What fuels a movement? Is it the strength of its leadership? Good leaders, who are able to successfully replicate their ideological DNA in the lives of their followers? Is it a sense of community? A sense of belonging that acts as a glue to hold people together? Or is it mission? A single goal that keeps everyone and everything focused? While there is no denying that good leadership, strong communities and a clear sense of mission are key to the strength and forward momentum of a movement, in the case of the Waldensians, there was something far greater that tied all these elements together; the power of the Word of God.
What defined the Waldensians and set them apart was their commitment to making the Bible and the Bible alone their rule of faith and practice and out of this commitment sprang the caliber of their leadership, the strength of their communities and the clarity of their mission.
When any movement chooses to make the Word of God its foundation it then becomes an unstoppable, transformative force that no power of darkness can vanquish.
The coming together of Christianity and paganism in the form of Roman Catholicism sparked a revolution in Christendom.
It led those who desired to preserve the purity of true Bible religion to coalesce into a single organized system, geographically spanning northern Italy and south-western France.
We first encounter the Waldensians under the leadership of Vigilantius in the 4th century AD. Vigilantius is credited with being the first supreme director of the Waldensians’ church. This seems to contradict the widely held belief that Peter Waldo was the first of the Waldensians. While it is true that this merchantman from Lyon was a man of ardent devotion to the cause of God, he was not the first of the Waldensians. Their roots trace back much further. In fact one of the earliest known names for them was “insabbatati”, demonstrating that they were Sabbath-keepers, being named after the day on which they worshipped.
The Waldensians were known for taking great pains to preserve the Bible and to spread it throughout a Romanised Christendom. They didn’t see themselves as reformers because they had never been a part of papal religion in any shape or form. Instead, they saw themselves as champions and curators of biblical truth in the midst of a reign of spiritual darkness and tyranny.
For this they paid dearly, being slaughtered by the thousands and relegated to living in the caves of the alpine wilderness. Referencing one of the most horrific of all the persecutions, Milton wrote:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold…
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks.
His words paint a chilling picture of the kind of persecution they suffered at the hands of papal Rome. Yet in the face of such ruthless tyranny, they still clung unwaveringly to their faith in God and His Word, as firm and unyielding as the mighty mountains that had become their home.
One thing that the Waldensians did have in common with the Roman Catholic church was that they both saw the barbarian tribes that occupied Europe as a mission field.
The fundamental difference, however, was that while the Papacy used the power of the state, the terror of the sword and the pomp of political alliance to advance their cause, the Waldensians put their faith in the strength of God’s Word.
The Waldensians were given the task of passing the torch of truth to the early reformers and through them to us today. When I think about the rich heritage that belongs to each us who hold the Word of God as the rule of our faith, it inspires me. It makes me realize that I am part of something meaningful and powerful. Power, in the world we live in today, is synonymous with force but, in reference to the word of God, power takes on a whole new meaning. Biblical power is the saving, transforming, life-giving, influence of God’s Spirit working on the human heart.
The Waldensians had experienced this power and they made it their life’s work to help others experience the same. Today God is working to raise the same kind of movement. One that is built on His Word and empowered by His Spirit, one that will cover the whole world with the kind of power that no human weapon can wield. To populate this movement, God is not looking for the best and the brightest but the most consecrated. Will you step forward to be a part of it?