Why Not Try This? …Learn Lessons from the Waldenses

We sat around a giant stone slab table in the cool, dark room. I could hardly believe that my college-aged sons, Jacob and Dustin, and I were here in the Waldensian Valleys of Italy. In the dim light we took turns reading The Great Controversy chapter 4 titled The Waldenses from my PDA.

For centuries Waldensian youth had copied large portions of the Bible by hand in this very room on this very table before the printing press was invented. They had been trained here at the College of the Barbs [uncles, elders, church leaders] to go throughout Europe as merchants or college students to keep Bible truth alive during the spiritual darkness of the Dark Ages.

Now hundreds of years later, in May 2007, the three of us had driven to Torre Pellice and the Valleys of the Waldenses one hour southwest of Turin (Torino) Italy near the French border to learn more.

Though many modern scholars today (see for example the Catholic Encyclopedia article “Waldenses”) claim that the Waldenses originated with Peter Waldo in the 12th Century there is good reason to believe that they were actually a spiritual and Biblical continuation of the apostolic church from the time of Jesus. In his monumental work Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Volume one), Leroy Edwin Froom makes a powerful case for this by doing extensive research using ancient documents of both the persecutors/Inquisitors of the Waldenses and their early leaders (see pages 829-886, 937-952).

As Pagan Rome persecuted Christians in the earliest centuries the church spread more and more rapidly. Early church leader Tertullian said “In the blood of the martyrs lies the seed of the Church.” But from the time of Constantine onward Christianity became popular and the Roman Empire morphed into the Roman Church Empire, a religious and political union. Wherever the Roman armies went they took the Roman brand of Christianity with them.

Throughout the former Roman Empire this led to a separation from the Roman Church system by many groups who gave priority to the Bible over church tradition and papal decrees. The Waldenses (”people of the valleys”) were one of these groups. The “woman” of Revelation 12 was fleeing into the wilderness for 1260 years to a place prepared for her by God (Revelation 12:5, 14).

Columba, the Irish missionary, began the training school on the Scottish island of Iona and sent missionaries throughout Europe in the 6th Century. Some of his followers could have been the forerunners of the Waldenses of the Dark Ages. Iona became known as the “Light of the Western World” for several centuries and later the motto of the Waldenses became “Light Shines in the Darkness.”

Here are seven lessons we learned from the history of the Waldenses.

Lesson #1- Role of the Bible.

The Bible was the final authority in all of life, including worship, lifestyle, mission and the training of youth. It was studied, copied, and applied to the life even if it meant persecution and death.

“The Waldenses were among the first of the peoples of Europe to obtain a translation of the Holy Scriptures. Hundreds of years before the Reformation they possessed the Bible in manuscript in their native tongue. They had the truth unadulterated, and this rendered them the special objects of hatred and persecution. They declared the Church of Rome to be the apostate Babylon of the Apocalypse, and at the peril of their lives they stood up to resist her corruptions….{The Great Controversy p. 65.2}

Among the leading causes that had led to the separation of the true church from Rome was the hatred of the latter toward the Bible Sabbath…..The papal leaders…demanded not only that Sunday be hallowed, but that the Sabbath be profaned; and they denounced in the strongest language those who dared to show it honor. It was only by fleeing from the power of Rome that any could obey God’s law in peace.” {The Great Controversy p. 65.1}

“To the Waldenses the Scriptures were not merely a record of God’s dealings with men in the past, and a revelation of the responsibilities and duties of the present, but an unfolding of the perils and glories of the future. They believed that the end of all things was not far distant, and as they studied the Bible with prayer and tears they were the more deeply impressed with its precious utterances and with their duty to make known to others its saving truths. They saw the plan of salvation clearly revealed in the sacred pages, and they found comfort, hope, and peace in believing in Jesus. As the light illuminated their understanding and made glad their hearts, they longed to shed its beams upon those who were in the darkness of papal error.” {The Great Controversy, p. 72.1}

They truly lived their motto “Lux Lucet In Tenebris”-Light shines in the Darkness.

We can each ask “What role does the Bible play in my life? Is it valued so much that I won’t let a day go by without carefully studying it to find something to apply to my life and to share with someone else?”

Lesson #2- Training youth.

Young people were taught to recognize God in nature, to endure hardship, to think for themselves, to submit to their parents’ authority and to copy and memorize large portions of the Bible.

“Pure, simple, and fervent was the piety of these followers of Christ. The principles of truth they valued above houses and lands, friends, kindred, even life itself. These principles they earnestly sought to impress upon the hearts of the young. From earliest childhood the youth were instructed in the Scriptures and taught to regard sacredly the claims of the law of God. Copies of the Bible were rare; therefore its precious words were committed to memory. Many were able to repeat large portions of both the Old and the New Testament. Thoughts of God were associated alike with the sublime scenery of nature and with the humble blessings of daily life. Little children learned to look with gratitude to God as the giver of every favor and every comfort.” {The Great Controversy, p. 67.1}

“Parents, tender and affectionate as they were, loved their children too wisely to accustom them to self-indulgence. Before them was a life of trial and hardship, perhaps a martyr’s death. They were educated from childhood to endure hardness, to submit to control, and yet to think and act for themselves. Very early they were taught to bear responsibilities, to be guarded in speech, and to understand the wisdom of silence. One indiscreet word let fall in the hearing of their enemies might imperil not only the life of the speaker, but the lives of hundreds of his brethren; for as wolves hunting their prey did the enemies of truth pursue those who dared to claim freedom of religious faith.” {The Great Controversy, p. 67.2}

“From their pastors the youth received instruction. While attention was given to branches of general learning, the Bible was made the chief study. The Gospels of Matthew and John were committed to memory, with many of the Epistles. They were employed also in copying the Scriptures. Some manuscripts contained the whole Bible, others only brief selections, to which some simple explanations of the text were added by those who were able to expound the Scriptures. Thus were brought forth the treasures of truth so long concealed by those who sought to exalt themselves above God.” {The Great Controversy, p. 68.2}

“From their schools in the mountains some of the youth were sent to institutions of learning in the cities of France or Italy, where was a more extended field for study, thought, and observation than in their native Alps. The youth thus sent forth were exposed to temptation, they witnessed vice, they encountered Satan’s wily agents, who urged upon them the most subtle heresies and the most dangerous deceptions. But their education from childhood had been of a character to prepare them for all this. {The Great Controversy, p. 69.3}

We can each ask “Do I have children in my home, church or school who could benefit from some of the methods of the Waldenses? Is it time to refocus children’s and youth Sabbath Schools and the church school curriculum to be sure it is Bible-based and that young people are truly being prepared to avoid dangerous deceptions? Can home training be better emphasized from the pulpit and modeled in my home?”

Lesson #3- Training pastors.

In addition to the regular training every Waldensian youth received, each future pastor learned a trade to support himself. He spent three years in evangelistic mission service with an older, more experienced worker to teach him a spirit of self-denial and sacrifice before being assigned a church at home. This “missionary internship” also gave him experience in his future responsibilities of preaching the gospel, visiting the sick, training the children, counseling the wayward and settling differences among believers to promote unity within the church.

“Their pastors, unlike the lordly priests of Rome, followed the example of their Master, who “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” They fed the flock of God, leading them to the green pastures and living fountains of His holy word. Far from the monuments of human pomp and pride the people assembled, not in magnificent churches or grand cathedrals, but beneath the shadow of the mountains, in the Alpine valleys, or, in time of danger, in some rocky stronghold, to listen to the words of truth from the servants of Christ. The pastors not only preached the gospel, but they visited the sick, catechized [carefully instructed] the children, admonished the erring, and labored to settle disputes and promote harmony and brotherly love. In times of peace they were sustained by the freewill offerings of the people; but, like Paul the tentmaker, each learned some trade or profession by which, if necessary, to provide for his own support.” {The Great Controversy, p. 68.1}

”The Vaudois [Waldensian] ministers were trained as missionaries, everyone who expected to enter the ministry being required first to gain an experience as an evangelist. Each was to serve three years in some mission field before taking charge of a church at home. This service, requiring at the outset self-denial and sacrifice, was a fitting introduction to the pastor’s life in those times that tried men’s souls. The youth who received ordination to the sacred office saw before them, not the prospect of earthly wealth and glory, but a life of toil and danger, and possibly a martyr’s fate. The missionaries went out two and two, as Jesus sent forth His disciples. With each young man was usually associated a man of age and experience, the youth being under the guidance of his companion, who was held responsible for his training, and whose instruction he was required to heed. These colaborers were not always together, but often met for prayer and counsel, thus strengthening each other in the faith.” {The Great Controversy, p. 70.2}

We can each ask “What am I doing to mentor a young person in ministry? How can I develop elders and young adults to be workers for God in preaching, visitation, training the youth and helping members live in harmony with each other? If I am a pastor in training what can I do to gain missionary experience and learn the lessons of sacrifice and self-denial?”

Lesson #4- Missionary Zeal.

The Waldenses did not simply hide out in the valleys where they lived. As they studied the Bible, accepted the gospel and the Bible truths, and saw the prophecies being fulfilled they devised every means possible to tell the entire world about the hope in their hearts. Children and youth were trained from their mother’s knee to share Jesus and the Bible for the rest of their lives.

The spirit of Christ is a missionary spirit. The very first impulse of the renewed heart is to bring others also to the Saviour. Such was the spirit of the Vaudois Christians. They felt that God required more of them than merely to preserve the truth in its purity in their own churches; that a solemn responsibility rested upon them to let their light shine forth to those who were in darkness; by the mighty power of God’s word they sought to break the bondage which Rome had imposed….” {The Great Controversy, p. 70.2}

“…some of the youth were sent to institutions of learning in the cities of France or Italy. In the schools whither they went, they were not to make confidants of any. Their garments were so prepared as to conceal their greatest treasure–the precious manuscripts of the Scriptures. These, the fruit of months and years of toil, they carried with them, and whenever they could do so without exciting suspicion, they cautiously placed some portion in the way of those whose hearts seemed open to receive the truth. From their mother’s knee the Waldensian youth had been trained with this purpose in view; they understood their work and faithfully performed it. Converts to the true faith were won in these institutions of learning, and frequently its principles were found to be permeating the entire school; yet the papal leaders could not, by the closest inquiry, trace the so-called corrupting heresy to its source.” {The Great Controversy, p. 69.3-70.1}

“The work of these missionaries began in the plains and valleys at the foot of their own mountains, but it extended far beyond these limits. With naked feet and in garments coarse and travel-stained as were those of their Master, they passed through great cities and penetrated to distant lands. Everywhere they scattered the precious seed. Churches sprang up in their path, and the blood of martyrs witnessed for the truth. The day of God will reveal a rich harvest of souls garnered by the labors of these faithful men. Veiled and silent, the word of God was making its way through Christendom and meeting a glad reception in the homes and hearts of men.” {The Great Controversy, p. 71.2}

In many cases the messenger of truth was seen no more. He had made his way to other lands, or he was wearing out his life in some unknown dungeon, or perhaps his bones were whitening on the spot where he had witnessed for the truth. But the words he had left behind could not be destroyed. They were doing their work in the hearts of men; the blessed results will be fully known only in the judgment.” {The Great Controversy, p. 75.4}

We can each ask “Do I have a missionary zeal? Can I remember how wonderful it was the first time I understood the plan of redemption and the blessings of Bible truths? How can I step out of my comfort zone this week to share Jesus and Bible truth with someone else? How can I motivate and mobilize my congregation in being bolder in sharing the Adventist message with all our community?”

Lesson #5- Faithful till Death.

Although persecuted off and on for centuries, the Waldenses would rather lose possessions, property, comfort and even life itself than to participate in false religion or abandon their Bible faith.

Some of these persecutions are detailed in J.A. Wylie’s book History of the Waldenses. Sometimes they were driven farther up into their valleys. Other times they had their homes and property confiscated. Their leaders were burned at the stake. And sometimes they were slaughtered by the thousands for not attending mass or surrendering to the demands of the Roman Church system and the governments she influenced. The noted poet John Milton wrote a poem “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont” in 1655 about a particularly bloody persecution. Oliver Cromwell, leader of England, intervened at one point to prevent the total annihilation of the Waldenses.

“The history of God’s people during the ages of darkness that followed upon Rome’s supremacy is written in heaven, but they have little place in human records. Few traces of their existence can be found, except in the accusations of their persecutors. It was the policy of Rome to obliterate every trace of dissent from her doctrines or decrees. Everything heretical, whether persons or writings, she sought to destroy. Expressions of doubt, or questions as to the authority of papal dogmas, were enough to forfeit the life of rich or poor, high or low. Rome endeavored also to destroy every record of her cruelty toward dissenters. Papal councils decreed that books and writings containing such records should be committed to the flames. Before the invention of printing, books were few in number, and in a form not favorable for preservation; therefore there was little to prevent the Romanists from carrying out their purpose.” {The Great Controversy, p. 61.2}

“When Rome at one time determined to exterminate the hated sect, a bull [order, decree] was issued by the pope [Innocent VIII in 1487], condemning them as heretics, and delivering them to slaughter. They were not accused as idlers, or dishonest, or disorderly; but it was declared that they had an appearance of piety and sanctity that seduced “the sheep of the true fold.” Therefore the pope ordered “that malicious and abominable sect of malignants,” if they “refuse to abjure, to be crushed like venomous snakes.”–Wylie, b. 16, ch. 1… {The Great Controversy, p. 77.1}

“This bull called upon all members of the church to join the crusade against the heretics. As an incentive to engage in this cruel work, it “absolved from all ecclesiastical pains and penalties, general and particular; it released all who joined the crusade from any oaths they might have taken; it legitimatized their title to any property they might have illegally acquired; and promised remission of all their sins to such as should kill any heretic. It annulled all contracts made in favor of Vaudois, ordered their domestics to abandon them, forbade all persons to give them any aid whatever, and empowered all persons to take possession of their property.”–Wylie, b. 16, ch. 1. This document clearly reveals the master spirit behind the scenes. It is the roar of the dragon, and not the voice of Christ, that is heard therein.” {The Great Controversy, p. 77.2}

“While, under the pressure of long-continued persecution, some compromised their faith, little by little yielding its distinctive principles, others held fast the truth. Through ages of darkness and apostasy there were Waldenses who denied the supremacy of Rome, who rejected image worship as idolatry, and who kept the true Sabbath. Under the fiercest tempests of opposition they maintained their faith. Though gashed by the Savoyard spear, and scorched by the Romish fagot, they stood unflinchingly for God’s word and His honor.” {The Great Controversy p. 65.2}

Sometimes God rescued them miraculously as He did Peter from prison (Acts 12:1-23). Other times he allowed His followers to suffer in prison and die like James the Apostle (Acts 12:1-2) or John the Baptist (Matthew 11:1-14).

We can each ask “Do I love Jesus enough to die for Him? Do I value the truths of the Bible enough to follow them no matter what the cost? Do I realize that there is a life and death struggle for my soul going on every day and I can choose to place myself on the side of Jesus?”

Lesson #6- Dangers of Abandoning the Sabbath.

For many centuries the Waldenses were faithful seventh-day Sabbath keepers. As time passed and persecution took its toll, some abandoned conscientious Sabbath keeping. Finally, in 1532, when the Waldenses officially joined the Reformation “after much debate,” they agreed to preach and teach only the official doctrines of the Reformers, which included recognizing Sunday, rather than the Sabbath, as the “Lord’s Day”

Some of the names used for the Waldenses in the Dark Ages were “Insabbatati,” “Sabbatati,” and Sabotiers.” Some claim they received these titles from the wooden sandals (sabots) they wore but Dr. Gerard Damsteegt from the Department of Church History at Andrews University Seminary points out that there is evidence that these terms came instead from their practice of observing the Bible Sabbath and ignoring the church-designated holy days (click here for more evidence). In fact one papal Inquisitor stated “For centuries evangelical bodies, especially the Waldenses, were called Insabbati because of Sabbath-keeping.” Gui, Manueld’ Inquisiteur. Another report of an Inquisition before whom were brought some Waldenses of Moravia in the middle of the fifteenth century declares that among the Waldenses “not a few indeed celebrate the Sabbath with the Jews.” (Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger Reports on the History of the Sects of the Middle Ages)

Pastor Long, retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor and former president of the Italian Union of Seventh-day Adventist Churches lives in Torre Pellice with his wife. He has Waldensian ancestry. He says that when the Waldenses officially joined the Reformation in 1532 at Chamforan they ceased to be a movement and became an institution instead.

Ellen White visited the Waldensian Valleys twice during her time in Europe (1885-1887). By this time several hundred years had passed since the Waldenses had proclaimed and kept the Bible Sabbath. When asked by their leaders to speak to the people she spoke on the eternal nature of God’s law which, of course, includes the Sabbath commandment. There were only a few who made their decision to return to their roots, both as Waldenses and as apostolic Christians.

It is also interesting to note that the first Seventh-day Adventist baptized on the continent of Europe was baptized in 1865 in the Waldensian Valleys through the efforts of a dedicated German lay member, nine years before John N. Andrews our first Seventh-day Adventist missionary arrived in Europe.

We can each ask “Have I learned to find joy in keeping the Sabbath holy? Do I look forward to Friday sunset more than Saturday sunset? Am I modeling and teaching and preaching the blessings of faithful Sabbath observance to those in my circle of influence?”

Lesson #7- Mission Amnesia.

Today the Waldensian Church has merged with the Methodist Church in Italy and is part of the Ecumenical Movement. Their past is more thrilling than their future. Their museum is more active than most of their church buildings. Their ethnic heritage is stronger than their spiritual heritage. And when they speak of the Glorious Return they are referring to an event in 1689 led by a man (Henri Arnaud) rather than the return of Jesus Christ in all His glory to take His people home with Him.

In 1848 the civil authorities finally granted the Waldenses full religious and civil rights, effectively ending persecution. For a few years in the 19th century the Waldenses sent pastors, teachers and colporteurs all over Italy to establish Waldensian communities. According to a Waldensian brochure we purchased during our visit “The Concordat of 1929 between the Vatican and Fascist Italy confirmed the marginalization of Italian Protestantism. The Evangelical Churches withdrew into themselves, looking for strength in their traditions.”

We can each ask “How focused am I on my identity as a Seventh-day Adventist believer? Does my heart burn with joy as I think of the nearness of the second coming of Jesus? Have I devoted my life to taking the Adventist message to all the world in this generation if possible? Does the way I spend my time, money and energy show that I can hardly wait for the return of Jesus?”

“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, p. 78.1}

The History of the Waldenses provides both inspiration and caution for the Advent Movement. Why not pick one of these lessons and do something about it this week.

Blessings to you

Dan Serns

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