Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Waldensians and their buildings

The Waldensians, at the time of the arrival of Charles Beckwith in the early nineteenth century, had no interest in buildings. Their history since the 13th century was so stepped in bloody massacres and demolished homesteads, that building churches had never been their aim. Their sacred places were God-assigned bastions, like the narrow valley of Angrogna, hidden caves and, especially, the miraculously narrow entrance to their secret stronghold, Pra del Torno. Here one can still see their medieval mission college, a set of humble, primitive stone huts in which future preachers, their 'barbes' or 'uncles' were trained to handle the Bible correctly. Their holy "symbols" were the ephemeral life-saving mountain mists that suddenly descended from the mountain to defend them from the advances of their deadly enemies.

When Charles Beckwith arrived in Torre Pellice, he could not find a Waldensian church in the town itself, but quite a distance from it. Beckwith came from a country of villages with parish churches at their heart, whereas the Waldensians had kept their sacred places deeply hidden from view. So he determined to make their church more central and more visible. The imposing architectural style which was fashionable at the time was "neo-Renaissance", in which Prince Albert built Osborne House, his private home on the Isle of Wight.  So Charles Beckwith built the Waldensian HQ like this - in spite of it being the style of the former arch enemies of the Waldensians.  He may have done it to confer status on the church but these buildings are not a reflection of the history of these people.

                                          Osborne House, Isle of Wight is like the English Quarter
                                          in Torre Pellice in the neo-Renaissance style (photo Wikipedia)

Charles Beckwith's vision was to create an established church out of the Waldensian movement, through education and stately, enduring buildings. However, the Waldensians were never people of fine architecture! They were more like the original word-centred Hebrews who left nothing architectural - unlike the Egyptians, who left the pyramids, but no knowledge of the one true God.  

The impoverished Waldensians of the 19th century valleys did not object to General Beckwith's  stately vision because he not only offered education, but he was the fount of many good spiritual gifts.

He wanted them to preach in Italian in order to reach the rest of Italy for Christ, telling them that they were genetically Italian.  So he sent some, including Professor Malan, the head of the theological school at Torre Pellice to Florence for eight months, with a generous fund of money to perfect their Italian, which at that time the Vaudois could not speak entirely correctly. When he heard Professor Malan preach the Gospel for the first time in perfect Italian on his return, he was overjoyed.  To this extent General Beckwith was a welcome "father" of the church and his aims were the highest, in terms of love and charity. However, when he linked this ancient movement to elegant neo-Renaissance buildings, it was a kind of betrayal of their ancient spirit.

The true spirit of the Waldensians rests in the cottages at Pra del Torno, in the rocks of Angrogna, in the hidden mountain caves and in this old Bible School which is up for sale. Their spiritual power and adherence to the truth was never sourced from fine buildings, but from reading, believing and communicating, the Word of God.

Those who are in their true line, today, practice the same. 

1 comment:

  1. ''We here in South Africa are aware of the Waldensians great work in other parts of the continent, and would like to hear their stories''.