It was only a matter of time before the church authorities based in Rome would impose their will on the peaceful “People of the Valley”. The crime of the Waldensians was their arrogance in possessing and reading a Bible, and also not recognising the Vatican in Rome as the supreme authority on all spiritual matters.
Pope Lucius III excommunicated the Waldensians in the year 1184 setting in motion five hundred years of severe persecution that almost annihilated these faithful people. Labelled as heretics their communities were pursued not just in north-western Italy, but also France, Germany, and Spanish-controlled southern Italy. In these regions Waldensian towns were torched and their entire population’s murdered or imprisoned. They were hunted through the forests and when they were discovered hiding in caves they were smoked out. Those that didn’t perish in the caves were put to the sword trying to escape. Old men, nursing mothers, and young children were imprisoned and starved, and others sent on death marches over steep cliffs.
The massacre that is most remembered is the “Bloody Easter of Piedmont” in 1655. The Duke of Savoy issued a law that the Waldensian communities in these mountains should show hospitality to the 15,000 troops he was sending to bring peace to the region. The Waldensians unfortunately complied and had these soldiers stay with them in their towns and homes. The Duke’s plan was to punish these people for not attending a Catholic Church and also send a barbaric signal to any other community who intended to follow a faith other than the one sanctioned by Rome.
So, just before dawn on Saturday, 24th of April 1655, the signal was given and the Easter massacre of Piedmont began. What followed shocked the governments and people of Europe. Here is the eye-witness account of a Waldensian minister, Peter Leger:
“Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first raped, then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.”
Nearly two thousand Waldensian men, women, and children were butchered in Piedmont that Saturday – a day that some in the Waldensian community considered holy according to the Scriptures.
In 2015, Pope Francis visited the Waldensian Church in the city of Turin, north-west Italy. The local church pastor Eugenio Bernardini asked Pope Francis “What was the sin of the Waldensians? It was being a movement of popular evangelisation, carried out by lay people.”
Eight hundred years after the church in Rome first excommunicated the ‘People of the Valleys’ Pope Francis responded: “On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behaviour that we have showed you.”
Today, in the Waldensian Synod building located in the town of Torre Pellice in the mountains of Italy there is a mural of a tree with a Bible open on its trunk. The tree has some of its branches missing in honour of the many who lost their lives over the centuries endeavouring to live a simple faith in their Saviour Jesus Christ. The Bible on the tree is open to Revelation 2:10 – “Be thou faithful unto death.” And the words under the tree written in Italian read: “We swear and promise by the living God to remain faithful to the last drop of our blood.”
Centuries ago a church in the wilderness gave us an example for today of unwavering commitment and faith in a loving Creator.
About this blog: David Riley is a Christian minister residing on the Gold Coast in Australia. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series.