The history of the Piedmontese Protestants my be brieﬂy sketched. These people – the Waldensess, or the Vaudois – occupy what are known as the Vaudois valleys, in the Cottian Alps, about thirty miles southwest of Turin, between Mont Cenis and Monte Viso. The central valleys are Pellice, Luzerna, and
Angrogna. The Vaudois (the Valdesi – dwellers in the valleys) are known by existing sermons of their pastors, dated 1120; and Peter Waldo, the reformer, of Lyons, doubtless took his name from them – not, as has been assumed, giving his name to them: he was Peter the Vaudois. The Vaudois are not to be confounded with the inhabitants of the Canton de Vaud of Switzerland. Their earliest record is of the year 1100, but they believe their ancestors through every age, from the apostolic time to the present, to have been protesters against the corruptions of the church, and the depositaries of the simple gospel faith.
About the middle of the twelfth century there appeared two important Vaudois documents: a translation of the New Testament and La Nobla Leyczon. These are in the Romance language, which is the patois still spoken in the valleys. The Noble Lesson – a lesson of five hundred lines – is a summary of Scripture history and doctrines, and teaches toleration and religious freedom.
In 1517, the year of Luther’s denunciation, the Archbishop of Turn drew up an enumeraton of the immemorial belief and protest of the Vaudois church. These are its points: –
The Vaudois received the Scriptures as their only rule of faith. They rejected the doctrines introduced by the Popes and priests. They declared that tithes and first-fruits are not due to the clergy. They disapproved of the consecration of churches. They denied that men needed the intercession of saints. They rejected purgatory and masses for the dead. They denied that priests have the power to forgive sins. They opposed the confessional. They protested against the worship of the virgin and saints. They rejected the use of holy water, condemned indulgences, and ascribed the doctrine of purgatory to the covetousness of priests. They abhorred the use of the sign of the cross and the worship of images. They denied that wicked men could be representatives of Christ. They disowned the authority of the Church of Rome, and they believed that prayer in private houses is as acceptable as prayer in churches.
The declaration of these principles brought upon them the anathemas of Rome, and papal bulls were issued commanding Catholic princes to wage war against them. In 1485 a bull of Innocent VIII., enjoining the extermination of the Vaudois, absolved those who should take up the cross against them “from all ecclesiastical pains and penalties, general and particular, . . . releasing them from any oath they might have taken, legitimatizing their title to any property they might have illegally acquired, and promising remission of all their sins to such as should kill any heretic.” It outlawed the Vaudois, annulled their contracts, and empowered all persons to take possession of their property. In the persecutions which followed, and which recurred at intervals for centuries, human infamy reached its climax. I quote parts of a single paragraph from The Israel of the Alps, by Dr. Muston: –
“There is no town in Piedmont under a Vaudois pastor where some of our brethren have not been put to death. Jordan Terbano was burned alive at Susa; Hippolite Rossiero at Turn; Michael Goneto, an octogenarian, at Sarcena; Villermin Ambrosio, hanged on the Col di Meano; Hugo Chiambs, of Fenestrelle, had his entails torn from his living body at Turin; Peter Geymarali, of Bobbio, in like manner had his entails taken out in Luzerna, and a fierce cat thrust in their place to torture him further; Maria Romano was buried alive at Rocca-patia; Magdalen Fauno underwent the same fate at San Giovanni; Susan Michelini was bound hand and foot, and left to perish of cold and hunger on the snow at Sarcena; Bartolomeo Fache, gashed with sabres, had the wounds filled up with quicklime, and perished thus in agony at Fenile; Daniel Micheline had his tongue torn out at Bobbio for having praised God; James Baridari perished covered with sulphureous matches, which had been forced into his flesh under the nails, between the fingers, in the nostrils, in the lips, and over all his body, and then lighted; Daniel Revelli had his mouth filled with gunpowder, which being lighted blew his head to pieces; . . . Sarah Rostignol was slit open from the legs to the bosom, and left so to perish on the road betwen Eyral and Luzerna; Anne Charbonnier was impaled, and carried thus on a pike from San Giovanni to La Torre.”
1n 1630-31 the plague invaded the valleys, and swept off more than twelve thousand persons, about one half of the whole population. In La Torre more than fifty families became completely extinct. Of the seventeen pastors, only two venerable and infirm old men escaped death. It then became necessary to import French-speaking ministers from Dauphiny and from Geneva. The government thereupon, as a further means of repression, prohibited the performance of the Vaudois service in any language but French, and this tongue was learned by the whole people, and is retained by them to this day.
More than once was the population reduced by war and oppression from its normal standard of about twenty-five thousand to four thousand or five thousand. Yet they always remained steadfast in their faith, and held to their ancient traditions, rising stronger after each invasion, and always regaining their ruined prosperity.
Some of the episodes of their wars are marvelous to read. Their most noted hero, Gianavello, with a band of less than twenty followers, sometimes with only half a dozen, defeated whole armies of invaders; and the Flying Company at Pra del Tor overthrew the Count de la Trinita, who marched against them with three columns, numbering more than seven thousand men. The almost uniform success of these little bands of rude mountaineers operating against large armies of disciplined troops has naturally produced among the Vaudois the belief that it was not their prowess in action which prevailed, but the design of God to preserve the germ of true religion in their keeping.
They gained frequent respite for the recovery of their prosperity and the restoration of their population by the contests in which the dukes of Savoy were so often engaged with other princes. It was at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, to which the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeo II., was reluctantly forced to accede, that the remnant of the population was compelled to accept exile into Switzerland. Of fourteen thousand persons, three thousand only survived. They were liberally helped by the Protestants of England and Holland. Recovering their health, they were afflicted with the homesickness peculiar to mountaineers, but were detained by force, and were widely dispersed through the Protestant states of Germany. William of Orange, the head of the Protestant League against France, was visited at the Hague by Henri Arnaud, the pastor and leader of the Vaudois. He counseled that they should return and attempt to regain their valleys by force, supplying them at the time with considerable funds. The refugees assembled, between eight and nine hundred in number, leaving their wives and children to the care of the Swiss, crossing Lake Leman in the night of August 16, 1689. Led by their pastor-captain, they crossed the Alps, and descended into Italy, near Susa. After sixteen days’ march, having beaten several strong detachment of the enemy, they established themselves at Bobbio, where they remained unmolested during the winter, but by May there were reduced to four hundred men. They were again assailed, but they resisted and struggled against every force invading the valley, until the Duke of Savoy, abandoning his alliance with France, and joining the Protestant League, restored them to their homes and liberties, recalled their wives and children, and ended the last of thirty-two wars for liberty and conscience. One hundred and sixty years later, Carlo Alberto, giving a constitution of his people, insured the continuance of religious liberty.
It was with no ordinary traveler’s interest that we went to visit the scenes of all those centuries of heroic life and more heroic death, and the renowned centre from which Protestantism in Italy is pushing its steady advance. We drove from the railway station at Pinerolo, an hour’s journey, to Torre Pellice, which is the seat of the Vaudois college and the chief town of the valleys. Though in Italy still, we found among the Protestants the universal use of the French language, and among the educated classes a familiarity with English, due to the Scotch education of the pastors. It is no mild modern Protestantism which prevails here, softened by the spirit of indulgence we know so well at home, but a stern Scotch Puratinism, rigid, intolerant, uncompromising, and grim, – ground into the sturdy souls of the people by long generations of martyrdom and oppression. It is a faith so real and so commanding that it rings like a clarion in the zeal of the trained evangelists, who, scattered throughout the kingdom, echo the eternal reverberations of the blood-stained mountain sides where their fathers died for the cause they advocate.
It seems to me that the first impression of any considerate person, coming to the Vaudois valleys with a fresh recollection of what we are taught to consider the necessary conditions of civilized life, must be one of humiliation. We may find similarly hard conditions of living in many of our remote districts, but we find them accompanied by a dullness and stolidity which make it seem a matter of indifference whether they are ameliorated or not; or we find them resisted or struggled against with that determination to seek improvement which makes our people so ambitious and so restless. Here, in these hard, bleak valleys, a frugality of which we can hardly have conception is practiced with a calmness and serenity that betoken an aim of life far other than physical improvement. In the town of Torre this is less conspicuous than elsewhere, but even here cultivated, enthusiastic, happy men and women, eager in the great pursuit of their lives, display the genial graces of refined society, and exert a wide-spread influence, which is powerful even against that of Rome, amid an almost entire absence of the advantages which come of wealth, and which are so often regarded as indispensable. Catechised as to their belief, these people develop the most rigid formulas of orthodoxy, – that which we have know among the coldest, hardest, must unsympathizing New Englanders. But the blood of the South runs warm in their veins, and their religion, severe though it is, can only check – it cannot cover nor repress – the geniality of their Italian natures. It is the rigidity of the North made mellow with Latin warmth, and sweetened with the grace and amiability of Italy. I know no people of great wealth who seem to get so much out of their lives that is worth the getting as do these simple, pious, God-fearing Vaudois.
Desiring to visit the valley of Angrogna, the great retreat during the invasions of the land, and the scene of the most terrible battles, I was commended to the pastor of the village, who has the care of the scattered population of the large parish. It was a long, hard walk up the valley, and a hot one. A very plain little Protestant “temple” and a few poor houses constitute the village of Angrogna, which is dominated by a larger Catholic church, whose priest does his worst to counteract the cherished heresy here in its ancient stronghold. A child directed me to the pastor’s door, – a great solid wooden door in a fortress-like stone-wall. Entereing, I was pleasantly greeted by the cheerful mother of the house, who ushered me into a scantily furnished parlor, clean and sunny. Presently the pastor appeared, who received me with the greatest cordiality, and lent himself at once to my desire for guidance and information. I have rarely been more impressed in any interview. He told me with the greatest frankness of the difficulties with which he has to contend in eking out a support for his large family in a parish where all are poor, and where many can give nothing to the support of the church beyond cordial good wishes and the scantiest contributions of food. A little money is given him by the General Synod, but it is very little, and this man’s incessant pastoral duties make it impossible for him to ameliorate his condition by any form of profitable work. It is to gratify no curiosity that I repeat what he told me of his circumstances, but rather to illustrate by a striking and extreme example the life in these valleys generally. I was regaled in the most hospitable manner with the best that the house afforded, – a thin, simple wine, bread, a hard sort of cheese, and boiled chestnuts, of which I was urged to take my fill, as I would find no other opportunity to eat during the day’s journey. What was given me is the best of their diet, and, except for potatoes and salad, it covers the limit of its variety for all the secular days of the week. On Sundays they usually, but not always, have meat. There was no suggestion that the diet was not sufficient and satisfactory, and the family seemed to be in robust and hearty health. The physical labor of the pastor himself must be very severe. His parish reaches for miles back on the mountains, and far up into steep and rugged valleys. He has three separate churches and schools under his charge, and his sick and poor are scattered far and wide on every hand. Foot-paths and bridle-paths offer the only means of communication, and he is liable, day and night, winter and summer, in good weather and in bad, to be summoned forth for along, hard tramp to the house of a sick or dying parishioner. All this he described as merely incidental to a life of necessary and useful service, in which he is content and happy. A friend had recently presented him with a young donkey, which is already able to give him a short lift on his journeys, and which, as it matures, and as he grows old, will him to Pra del Tor and back. He was happy over this acquisition, but anxious as to his ability to nourish the beast. Regarded in a certain light, there is nothing remarkable about this tale of a robust main’s life and circumstances, but viewed with reference to the stock to which he belongs, and to the history of the wonderful struggle of his race, it seems to me not far removed from heroism. The word is full of well-paid positions, seeking for the educations, intelligence, executive ability, and fortitude which mark the character of this cheerful and zealous pastor of Angrogna; but the old call of the Spirit rings in his ears, and stirs his blood as it stirred that of the martyrs of old, and he stays and finds his happiness and his delight in answering its behests.
I talked with him about the condition of the people, and about the ceaseless efforts of the Catholic church to destroy the Protestant supremacy in the valleys. Poverty, or rather the simplicity of living, is extreme. The climate is much more severe than at Torre, the soil in the main is poor and thin, the cattle are stunted, and the facilities for irrigation and the habit of its use seem to constitute the chief agricultural advantage of the country. The chestnut grows well, and is a man reliance as food. Without it there would often be much suffering.
The Roman Catholic church has by no means given up its effort at supremacy. The best sites are secured for its churches and convents; its abundant and skillfully managed almsgiving is a powerful resource in so poor a country, and its control over the industrial populations, which quarrying and manufactures have brought to the neighborhood, is shrewdly used for the corruption of the young men and women of the Protestant communities. At Pa del Tor – the Holy Land of the Vaudois – the priests have established a foundling hospital, which threatens the stability of the rising generation of native children by the insidious influence of contact and companionship. This more hidden and surreptitious persecution is met as resolutely and firmly and cunningly as were the physical assaults of old, and thus far its influence has not been great.
As it was Saturday, the pastor could not go with me, as I had hoped; but he recited the heroic deeds of which Pra del Tor had been the theatre, and invested it with a historic sublimity which mere reading could not give. He lent me the keys of the temples I was to see, and directed me on my way.
It was a two hours’ walk, mainly upward, over a rough bridle-path, with here and there a house, and here and there a little mill driving by the abundant waters of the tumbling stream. Toward the end of the journey the path passes between steep, rocky banks, climbs the edge of a precipitous hill-side, and opens into the valley of Pra del Tor, – that valley which more than once held all that was left of the Piedmontese Vaudois, who, driven from their farms and their villages, gathered here for mutual support and defense. Even here, while awaiting the destruction which seemed impending, they established their schools and kept up the education of their evangelists.
On a high rock, overlooking the cluster of houses, stands a well-built modern temple, the gift of a friend in England to commemorate the defenders of the valley against Trinita’s overwhelming force. All else is meagre, bare, and stern. It is hard to see how even this small population can subsist in such a land, and it is almost incredible that a people who generation after generation have been subjected to such trying conditions of life should resist, as they steadily do, the seductions of an organization able and ready to ameliorate their condition, or to remove them to a more fertile district. It is these considerations which everywhere impress the visitor with the sturdiness of character which an old faith, cemented by long ages of martyrdom, has been able to produce.
My climb made it seem quite necessary that I should have food before returning. Al that I could get was milk. This was served to me on the stone stair leading to a house door, and in a rude earthenware pan. As I drank it, with a coarse iron spoon, a starved kitten came with a longing mew, and lapped greedily the little puddle which I poured into a hollow of the stone. I never saw such a hungry cat, and evidently the people never saw such a hungry man, for they commented freely on the eagerness of my feeding. Poor though they were, and unaccustomed as they seemed to be to such a lavish use of milk, they would accept no compensation for their hospitality, and I could only make a trifling present to their child. Here, and on my return, the people whom I met were most cordial and friendly, and they answered every question as to the difficulty of making a living upon such a soil with an evident unconsciousness that it implied the least hardship. Those who were returning from their fields generally bore heavy burdens of firewood or grain; and one donkey that I met taking grist to mill carried at least eight hundred pounds of grain, picking his way cautiously over the rocky path. Parts of the valley were heavily wooded and of great beauty, but everything about the scattered villages and farms seemed dismal and forbidding.
On Sunday we drove eight miles up the Pellice Valley to attend church at Bobi, where, in 1689, after the Glorieuse Rentrée, Arnaud and his followers took the oath of fidelity, and celebrated divine service in their own temple for the first time since their banishment.
“The enthusiasm of the moment was irrepressible; they chanted the seventy-fourth Psalm to the clash of arms, and Henri Arnaud, mounting the pulpit, with a sword in one hand a Bible in the other, preached from the one hundred and twenty-ninth Psalm, and once more declared in the face of heaven that he would never resume his pastoral office in patience and peace until he should witness the restoration of his brethren to their ancient and rightful settlements.”
The temple was a bare room, with unpainted pulpit and benches, where the women sat in one place and the men in another. The women wore a costume of which a white cap with wide double fluted ruffles was a conspicuous part, the young girls – those who had not been confirmed – wearing black caps instead. The men were men whom I had known in my childhood in the orthodox churches of Western Connecticut, smooth-shaven, – for Sunday, – wrinkled, uncompromising countrymen. The older men generally wore blue jeans dress-coats with metal buttons and high collars. When the psalms were given out, they took loud-clasping iron cases from their pockets, and put on their steel-bowed spectacles. Puritanism is stronger than race, or climate, or time. It was like sitting again among the hard-handed farmers who used to throng the old Congregational church in New Canaan.
The illusion was hardly dispelled – so strong was the resemblance in face and dress and manner – when the young precentor mounted to the reading-desk and read a chapter of the New Testament. I twas strengthened when he gave out the psalm, pitched the key, and led the congregation in the droning monotone of its chanted praise. The sermon was preached in the purest French by a most Italian – looking pastor from Messina. It was an earnest appeal to humility, and a warning not to permit their pride in their ancestry, and in the venerable antiquity of their faith, to blind them to the obligations to which the essence of that faith compelled them. After the service there followed the silent and hardly sociable loitering about the door which characterizes the congregations of our own country churches, but far less curiosity was evinced and more politeness was shown toward the differently attired strangers who had come to join in their service.
During our stay we were shown the admirable orphanage at Torre, where Mr. Sankey’s hymns were sung in French and Italian, and where the most careful training is given in the little arts and industries of common life. We say, too, the Vaudois college, where are trained the pastors who are to have charge of the flocks scattered throughout Italy, and the evangelists who are to plant in the dark corners of the land the most promising germ of Italian regeneration. It is a simple school, ill furnished with the modern appliances of education, but rich in the zeal and enthusiasm with which its leaders keep steadily in view the great aim of its foundation.
The college, and the cause of Protestantism generally, owe most efficient aid to the liberality and earnestness of Major Beckwith, and English officer, who devoted his fortune and many of the last years of his life to their advancement. Much as been done by the liberality of other British friends, and there can surely be no channel to-day into which those who have the interest of reformed religion at heart can so effectively turn their contributions. The Vaudois schools are established in all parts of Italy, even in Calabria and Sicily and in Rome itself, and they offer the chief existing hope of the education of the people in what is necessary to an improved civilization.
Victor Emmanuel, – il Re Galantuomo, – in spite of his Catholicism, was a steadfast and persistent friend of the Vaudois, believing that they offered the best promise for the improvement of his people. Humbert has given fresh assurances that his father’s policy in this regard shall be maintained, not in the interest of religion, but in the interest of liberty and of enlightenment.
George E. Waring, Jr.
The ATLANTIC MONTHLY
Volume XLIV. - Number 265