Our tears are no longer of water; they are of blood; they do not merely obscure our sight, they choke our very hearts.—Waldensians of Italy after what is known today as the Massacre of Piedmont.
In January of 1655, the Duke of Savoy forced a cruel choice upon the Waldensians of the lower valleys in Italy—either attend Catholic Mass, or move out of the valley within three days. In the dead of winter, some two thousand people journeyed across swollen rivers, snow-buried valleys, and ice-covered mountains with traces of blood marking their trail.
Waldensians in the upper valleys welcomed the refugees and shared their meager provisions freely. But the worst was yet to come.
In April of the same year, the Duke of Savoy sent an army to the upper valleys. Deceived by accounts of Waldensian resistance, he ordered a gruesome slaughter.
Saturday, April 24, 1655, at 4:00 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre.
The horrors of this massacre are indescribable. Not content to simply kill their victims, the soldiers and monks who accompanied them invented barbaric tortures: Babies and children had their limbs ripped off their bodies by sheer strength. Parents were forced to watch their children tortured to death before they themselves were tortured and killed. Fathers were forced to wear the decapitated heads of their children as the fathers were marched to their death. Some of these Christians were literally plowed into their own fields. Some were flayed or burned alive. Many endured worse. Unburied bodies—dead and alive—covered the ground.
Hundreds of the Waldensians fled for a large cave in the towering Mount Castelluzzo. The murderous soldiers, however, found them there and hurled them down the precipice to their death. This is the reference in Milton’s famous sonnet to “the bloody Piedmontese that rolled Mother with infant down the rocks.”
Survivors of this massacre were few, but they rallied together and wrote to Christians in Europe for help. Their letters included the heart-rending words, “Our tears are no longer of water; they are of blood; they do not merely obscure our sight, they choke our very hearts.”
When Oliver Cromwell heard news of the barbaric massacre, he called for a national day of fasting in England and collected money to send to meet the physical needs of the Waldenses.
The poet John Milton honored the brave, uncompromising courage of the Waldenses with a now-famous sonnet:
“On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
As I recently learned this story, it spoke to me on two counts:
First, because we have not suffered much for the faith here in America, I’m afraid we don’t value it as we should.
Yet, the Gospel that frees us and the Bible that has made it known to us has been loved and held dear by many before us who gave their lives rather than compromise their faith. Even today, in repressive nations around the world there are Christians faithfully and loyally suffering for Christ—some even giving their lives.
Past and present, Hebrews 11 reminds us of these heroes of the faith of whom the world is not worthy:
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.—Hebrews 11:36–38
Second, because we face little that could be called real persecution, we too easily get distracted from proclaiming the Gospel. While Christians in other countries strengthen each other in the face of torture, we split hairs over the pettiest issues.
Something about the massacre in Piedmont helps put Christianity into perspective. It reminds us how valuable the faith is and how shallow our own faithfulness is. And it reproves us for investing our time, energy, and loyalty into anything less than proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.