The Waldensians are among history’s first evangelicals, pre-Protestants who sprang up in the 1200s in the Piedmont Alps of Italy. The movement apparently started when Peter Waldo (or Valdes) of Lyons, a wealthy French merchant, became involved in translating the Bible into his own French-Provencial. Jesus’ words in Mark 10:22—Go sell everything you own … Then come with me—so moved him that he did just that. His radical Christianity led to his expulsion from Lyons and his removal to the Italian Alps. There his message of simple discipleship took root among Alpine Christians.

The Waldensians stressed love of Christ and his Word and a life of poverty. But their nonconformity invited the wrath of the church, making them targets for extermination. In 1251, for example, the Waldensians in Toulouse, France, were massacred, their town burned.

Nevertheless, by 1600 20,000 Waldensians, mostly farmers and shepherds, filled the French/Italian Alps. On Easter week, 1655, 5,000 soldiers came against them, killing, torturing, raping, looting—1,712 were killed. The survivors escaped into the French mountains and claimed protection under the Edict of Nantes which granted freedom to French Protestants.

When King Henry XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes on October 18, 1685, the Waldensian communities swelled with Protestant refugees. The villages became armed camps of resistance. They found themselves caught between the Catholic forces of both France and Italy. On January 31, 1686, Louis XIV issued an edict to burn Waldensian churches to the ground. Protestant assemblies were forbidden, children were ordered baptized in the Catholic faith, and pastors deposed. The Waldensians were trapped and massacred—2,000 killed, 2,000 more “converted” to Catholicism, 8,000 imprisoned, half of whom soon died of starvation and sickness.

But the next several years saw a shifting in European politics, and eventually some of the Waldensians returned to their homeland. Others made their way from the Piedmont mountains of Europe to the Piedmont mountains of North Carolina. They established the town of Valdese where they live to this day, every summer presenting their story in the open-air drama From This Day Forward.

Jesus looked closely at the man. He liked him and said, “There’s one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me.” (Mark 10:21)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 31.

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