Peter Hoover: Waldensians In Uruguay

A Light Shining in the Darkness -- the seal of the Waldensian church in Uruguay, South America, today. Is it still shining?

A Waldensian "school" (a home that served as a meetinghouse) in the cold barren hills of what is now the far northwestern corner of Italy, next to Switzerland and France. Young believers, taught here, left as missionaries, two by two, to convert the spiritually oppressed and the impoverished peasants of Europe. And without a doubt, their courage and faithfulness lived on in the Christian witness of the Moravians, the early Anabaptist, the Quakers and many other believers far and wide.

Last week I shared the story of a new church coming together in the Uruguayan province of Florida, in South America. We thank the Lord for what is happening there, but these Anabaptist settlers are far from the first non-Catholics to settle in this part of the world.

In 1856 an Italian ship dropped a large number of impoverished immigrants off at Montevideo. Speaking an old Italian language, all dressed in mountain peasant clothes, they first found lodging and started to learn Spanish in the same town: Florida, Uruguay. They were Waldensians (Waldensians).

What do you know about them?

In the late 1100s a wealthy man, sometimes known as Pierre Valdés, in Lyon, France, left his greed, immorality and inner misery to turn to the Lord Jesus. He took his wretched money, threw it out on the city square and went out to preach. Wearing nothing but simple rough clothes and sandals, he and his friends preached the Gospel on the streets, in taverns and market places, challenging the rich and calling all sinners to repentance.

What became of “the Poor” in Europe, usually known today as Waldensians?

Along with the first poor believers in France, new communities quickly came together in northern Italy. From here they rapidly spread northward to Switzerland, Austria and what is now the Czech Republic. Along the Rhein, into Germany and what is now France, the movement grew so quickly that the authorities became thoroughly frightened and began to attack the believers with senseless fury. In 1211 they burned eighty believers at Alzey in what is now the Rheinland-Pfalz. In Austria they tore into 80,000 believers scattered through the mountains and rolling farms. Persecution spread all the way to England, up to Denmark and eastward to Prussia, where an especially fierce persecution began in 1479.

Here, from Prussia and the German province of Brandenburg, Waldensian refugees fled south into Moravia (now part of Czechia) where they joined the remaining Czech believers at Fulneck, Lititz, and Zauchenthal. These German-speaking believers were the ones who many years later began the community at Herrnhut in Saxony -- one of the most energetic missionary communities in history.

In Switzerland and Germany a large number of these poor believers worked together as weavers. Even though Roman Catholic authorities suppressed them completely by the mid-1400s and drove them deep underground, a smoldering spark remained -- especially among the weavers who spent long days working together. Thump, thump, thump in the crowded dimly lit buildings in the back streets of Swiss and south German towns.

Is it surprising that the first big outbreak of the Anabaptist revival of the early 1500s happened in a weavers' guildhall at St. Gallen, Switzerland?

The early Anabaptists readily identified with the Poor. Even though they did not know what was happening with the remaining Waldensians in Italy, they certainly knew what had happened with these believers in Switzerland, Germany, France and the Netherlands. So Thieleman Janz van Braght, the Dutch Anabaptist leader who compiled the Martyrs Mirror, included many stories of the Waldensians throughout Europe.

From the Martyrs Mirror: "About eighty Waldensians burned in Strasbourg, AD 1215."

"Two hundred and twenty-four Waldensians burned near Toulon, AD 1243."

Only in the late 1800s and during the 1900s did modern Mennonite scholars conclude that we Anabaptists have little in common with the Waldensians. In some ways this is correct (thinking of what happened in Italy after 1532). But recent studies have clarified the matter and brought many new things to light.

Even though all the first Anabaptists in Switzerland were baptized by Roman Catholic priests in the early 1500s, and even though they had all taken part in the first reformation led by Huldrych Zwingli, they -- significantly -- knew just exactly how to handle their “underground church.”

Meeting in the bush, using caves and clandestine trails in the hills, they immediately knew how to pass messages far and wide, and whisk leaders in danger into the underground. More than that, as soon as the revival caught fire, it rapidly drew many thousands of convinced believers into the church, no matter what would happen.

For a long time I also thought this was just a great Holy-Spirit phenomenon. A miracle in its own way. I still think it depended entirely on the Spirit of God, but I realize now that the revival no doubt pulled embers out of previous revivals. Torches passed from one generation to the next, in their own miraculous way.

Like the Poor, some of my own Anabaptist descendants opted for a “secret church” policy. In the Swiss canton of Zürich they carried their babies into the Reformed chapels of the Hirzel, of Hausen in Albis, of Kappel and Betswil and of many other places, to get “christened.” They did this just as a civil ceremony, to obey the government as far as possible. But they did not teach their children like those of the state churches. They taught them with the Scriptures, with the example of the early Christians, and when they grew up, they baptized them again as believers, secretly, disregarding whatever the earthly authorities might have thought or said about it.

The old and the new way of life in the mountains of northwest Italy -- an old "Uncle" (a Waldensian minister) and young soldiers. How could Jesus' teachings and the militant spirit of war and greed work together? For the older members it remained a puzzle, but after a number of generations many convictions and the small voice of conscience died out.

Obviously, neither the early Anabaptists, nor the Poor (the Waldensians) who came before them, had any central government or written standards on how to handle church order on the run, hidden here and there in the mountains, or in constant flight from country to country. For this reason a good number of different practices and decisions took place.

In Austria, southern Germany, Switzerland and France the spiritual legacy of the Poor was passed on to the Moravians (Unity of Brothers), the Anabaptists, and the Pietist movements who sprouted here and there through the provinces of Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. But in Italy things went differently.

Just southeast of Geneva -- the home of John Calvin and his powerful Protestant church (Reformed and Presbyterian) -- a number of Poor Christians lived in the wild alpine wilderness between Torino in Italy and Lyon in France. John Calvin knew about these people, and how they had suffered for many centuries for their steadfast faithfulness to Jesus. So he sent learned men down to meet them. In a great meeting at Chanforan, on the Italian side of the mountains, this little remnant of what had once been the incredibly large and long-lasting witness of the Poor, capitulated. And the Poor in Italy became just another main-line Protestant church.

Dropping their beliefs on non-violence, this group at Chanforan gradually became accustomed to bearing arms. The Calvinists told them Voluntary Poverty was impractical and not actually necessary. “Sure, Jesus did that,” they said, “but we are not Jesus! We need to live and work in this world, as long as we are alive, and only after we step into the next life can we really live and fulfill what Jesus talked about.”

Above all, John Calvin and his clergymen, taught these mountain people all about predestination -- in the same way that St. Augustine from Hippo, the Catholic theologians through the last thousands years of the “Dark Ages”, and the new Protestant church at Geneva had worked it out. “God himself,” they said, “decides who will be saved and who is damned. This was all worked out long before the earth was even created. So we actually have nothing to do with salvation. God decides everything!”

Not fully understanding what was happening, these Waldensians came out of hiding to ordain clergymen, set up temples, and police their rugged terrain to make it safer for their wives and children. The Catholic authorities of this region (at this time under the French duces of Savoy) jumped up and stared. What in the world are the Poor doing now?

As soon as they could get organized the French attacked the Waldensians, ruthlessly killing them, raping the women, hurling the babies off cliffs to destroy them. After horrible bloody battles in the bush the Waldensians fled. Some rushed north to Switzerland, some to Germany and beyond.

But now that they had learned how to fight -- with the Calvinists’ total support – these descendants of the Poor became fierce. Well used to scampering about in the mountains, they became formidable guerrilla fighters. From the north they attacked Savoy and battle after battle pushed Catholic troops back until Waldensian fighters regained their territory, and after a series of treaties they could all come back to live.

For centuries Catholic authorities grudgingly tolerated the Waldensians, but they only allowed them to live in the highest and coldest parts of what is now north-western Italy. Most of them stayed very poor, no longer by choice, but by necessity. And by the mid-1800s they had grown into such a multitude that they lived in abject misery.

Finally, in 1848 the duke of Savoy allowed them to move further down, into other parts of Italy and France. All this while the Presbyterians from Scotland kept in touch with them and supported them politically. Then, when the great Scotch and English revivals began, in the Victorian age, the Waldensians quickly followed suit. And out of this revival and new zeal they decided to emigrate.

An impoverished Waldensian village in the mountains of Italy. This photo with numerous others, set up as a video, tells how so many families emigrated to Uruguay over a hundred years ago. If you wish to see the rest of the video, click here. Even though the story is narrated in Spanish you will be able to figure out much by the pictures themselves.

Speaking Italian, it did not take the Waldensians long to discover what had happened with other Italians in South America. Here and there in the Rio de la Plata area (Argentina and Uruguay) Italian settlers found new homes, and flourished. So, in 1856, the first contingent of Waldensian immigrants landed at Montevideo. Uruguayan officials sent them to Florida -- exactly where the new Anabaptist congregation is now taking shape. But after scouting around a bit, the Waldensian pioneers found permanent farms and homes in the Uruguayan department of Colonia del Sacramento.

Colonia del Sacramente in southwestern Uruguay -- just “Colonia” as people call it in popular speech. And do not be deceived, the water you are seeing here is not the ocean. This is the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) between Uruguay and Paraguay -- the largest and longest estuary on earth.

Liking their new home in Uruguay, these Waldensian settlers quickly wrote back to Italy, inviting all of their relatives and fellow members of the church. Through the 1860s and 70s more and more came. One congregation after the next took shape, a few on the other side of the river, in Argentina, and even up in the hot, troublesome Chaco, next to Paraguay.

Waldensian leaders, including Daniel Armando Ugón and Pedro Bounous in the early years, led the flock with courage and zeal. Touched by the great revivals in Scotland, England and Wales, they looked at Uruguay as a great mission field. What they planted in the 1800s brought much fruit.

Especially grateful for the Uruguayan branch of the Waldensian Church, were its congregations in Italy. By the 1940s Waldensian mission churches had been established in nearly all large Italian cities, and the church had grown rapidly. But during Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship there, and the second World War, the church suffered dreadfully. As soon as they could travel again, many hundreds found their way across the Atlantic to Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

Not only this, the Waldensians in Colonia, Uruguay, held out welcoming hands to the severely battered and war-shocked Mennonite refugees from West Prussia -- the group I described last week. And all the funds and support that the Dutch Mennonites had shared with the suffering Waldensians years ago, was now amply repaid!

To this day, the Waldensians in Uruguay remain staunch friends of the Anabaptists in South America and beyond. A bit strange because of the current contrast between their Calvinistic and Anabaptist beliefs. But in times of real need, something much wider and higher and more glorious moves in.

During the 1970s and 80s, during Uruguay’s political troubles and dictatorship, the Waldensians there felt less secure again. And knowing Latin America, anything can happen in the future.

Whatever happens and how, let us pray for the good seed that was sown centuries ago. As long as there is life there is hope, and I particularly hope that the Anabaptists and Waldensians in Uruguay can find their way with Christ to real unity in everlasting Truth.

All the blood of those martyrs was not shed in vain, and you Uruguayan believers all have much to live up to!

Peter Hoover

S-Secret-of-Strength-new.jpg The Secret Of The Strength
$9.95 The Secret Of The Strength
Average rating:

Peter Hoover. “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you,” Christ told his followers. And a few fishermen, a tax collector, and a motley group of believers set out to change the world. In fact, they succeeded.

In 16th century Europe, the Anabaptists preaching in cities by night, on back streets, and in secret corners behind rail fences set out to do the very thing the apostles had done. They, too, turned the world of their day upside down. What was the secret of their strength? In this book, Hoover explains what gave the Anabaptists their incredible spiritual strength.

290 pp. Paper.