Britain and Italy's Waldensian Church

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Britain and Italy's Waldensian Church

Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review

MOST people well-grounded in English literature have encountered the Waldensians once--in the famous sonnet written on 'the late massacre in Piedmont' when John Milton, despite encroaching blindness, was still consultant spin-doctor for Cromwell's very Protestant foreign policy. It begins, 'Avenge O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints ...', and it is probably the end of most Anglo-Saxon knowledge of the people once styled 'the Israel of the Alps'.

But that massacre in 1655 was only one episode in the turbulent history of this religious minority descended from the twelfth-century reforming revivalism of a born-again merchant of Lyons, Peter Valdo. His movement hoped to be accepted as the near contemporary Franciscans were but was anathematised and fiercely persecuted. By the time it adhered to the Protestant Reformation it survived mainly in the mountains between France and Turin. The community was largely in Piedmont but the dialect of its valleys was Provencal and the formal language of its Protestant worship for more than 300 years was French.

Milton's sonnet itself was only one episode in a long series of British connections with the Waldensians, not only in centuries when they were usually referred to as Vaudois but in the age of Italian unification when they became Valdesi. The alliance was most fervent in the decades after Waterloo, when it mainly involved evangelical Anglicans, and in the mid-Victorian era, when it was dominated by Scots Presbyterians, but the connection has continued.

It survives among relatively small groups of British enthusiasts and in a more generally diffused good-will on the Waldensian side, even if some of their English today is American-accented, the most obvious of their European links are with German Protestantism, and the greatest modern influence on their theology was Karl Barth.

Milton wrote one Waldensian sonnet but Wordsworth fitted four into his 'ecclesiastical' series. In the age when the Waldensians enjoyed the benefits of English enthusiasm for Protestantism, Italy, and the newly-fashionable Alps, Jane Austen's brother Henry wrote a pamphlet on their behalf, the young High Churchman Gladstone gave them an ill-natured visit and grudging donation, and the Duke of Wellington kept an account of them in his ante-room. That influential book, written by the East Anglian (later Northumbrian) clergyman W. S. Gilly, was read there by a one-legged Waterloo veteran awaiting audience, Charles Beckwith. This English officer born in Nova Scotia devoted the rest of his life to modernising the primitive schools of the Waldensian valleys and encouraging a tiny ethnic Church to become a Protestant mission to Italy. He made such an impact that Waldensians were reproached by their Catholic neighbours: 'You will not venerate the Virgin yet you worship an English colonel'.

Much of this is well-documented but neglected history, a marginal note to the complex story of the Risorgimento and Italian unification. But there are three reasons why this British-Waldensian connection deserves modern attention and new perspectives.

The first is that it was something more than a minor religious side-show in British and Italian history. It was an important part of the complex religious dimension to the Victorian love affair with Italy, probably the most passionate attachment the British ever allowed themselves towards any foreign country. Specialist and propagandist historians have tended to look at the religious phenomena in isolation from this cultural context.

The second is that it had both English and Scottish dimensions, closely allied yet in some ways distinct. Because the Waldensian connection went out of fashion in the twentieth century, these subtleties have been rather neglected by historians and some important but hitherto obscure Scottish sources (now in or destined for the National Library of Scotland) have remained unexplored. The third is that there are parallels or affinities between Victorian religious controversies and modern Christian dilemmas. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Britain and Italy's Waldensian Church


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.