Category: Inspired People of History

Who was Gandhi?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 to a nondescript family in western India, but when he died in 1948 he was one of the greatest political leaders in human history. His influence and character were so strong that, by his mid-forties, he was already being referred to by the title “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul.” During his life, he was also referred with reverence as Ghandi-ji, or more commonly as Bapu, (“father”). Gandhi’s legacy is built on his commitment to nonviolent revolution—or satyagraha—through which he helped India obtain independence from the British Empire. His birthday is celebrated in India as Gandhi Jayanti, and worldwide as the International Day of Non-Violence.

At age thirteen, Gandhi was married by arrangement to Kastur Kapadia, age fourteen. She would remain his wife until her death sixty-one years later. Gandhi attended law school in London, England, but struggled as a trial attorney, as he found it difficult to challenge witnesses on the stand. He then moved to South Africa. For more than twenty years, Gandhi struggled there against racial and religious discrimination. He was particularly bothered by the institutional racism that seemed to accompany British control over their territories. During this time Gandhi began to call for nonviolent revolution as a means to challenge authority. His efforts in South Africa garnered him great respect and a large following.

Gandhi returned to India, at that time still a British territory, and began working directly in politics. His primary goal was a fully independent India, one without any control from British or other foreign governments. His method for achieving this goal was satyagraha, roughly meaning “nonviolent revolution.” This approach focuses on pacifism and diplomacy, escalating to non-cooperation when reason and submission do not work. After decades of struggle, intermittent imprisonments, and setbacks, as well as four failed assassination attempts, Gandhi’s goal was finally achieved in 1947, as India was granted full independence.

Gandhi’s fifth brush with an assassin was his last, when militant Hindu Nathuram Godse shot him three times in the chest in 1948. Less than six months after realizing his dream of Indian self-government, Gandhi was being mourned worldwide.

Interestingly, Gandhi, a Hindu, was heavily influenced by the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Compassion for social issues is foreign to a classical Hindu worldview, and Gandhi’s social outlook was a product of his experiences with Christians and others. Gandhi also viewed Jesus’ method of nonviolent persuasion as the epitome of satyagraha. In particular, Gandhi valued Jesus’ moral commitment to not merely conquer a culture but to convert it. This, Gandhi realized, was the only way of effecting real, lasting change: a complete transformation in thinking. Jesus’ death on the cross, in Gandhi’s view, was humanity’s greatest possible expression of satyagraha: willing suffering, self-sacrifice, and non-violence on behalf of others.

While hailed as a great moral leader and a transforming figure, Gandhi’s legacy is markedly different from that of Jesus. Gandhi’s morals were sometimes conflicted, even contradictory. For instance, while he passionately argued for non-violence, the effectiveness of those efforts depended on a ruling power sensitive to moral arguments. His calls for unqualified pacifism and submission in the face of Fascist regimes such as the Axis Powers of World War II were seen as naïve and unrealistic (see Luke 22:36). And, when evidence of the extent of the Holocaust was uncovered, Gandhi’s suggestions seemed even more unreasonable.

Also, Gandhi himself was not free from morally questionable behavior. Though the details are often misunderstood, Gandhi spent some time in his later years sharing his bed with naked young girls, including children of family members. His claimed purpose for this was to test his commitment to sexual abstinence, despite being married. This behavior was extremely controversial, even among Gandhi’s most ardent admirers. Biblically, we are told not to purposefully seek temptation (Luke 11:4), and also we are not to deprive a spouse from physical intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:5).

Like Jesus, Gandhi spoke out against violence (Matthew 26:52), greed (Luke 12:15), oppression (Luke 4:18), and hypocrisy (Matthew 23:28). Gandhi recognized the need for a leader to identify with people (Matthew 11:19) in order to truly change them (John 3:7). However, Gandhi did not fully embrace the spiritual importance of Jesus Christ. As a young man, he referred to Hinduism as a “solace”; as he aged, Gandhi said he was stuck “in the slough of despond. All about me is darkness; I am praying for light.” His morality focused on each person working out his own improvement (Ephesians 2:8–9) under a Hindu sense of karma (see Hebrews 9:27).

Gandhi’s insight that culture needs to be transformed, not merely controlled, needed to be applied all the way down to each human heart (Romans 12:2), including his own. Without the transformation of Christ, our efforts are ultimately just fumbling in darkness (Matthew 6:23; John 8:12).

Origen of Alexandria (AD 185—254), also known as Origen Adamantius, was one of the earliest and most important Christian scholars. He is remembered both for prodigious scholarship and fanatical commitment to purity. He is credited with producing hundreds of works on theology, textual criticism, and biblical interpretation. Among Origen’s most important works are the Hexapla, De Principiis, and Contra Celsum. A few of his views were unorthodox, to the point that later generations debated whether he was a saint or a heretic.

In the year 202, Origen’s father was beheaded for his Christian faith. To support his family, the teenaged Origen began teaching grammar and basic Christian beliefs. His writing and education career grew quickly. Before long, he was running an entire school and hosting visits from politicians and academics. All the while, Origen produced scholarly work both in high quality and massive quantity. At one point, he was said to have kept seven scribes working at top speed. The scholar Jerome (AD 354—420) would later ask, sarcastically, “Has anyone read everything Origen wrote?”

Origen studied under non-Christian philosophers in his birth city of Alexandria, Egypt, in order to better understand their arguments. This fueled one of his most important works, De Principiis (On First Principles). This is believed to be Christianity’s first comprehensive work of systematic theology. In it, Origen not only laid out a structured approach to Christian belief, but did so through (then) contemporary Greek philosophy.

Another of Origen’s most important works is his Hexapla (Sixfold). This book is one of the earliest examples of textual criticism and scholarly apologetics, as well as a true interlinear Bible. The Hexapla is formatted in six columns: one column of Hebrew text in parallel with five columns of various Greek translations. Origen’s purpose in compiling this was to counter Gnostic and Jewish attacks on early Christianity. This work also provided Christians with a comprehensive guide to the Old Testament. The original is estimated to have been more than 6,500 pages long and took more than 28 years to complete.

Origen also responded to an anti-Christian work, written shortly before his birth, by the Greek philosopher Celsus. Celsus’ work broadly attacked the history, philosophy, prophecies, and social duties of Christianity. In Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), Origen produced a detailed, powerfully intellectual defense of Christianity, one of the first and best of the early church era. In it, Origen answers Celsus point by point, weaving evidence, logic, and philosophy together in support of Christianity.

Understanding Origen’s work can be challenging. He believed all Scripture had three levels of meaning: literal, figurative, and moral, and he often expounded various ways to interpret the same passage. Origen is a prime example of early church scholars accepting non-literal interpretations of certain passages, such as the creation account of Genesis. He was also a vocal critic of the view that only specially ordained men had the spiritual authority to interpret Scripture. Much of his work was a deliberate effort to promote knowledge over mere authority, including church leadership.

Some of Origen’s ideas were unorthodox and put him at odds with fellow believers. For instance, Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls and that one’s status in the present world was proportional to one’s commitment to God during this pre-existence. His negative attitude toward the material world wasn’t much different than that of the Gnostics he so strongly opposed. He also considered the Trinity a ranking, not an equality, and believed that everyone, even demons, would one day be forgiven and purified by God. These claims were key to his being declared a heretic by various councils in the centuries after his death.

Origen’s radical approach to purity of lifestyle was infamous. He lived in extreme asceticism, without shoes or a bed, and often worked instead of sleeping. He fasted twice a week and avoided all meat and wine. According to Roman historian Eusebius, Origen’s quest for purity led him, through an extremely literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, to self-castration. Even among his admirers, this was seen as an extreme and unnecessary step, though later scholars would debate whether or not Origen actually performed the deed.

Eventually, Origen’s uncompromising attitude toward Christianity and knowledge ran him afoul of the Roman Empire. Sometime after AD 251, a plague swept through Rome, and Emperor Decius laid blame on Christians for failing to worship him as a divine being. During the Decian persecution, Origen was imprisoned and brutally tortured but purposefully kept alive, in hopes he would recant his faith. True to his reputation, “Adamantius” remained a “man of steel” and was released from prison when Emperor Decius died. Unfortunately, Origen’s body hadn’t weathered the torture as well as his faith, and he died from his injuries very shortly after being freed.

Origen devoted his life to making evidence, reason, and Scripture accessible to as many people as possible. His legacy is an excellent counter to any claim that early Christianity was shallow, superstitious, or anti-intellectual. Heretic or not, Origen is among the most important figures of the early church.

No one author portrays the “Judeo-Christian history” and the “Antiquities of the Jews” as does “Flavius Josephus”.

Since their release in the first century AD, the writings of Flavius Josephus have become a primary source of Judeo-Christian history. According to The Life of Flavius Josephus, [by Josephus] Josephus “was born to Matthias in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar” (1:5), being AD 37. At “fourteen years of age, [he] was commended by all for the love [he] had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to [him] together, in order to know [his] opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law” (2:9).

Observing the Jewish sects of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, Josephus spent three years with a hermit named Banus (2:11–12) and, upon returning at nineteen years age, “began to conduct [him]self according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees” (2:12). Traveling to Rome to defend persecuted Pharisees, he returned with an admiration for the Roman way of life. Soon after, a rebellion by Jewish forces against Rome occurred (AD 66), and Josephus found himself becoming a commander in Galilee where he “took care to have arms provided, and the cities fortified” (14:77). However, despite his attempts, Josephus surrendered at Jotapata, which “was taken by force” (65:350). When the “siege of Jotapata was over, and [he] was among the Romans, [he] was kept with much care, by means of the great respect that Vespasian showed [him]” (AD 69) and was soon accompanied by the emperor’s son Titus back to Jerusalem (75:414–416).

Despite Josephus’s attempts to quell growing revolts, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Josephus returned with Titus to Rome, where he “had great care taken of [him] by Vespasian; for he gave [him] an apartment in his own house, which he lived in before he came to the empire. He also honored [Josephus] with the privilege of a Roman citizen, and gave [him] an annual pension; and continued to respect [him] to the end of his life” (76:423).

The works of Josephus are few in number, but large in volume. The Wars of the Jews is the harrowing and partly eye-witness account of the wars involving the Jewish nation from the Maccabean Revolt (as told in the apocryphal 1 Maccabees) to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, through which Josephus lived. The Antiquities of the Jews details the history of the Jewish people from the creation narrative (Genesis in the Old Testament) to the time of Josephus’s writing (New Testament and thereafter). Against Apion is an insightful apologetic of Jewish theology and thought against critics and students of Greek philosophy. Josephus is best known however, among Christians for his referral to Jesus in The Antiquities of the Jews, one of the earliest pieces of historical evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament. Below is the paragraph from The Antiquities of the Jews (18:63–64), with what is commonly believed to be additions by a later Christian translator in brackets:

“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to refer to him as a man]. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah-Christ.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For on the third day he appeared to them again alive, just as the divine prophets had spoken about these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”

Later in The Antiquities of the Jews (20:200), Jesus is again mentioned, in passing this time, as Josephus focuses his discussion on Jesus’ half-brother James (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19). The passage is again worth quoting in full:

“But this younger Ananus, who, as we told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent. . . . He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Messiah-Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned.”

Despite the occasional bias of his historical works, Josephus is a relatively credible historian whose work provides a thorough understanding of Jewish life in the first century and the Jewish War. Without such histories, our knowledge and understanding of these two areas would be far less rich.

The rancorous presidential election of 1800 brought religion to the forefront of public debate and had lasting repercussions for the relationship between church and state.

Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in American history. He had faced the unpopular incumbent, Federalist John Adams of Massachusetts—his confrere in the independence struggle and longtime rival. The electorate was deeply divided along regional, partisan, and ideological lines. Acrimonious campaign rhetoric punctuated the polarized political landscape.

In few, if any, presidential contests has religion played a more divisive and decisive role than in the election of 1800. Jefferson’s religion, or alleged lack thereof, emerged as a critical issue in the campaign. His Federalist opponents vilified him as a Jacobin and atheist. (Both charges stemmed from his notorious sympathy for the French Revolution, which in the 1790s had turned bloody and, some said, anti-Christian.) In the days before the election, the Gazette of the United States, a leading Federalist newspaper, posed the “grand question” of whether Americans should vote for “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT [John Adams]; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!”

Jefferson’s Federalist foes did not invent the stinging accusation that he was an infidel. Years before, his ardent advocacy for disestablishment in Virginia had led many pious Americans to conclude that Jefferson was, if not an enemy of religion, at least indifferent towards organized religion’s vital role in civic life. The publication of his Notes on the State of Virginia in the mid-1780s exacerbated these fears. He wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This passage came back to haunt him in the 1800 campaign. Detractors said this proved he was an infidel or, worse, an atheist.

Jefferson described himself as “a real Christian,” although he was certainly aware that his beliefs were unconventional. “I am of a sect by myself,” he said. He believed that human reason was the arbiter of religious truth and rejected key tenets of orthodox Christianity, including the Bible’s divine origins, the deity of Christ, original sin, and the miraculous accounts in Scripture.

Despite his deviations from orthodoxy, he rejected suggestions that his views were of “that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” His religion was very different, Jefferson conceded, from the leading churchmen of his day who called him an “infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel.” He believed that Jesus Christ’s moral teachings, stripped of the fiction and artifice carefully crafted by those calling themselves Christians, were “the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”

An infidel in office?

Jefferson’s faith provided an early test of religion’s place in national politics. His heterodox beliefs raised doubts about his fitness for high office. In 1798, Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and the president of Yale College, warned that the election of Jeffersonian Republicans might usher in a Jacobin regime in which “we may see the Bible cast into a bonfire, the vessels of the sacramental supper borne by an ass in public procession, and our children … chanting mockeries against God … [to] the ruin of their religion, and the loss of their souls.”

In an influential pamphlet published in 1800, William Linn, a Dutch Reformed clergyman, warned that a vote for Jefferson “must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.” He added ominously that the promotion of an infidel to high office would encourage public immorality and lead to the “destruction of all social order and happiness.”

Presbyterian minister John Mitchell Mason similarly declaimed that it would be “a crime never to be forgiven” for the American people to confer the office of chief magistrate “upon an open enemy to their religion, their Redeemer, and their hope, [and it] would be mischief to themselves and sin against God.” Jefferson’s “favorite wish,” Mitchell charged, is “to see a government administered without any religious principle among either rulers or ruled.” He repudiated the notion gaining currency among Jeffersonians’ that “Religion has nothing to do with politics.”

Jeffersonian partisans denied that their candidate was an atheist and advanced a separationist policy that would eventually exert much influence on American politics. “Religion and government are equally necessary,” said Tunis Wortman, “but their interests should be kept separate and distinct. No legitimate connection can ever subsist between them. Upon no plan, no system, can they become united, without endangering the purity and usefulness of both—the church will corrupt the state, and the state pollute the church.”

Republicans extolled Jefferson as a leader of uncommon liberality and tolerance—an enlightened man who zealously defended constitutional government, civil and religious liberty, and the separation between religion and politics. “[M]y information is that he is a sincere professor of Christianity—though not a noisy one,” Wortman wrote.

The campaign rhetoric was so vitriolic that when news of Jefferson’s election swept across the country, housewives in Federalist New England were seen burying their family Bibles in their gardens or hiding them in wells because they expected the Scriptures to be confiscated and burned by the new administration.

Anybody but a Presbyterian!

Although Jefferson’s beliefs drew the most attention, John Adams was not immune from political smears on account of religion. When President Adams recommended a national “day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in March 1799, political adversaries depicted him as a tool of establishmentarians intent on legally uniting a specific church with the new federal government. This allegation alarmed religious dissenters, such as the Baptists, who feared persecution by a state church.

“A general suspicion prevailed,” Adams recounted a decade later, “that the Presbyterian Church [which was presumed to be behind the national day of prayer] was ambitious and aimed at an establishment as a national church.” Although disclaiming any involvement in such a scheme, Adams ruefully reported that he “was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical project. The secret whisper ran through all the sects, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.”” Adams thought the controversy, which drove dissenters into Jefferson’s camp, cost him the election.

Both men were deeply wounded by the vicious attacks on their characters and the ruinous campaign tactics. An anguished Jefferson compared his persecution at the hands of critics—especially among the New England clergy—with the crucified Christ: “from the clergy I expect no mercy. They crucified their Saviour, who preached that their kingdom was not of this world; and all who practice on that precept must expect the extreme of their wrath. The laws of the present day withhold their hands from blood; but lies and slander still remain to them.”

The bitterness lingered long after both men had left public office. In their declining years, they resumed a correspondence, slowly repairing their ruptured friendship.

Church and state

Jefferson enjoyed one pocket of support in staunchly Federalist New England: the Baptists. In October 1801, the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to congratulate the recently inaugurated president. The Danbury Baptists were a beleaguered religious minority in a state where Congregationalism was the established church. They celebrated Jefferson’s advocacy for religious liberty and chastised those who criticized him “because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.” They expressed a heartfelt desire “that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the Earth.”

On New Year’s Day, 1802, President Jefferson penned a reply. The carefully crafted letter reassured the Baptists of his commitment to their rights of conscience and struck back at the Congregationalist-Federalist establishment in New England for shamelessly vilifying him in the recent campaign. The First Amendment, he wrote, denied Congress the authority to establish a religion or prohibit its free exercise, “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson’s wall, according to conventional wisdom, represents a universal principle on the constitutional relationship between religion and the state. To the contrary, this wall had less to do with the separation between religion and all civil government than with the separation between national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion. The “wall of separation” was a metaphoric construction of the First Amendment, which Jefferson time and again said imposed its restrictions on the national government only (see, for example, Jefferson’s 1798 draft of the Kentucky Resolutions).

How did this wall, limited in its jurisdictional application, come to exert such enormous influence on American law and politics? Jefferson’s metaphor might have slipped into obscurity had it not been “rediscovered” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947. Asked to interpret the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” the justices declared: “In the words of Jefferson,” the First Amendment “erect[ed] “a wall of separation between church and State” … [that] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

This landmark ruling laid the foundations for a long line of legal decisions restricting religion’s place in public life. The “wall” metaphor, in particular, provided the rationale for censoring religious expression in schools, stripping public spaces of religious symbols, and denying public benefits to faith communities.

The bitterness of the election of 1800 has long faded from public memory. The partisanship and rancorous rhetoric that characterized the contest, however, have become familiar features of the political culture. An enduring legacy of the campaign is the perennial debate regarding the constitutional place of religion in civic life. Religion, argues one side, is an indispensable support for political prosperity, providing a vital moral compass in a regime of self-government. The other side, echoing Jeffersonian partisans, asserts that social cohesion and democratic values are threatened whenever bricks are removed from the wall of separation between religion and politics.

This debate is as old as the Republic and as current as the morning newspaper.

23489620-martin-luther-from-a-1525-portraitMartin Luther challenged centuries of vocational reflection.

THE NOTION OF CALLING has always been at the very heart of Christian identity. For Jesus’ earliest followers, entering into Christian community meant sharing in a calling that stood in strong tension with other identities (see “Called first to Christ,” pp. 8–12). As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean world and became the faith of the empire, however, that tension began to ease.

When Christianity transformed from an underground, persecuted sect into the Roman Empire’s established religion, monasticism soon emerged as a high-tension alternative to the increasing laxity and worldliness of mainstream churches. Monasteries issued a clarion call to drop everything for Jesus. As Basil the Great (329–379) explained in rules for his monastic community, “A beginning is made by detaching oneself from all external goods: property, self-importance, social class and useless desire, following the holy example of the Lord’s disciples. James and John left their father Zebedee and the very boat upon which their whole livelihood depended.”

This might seem like a recipe for disaster—after all, if all Christians are “called” to abandon their nets to follow Christ, who will catch the fish? Milk the cows? Tend the crops? Build the roads? Change the diapers? Maintain justice?

And yet, in the millennium that followed, monasticism proved to be one of Christendom’s most compelling and enduring institutions. It allowed Christianity, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it, to operate “at several speeds.” By restricting the term “vocation” to the monastic life, the church maintained an ideal of spiritual perfection, while acknowledging that not everyone—in fact, only a very few—is called to this sort of arduous asceticism. The ministry of those “in the world” could be pitched at a lower speed to accommodate the needs of the less committed, while the monasteries offered a fast lane for religious “virtuosos.”

Medieval writers typically divided Christian society into three parts: the church, the political order, and the economy. Eleventh-century bishop Adalbero of Laon put it, “God’s house, which we think of as one, is thus divided into three: some pray, others fight, yet others work. . . . The services rendered by one are a precondition for the labors of the other two, and each in his turn takes it upon himself to relieve the whole.” But by the later Middle Ages, this arrangement was starting to show signs of strain (see “Duty and delight,” pp. 14–19).

Enter Martin Luther.

a new lane altogether 

Luther (1483–1546) had tried life in the spiritual fast lane, and it had done him no good. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach,” he recalled, “I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience.” As he lectured on the Bible in his post as theology professor at the university in Wittenberg, Luther gradually came to develop a radically different understanding of Christian salvation. It did away entirely with “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” as well as with the idea that vocation necessarily implies a call to abandon one’s nets and leave the world for the cloister.

Luther’s revolutionary new theology of justification by faith alone was based on the insight that human life is lived out at the intersection between two basic relationships: a vertical relationship “before God” and a horizontal relationship “before humanity.” Before God, humans stand in a purely passive, helpless relationship. Luther argued that we, as finite beings, are utterly incapable of meriting our own salvation, or any good thing, for that matter. What makes the gospel “good news,” in Luther’s view, is that it reveals to us the righteousness God grants to sinners as a pure gift.

“What do we do to obtain this gift?” Luther asked. “Nothing at all. For this righteousness means to do nothing, to hear nothing, and to know nothing about the law or about works and to believe only this: that Christ . . . sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father, not as a Judge but as one who has been made for us [i.e. on our behalf] wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption from God.”

This righteousness, Luther argued, is given to us freely through the Word of God. In contrast to human words, which merely name things—for example, when Adam gave names to the animals in the Garden of Eden—God’s Word is powerful. It called the universe into being from nothing, and it was the same creative Word calling faith into being when Christ spoke to his disciples from the seashore, or to his church through Scripture, sermon, or sacrament.

This meant for Luther that vocation defined Christian identity. And “vocation” was not a special invitation to join God’s “fast lane” as a priest or a monk, but the transformative power of God’s Word uniting people to Christ in faith.

That may seem like a rather abstract point, but it had radical implications in the sixteenth century. In his Address to the German Nobility in 1520, Luther spelled these implications out with startling clarity: the distinction between religious and secular, between sacred and profane, is nothing more than a “specious device invented by time-servers,” for “our baptism consecrates us all without exception, and makes us all priests.”

For Luther this did not mean, however, that all Christians were called to perform the same duties or occupy the same stations. Since human beings are incapable of rendering anything to God in return for his grace, Luther argued that God does not need our good works. But our neighbors do. Therefore God so ordered things that each is assigned his or her proper task to help the body of Christ function. The vocation that unites people to Christ in faith always comes first. But “when I have this righteousness within me,” Luther explained:

I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the saddened, I administer the sacraments. If I am a father, I rule my household and family, I train my children in piety and honesty. If I am a magistrate, I perform the office which I have received by divine command. If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs.

In short, whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life—even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases him.


the gate to paradise?

Luther experienced these “discoveries” as “the very gate to paradise,” and he was confident that his gospel would liberate “those who work” and “those who fight” to rediscover the joy of their salvation. But Luther’s critics, then and now, pointed out that this understanding of vocation seemed to underwrite a deeply conservative view of the social order. And much confirmed this. Luther made clear that justification by faith alone dissolves the distinction between the “spiritual” and the “secular,” but he left wholly untouched any secular distinctions.

Rulers are called to rule and servants to serve: “If you are called in slavery, then remain in the slavery in which you were called,” he said, and elsewhere, “We know that everybody . . . must be able to tell himself: ‘This is my office; this is my vocation.’ Such a person is pleasing to God. It is God’s will that I be a father or mother, a husband or wife.” And yet Luther always insisted—sometimes in the face of his own experience—that truly understanding vocation in Christ would transform how people treat others. Commenting on 1 Cor. 7:20, Luther responded to the question, “What if the Gospel calls me in a state of sin, should I remain in that?” by saying:

How can you sin if you have faith and love? Since God is satisfied with your faith and your neighbor with your love, it is impossible that you should be called and still remain in a state of sin. . . . This call brings you from the state of sin to a state of virtue, making you unable to sin as long as you are in that state. All things are free to you with God through faith; but with men you are the servant of everyman through love.

Luther was unwilling to use the gospel as a blueprint for reconstructing the social order. But he also insisted that a master who exercises his office sinfully, with no recognition that the gospel makes him “the servant of everyman,” fails to understand the gospel.

Luther’s ambiguous legacy on these points echoed through the centuries, as Christians wrestled with the question of when their vocation as Christians calls them to support the social order and when it calls them to change it. But through those centuries, his message of God’s universal calling also comforted many in knowing they were doing the work of God’s kingdom as they caught the fish, milked the cows, tended the crops, built the roads, changed the diapers, and maintained justice.

Any study of denominationalism or church history is sure to lead, sooner or later, to the terms High Church and Low Church. Originally, these terms defined movements within the Anglican Church, but the meanings have broadened to apply to non-Anglican churches, as well.

The terms have to do with worship procedures, specifically, the use of ritual, liturgy, and accoutrements in worship. Leaders of a High Church congregation place a “high” emphasis on ceremony, vestments, and sacraments. Leaders of a Low Church congregation place a “low” emphasis on such things and follow a freer worship style.

Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Orthodox, most Methodist and Lutheran, and some Presbyterian churches are considered High Church. Their worship services are characterized by liturgical readings and rituals, their clergy wear special clothing, and they follow a calendar of annual religious observances.

Baptist, Independent, Pentecostal, Quaker, Amish, some Methodist and Lutheran, and many Presbyterian churches are considered Low Church. Their worship services are characterized by congregational involvement, a relatively unstructured program, and an evangelical approach.

The distinction between High Church and Low Church did not appear until after the Reformation, of course. Then, the question arose: as the Protestant Church rejected Roman Catholic doctrine, how much Catholic procedure should be retained? Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took opposing views. Luther considered that, as long as a rite was not specifically forbidden in the Bible, it was permissible for the church to practice. Zwingli’s view was that, if a rite was not specifically commanded in the New Testament, then it should not be practiced in the church.

Luther’s position led to what is now known as High Church practice. Zwingli’s view, which led to the Low Church movement, is expressed in the Westminster Confession: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (21.1). In other words, unless a practice is explicitly prescribed in Scripture, then the church should avoid it.

John Wesley, an Anglican, was sometimes accused of being Low Church because of his open-air evangelism and his training of clergy outside of standard church channels. Wesley himself denied such charges, always emphasizing his commitment to the rituals of his church. To this day, the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions are an interesting mixture of High Church liturgy and Low Church evangelicalism.

Low Church members often accuse the High Church of being “too Catholic.” High Church members sometimes look down their noses at the Low Church for being “unsophisticated.” Both sides should guard against spiritual pride (James 4:6). In truth, neither being High Church nor Low Church guarantees the proper worship of God. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Despite centuries of severe persecution, these Christians from the Italian Alps, through the strength of their commitment to Christ, the Bible, and a life of poverty, maintained their evangelical identity, and faithfully carried the Gospel torch from the 12th century to the Reformation.

THE LATE 12TH CENTURY in Europe was a time rich in spiritual ferment and in its various expressions of religious experience. It is in this distant, shifting period that an ancient group of evangelical Christians— the Waldensians—first appear in the regions of Lyons (France) and, slightly later, Milan (Italy). In the earliest days the members of this movement were simply called “The Poor.” From their seemingly insignificant beginnings, with the odds against their survival as a distinct group, they did survive, and their difficult journey of faith stands out in history.

More than three centuries would pass before the Waldensians would build their own church buildings and view themselves as outside of the mother church; they would eventually melt into the Protestant Reformation. But until that time in the 16th century, The Poor would live as a scattered but closely knit movement within the Roman Church, with a central devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and a life of poverty in conformity to the example of the Apostles.

In the context of their turbulent time, the emergence of the Waldensian Movement was not exceptional. What is surprising is their survival for such a long period of time. Far from being welcomed by the Church authorities, the Waldensians were harshly repressed. (As opposed to the case, for example, of the great monastic founder Francis of Assisi [1181-1226] and his followers—whose ideas were quite similar in spirit and intention with those of the Waldensians.)

In light of this, the fact that during three centuries the movement of The Poor was able not only to survive but to expand, always attracting new adherents and bringing its testimony into new areas, merits our recognition and special consideration.

Why the Waldensians?

Where can we turn to find an explanation for this success? To the strength of the convictions of single believers? This does not seem to be the case, for in the same period there were other believers just as fervent, of whom every trace has been lost, often cancelled by repression. No, conviction of faith, courage in the face of persecution, and force of spirit do not provide in themselves a satisfactory explanation for the survival of the Waldensians.

We might turn instead (and recent historians have) to reasons of a social and economic nature. Perhaps, since they were simple believers from the most humble classes on the fringe of society, the Waldensians did not constitute a threat to the establishment. They could, therefore, conduct their underground existence without any great risk.

However, this interpretation of the Waldensian phenomenon is contradicted by the evidence: the documentation shows that the Waldensians were present and active in all social classes, in the countryside and in the cities, among farmers and among merchants.

Our answer to the mystery of Waldensian survival and growth is of a different nature: The movement of The Poor was able to survive the Middle Ages because it never closed itself with a sectarian spirit (that is, it did not see itself as an exclusive group, spiritually superior to other Christians); rather, it knew how to continuously renew itself spiritually and theologically. This was possible because, though their social structure and their way of life might change, from their time of origin the Waldensians had a clear and original message to which they held firmly, and to which they remained faithful.

We could say that the Waldensian strength can be found exactly in certain terms we have used so far in referring to them: they were a movement, and a movement of the poor.

Waldo of Lyons and Waldensian Beginnings

These essential Waldensian characteristics already appear clearly in the experience of the founder of the movement, Waldo of Lyons [see A Prophet Without Honor]. This merchant, who lived in the French city at the end of the 12th century, did not intend to give life to a new community that would oppose the Church. He did not intend to found a sect, nor to gather around himself a faithful group to carry his name and espouse his ideas. He did not present himself as a preacher with new ideas, new revelations, or particular interpretations to communicate (something which has occured frequently in the history of the Christian Church).

He had but one purpose: to live the Christian faith according to the teaching of the Gospel; or, to express it in terms closer to the spirituality of his time, to follow Jesus as the apostles did. He wanted to relive the experience of Jesus’ first disciples. And in this sense we can apply to Waldo and his followers the curious and fascinating definition used at a later time by an inquisitor who was intent on persecuting the Waldensians: they were Nudi nudum Christum sequentes (naked disciples of a naked Christ). The unusual (and to us probably startling) use here of the adjective “naked” can be understood in two ways: with nothing on—that is materially poor, and also, without religious extras, in the sense of Christ only. For the Waldensians, Christ was to be followed in his poverty, and also as the only reference point for faith.

Following Jesus as the apostles did involved certain things for Waldo and his followers. They emphasized the importance of hearing and understanding the Word of God—the Bible; it was from the Scriptures that men and women would know Christ as the center of their faith. They lived in voluntary poverty and were persistent in their intent to preach in public. This last activity was the one that particularly offended the religious leaders of their time, and which brought the wrath of the Catholic Church down upon them. The archbishop of Lyons attempted to stop Waldo from his public preaching. When he found he could not, he expelled him from the city. Already a group of friends had gathered around Waldo who were devoted to following his example. They did not call themselves “brothers” or “disciples,” as was commonly done in the monastic orders in those days, but referred to themselves as Waldo’s “comembers,” and to their group as a “society.” They took these terms from the business language of the time and not from the religious; it is as if they feared that other Christians would think that they were claiming to found a new religious association superior to the existing Church. They wanted only to be a group of laypersons who were collaborating for a precise goal: in this case, to preach the Gospel. This dedication to preaching provoked a strong reaction from the Church, which led to a search for The Poor of Lyons and to their excommunication as heretics.

By Whose Authority?

It will be helpful here to refer to the Church’s theology at the time. Public preaching, according to the medieval theologians, was reserved for the clergy. They were, as the successors to the apostles, and in virtue of their ordination, the only ones qualified to exercise this ministry. (This notion of apostolic authority being passed down from generation to generation by ordination in the Church is called Apostolic Succession.) So according to Church belief and practice at the time, Waldo the merchant, not being ordained, was not a successor of the apostles, and therefore did not have the right to preach.

Now this is precisely the idea that Waldo contested. He, as one who had called upon the Lord, affirmed that he was called to be a disciple of Christ, even as were the apostles. And who are the real successors of the apostles? Not necessarily those who are ordained, he argued, but rather those who respond to the Lord’s call and live like the apostles of old. What makes one a true heir to the apostles is not ordination, but fidelity to God’s word. Authority to preach did not come through the visible Church order, but by Christ himself.

The consequences of such a belief as this would have been enormous for the Church in Waldo’s time, for the Medieval Church believed that it was the exclusive channel through which God administered his Spirit. If Waldo’s idea had been accepted, the Church could not have been looked upon as the sole depository of the Spirit. Waldo believed that God’s Word and his Spirit do surely act in the Church, but are not solely administered by it.

Probably Waldo did not realize the radical implications of his affirmations, and he continued to feel in full communion with the church, with its tradition, and with all believers. However, the Roman curia (i.e., the Catholic Church government) recognized the danger and after a few years the Poor of Lyons were considered heretics, thus starting their long call to martyrdom.

Against the Donation of Constantine

In the 13th century, especially at its beginning, The Poor were present in Languedoc and Lombardy, that is, Northern Italy (where they were called The Poor of Lombardy). A century later the inquisitors found numerous communities in the Danube Valley in Austria, and in Northern Germany. Already in these periods there appeared an organization, divided into small groups with certain individuals responsible for the care of each group. (In some cases the terms of the official church were even used for these leaders, such as apostle, or prefect.) These various small groups, to a certain degree, were independent, and able to pursue their particular vision of the religious life.

Formally, however, the Waldensians continued to be a part of the Roman Church, where they baptized their children and took communion at least once a year, as was the common practice. They were still within the boundaries of the Church of Rome, and they did nothing that would highlight their criticisms of the Church.

Essentially two things distinguished them from those around them:

1) Before everything else they sought an absolute fidelity to the words of Jesus, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount. Consequently they rejected any form of violence. Not only did they oppose the violence of war and particularly that of the Crusades, but they also opposed “legal” violence, the kind practiced by the courts.

2) They refused to take oaths (based on Matthew 5:33-37), and opposed the practice of lending money at interest. These positions not only stirred reactions from the religious establishment, but the political powers also came to view the Waldensians as dangerous rebels also. What was the Waldensian motivation for such radicalism? Harsh moral standards, a desire for purity, and coherence with the Gospel? This has often been the explanation. Weren’t the Waldensians just simple people, without influential persons in their ranks, merely trying their best to interpret the Gospel and follow it as best they could? This does not appear to be the case.

To be accurate, the Waldensians were in fact not naive, simplistic interpreters of the Scriptures, but they had an acute understanding of the place of Christian faith in history. They believed that the Church, when it is faithful to its true calling, follows in the steps of the apostles. They also knew that the Church can be unfaithful—and that this infidelity shows itself when Christ’s spirit of humility and poverty are abandoned for the worldly quest for temporal riches and power. They were convinced that when the Church becomes a worldly power it loses its spirit. The strength of their interpretation came through their pinpointing the moment in history in which they believed this betrayal took place: the 4th century, when Christianity was consecrated as the state religion by the emperor Constantine. That event (which is generally considered a great victory) was in reality, according to the Waldensians, the beginning of the Church’s decline; it was a compromise with the world.

“We,” said the Waldensians, “are the true disciples of Christ because we deny the Donation of Constantine” [see “The Donation of Constantine”], that is, the compromise of the Church with the world. In this they avoided two attitudes that would have been self-destructive: 1) a feeling that they were outside, or excluded from the Church, which would have led to a sectarian spirit—a closed-group mentality; and 2) a snobbish attitude of seeing themselves as the only true examples of faith, and therefore against the Church. They certainly did have a sense of being the most faithful part of the Church, but without a sense of sectarianism, or of separatism.

The Influence of Hus

This view of being a movement to return to the true apostolic example within the Church, without being separatistic, helps us see why, at the start of the 15th century, the Waldensians became followers of the renewal movement within Christian theology guided by the great Bohemian (Czech) preacher and theologian John Hus.

Hus was condemned and burned at the stake in 1415 for his teachings. He was a devoted Catholic, but taught that the Catholic Church’s authority was secondary to the Bible’s (not equal, as the Church taught), so even laypeople could judge the Church’s actions by Scripture, and therefore the Bible should be translated for public use. He also taught that the real spiritual Church of Christ was not equivalent to the earthly Catholic Church; this implied that even the highest Church officials might not be part of the true spiritual seed of Christ.

Hus argued that the corrupt and extravagant lives of many Church leaders, as opposed to Christ’s life of poverty, made this clear. Though Hus was martyred for his stand, his ideas later had a large influence on Luther and others, and pointed the way, along with the teachings of John Wycliffe, towards the Protestant Reformation. Hus’s followers became known as the Bohemian Brethren. It is not hard to see how the ideas of the Waldensians lined up in many ways with the teachings of Hus, and why they became associated with the movement of the Bohemian Brethren.

The Age of the Barba

The 15th century represents a noteworthy moment in the vitality of the Waldensians. A particularly fascinating characteristic of this vitality was the barba. The term is significant in itself. In the Provencal dialect, in the Alpine area, this term meant “uncle,” but, in its corresponding feminine form, it referred also to a leader who merited respect and obedience. The Waldensians used this term to refer to their pastors, perhaps in deliberate contrast to the Catholic practice of calling priests “father.&rdquo:

We do not have a lot of information about the barba, but what we have is sufficient to give us an idea. The young persons who decided to respond to this calling were aware of the risks. They prepared for their ministry in two ways. First, there was a fixed period of time in a “school.” These were not only places of study and research, but places where one acquired a familiarity with Scripture, and culture in general. Above all they were places of training, retreats where one experienced life in community with others, young and old, to arrive at that spiritual and moral maturity that are essential in a life full of risk.

A barba received still deeper training, however, by accompanying an older barba in his missions of contact with the dispersed faithful. This on-the-job, practical work gave them the experience necessary to carry on the effort.

The activity of the barba was evidently, in the light of the little we know, prodigious—they accomplished a great deal. They traveled from Northern Italy to Provence, from Bohemia to the Alps, preaching, instructing, receiving the confessions of the faithful, following precise itineraries. They were almost always disguised, for example as religious pilgrims, or travelling merchants, in order to avoid being identified by the Inquisition [the Catholic Church’s organization for exposing heretics]. They have often been presented as simple folk, with a great experience of faith and life, but of little learning.

The truth is quite different. We know this from numerous manuscripts in their Provencal tongue that have been found. These writings were obviously used by the barba. The minute, pocket-sized volumes containing sermons, tracts, poems, and grammar lessons are only the tip of an iceberg, revealing to us the vast cultural world of the Waldensians. Many of them are theological works coming from Hussite sources, which were not only translated, but adapted and elaborated. These accomplishments required sensibility and competence beyond that of the simple and uneducated.

Around the barba there was a well-organized clandestine world [see The Pearl]. In twos (according to the biblical model) they visited the faithful on well-defined itineraries, held assemblies to discuss their problems, and gathered and administered donations. The fact that in the course of the century very few barba were arrested, among the many that were active, is testimony to the perfection of their system.

Waldensian Theology

The Waldensians, probably in part due to the Hussite influence, experienced a growing consciousness of themselves and a new sensibility, which renewed their traditional spirituality. Their consciousness grew of being the “true church,” the authentic community of Christ, in contrast to the Church of Rome, which always seemed to them to take on the form of Antichrist, not only in its compromise with worldly powers, but also in the violence with which it crushed the spiritual renovation in Bohemia.

A second characteristic is related to their concern for individual salvation. From this, the Waldensians showed a particular interest in penance, the Sacraments, and Christian virtue. The barba had the power to hear confessions. They were believed to be the only persons capable of doing so because, in contrast to other corrupt and immoral clerics, they were authentic ministers of Christ. (Waldensians believed, it should be mentioned, that as it says in one of their early poems, “It is God alone who pardons, and no other.”)

Also, for these generations of Waldensians, salvation was clearly and certainly the work of Christ. It was the fruit of his sacrifice, but also the finality of a pure and consistent Christian life; a life of faith could not be separated from a life of obedience. Therefore, we can understand why in the 16th century a central point of debate among barba and the reformers was justification by faith, and how faith related to works.

The Waldensian position was looked upon from a Lutheran perspective as being too influenced by Catholic tradition. In reality, however, barba doctrine was plainly in contrast with the Catholic theology of that century, for it dismissed the major Catholic teaching on purgatory. The Waldensian rejection of purgatory was radical.

One of the most well-known and significant poems of the barba, La Nobla Leiczon (a possible translation is “The Teaching of Profound Things” [included in our From the Archives section]), is constructed entirely on the comparison between the two ways, that of salvation and that of damnation. It formulates a radical criticism of those Christians who expect to resolve their problem of salvation with purgatory and its corollary of mass, indulgences, and good works (teachings that Martin Luther would later challenge in Wittenberg).

These things represented for the Waldensians a negation of the Christian faith, and the triumph of the Constantine Church, that is, of a church which utilizes power and riches to govern the world. What more radical comparison can one imagine than that between the pilgrim barba, messenger of forgiveness to his clandestine communities, and the popes of the Renaissance with their sales of indulgences, claiming their “power of the keys,” the power to forgive sins and grant entrance to heaven? It is clear that these are two very different approaches.

The Great Reformation

To the scattered Waldensians concentrated mainly in the Alps in Provence and in Calabria, and greatly reduced through persecution, but having a solid theology and organization, news of the work of Martin Luther arrived in the period between 1518 and 1520.

What was to be done? Certainly the believers around Luther expressed themselves similarly to the Waldensians, but were the motivations the same? Could the Waldensians safely associate with the new communities coming together as a result of the reform movement, or would it be more prudent to keep a distance and maintain autonomy? It was not the first time that the problem arose for The Poor of collaborating with groups judged heretical by the official church. It had happened before with the Hussites and with the Albigensians. [The Albigensians were a radical group, which originated in southern Italy, and taught that all material things, including the human body, were evil. Among other things, the Albigensians rejected the Sacraments, Hell, the Resurrection, and marriage, and taught a life of extreme denial. They were a part of a much larger worldversus- spirit “dualist” movement in the Middle Ages called Catharism.]

Beginning in 1526 the barba, at their annual reunions in Piedmont and Provence, examined the news which came from Germany with the result that a group was sent to evaluate the situation at first hand, and to question major representatives of the new theology. On the journey a meeting occurred with William Farel, the fiery Swiss reformer who would play an instrumental part in the Waldensians’ future; contact was also made with Oecolampadius, the reformer in Basel, and Martin Bucer of Strasbourg. From these contacts it was clear that a fundamental unity of purpose did exist, especially in reference to a belief in Scripture as the only rule for faith. However, at the same time the approaches the two groups took to Scripture were different: the Waldensians, on the one hand, emphasized the moral demands made by the Bible, and its teaching on the climactic end of history—its apocalyptic message; the reformed group, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of deep, academic study of the Bible, and the system of theology founded upon such study—”dogmatics.”

The consequences of these emphases on the different groups were shown in the way they applied their faith to their lives in society. The fact that those promoting the Reformation in the cities of the Rhine were the city councils, and in Germany it was the princes, profoundly baffled the Waldensians. Could the men of the world, whose daily lives were given over to the use of riches and power, now be the defenders of the apostolic faith?

This was hard to comprehend. Was this not the process of Constantine renewed—a new mixing of the spiritual with the worldly? Was it possible to transform a local parish (a church district set often by geographical boundaries and determined by men), the typical form of “imperial” Christianity, into a community based on the Gospel?

The Synod of Chanforan

The solution to these questions arrived in 1532 during an assembly held at Chanforan in the Angrogna Valley in the Piedmont Alps. 140 barba participated along with leaders of the Reformation in Switzerland, including William Farel. After days of debate the assembly decided to accept substantially the principles of the new reformation, and to apply them internally to the Waldensian movement itself.

The Waldensians in this way were as integrated into the world of the Reformation. It is necessary, however, to be precise. It must be remembered that in 1532 Protestantism did not yet exist as a confessional and cultural phenomenon. The Reformation at that moment was a movement of opinion, it was not a church.

By declaring themselves in line with the reformers, the Waldensians simply acknowledged their unity with the reformers’ protests for a faith based on the Gospel, for a return to the origins of the Church, and for an abandonment of the compromises with the world. The reformers were rejected by the official church for these beliefs even as the Waldensians had been for generations.

It is also significant that the decisions agreed upon at Chanforan by the barba and the reformers were not limited to the religious dimension, but had social and political importance also. The return to the Gospel meant not only a rediscovery of the purity of the faith, but also a liberation from the burden of economic slavery, of ecclesiastical taxation, and of the dependence which the Medieval Church had placed on the shoulders of the Christian populace.

By adhering to the Reformation the Waldensians expressed in new form the spirit of independence and autonomy which in the Middle Ages had characterized the Alpine peoples in the face of central powers. It was a realization of their sense of independence.

Furthermore, the meeting at Chanforan was but the beginning on a long journey that would lead the Waldensians to eventual organization as Protestant churches. In the face of a Roman Catholicism that assumed the characteristics of unbending worldly control, and that readily used the Inquisition and political power to repress whatever it declared heresy, the Waldensian communities developed increasingly along reformed lines according to the ideas coming from Calvin’s Geneva.

A New Church and the First War of Religion

This difficult search for a specific Waldensian identity culminated around 1555 (twenty years after Chanforan) in the decision to build facilities for preaching and the administration of the sacraments. For years services in the local dialect had been conducted in the open air or in private homes, with the singing of hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the absence of buildings for these services underlined both the temporary, provisional nature of the situation, and the continuing hope for an agreement with the Church of Rome.

Once these hopes vanished it was necessary to recognize the existence of two churches, even from the point of view of architecture: two churches, two bell towers, two services, two theologies, two ecclesiastical organizations, two forms of piety, and two cultures. In the middle of the 16th century these two identities (the Reformation and the Catholic, or Counter- Reformation) began a conflict that would last 150 years, and have in the area of the Alps where the Waldensians lived, a particularly violent character.

The first battle took place in 1560. The Duke of Savoy, who had recently regained possession of his region, forced the Roman Catholic religion on all his subjects. He based this on the principle established a few years previously at the Diet of Augsburg and accepted by all the rulers of Europe, according to which the religion of the prince must be that of his subjects.

While all the followers of the Reformation in the plains and cities moved to Protestant areas, particularly to Geneva, the Waldensians in the Alpine Valleys stayed put and rejected the imposition of Catholicism. They continued to profess their reformed faith—even against the edict of their ruler. As a consequence the Duke intervened militarily to restore order. This action spurred a response of armed rebellion. Under this severe trial, the Waldensians, who had always opposed violence, had reached the point where they decided they must defend themselves, and fight for their faith.

This was the first war of religion in Europe, and also the first case in which subjects of a ruler rebelled to defend their religious freedom. The conflict lasted several weeks and concluded incredibly with the victory of the Waldensian farmers, who benefitted from a series of complex strategical, political, and geographical elements.

The Duke, taking an historic position unique in Europe at this time, conceded to his Waldensian subjects the right to profess their religion within a specified territory, with the number of worship centers and ministers defined by law.

These remarkable events were enough to assure the Waldensians’ survival. But in subsequent decades the battle would continue, and proceed with tragedies, varying successes, and great risks.

Credits: 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.


The five solas are five Latin phrases popularized during the Protestant Reformation that emphasized the distinctions between the early Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. The word sola is the Latin word for “only” and was used in relation to five key teachings that defined the biblical pleas of Protestants. They are:

1. Sola scriptura: “Scripture alone”
2. Sola fide: “faith alone”
3. Sola gratia: “grace alone”
4. Solo Christo: “Christ alone”
5. Soli Deo gloria: “to the glory of God alone”

Each of these solas can be seen both as a corrective to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church at the start of the Reformation and as a positive biblical declaration.

Sola scriptura emphasized the Bible alone as the source of authority for Christians. By saying, “Scripture alone,” the Reformers rejected both the divine authority of the Roman Catholic Pope and confidence in sacred tradition. Only the Bible was “inspired by God” (2 Peter 1:20-21) and “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Anything taught by the Pope or in tradition that contradicted the Bible was to be rejected. Sola scriptura also fueled the translation of the Bible into German, French, English, and other languages, and prompted Bible teaching in the common languages of the day, rather than in Latin.

Sola fide emphasized salvation as a free gift. The Roman Catholic Church of the time emphasized the use of indulgences (donating money) to buy status with God. Good works, including baptism, were seen as required for salvation. Sola fide stated that salvation is a free gift to all who accept it by faith (John 3:16). Salvation is not based on human effort or good deeds (Ephesians 2:9).

Sola gratia emphasized grace as the reason for our salvation. In other words, salvation comes from what God has done rather than what we do. Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Solo Christo (sometimes listed as Solus Christus, “through Christ alone”) emphasized the role of Jesus in salvation. The Roman Catholic tradition had placed church leaders such as priests in the role of intercessor between the laity and God. Reformers emphasized Jesus’ role as our “high priest” who intercedes on our behalf before the Father. Hebrews 4:15 teaches, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus is the One who offers access to God, not a human spiritual leader.

Soli Deo gloria emphasized the glory of God as the goal of life. Rather than striving to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or guard our own interests, our goal is to glorify the Lord. The idea of soli Deo gloria is found in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

The five solas of the Protestant Reformation offered a strong corrective to the faulty practices and beliefs of the time, and they remain relevant today. We are called to focus on Scripture, accept salvation by grace through faith, magnify Christ, and live for God’s glory.

First Baptist, Second Baptist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, General Baptist, Independent Baptist, Primitive Baptist – the list goes on and on. Just who are these groups, and where did they all come from? Do they believe the same things or get along with each other? Depending on whom you ask, the Baptist church can be the oldest of all traditions, or a newcomer hanging on the coattails of the Reformation. It can be the standard-bearer of old-time, orthodox doctrine or the breeding ground of heresy. The truth is that the answer depends on whether you are examining a particular group or the fundamental doctrines of that group. Each Baptist group can trace its history to a particular starting point as an organization, but the roots go back to the very beginning of the Christian faith.

Tracking down the origins of the Baptist Church in general is an exercise in ancient church history. From the days of the apostles, there was one Church of Jesus Christ, with a single body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The various local churches preached repentance and confession of sins, along with baptism by immersion as an outward sign of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Under the authority of the apostles themselves as to doctrine, each church was independently governed by the leaders God placed in them. There was neither denominational hierarchy, nor distinction of “us/them” within the various churches. In fact, Paul soundly rebuked the Corinthians for such divisions (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). When disputes over sound doctrine arose, the apostles declared God’s teaching based on the words of the Lord and the Old Testament Scriptures. For at least 100 years, this model remained the standard for all churches. Thus, the characteristics that defined the earliest churches are the same that most Baptist churches identify with today.

Starting around A.D. 250, with the intense persecutions under Emperor Decius, a gradual change began to take place as the bishops (pastors) of certain notable churches assumed a hierarchical authority over the churches in their regions (e.g., the church of Rome). While many churches surrendered themselves to this new structure, there was a substantial number of dissenting churches who refused to come under the growing authority of the bishops. These dissenting churches were first called “Puritans” and are known to have had an influence as far as France in the 3rd century. As the organized church gradually adopted new practices and doctrines, the dissenting churches maintained their historical positions. The consistent testimony of the church for its first 400 years was to administer baptism to only those who first made a profession of faith in Christ. Starting in A.D. 401, with the fifth Council of Carthage, the churches under the rule of Rome began teaching and practicing infant baptism. As a result, the separatist churches began re-baptizing those who made professions of faith after having been baptized in the official church. At this time, the Roman Empire encouraged their bishops to actively oppose the dissenting churches, and even passed laws condemning them to death. The re-baptizers became known as Anabaptists, though the churches in various regions of the empire were also known by other names, such as Novatianists, Donatists, Albigenses, and Waldenses.

These Anabaptist congregations grew and prospered throughout the Holy Roman Empire, even though they were almost universally persecuted by the Catholic Church. By the Reformation, Martin Luther’s assistants complained that the Baptists in Bohemia and Moravia were so prevalent, they were like weeds. When John Calvin’s teachings became commonly known, many of the Waldenses united with the reformed church. Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, organized the scattered community of Dutch Baptist churches in 1536. From this point on, the various Anabaptist churches gradually lost their ancient names and assumed the name “Baptist,” though they retained their historic independence and self-rule. The first English Baptist church was founded in 1612 by Thomas Helwys and John Murton, who had come under the influence of the Dutch Puritans in Amsterdam. This group became known as General Baptists, for their Arminian belief in general atonement. Another English Baptist church was formed after a schism from Henry Jacob’s congregation in London in 1633. This group held a Calvinistic theology of particular atonement and became the main influence in the English Particular Baptist movement.

The first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1639. During the colonial and federal periods, the Baptist churches prospered and spread, while being only loosely organized as a fellowship. The first clear national organization was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in 1814. This was called by Luther Rice to address the need of raising funds and workers to carry out the missionary mandate in foreign countries. Some Baptist churches resisted this missionary emphasis and became known as Primitive Baptists. When the Civil War broke out, the Baptists in the North and the South broke their fellowship and formed separate denominations. Today, there are at least 65 different Baptist associations or denominations in the United States. Some retain a strict autonomy for the local church, while others have more of a denominational structure. Some have very conservative views of doctrine and practice, while others are quite progressive and liberal. Even within some groups there is a wide divergence of practice, so it is hard to pin down exactly what they believe.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a denomination comprised of over 16 million members in over 42,000 churches in the United States. Individual church membership is typically a matter of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior and submitting to believer’s baptism by immersion. The SBC is considered to be an evangelistic, mission-minded church with a generally conservative doctrine which focuses on the fact that Jesus died for our sin, was buried, and then rose from the grave and ascended to heaven. Unlike some other denominations, the churches in the SBC generally identify themselves as independent, autonomous congregations which have voluntarily joined together for mutual support.

The American Baptist Church, USA, has roughly 1.3 million members and was formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention, which formed after the split with the Southern Baptists. A key distinctive of the American Baptists is the freedom of the individual churches to have differing beliefs. The denomination’s unity is based on functional cooperation rather than doctrinal agreement. This practice led to a split in 1932, which resulted in the formation of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The GARBC holds a conservative doctrine and emphasizes evangelism and missionary work.

The name “Baptist” has come to mean many things to many people, and so can sometimes cause confusion. As with any other church, the name above the door isn’t as important as what is taught within. As we examine any church, we would do well to follow the example of the Berean believers in Acts 17:11, who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (KJV).

The name “Presbyterian” applies to a diverse group of churches that adhere in some degree to the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox and are led by representative elders (presbyters) of their congregations. Within the broad category, there are some which can be considered conservative or fundamental, and some which would be called liberal or progressive. On the conservative side is the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), with about 335,000 members in 1,700 congregations, while the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), with 2.3 million members in 10,000 congregations, is more liberal. Several smaller groups have formed over the years and cover the spectrum of beliefs and practices.

The Presbyterian Church was first organized in Scotland under the leadership of John Knox. The Church of Scotland was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, even though it maintained an attitude of independence. John Knox was a priest in the Church of Scotland and was fed up with the abuses he saw in the Catholic leadership. He was exiled to England after his involvement in the murder of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. While in England, he was licensed to preach in the Church of England and was instrumental in reforming the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary Tudor ascended the English throne and started her bloody persecutions of the Church of England, Knox fled to Europe, where he met John Calvin and began to study Reformed theology. In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland and became a vocal proponent of Reformed theology and the concept of presbyterian leadership in the church. A number of Scottish lords had already been promoting religious reformation, and they gladly supported John Knox’s teaching. Under Knox’s leadership, these “Lords of the Congregation” wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith in 1560, which ended papal rule in Scotland and outlawed the Mass. The Scottish Confession remained the primary doctrinal guide for the Church of Scotland until the Westminster Confession in 1647.

In the early 1600s, King James I sent many Scotch Presbyterians to Northern Ireland in an effort to displace the Irish and establish British control there. By the early 1700s, these Scotsmen were ready to migrate to America because of the economic trials they faced in Ireland. The first Presbytery in America was formed in 1706 in Philadelphia, and Presbyterianism spread rapidly in the colonies. One distinctive of the Presbyterian Church has been their emphasis on the education of their ministers. In the colonial period, the Presbyterian Church required advanced theological training for its ministers, whereas the Methodists and Baptists often allowed untrained men who were zealous for the gospel to carry on ministry. The result was fewer Presbyterian frontier preachers, but more theologians and seminary teachers. Even today, more theologians come from Presbyterian or Reformed backgrounds than from other groups, and Presbyterian theologians have made significant contributions to theological issues.

Throughout the history of the Presbyterian Church, there have been splits and mergers based on theological and practical issues. In the colonial period, there was an “old side/new side” split over the acceptance of the revivalist preachers in the Great Awakening. In 1810, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which supported revivalist preachers, split from the main church. From 1837 to 1869, there was a split between “old school” and “new school” churches, with the “new school” teaching a modified understanding of sin and holiness. When the two groups merged again in 1869, it was with an increased tolerance for doctrinal diversity, which led to greater changes in the early 20th century.

Until the 1930s, Presbyterians held a leading role in the various debates over doctrinal integrity. Some of the key men in supporting the Bible Conference movement were C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), James Brookes (1830-1897), William Erdman (1834-1923), Billy Sunday (1863-1935), William Biederwolf (1867-1939), and J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918). With doctrinal liberalism creeping into their seminaries, Presbyterians such as Louis Talbot (1889-1976), Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), and William Anderson (1889-1935) helped start new Bible colleges. As men like these saw the Presbyterian Church continue to tolerate doctrinal diversity, they led their churches to form new groups. In 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed. In 1938, the Bible Presbyterian Church was organized. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church of America came about. In 1981, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed.

While most Presbyterian churches will agree on general themes such as the depravity of man, the holiness of God, and salvation by faith, there is wide divergence in how they define and apply those themes. Some churches treat sin as a disease and essentially erase any personal responsibility, while others hold a firm line that sin is a violation of God’s unchanging law. Some teach that the Bible is verbally inspired of God, and therefore infallible, while others teach that it is man’s book and therefore subject to error. As with any other church, a person would be well advised to carefully examine not only the formal statements of doctrine, but also the practical implementation of those doctrines to determine whether a church is conforming to Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21).