God holds people accountable. As much as these words make us squirm, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Otherwise, people would get away with murder. One of the most persecuted groups in church history are the Waldensians who trace their origins to Peter Waldo (1140-1205). It’s unclear what caused this wealthy merchant to quit cold turkey and go a new way. It may have been a friend’s death at a banquet or traveling minstrels who delivered an impactful message. Peter took his quest to a priest and learned the story of the rich young ruler in the gospels who parted with his money to follow Jesus. Peter gave away his considerable inheritance and took a vow of poverty. He and his friends became known as the Poor of Lyons (France). Peter couldn’t read Latin, the language of Scripture, so he hired two scholars to translate the Latin Vulgate into common speech. What he read didn’t square with the teachings of the Medieval Roman Church. He objected to the veneration of relics, the notion of purgatory and the belief that only priests could preach and teach God’s Word. The church excommunicated Peter and initiated a period of persecution against the Waldensians. I will spare you the details of this genocide that lasted 300 years until their massacre in 1655, surely a low water mark in church history. Peter Waldo was a proto-Protestant, a forerunner to the Reformation. Today’s news is filled with horrendous stories of genocide. We fall back on God’s justice. While the Psalms ask God to execute vengeance, they never justify taking matters into our own hands. God declarers in Deuteronomy, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32.35). American poet William Cullen Bryant wrote the “Hymn of the Waldenses” in 1832 that prays for God’s justice and mercy:
Hear, Father, hear thy faint afflicted flock.
Cry to thee, from the desert and the rock.
While those, who seek to slay thy children, hold
Blasphemous worship under roofs of gold,
And the broad goodly lands, with pleasant airs
That nurse, the grape and wave of grain, are theirs.
Yet better were this mountain wilderness,
And this wild life of danger and distress.
Watchings by night and perilous flight by day,
And meetings in the depths of the earth to pray.
Better, far better, than to kneel with them,
And pay the impious rite thy laws condemn.
Thou, Lord, dost hold the thunder, the firm land,
Tosses in billows when it feels thy hand.
Thou dashest nation against nation, then
Stillest the angry world to peace again.
Oh, touch their stony hearts who hunt thy sons,
The murderers of our wives and little ones.
Yet, mighty God, yet shall thy frown look forth
Unveiled, and terribly shall shake the earth.
Then the foul power of priestly sin and all
Its long-upheld idolatries shall fall.
Thou shalt raise up the trampled and oppressed,
And thy delivered saints shall dwell in rest.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.