The general with the wooden leg

February 20, 2006

BONFIRES AND TORCH PROCESSIONS DOTTED THE ALPINE VALLEYS OF THE OLYMPIC SKI EVENTS IN NORTHERN ITALY LAST WEEK. BUT THEY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TEARS AND TRIUMPHS OF THE WINTER GAMES COMPETITORS. Rather, these fiery celebrations commemorated centuries of suffering and heroism experienced throughout these Valli Valdesi by believers known as Waldensians, who gave the valleys their name.

Waldensians are descendents of the original followers of Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyons in France who exchanged his luxurious lifestyle for one of radical discipleship and itinerant evangelism. Since the twelfth-century, they suffered waves of persecution from both church and state. Surviving massacres and ostracism, they spread with their message of Biblical obedience as far as the Low Countries and Central Europe, sowing the seeds for the coming Reformation. When it did come, those remaining in the Valli Valdesi linked up with the Calvinist movement of Geneva.

Three more whole centuries passed, however, before the Waldensians were granted civil rights-on 17 February, 1848. These included the rights to attend high school, own businesses and buy property. Each year, on the eve of this date, bonfires and torch processions mark this key event in their history, with services and thanksgiving meals the next day, as took place again last week.

Moral and diplomatic support for the Waldensians through these dark centuries came from Protestant countries of northern Europe, including Holland, Prussia and England. One of the most colourful heroes of Waldensian history was an English soldier on the Duke of Wellington’s staff at Waterloo, where a French cannonball blew his leg off.

The painful end of Charles Beckwith’s military career was to lead to a remarkable new calling as an educationalist. Beckwith happened across a book about the Waldensians, browsing through Wellington’s library. Moved by their story, he decided to visit the Valli Valdesi himself, despite his handicap with a wooden leg. Over the two decades preceding their constitutional emancipation, he won the hearts of the people with his concern for their welfare.

Beckwith realised the Waldensians needed good education to overcome their ghetto mentality and look towards a new future. He understood Italy needed their message of Biblical Christianity, but that required an education imparting truth and passion. Every Waldensian village in these valleys needed a proper school building, he concluded, well lit, ventilated, and with paid teachers.

He now gave himself to this task. Sporting his white-satin shawl and war decorations, he hobbled through the valleys with his peg leg and his dog, becoming a familiar figure affectionately known as ‘the general’. Occasionally he returned to England to raise money through lecture tours.

By the milestone year of 1848, he had supervised the building of schools in almost every town, village and hamlet, eventually 200 in total. Soon these valleys became the only literate peasant region in all Italy. The royal families of both Italy and Britain began to seek out Waldensian servants, with their reputation for education and character.

Last week, I stayed in Casa Beckwith, the Waldensian guesthouse in Torre Pellice, along with a Gideon’s band of YWAMers evangelising during the Games. Torre Pellice, ‘capital’ of the Valdi Vallensi and nicknamed ‘the Italian Geneva’, is the practice venue for the Olympic ice hockey teams. The main road of the Waldensian quarter – lined by the Waldensian College, the row of professors’ houses, the boarding house and Girls’ School (both built by Beckwith), the Waldensian Museum, the Tempio Valdese (church), and Casa Valdese, where the annual national synod is held – is tellingly called Via Beckwith.

As the Waldensians celebrated their new-found freedom in 1848, Beckwith urged them to look outwards to the mission field of Italy. “You will be evangelists or you will be nothing!” he challenged. And that’s a word in season for us today.

Till next week,

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