The Waldensian Church in the valleys of Piedmont/Chapter I

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Contents of the chapter[edit]

  • Opinions relating to the antiquity of the Vaudois Church
  • Sources of information
  • Two opinions
  • Its derivation from the apostles, and pure descent to the present time
  • Supposition of its having received its name and origin from Peter Waldo
  • The Vaudois Church part of the ancient Italian Church
  • Life of Claude, Archbishop of Turin

Chapter I. The Early Waldensian Church. (pp. 25-36)[edit]


Origin and early history of the Waldensian Church - Biography of Claude, Archbishop of Turin.

ALTHOUGH the origin of the Waldensian Church has long occupied the attention of the learned, like all distant objects, it still remains in partial obscurity, and consequently gives rise to some difference of opinion. But where writers of equal power and respectability disagree, deference and notice are due to the opinions of each; and as neither controversy nor criticism comes within the limits of this little work, instead of presuming to guide by any opinions of our own, we will endeavour to lay before our readers a sketch of the leading views respecting the origin of the Vaudois or Waldensian Church, put forth in the writings of authors of unquestioned eminence and authority.

But to do even this clearly and with the requisite conciseness, demanded much previous investigation and careful


arrangement; and the better to secure the confidence of our readers, we will explain to them that our studies were carried out under such favourable circumstances as procured us not only access to the best authors and MSS., but a personal acquaintance with the country and its inhabitants. In short, like the "busy bee," we have felt it to be our bounden duty, as it was our chief delight, to hasten abroad in the early morning and to work diligently through the long summer day; and having thus collected our store, like her to spare neither time nor effort in moulding it into symmetry and usefulness.

There are two strongly contested opinions respecting the antiquity and derivation of this Church in the Wilderness. It is maintained on one side, that she has preserved her apostolic descent, intact and separate, from the earliest age of Christianity to the present time, without any mixture with other churches, and in total exemption from the errors which have clouded the faith of her Christian sisters. On this side we have the opinion of many eminent writers on prophecy, who point out the Vaudois church as the Western Witness; and also the unwilling testimony of several Roman Catholic authors, who record the tradition that the "heresy," as they term it, "existed in these valleys from all antiquity."[1] The Vaudois themselves maintained, in all their appeals made at various times to their sovereigns, that the religion they followed had been preserved from father to son, and from generation to generation, "from all time, and from time immemorial."[2] Most of their historians support the same opinion. "The Vaudois of the Alps," writes one of the latest, "are, according to our belief, the primitive Christians,


and heirs of the primitive Church, preserved in these valleys secure from the alterations introduced successively by the Roman Catholics into the evangelical faith."[3] Beza pronounces them to be "the seed of the pure Christian Church, - being those who have been appointed by the wontlerful providence of God, whom none of the storms by which the world has been shaken, nor persecution, have been able to prevail on to yield a voluntary submission to Roman tyranny and idolatry." An English historian observes, "With the dawn of history we discover some simple Christians in the valleys of the Alps, where they still exist under the ancient name of the Vaudois, who by the light of the New Testament saw the extraordinary contrast between the purity of primitive times and the vices of the gorgeous hierarchy which surrounded them."[4] The late Rev. Dr. Gilly, than whom no one could have a better right to speak on the subject, in his Preface to the former Edition of the present work, observes: "Whether the Protestant inhabitants of the valleys on each side of the Alps, between the great mountain ranges of Mount Cenis and Mount Viso, can be proved by documentary evidence to derive their Christianity from primitive times or not, this is certain, that from very remote periods there has been a Christianity in this region, different from that of Rome, in the dark, mediæval, and modern ages; and this has been handed down to the present era by a succession of martyrs and confessors, and of other faithful men. The faith and discipline of these Alpine Christians may, at times, have been more or less true to the gospel rule; but their creed and church government have always contained articles


opposed to the pretensions and errors of Rome, as far as we can judge from documents that can be traced up to the fourth century at least. If, therefore, we find truth and evangelical holiness among the Waldenses of Piedmont, when other professors of the gospel in different ages and places went wrong, in the fourth century for example, and again in the ninth and eleventh, in the twelfth and thirteenth, and in the sixteenth century - if we can take epochs at random, and still find vestiges of the pure gospel at the foot of the Cottian Alps, long before the Reformation - we may conclude that the gospel was transmitted, and preserved among them, from primitive times. It is surely more probable that the "men of the valleys," shepherds and husbandmen, should retain the truth, as it was first delivered to them, than that they should be able to discover it amidst the darkness of the twelfth century, when all Christendom was departing farther and farther from the light, under the false teaching of subtle schoolmen, and ambitious and licentious hierarchs.

"At such a remote period did our Piedmontese valleys exhibit the stamp of early evangelization."

We need not multiply authorities, or nothing would be more easy; but we cannot refrain from adding that of one who will not be accused of partiality towards any form of Christianity: "It is an extraordinary fact," observes Voltaire, after affirming the antiquity of the Vaudois Church as the remains of the first Christians of Gaul, "that these men, almost unknown to the rest of the world, should constantly have persevered, from time immemorial, in usages which have been changed everywhere else."[5]


We will now say a few words on the opinions of the other party on this contested point, who, whilst bearing an equally favourable testimony to the purity and fidelity of the Vaudois Church, assign her a more recent origin, maintaining that she received both her faith and her appellation from the merchant Reformer of Lyons, Peter Waldo, of whom we shall speak hereafter. They, too, quote from the Roman Catholic writers. Allian de l'Ile, or de Lille, who lived at the end of the twelfth century, speaks of the Vaudois as "wolves in sheep's clothing, called Valdenses, from the name of their leader, Valdus." Pierre de Vaus-Cernay, an author known at the beginning of the thirteenth century, styles them, "the heretics called Valdenses, after the name of one Valdus of Lyons." And a few of the more modern historians take the same side, considering it a sufficient honour for the Vaudois Church "to be descended from a simple layman of Lyons, whose piety, moderation, and courage may serve us for a perpetual example, and to have brought out the truths of the Gospel three ages before the Reformation, as well as to have preserved it since that time amid sufferings and privation."[6] And high praise it un doubtedly is; but we must not therefore omit to state the objections raised against this view of the subject, even by those who equally esteem the intrepid Reformer of Lyons. Again we refer to our opponents - for instance, to the bull of Pope Urban II., which sets forth that the Vaudois had been "infected with heresy from the year 1096," long before the birth of Peter Waldo. We may also again quote the assertion of Pierre de Vaus-Cernay, who in his laudatory history of Simon de Montfort, observes, that "this great Defender of the Faith especially signalized himself in his extermination


of that pernicious heresy which already, in the year 1017, had raised its head in Orleans." We might greatly multiply our quotations on this head also, but must proceed to give the objections raised to this derivation of the Vaudois Church on other grounds. It is pleaded that the followers of Peter Waldo are usually termed the "poor men of Lyons," and not Waldenses - that "the appellation of Vallense or Valdesi in Italian, Vaudois in French, and Waldenses in English ecclesiastical history, means neither more nor less than 'men of the valleys;'"[7] and further, as surnames were not then in use (men deriving their individual designation from some place or circumstance connected with their history), that it is more probable that Peter himself gained his appellation of Waldo, or Valdo, from his adoption of the principles of the Waldensian Church.

A third view of the history of this isolated Church, somewhat modified from that of the first, as explained above, seems to gain ground in the opinion of those most interested and best read in the subject. We will give a short summary of it, extracted from the pages of a modern periodical,[8] in which it is very ably sustained.

It is assumed by the author that the Vaudois, who, as we have already stated, once inhabited a much larger extent of territory than they now possess, formed a portion of the primitive Christian Church planted in Italy, and remained attached to the same as long as she herself continued true to her original faith. There are abundant proofs given in yet existing manuscripts of the long fidelity to the Bible, and constant protestation against encroaching error, of the bishops of Milan and Turin, commencing as early as the fourth century, and continuing still unsilenced in the


ninth. St. Ambrose, the illustrious Bishop of Milan, who died A.D. 397, was styled, amongst other titles,[9] "the Rock of the Church," and well deserved the appellation from the sound divinity of his writings, his intense reverence for Scripture, and his steady opposition to idolatrous innovation. Many more names of faithful prelates (among their number that of Philastrius, Bishop of Brescia, and of his successor, Guadentius), with a succession of protesting witnesses, are preserved in the pages of the learned, and in the time-worn MSS. of the continental libraries; but we can only transfer into our little work a short biographical notice of one, in some respects, the most eminent amongst them - the justly celebrated Claude, Archbishop of Turin.

It is the general opinion of the Vaudois historians, that the connection of their Church with the Episcopal Church of Italy ceased soon after the death of this distinguished man. "It was not," writes one of the latest, "the Vaudois who separated from Catholicism, but Catholicism which separated from them, by modifying the primitive faith."[10]

Angilbert, Bishop of Milan, writing of the terrible and growing corruptions of the Church to the Emperor Louis I., remarks with exultation, that "in his diocese the goodness of God had raised up a true Christian champion," referring to the excellent Claude. This truly apostolic overseer of the flock of Christ was born in Spain towards the end of the eighth century. Though early exposed to the temptations of a court, yet, by God's blessing on the excellent


instruction of Felix, Bishop of Urgel, of whom he was a disciple, he withstood them all, and gained the confidence of his royal master, Louis, surnamed the Débonnaire. Whilst in the comparatively humble situation of one of the court chaplains, the young divine displayed great talents for preaching, and the same fearless defence of truth as characterised his more matured ministry. "I teach no new doctrine," he replied to those who termed the tenets of the Bible heresy, "but I keep myself to the pure truth; and I will persist in opposing to the uttermost all superstitions." When his royal master became Emperor of Germany, he immediately appointed Claude to the bishopric of Turin, adding to it the title of Archbishop. Here his first object was to destroy the images, which had gained a recent entrance into the churches, and then to abolish every ceremony that he considered incompatible with the simplicity of apostolic teaching. And thus, unmoved by the temptations of ambition as he had been by the seductions of pleasure, Claude continued to combat error, to oppose innovation, and to keep the Church committed to him free from the idolatrous rites and anti-Christian dogmas which were, even then, sapping the foundations of the apostolic faith.

How delightful it must have been to the little flock on the mountains to range themselves under the protecting crook of this faithful shepherd! for the Vaudois are essentially a submissive and loyal people, yielding a ready obedience to authority, and looking on their duty to their rulers as only secondary to that they owe to the laws of their God. In the year 815, this indefatigable servant of God wrote three books on Genesis, and a commentary on St. Matthew's Gospel; in the following year, another on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians; and in subsequent periods, treatises on


other parts of the sacred volume, at the especial request of the emperor, who desired to have a commentary from the same pen on each of the epistles. There are yet found MSS. of Claude's on various subjects; but his commentary on the Galatians is the only one that has been printed, and of this - such has been the zeal of the Inquisition in its destruction - scarcely one copy remains.

Job exclaims, in the ardour of self-extenuation, "O that mine enemy had written a book!" Our good bishop might well have expressed the same wish, for it is a curious fact, that fragments of the work so sedulously destroyed have been preserved in the manuscripts of his opponent and former friend, Jonas of Orleans. We will give one or two extracts, to prove that the Church of Rome was only then beginning to admit the errors which have since so thickly crowded on her. On the vital one of Transubstantiation, which our apostolic bishop combats throughout all his writings, he observes: "The bread is the representative of Christ's mystical body - the wine the symbol of His blood." On the worship of images he asks, "Why adore images? but here is what the miserable sectarians say, 'It is in memory of the Saviour that we worship and adore the painted cross erected to His honour.' Nothing pleases them in our Lord but what delighted even the impious - the opprobrium of His passion, and the ignominy of His death; looking always at the agony of His passion without heeding the words of the apostle, 'Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we Him no more (thus).'" Again the bishop remarks, "If men are commanded not to adore and serve the works of God's hands, there is much stronger reason for not serving and adoring the works of men's hands," etc. And then, in honest scorn,


he bids them "adore the cradle, the manger, the ship," etc., etc., adding, "But ah! this is ridiculous, and we would much rather lament it than write it; but we are obliged to answer fools according to their folly, and to hurl against hearts of stone, not the darts and missiles of the word, but darts of steel. ... God commands one thing, these men another. God commands to bear the cross, not to adore it. These persons would adore it, while they bear it neither corporeally nor spiritually. To serve God in this manner is to forsake Him."

This excellent man continued his written attacks on the growing errors of the Church until 823, and his courage and integrity knew no abatement until his death sixteen years after. Although his doctrines were attacked, nothing could lessen the honour and esteem in which he was held. He had a large party at the court who lived in separation from the Church of Rome; whilst the decision of the Council of Frankfort against the worship of images, A.D. 794, when the great Charlemagne was present, as well as that of Paris, A.D. 826, to the same effect, prove that at that period both the presence of images in their worship, and the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, met with decided opposition.

After the death of the intrepid Claude, about the year 839, we still read of protestations made for some time by the Italian bishops against the assumptions and corruptions of the Papacy. But the voice of remonstrance grew fainter and fainter until it was entirely hushed. Ambition and luxury seduced the great ones of the earth, and the lonely Church of the Valleys became the sole witness of the West - the enduring, not seceding Church of Christ.

In addition to the authorities already quoted, we may bring forward the valuable testimony of a modern Piedmon-


tese historian, and a Roman Catholic, for the assumption that the separation of the two churches took place not long subsequently to the death of Claude. "This Bishop of Turin," writes the Marquis Costa de Beauregard,[11] "a man of eloquence and austere manners, had a great number of partisans. These persons, anathematized by the Pope, and persecuted by the lay princes, were chased from the open country, and forced to take refuge in the mountains, where they have kept their ground from that time, always checked, but always endeavouring to extend themselves." And there they have remained, a line of protesting witnesses, verifying their own significant motto, "LUX LUCET IN TENEBRIS;" their lamp throwing its bright though shaded light through the gloom of the Middle Ages. Thus, as the Roman Church apostatized, the Vaudois Church was developed - as the bishops seceded, the barbes[12] came forward.

Is, then, the Vaudois Church of Episcopalian or Presbyterian origin? The question has been often canvassed; for each denomination has claimed her, and each with some reason. If the proofs of her apostolic antiquity be ad mitted, it must also be conceded that she was early gathered, and long remained under the guidance of the bishops of Italy; and that the separation did not take place until after the death of Claude, Archbishop of Turin, in whose diocese the valleys of the Vaudois were comprised, and whose evangelical writings are in strict accordance with those of their Church.

The conscientious deference to authority evidenced throughout the history of the Vaudois Church, together with the silence of their early writings and ecclesiastical


documents on the peculiar tenets of the Genevan Church, must also be admitted in evidence of her ancient Episcopalian training. Still, in pursuing her after-history, we shall find her equally submissive to the rule of the Presbytery, and receiving both her form of worship and her pastors (under the pressure of very extraordinary circumstances) from that body with whose ecclesiastical polity she has now, for nearly three centuries, continued in the closest connection. The union of the two Churches has been further cemented by gratitude for the sympathy and aid which that of Geneva has ever shown towards her suffering sister, as well as by the further link of a ministry trained in her colleges; the Vaudois youth having, until the endowment of their college in their own valleys, received their education in foreign seminaries. Still, under all circumstances, it must be allowed that the little Church in the valleys submissively followed the path pointed out to them in the unmistakable leadings of Providence; and if this sometimes required them to yield in matters non-essential to salvation, they never lost the characteristics of a Christian Church, so admirably defined by their own historian and pastor[13] - namely,

"A simple and sincere conformity to the sacred Word;
A holy life and conversation;
Persecution, and the cross."


  1. Claude Seyssyl, etc., etc.
  2. "Da ogni tempo, e da tempo immemoriale."
  3. Muston's Israel des Alpes.
  4. Sir J. Mackintosh.
  5. Additions à l'histoire générale. 12mo. pp. 57-71.
  6. Israel des Alpes, p. 22.
  7. Dr. Gilly's Waldensian Researches.
  8. Buona Novella, Turin.
  9. "Virtutum episcopum, arcem fidei, oratorem catholicum." Allix on the Ancient Churches of Piedmont, 8vo, p. 15.
  10. Israel des Alpes, ii. p. 11.
  11. Mémoires Historiques par le Marquis Costa de Beauregard, vol. ii., p. 50.
  12. The name given to their pastors, signifying uncle in the language of the country.
  13. Léger.