deadly cliffs to their deaths by the hundreds. Some Vaudois took to the actual path they clung to, and raced along it with the familiarity of the mountain bred, and crashed furiously into them with all their might and crude weaponry, slaughtering their terrified attackers. At days end, the forces of the Pope retreated finally to safety having had a demoralizing defeat - a total rout - and suffering giant casualties at the hands of these crudely armed and greatly outnumbered farmer-soldiers of God.

They fought against the Vaudois during much of that year, but nothing went well for the Popes army. Relatively few of the nearly 30,000 Papal troops and mercenary criminals left those valleys alive.

They went through, as the centuries rolled by from the 12th to the 17th, times of peace to times of great persecution, and then back again. Many times they endured this cycle. They were attacked by companies of soldiers and bands of ruffians, all backed by Rome. Yet no one could snuff them out entirely. There were times when deeds that only God could allow were done! There was a time when 3 properly positioned Waldensian men stood off 300 men.

Another time when Rome sent a Captain named La Trinita to lead an attack against the Waldensians in 1561 a mere 6 youths who saw a portion of La Trinita's army (over 1000 soldiers) approaching on the mountains paths hurried to stop them on their own. Seizing a strategic attack point above the narrow path used by Count La Trinita's army, the 6 boys held off the army, and in fact sent in retreating in such panic that many were killed by falling off the narrow path.

The Waldensian legends grew after that, of course. Soldiers have to have a good reason for being defeated so soundly, and all sorts of false stories were circulated. No wonder the Waldensians were misunderstood! They were the stuff of legends among some cultures who did not know them well. Certain rulers of those lands adjacent to the alps had been told such ridiculous aqbout the Waldensians, such as that Waldensian children have only one eye, which was in the center of their forehead, and double rows of black teeth. They were spoken of as if they were a mythical monstrous people.

The beginning of the 16th century found the Waldensians making some compromises with the Catholic Church for the sake of peace - read that survival - a brief lowpoint in their long history of steadfastness.  And when they finally met the people leading the Protestant Revolution which independently spread throughout Europe, those Protestants felt forced to chide the Vaudois for their relatively recent compromises with Rome.

In 1535, the Waldensians reached out and contacted members of the Protestant reformation. They were happy to learn of each other, these two churches. They discussed each other's scripturally based doctrine, and found it essentially the same. The reformers rebuked them gently for compromising with Rome - a rebuke they heeded. They stopped doing so. Also, at this time, a man named Robert Olivetan was commissioned by the Waldensians to produce an Old and New Testament translated into French - a gift by the Waldensians to their newly found brothers of the Protestant Reformation.

Waldensian pastors played an interesting role when they went to battle. With each Waldensian army went two Pastors (called Barbas). They kept up morale, prayed for victory, and called off the attacking Waldensians whenever they had won the victory, so they would not be guilty of shedding unnecessary blood, which might anger God.  If there must be war, this seems like a good role for Pastors. 

There were times when they were attacked, and fleeing to the higher mountains in the dead of winter, they none the less survived the elements by great acts of providence. Once, for instance, an early snow had buried a crop of corn before it could be harvested in some of the highest farmed lands they had, which seemed an agricultural tragedy. But later that winter, when attacked, many fled to that same farms high acreage to avoid the attackers, and they would have starved up there were it not for that corn, preserved on the cob there beneath the snow. Their's is a story of God protecting those who trusted in Him even unto their death.

In the early 1600's it is said that the plague and persecutions and military campaigns against them brought the Waldensians to the point that they had only 2 surviving pastors. Their light almost flickered out.

In 1655 A.D. the Marquis de Pianeza was dispatched to destroy Waldensians with around 15,000 men, and when he attacked them by surprise he sent many fleeing to the mountains. From there they looked down to see their homes burned and there orchard trees axed down, and their property looted. But when they regrouped and fought back on the following days, the Waldensians had such success that, though outnumbered greater than 10 to 1, they sent the invading soldiers fleeing to regroup at a lower altitude.

But then a cruel tactic was employed. Emissaries came up from the invading force to explain that they had only come to these valleys to seek a few criminals and the soldiers had just gotten out of hand, against the orders of their superiors. The commanders apologized, and requested that the Waldensians forgive them, and perhaps provide housing to just one regiment of their soldiers here in the mountains - to complete their mission - while the bulk of the soldiers remained in a camp below. The trusting Waldensians believed him, allowed soldiers to furlough in their homes for several days, and at a predetermined time, they were all ambushed by those living inside their very homes. The Pope's soldiers were able to capture most of that group of Waldensians.

Then began an episode of torture and cruelty so horrendous that it is almost unspeakable. Rather than just killing the Waldensians or selling them as slaves or imprisoning them, they tortured them in ways that surely Satan must have devised. Records were kept by a surviving Waldensian pastor of these atrocities, and a book was written. It enraged most of Europe when the story was told. People skinned alive, infants grabbed by the ankles and dashed against rocks, children torn limb from limb by grown soldiers pulling in opposite directions on an arm or a leg, disembowelments, burnings, fathers marched off to be executed with their childrens heads hanging from their necks, tied there swinging. Rapes of the most foul and cruel sort, of not just women but all ages and sexes. Some were tied to trees and their hearts cut out. Some tied down in their fields and literally plowed under into the dirt while still alive, using a plow. Heads were cooked and brains eaten.  Who in all the European world practised cannabalism?  Yet apparently there were instances of this when the Waldensians were attacked.  

A pastor named Leger went around when the soldiers left and recorded as many accounts as he could. These were made into a book "The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of the Piedmont" contains accounts of this massacre. In England many people were openly incensed at the atrocities.  Oliver Cromwell took up a collection and sent the money to the survivors. Milton (of Paradise Lost fame) wrote a poem about their massacre.

The Waldensian story is better told as a book than in a few short pages, but I'll just end by saying that the peace between the Catholics and the Protestants basically marked the end of the Waldensians more drastic persecutions. They continued worshiping in their mountains then in relative peace. They survived to see freedom, and even a victory of sorts. For when the city of Rome was entered during war in 1870, by powers that were Protestant, there were Waldensians among them carrying Bibles, who eagerly began to spread the word to the lay people in this, the stronghold of their old and vengeful enemy. Preserved for a remnant for so many years, they were allowed this honor of coming through the enemy's gates with the Bible in hand by the Lord I suppose. Their long story of survival and faith is indeed an act of God.

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