At the beginning of the 17th century, the Waldensians numbered twenty thousand. Under the firm leadership of a handful of pastors, and a more numerous group of schoolmasters, they kept one hand on the Bible and the other on the hoe, one eye on Geneva and the other on the New Jerusalem of the heavens above.

Tillers of the soil and keepers of flocks, the Waldensians dwelt exclusively in a remote corner of Italy. The Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church had forced them to shut themselves up in the mountains, amidst the Cottian Alps, between the towering peaks.

The region was divided between two sovereigns: the Delfinato, an area including the upper Dora and Chisone Valleys, belonged to the King of France; the Pellice and Germanasca Valleys belonged to the Duke of Savoy. The area’s culture and language was (and is) the expression of a combination of two cultures: French and Italian.

Massacre and Mortal Struggle

The Waldensians prospered. They built churches and schools, and began to move out to the plains below. Everywhere they brought with them the Bible and the Psalms put to music by the French Calvinists—the Huguenots.

A reaction set in in the Piedmont. Injunctions and decrees, incursions and pillage of the countryside put the Waldensians to the test, but they did not give in. In the end, the authorities in Turin took drastic measures. In January 1655, a judge ordered the Waldensians to abandon all they possessed beyond the territorial limits established almost 100 years before by the treaty of Cavour (1561). The Marquis of Pianezza was stationed at Torre in the Pellice Valley, but his 700 soldiers were no match for the 2,000 Waldensians observing them from the safety of the surrounding hills.

Meanwhile, however, a great army of French soldiers was marching nearby in the Susa valley, on its way to attack the Spanish in Lombardy. Why not borrow a few regiments … and finish off the Waldensians? And so it was decided in Turin.

In 1655, on Easter week, 5,000 first-class soldiers were thrown against the Waldensians. Given permission to pillage, the French were merciless: they killed, tortured, raped, and looted. Those who escaped death were put to flight, or were forced to surrender; 1,712 souls breathed their last. The infamous event is known in Waldensian history as the Piedmont Easter Massacre.

The Waldensians finally seemed broken forever.

Called to Arms

The French army finished their work and left immediately for the battlefields of Lombardy. The surviving Waldensian population had escaped to the Chisone Valley in French territory, where a “sanctuary” of popular resistance was organized.

The men took up arms, crossed the river Chisone, and attacked the enemy from behind. Guerrilla war tactics were used. The most important leader in this war was Joshua Gianavello. From his headquarters in the Angrogna Valley he led a popular militia of at least 2,000 combatants, with Calvinistic rigor. Victory was won. At the same time, an “international brigade” of 500 volunteers, mostly Huguenots, was organized in French territory at Pinasca. Together with a division of calvary they came to the aid of the Waldensians.

The comeback of the Waldensians was spectacular. But it would have been unthinkable without the mobilization of Protestant Europe. Three days after the massacre inflicted by the French, the news traveled in the direction of Geneva. It soon arrived in Paris, Holland, Germany, and in England.

Pastor John Léger, a leader of the Waldensians during their ordeal, traveled about Europe testifying to his peoples’ woes. The gazzettes of Paris, London, and Amsterdam denounced the unjust massacre. The House of Savoy was put on the defensive, both on ideological and diplomatic fronts. Puritan England, and her Protestant “Lord Protector,” Oliver Cromwell, were shocked by the event; Cromwell soon sealed a pact with France for a solution to “the Waldensian problem” [see the article on Cromwell, “A Friend in the Lord Protector].

In the midst of the struggle, the Waldensians wrote a Confession of Faith, a defense of their right to freedom of conscience. To this day Waldensian pastors subscribe to this Confession before their ordination.

The Right of Freedom and Freedom Lost

The war was over. A compromise was negotiated at Pinerolo. The French ambassador and the Swiss cantons acted as mediators. The so-called Patent of Grace gave the Waldensians back practically all their rights. The agreement was reached the 18th of August, before the English and Dutch ambassadors were able to throw the weight of the Protestant republics into the balance and exact an agreement more in accord with the moral and military victory of the Waldensians and their allies.

The Waldensians, however, had seen death face to face. They preferred a low-profile settlement, one that did not needlessly humiliate the House of Savoy.

The compromise, however, satisfied no one. Weighed down after having conceded so much, the Duke of Savoy went back on his promise not to rebuild the Fort of Torre Pellice; instead he reinforced the garrisons. He sentenced Giovanni Léger to death five times, but in his absence. Léger had departed for Holland, where in 1669 he wrote his monumental history of the Waldensians. He prepared the way for the “Dutch Connection” which would prove decisive at the moment of the “Glorious Return.”

Under constant pressure, the Waldensians, a patient but ever-ready people, responded with guerrilla war tactics as before. Once again, Gianavello led the way. Accused of serious crimes and summoned to Turin, he refused to appear in court and in 1658 was given the death penalty.

Forty-two other Waldensian leaders were declared outlaws and were not to set foot in the Piedmont. They were considered banished and thereafter known as “bandits.”

In 1663, full-scale war broke out. Gianavello established headquarters at Villar Pellice, and fortified the upper Pellice and Angrogna Valleys. He then went on the offensive and sacked Luserna, the hated feudal capital, and struck Cavour and Bagnolo. A counterattack upon the Waldensians in Angrogna by four thousand Piedmont soldiers was a clamorous failure.

The Duke was now ready to concede everything, but on one condition: The “bandits” would remain outlaws and had to leave the area and never return. Gianavello went into exile for the rest of his life. Agreement was reached, but the cost was high. The Waldensians had lost a part of their freedom.

A Catholic Empire

By now, the international situation was profoundly altered. In France, Louis XIV had risen to the throne. Louis (known as the Sun King because of his life of great splendor) put together a formidable army and competed with Holland for the control of commerce, and with England for control of the seas. Spain was in decline; France was the new Catholic empire.

As far as the French Calvinists were concerned, Louis XIV did not intend to allow them any room at all. In the end, he denied them even the right to exist. The so-called Revocation of the Edict of Nantes* [* The Edict of Nantes (1598) had granted French Protestants freedom to practice their religion within certain limits. ] (October 18, 1685) spelled ruin for the Waldensians as well as for the Huguenots.

With a stroke of the pen, the flourishing Waldensian communities of the Chisone and upper Susa Valleys were blotted out. 3,000 left for Germany with their pastors; another 8,000 swore submission.

The situation in French territory was disastrous for the Waldensians for another reason. The French Calvinists did not submit to the dictates of their sovereign. Hundreds of thousands preferred exile to forced conversion, and left for Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and North America. Many Huguenots of the Alpine region sought to stay as close as possible to French territory, and found refuge in the Waldensian valleys of the Piedmont.

However the Paris government did not lose time in taking note of the formation of a sanctuary of resistance along its borders. Pressure was put on the government of Savoy to resolve the situation.

A Subordinate State

Vittorio Amedeus II, full of ambition and fear, had just risen to the throne in Turin. He quickly agreed to forbid the Waldensians to take in French refugees or lend any aid whatsoever to their brethren in France.

The edict was too bland to satisfy Louis XIV, but sufficient to alarm the Waldensians. The pastors anxiously searched the Scriptures. The people began to arm themselves, store away provisions, and withdraw their families to the mountains. They did not, however, take into account the decisive fact that war and exile had reduced them to half their original number. Worse still, they now had to face both France and the Piedmont at the same time. France, moreover, had grown strong, and was awakening fear in all of Europe.

The pastors knew this fact very well. They had studied abroad. They had seen the rest of Europe, and were aware of the power represented by the French throne. They admonished their people to stay calm and to hold still.

Not all the pastors were content to hold still, however. Henry Arnaud, the young and energetic pastor of Pinasca, wanted to act. A rash young man, he had studied in Basel, Geneva, and most notably, Holland. The progressive Dutch he had come into contact with were of French imperialism, contrary as it was to their theology and commerce. Arnaud was tired of it as well. In Pinasca he faced the dragoons of the King of France—so-called “missionaries of the Holy Faith.” It seemed to him that so much arrogance could not endure forever, disrespectful as it was of the rights and autonomy of others. Arnaud did not share the cautious optimism of the other pastors. According to him, it was time to prepare for battle. It was time to take the risk.

A Closing Trap

The situation worsened in the Piedmont. The commotion among the Waldensians forced the Duke’s hand. First he sent a battalion to man the fort in Torre Pellice. Then, on January 31, 1686, he issued an edict similar to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

• The Waldensian churches were to be burned to the ground.

• Protestant assembly of any kind was strictly forbidden.

• All children were to be baptized and educated in the Roman Catholic faith (many Waldensian children would be kidnapped for this purpose).

• Pastors and schoolmasters had 15 days to choose between exile or conversion to Catholicism.

• The Huguenots who had found refuge in the valleys had to leave immediately.

Very few Waldensians betrayed their faith, though conversion was recompensed in hard cash. On the contrary, the valleys were fortified, as in the days of Gianavello. In every village, a group of volunteers was formed. In all they numbered 2,500—not many at all against the 9,000 soldiers that France and the Piedmont were mustering against them.

A sort of armed truce lasted but a month. The Duke then forbade the sale of arms and provisions to the Waldensians. The Waldensians disregarded the Duke’s orders, and on the 6th of March they re-established their public worship, marriage, and baptism.

The trap was closing. Ambassadors were sent by Berne and Zurich. They understood that now the Waldensians’ only hope was exile. Yet they were unable to convince the Waldensians. The number of those in favor of continued armed resistance was growing.

In the meantime, Catinat, the supreme commander of the French army in the Piedmont, made it known to the Duke that if he did not take the necessary measures, the French would be happy to take the matter into their own hands. In any case, the Duke had decided to act. His edict of April 9th enjoined the Waldensians to put down their arms within eight days and go into exile between April 21st and 23rd. If able, they were free to sell their land and possessions to the highest bidder.

The Trap Shuts

Who would pay a fair price for houses and land that had to be sold within eight days? Without money, and without land, the Waldensians would find themselves without honor as well, because they would be forced to admit to treason, though they had never committed it. Reduced to a band of poor wretches, without a future, they would barely make it to the Swiss border. Was it not better to risk one’s own skin: to obey God rather than men?

So said Henry Arnaud, just returned from Holland. On April 18th he made a stirring appeal before an assembly at Roccapiatta. Those in favor of armed resistance were now the majority. The truce expired April 20th; the Waldensians prepared for battle.

The Waldensians had never been so close to annihilation. The enemy blockaded all the passes in the Alps, and two soldiers were mustered for every three Waldensians, old women and children included.

Many Waldensians surrendered before the French and Piedmontese armies. Others were brutally massacred. The women were raped.

When the Duke retired to Turin on June 8th, the war seemed decided. 2,000 Waldensians had been killed. Another 2,000 had “accepted” the Catholic theology of the Council of Trent—and the government payment. 8,000 had been imprisoned; more than half of them would die of starvation or sickness within six months.

Two Hundred Desperadoes

Up in the mountains, two or three hundred men continued to hold out. As the “victorious” regiments departed and thousands of peasants from the Piedmont arrived to claim the valleys as their own, the Waldensian desperadoes organized, stole animals and forage, and killed spies and traitors.

The Catholic authorities were impotent against the activities of these rebels in their mountain refuge. Negotiations were opened with the “Invincibles.” They responded, “We have not been defeated by anyone. Our right of passage through the land of Savoy must be recognized. Our families must be released immediately, and all the Waldensians freed from prison thereafter, and given the means to reach Geneva.” The negotiations were tense, but in the end the rebels’ conditions were accepted.

The Duke kept his word, but in the worst way imaginable. On 3 January 1687 he issued an edict which forced a brutal choice upon the prisoners. Either they had to depart immediately, in the middle of winter, and risk death in the mountains, or convert to Roman Catholicism, be given a new home in the Vercelli region of the Piedmont, and risk malaria in the rice fields. Once again, the Waldensians were divided in two parts. About 1,100 chose the rice fields. Around 2,800 preferred the long winter march. Days on end they made their way through the snow; many died in blizzards; many of their children were kidnapped along the way. 2,490 eventually reached Geneva.

A Sky the Color of Orange

Something new was fermenting in Europe. The Emperor of Austria had had enough of the arrogance of the King of France. Together with the Lutheran nobility of Germany, with Sweden and Spain, he formed the League of Augsburg in 1686 in order to put a stop to the French colossus. War would follow, from 1688 to 1697.

William III of Orange ruled in Holland. A strong defender of Dutch freedom and Calvinist democracy against Louis XIV, he was prepared to fight it out with the “Beast of Versailles” to the bloody end. [Versailles was Louis’ highly elegant palace.] Even the Waldensians had a place in his plan of action. In October 1688, he gave an audience to Henry Arnaud, advised him to keep calm, but promised him arms and diplomatic protection. At the right moment, the Waldensians would be able to return to their valleys, and open a new military front against the King of France.

William III went on the win England back to the Protestant camp. Louis XIV declared war on Holland, but the Dutch resisted. The Austrian empire, Spain, the German nobility, Holland, and England conducted a veritable world war against France. It would last nearly 10 years (from 1688–1697), and leave the land soaked in blood.

The Fulfillment of Prophecy

The Waldensians were reduced to 3,400. But they considered themselves a “little nation.” They longed to return to the heritage of their fathers, sacred, like the vineyard of Naboth mentioned in I Kings 21. In 1687 and in 1688, they tried to return, but without success.

The Waldensians reorganized in Switzerland. Their vision of history was fueled by the language and method of Biblical apocalyptic, the ancient, fantastic visions of the people of God.

As the events began to unfold in 1686, the Huguenot Peter Jurieu interpreted prophecy from his vantage point in Dutch exile. The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 were the Reformed Church of France and the Waldensian Church, both exalted to martyrdom by the “Beast which rises from the Abyss” (Rev. 11:7)—the King of France. The three end a half days (11:11) correspond to three and a half years, to expire in 1688. For the Beast it will be the beginning of the end, whereas God will breathe new life into the Two Witnesses, and the whole world will see it (Rev. 1:13).

Indeed, the situation changed in 1688. The world was in ferment. War was breaking out. Thanks to the aid of William of Orange, the Waldensians acquired shining new muskets. No longer would they have to face a modern army with obsolete arms. Joshua Gianavello rewrote his Manual for Guerrilla Warfare for the third time, this time in French, for the Huguenots who had joined the cause. He explained how to cross the mountains and valleys of Savoy, and how to take hostages.

Once in the beloved valleys, they had to be ready for a long war. Guerrilla warfare tactics would be essential. Their refuge of last resort would be Basiglia, high in the valley of Massello. The Bible was to be their constant guide and daily companion. Their organization was to be democratic; the little army was to elect its own officers on a periodic basis. The pastors were to care for the souls of the soldiers, prevent pillage and massacres, and strengthen their sense of “union, which has always been at the heart of our way of life.”

What followed in 1689 (300 years ago), referred to as the “Glorious Return,” is one of the most important events in Waldensian history. With a faith and courageousness as great as the tenacity they had shown in their long struggle to survive, the Waldensians would return to reclaim their beloved homeland, never to be driven away again.

John Hobbins, a native of the United States, attended the Waldensian seminary in Rome, and serves as pastor of several Methodist-Waldensian Churches on the island of Sicily.