From Mountain Ghetto to Missionary Diaspora

AT THE BEGINNING of  the 18th century the situation of the Waldensian Church was something of a paradox. Their centuries-old struggle for survival had succeeded, and no serious menace to the life of the Waldensian people would ever happen again. Yet, despite the gain, all the Waldensian-reformed congregations of the Valleys were still suppressed.

Between 1698 and 1730 thousands of people had been forced to emigrate to Germany. The churches they established are now Lutheran, but still bear the name of Deutsche Waldenser (German Waldensians).

Thus the Waldensian Church could survive only in a small corner of Italy: 15 villages, 6,000 poor farmers, seven ministers, a few teachers. The Duke of Savoy (now the King of Sardinia) was tough against this remnant of the Italian Reformation. Hard laws were enforced to make difficult the life of these heretics—if possible to suffocate them.

Enlightenment and Revolution

Yet the Waldensians proved to be able to breathe, even better than the rest of Italian society at that time. During the whole 18th century they established a network of relations with the new Europe of the Enlightenment; these relations were made only too well.

Instead of maintaining their strong Calvinistic heritage, they accepted wholeheartedly the ideas of the Enlightenment (which were contrary to supernatural religion). Their more active young people started to work and trade in Switzerland, Holland, England, even in India, and prospered. In a few words: a Waldensian bourgeoisie was born.

By the end of the century a new hope dawned for the Waldensians: the French Revolution. The day on which the French battalions crossed the Alps, the time of Waldensian persecution was over. The Waldensians became citizens with equal rights. No wonder the Waldensians were fond of the Revolution, and later on enthusiastic supporters of Napoleon.

New churches were built, new careers were opened for Waldensian children, and pastors were comfortably paid by the State. But no endeavor was made in evangelism: the Enlightenment viewpoint had reduced the love for the Gospel to a cold religion of morals. Like Jonah, the Waldensians needed to spend time “in the belly of the fish” before rediscovering their missionary vocation.

And before long the fish did come to swallow them. In 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, and the Ancien Regime was restored in Europe. This is known as the Restoration. The Waldensians lost their freedom, all their newly acquired rights, and were compelled to go back, hungry and angry, into their small valley “ghetto.”

Awakening and Charles Beckwith

In these hard times a rebirth of the Waldensian community happened. In all the Protestant world it was a time of great spiritual awakening, and the revival came from England through Geneva to the Valleys. Children of the converted went to study theology in the best evangelical seminaries, and spread their love for the Bible, and for prayer.

This grass-roots revival received strong support from members of the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. Holy Trinity College was built in Torre Pellice, as a challenge to the impoverished theology of the Enlightenment. But the strongest support to the Waldensian renewal came in a different and very surprising way: through a young, brilliant officer of the British Army.

Charles Beckwith, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1789, had been an aide to General Wellington when he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. On the day of victory, Beckwith was wounded. His brilliant career was over; at the age of 26 he was a retired man with a wooden leg.

Years after Waterloo, on a visit to his former General, Beckwith found “by chance” (or should we say “by providence”) a book on the Waldensians. The book so interested him that he decided to pay a visit to the Valleys. The visit lasted almost thirty years!

Beckwith supported the evangelical movement among the Waldensians. He also built churches and schools, and sent, at his own expense, the more promising poor young people to study in Lausanne or Geneva. He wanted them to become learned and pious teachers, pastors, and evangelists. He encouraged education in the culture as a strong weapon in the hands of believers, who were called to evangelize a progressive, open society.

And Italy was struggling to become an open and progressive society. On 17 February 1848 the King of Piedmont gave civil rights to the Waldensians. In 1860 the King succeeded in unifying all Italy (with the help of the great popular leader Garibaldi), and a good deal of religious liberty was granted to all.

The Protestant Return

Thanks to the evangelical awakening, and to Charles Beckwith, the Waldensians were ready with numerous pastors, teachers, and evangelists, who spread throughout the country. They built small congregations in the main towns, and opened hospitals, nursing houses, and schools for the poor.

Protestantism was back in Italy to stay. Waldensians were among the leading Protestants in the country, but by no means the only ones. Some small, strong indigenous evangelical movements were born, like the Assemblies of the Brethren (inspired by England’s Plymouth Brethren), or the Italian Evangelical Church.

At the same time a flow of Anglo-Saxon missionaries came to Italy, and small Methodist and Baptist churches were organized around the country. By 1900 a thin network of Protestant congregations and institutions covered the country.

The Waldensian Church was strong. It had organized a Seminary in Florence (since 1922 in Rome), a publishing House, and had large buildings in the major Italian cities. It was also able to take root in the deep South.

At the same time, thousands of Waldensians emigrated to South and North America. In the U.S. they established congregations that went over to other denominations, especially Presbyterian; in South America they built a strong Iglesia Evangelica Valdense del Rio de la Plata—Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio Plata area [see From Snow—covered Peaks to Tropical Forests].

At the turn of the century, the Waldensians had come to see themselves as national and universal: national, because of their seven-century history, with martyrs spread across all Italy; universal, because they had a strong solidarity with British, American, German, Dutch, and Swiss Protestants. A steady flow of Protestant ideas (and money) helped them to feel like the entitled ambassadors of Protestantism in Italy. Theirs was a religion of the heart, and of ethics, of the Bible, and of the Parliament. They were a Church both progressive and orthodox. A bright future seemed to smile on the Waldensians.

World Wars and Change

All these hopes broke down with World War I. Waldensian troops had to fight against Protestant Germans, and in spite of the big hopes excited by the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (in every Waldensian village there was a “Wilson Street”), the aftermath of war was bitter.

The Protestant world came into a difficult crisis. In Italy in 1922 the Fascist Regime destroyed the society in which the Waldensian Church was embedded. Finally, in 1929, it gave back to the Roman Catholic Church all the privileges it had lost during the previous century. The Protestants were again reduced to a half-tolerated minority, strictly controlled by the police.

The lot of the Waldensians was not as bad as that of the Methodists, or the Baptists, however, for they were viewed as the “agents of Anglo—Saxon imperialism.” Nor did they fare as badly as the new Italian Pentecostals (who went into prison by the hundreds), or the Seventh Day Adventists.

However it was again difficult to breathe. Further, the 1929 American market crisis reduced sharply the financial help that was so important in sustaining the strength of the Waldensian organization. The Waldensians were looking into the future. Maybe change would come soon.

The change did come suddenly and tragically with World War II. In a few years the fascist regime was defeated on the African battlefields; it collapsed in 1943. At that very moment (when the American 5th Army was landing in Salerno) a strong anti-fascist guerrilla movement spread in the North and central region of Italy. Waldensians, both intellectuals and common people, appeared in the front line of this guerrilla movement. Some of their leading Church members were executed or died in concentration camps.

The success of the anti-fascist war helped the Waldensians to find their place in the restored Italian democracy. Since then, they have worked and witnessed as a Church open to social progress. Evangelism and social justice have been their main endeavor during the last 45 years.

post-War Society

The first decades after the war were characterized by a strong Marxist influence. When this influence started to decline, a new secularism swept the country. Recently, relaxed laws regarding divorce and abortion were accepted through an overwhelming popular vote; the birthrate has fallen in a dramatic way. The old Italy of peasants has disappeared, with a few islands kept for the use of American tourists, and Italy has become a rather sophisticated, industrial country.

In the last ten years, an increasing influx of migrants from Africa and Asia have begun to change the nation’s outlook. Also, new evangelical movements have had a strong impact, especially the previously persecuted Pentecostals. Seventh Day Adventists, the Apostolic Church, the Churches of Christ, the Church of the Nazarene, and a lot of smaller evangelical or Pentecostal groups have found followings.

Secularism, and various social changes have presented difficulties for the Waldensians. Another challenge has arisen from unexpected changes inside the Catholic community. A strong “Catholic reformism” has developed, influenced by modern Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth. This movement has awakened a new interest in Bible study among Catholics.

New Initiatives

The Waldensian Church has decided to respond to these developments through a wide range of initiatives, from a new look at theology to a push for Protestant unity, from a renewal of the old social work emphasis to a new political awareness.

The Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome has been strengthened in spite of major financial difficulties. The publishing house, Claudiana Editrice, has been widely supported by the Church, in order to provide Italians with the best in Protestant theology, and to give theological backbone to the Waldensian witness. The result of these efforts has been that though they are only 35,000 among the 3,400,000 Protestants in Italy today, the Waldensians are still very influential. Also, increasing dialogue with Roman Catholics is taking place on the basis of a clear theological understanding of the Protestant commitment.

The ecumenical endeavor of the Waldensians has achieved two main results: 1) Union with the Italian Methodist Church in 1979 (94 Waldensian and 37 Methodist congregations now live within the Evangelical Waldensian Church). 2) As of 1967 a Federation of the Protestant Churches in Italy has been built, with the participation of Waldensians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, the Salvation Army, and some Free Churches.

The Federation runs Protestant radio and television programs, a Sunday School Service, a strong program on behalf of migrants from the Third World, and some emergency relief programs. Efforts are being made also to develop contacts with the growing evangelical churches who are doing a lot of evangelism in Italy.

Italian Waldensians and Methodists have kept their traditional social engagements: there are 131 congregations and 60 social and cultural centers, five hospitals, nine homes for the elderly, many hostels, schools, even cooperatives, and in Sicily, a manufacturing plant. The Agape ecumenical youth center in the Waldensian Valleys is well known, but also of note are the schools in Palermo and Riesi (Sicily), and a Methodist home for unwed mothers in Naples.

Political awareness is also quite strong (and often controversial). The political action of the Waldensians has been concentrated mainly on two points: social justice and religious freedom. On the last point an important result was achieved in 1984 when the Waldensian Church signed the first agreement between the Italian State and a non-Catholic organization.

The President of the Republic payed an official visit to the Waldensian Church in 1986. Newspaper coverage highlighted the Waldensian presence in Italian society, and the Church achieved as never before a high degree of visibility.

The Future Hope

Yet the future of the Waldensian and Methodist union will not rely upon visibility, nor upon social awareness. What will matter is the quality of these believers’ spiritual lives.

In spite of some losses due to secularism, the future looks bright. New converts are coming into the Church, bringing new ideas. Women are taking a strong role in the Church (50% of the seminarians are women), and youth organizations are very active.

If these new members of this old tradition become not just “good Waldensians,” but true and faithful disciples of the Lord Christ, the Waldensians will continue to carry on their historic witness, and will have (like the Jews in Jeremiah 29:11), “a future and a hope.” CH

By Giorgio Bouchard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #22 in 1989]

Dr. Giorgio Bouchard is currently President of the Protestant Federation of Italy. He is a Waldens-pastor and serves a congregation in Naples. From 1979 to 1986 he was moderator of the Waldensian Church.
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