The Italian Connection

December 19, 2005

TURIN, HOST OF THE APPROACHING WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES, IS ALSO HOME TO A CENTURIES-OLD UNDERGROUND EVANGELISM MOVEMENT, WHICH BECAME MID-WIFE TO THE REFORMATION. For, nestled at the foot of the Italian Alps, Turin is a modern centre of the Waldensian Church, the largest evangelical church in the nation and perhaps the earliest ‘protestant’ church, with roots going back to the 12th century … or even earlier.

Some say the church draws her name from Frenchman Peter Waldo. After a dramatic conversion experience, this successful merchant now began preaching a gospel of radical discipleship in the streets of Lyon. He and his followers became known as the Poor Men of Lyon, and were recognised as a new order by the pope in 1179. However, they quickly aroused the opposition of the established church and soon the pope excommunicated them. This did little to dampen their zeal. They continued to travel and preach, calling for obedience to God’s Word rather than to the pope. Centuries before Luther, they condemned the payment of indulgences. Eventually the pope called for the persecution and imprisonment of the heretic Waldo and his followers.

They in turn disappeared eastwards towards the French Alps, continuing to spread their message of radical obedience to the teachings of Jesus. They operated as travelling salesmen, offering cloth to their customers, starting with the cheapest and gradually introducing their more expensive wares. Finally, they would offer something of even greater worth. Was the customer interested? If so, the salesmen/evangelists would explain the gospel to their private audiences in straightforward language. And so the movement and its teachings spread.

Across the border in Italy, the merchants moved into Lombardy towards Turin. There in the alpine valleys, according to one tradition, they discovered isolated pockets of believers descended from those who had fled north from Rome during Nero’s persecutions of the early church. Waldo’s followers were delighted to discover others sharing their same Bible-based faith. But they soon realized also that, while holding faithfully to the essentials of the gospel passed from generation to generation, these mountain dwellers had lost the mission zeal of the early believers.

Emboldened by their example, these Italian believers joined their new-found brothers in spreading their message further eastwards towards Central Europe, and as far south as Calabria. Some describe the Waldensians as scatterers of the seed of the Reformation, as their teachings influenced John Hus in Prague, among others. When after their hero’s death at the stake in 1415, the Hussites finally decided to establish their own (Ancient Moravian) church, they found a Waldensian bishop to consecrate their own first bishop.

Eric Boshoff, director of the YWAM Winter Games Outreach starting in Turin and the surrounding villages in six weeks, has booked facilities of the Waldensian Church for the training and accommodation of teams. He invites teams to come between February 7 and 24, to share ‘the message of greatest worth’ with the thousands of international visitors attracted by the Olympic events. Many entertainment events will create a relaxed environment for friendship evangelism. Eric sees great opportunities for service and partnership with local churches and communities. Music, street drama, community festivals and snow boarding clinics are among the diverse possibilities for creative interaction with visitors and locals alike.

Visit the website, – and take a first step towards connecting with a centuries-old tradition of radical evangelism.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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