The valiant Vaudois
Many people think that the only ‘Christian’ churches in existence before the sixteenth century Reformation were the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches – but they are mistaken.
Actually, down through the centuries isolated groups have clung to the major doctrines and teachings of God’s Word which were revived by such reformers as Luther and Calvin. One such group was known as the ‘Vaudois’ or ‘Waldenses’, who held true to Jesus Christ and God’s Word in the valleys of the Alps.
Some historians maintain that these people were followers of Peter Waldo, a godly French merchant of Lyons, France, who preached the gospel during the twelfth century. But the Vaudois themselves insisted that they had maintained the faith for centuries before that. It is thought, however, that Waldo was one of them.
The church in Turin
The early Vaudois were Italians who lived in the Piedmont area in north-western Italy. Many Christians may have fled for their lives to this part of Italy when the barbarian hordes swept down on Rome from the north in the third century AD.
For centuries most of the bishops of north-western Italy stayed true to the gospel. During the ninth century Claude, Bishop of Turin, waged a courageous battle to keep his church independent of Rome.
Claude wrote expositions on God’s Word and preached the gospel in the valleys of the Alps. Rejecting the spurious doctrine of salvation by works, he maintained that faith in Jesus Christ alone saves.
He held that the Lord’s Supper was a service of remembrance and the elements only symbolic of Christ’s body and blood. He condemned the worship of images and removed them from the churches in his diocese. This valiant crusader for the truth of God’s Word also repudiated prayers for the dead, the magical property of relics, and the authority of tradition.
In AD 1059 Rome finally succeeded in gaining control of the diocese of Milan. Tumult filled the Lombard churches and turmoil the hearts of the people. Many true Christians fled to live with their brethren in the Alps where they might maintain their scriptural faith.
The Vaudois had a school to train pastors and missionaries in Pra-del-Tor, a valley deep in the Alps. These men memorised whole chapters of God’s Word, which had been translated into their language, Romaine. Their textbook was the Bible.
In addition, they learned trades – becoming physicians, surgeons, or merchants. When they had been properly prepared and ordained, these men went out two by two; an older more experienced man and a younger novice.
While practising their trades the Vaudois spread the gospel and founded churches all over Italy, in France, Spain, Germany, Bohemia and Poland. Occasionally, when their true errand was discovered, they were burned at the stake.
Some historians believe that in AD 1210 the Waldenses had churches in Slavonia, Sarmatia and Livonia. In both Venice and Genoa as many as 6,000 followed the Vaudois faith.
Reynerius the Jesuit (1250) stigmatised the Vaudois as ‘the most dangerous of all heretics, because the most ancient’. Under the guise of a holy crusade, persecution was initiated against the Vaudois and the Albigenses between 1207 and 1209 by Pope Innocent. The persecution continued off and on against these godly people until at least the seventeenth century.
Whole towns of Vaudois were wiped out. Their possessions and lands were confiscated by the Roman Catholic Church. The women were ravished by brutal soldiers in their ‘holy crusade’ and then killed. Men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and put to death in the name of religion.
The power-hungry tyrant, Menier d’Oppede, persecuted the Vaudois in Province, Merindol and Bariere during the early 1500s – using the charge of heresy to murder them and confiscate their property.
He and his armed men would seize a Valdois farmer and command him to pray to saints such as Mary or Peter. ‘There is but one mediator between God and man’, the Vaudois would answer, ‘and that is he who is himself both God and man, even Christ’.
According to Alexsis Muston in The Israel of the Alps (1851), ‘The heretic would then be dragged to the caverns beneath the chateau d’Oppede, and there remain until he paid a heavy ransom, or till death released him – in which case his captor confiscated all his property for his own use’.
Many lies were told about the Vaudois by priests to persuade the rulers to persecute them. Some of these calumnies, such as the accusations that the Vaudois practised witchcraft and preached Manichean heresy, are still extant today.
When Philip VII, Duke of Savoy and supreme lord of the Piedmont, tried to stop the persecution of the Vaudois in his territories, the priests told him that these were ‘a wicked set of people, and highly addicted to intemperance, uncleanness, blasphemy, adultery, incest, and many other abominable crimes; and that they were even monsters in nature, for their children were born with black throats, with four rows of teeth, and bodies all over hairy’ (Foxe’s Book of martyrs).
The duke sent twelve gentlemen to investigate these charges. They reported that the Vaudois were harmless, inoffensive, loyal, friendly, industrious and pious, and that they had ‘as fine children as could be seen’.
In spite of centuries of persecution the Vaudois stayed true to their faith in the Lord and his Word. In all these things they were more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). The Vaudois also established fellowship with the Protestants in Switzerland and Germany.
God has always preserved faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel. Even today many dedicated brothers and sisters in Christ in Communist, Moslem and Hindu lands are suffering persecution and death for their faith in Christ.
If the time comes that we too must face the opposition of anti-Christian forces and stand in jeopardy of our lives, let us remember the valiant Vaudois and follow in their train.