Besides the Waldensians in their impregnable mountain fortress at the centre of Roman Christendom, other communities and individuals arose maintaining a continuous witness up to the sixteenth century.
The Paulicians occupy a similar place in the East to that of the Waldenses in the West. They were a pure remnant of the ancient Eastern Church. Doubt has been thrown upon their religious opinions but close examination satisfies us that though errors were imputed to them, as a body they were true to Holy Writ. Petrus Siculus, their bitter enemy, is our informant. He visited them when they were flourishing and his account certainly proves the Paulicians had rejected the leading errors of the Greek and Roman Churches. Equally he fails to impute heresies to them.
Constantine of Samosata
In AD 653, a deacon from Syria lodged with an Armenian named Constantine near Samosata. Before departing, the deacon presented his host with a copy of the New Testament. Constantine studied the sacred volume. New light poured in on him and the errors of the Greek Church stood clearly revealed.
Constantine separated from apostasy drawing others to the same light. They followed him in his departure from the established Church of the Eastern Empire. They adhered to the Scriptures generally but particularly to the writings of Paul. "I am Sylvanus," said Constantine, "and ye are Macedonians," intimating thereby that the Gospel he taught and they learned was that of Paul. Hence the name Paulicians. Such a title would hardly be adopted by heretics.
These disciples multiplied. The Nestorian remnant took refuge in the mountains from which the Euphrates takes its source and the Government at Constantinople initiated their persecution. Constantine, whose zeal, constancy, and piety had been amply tested by the labours of twenty-seven years, was stoned to death. But a leader still more powerful immediately arose. Simeon, who oversaw the palace guard at the execution, was wonderfully converted. Like Paul after the stoning of Stephen, he started preaching that which he had formerly persecuted. Simeon also ended his career in a martyrdom alongside a pile of stones placed to remember Constantine.
Theodora's bloodthirsty zeal
The Paulicians multiplied throughout the eighth century despite ecclesiastical anathemas backed by the sword of state. All through the eighth century they continued to flourish. The worship of images thrived in the Greek church whilst the Paulicians strenuously opposed the practice, resulting in even more persecution. At the end of the eighth century, Sergius, a great leader, arose. He had a true missionary spirit coupled with indomitable energy. Petrus Siculus, their enemy, records Sergius‘ conversion in such detail that he was forced to quote the despised Scriptures.
For 34 years Sergius widely preached the Gospel with numerous conversions. Emperor Leo, Patriarch Nicephorus, and Empress Theodora persecuted them terribly. One hundred thousand Paulicians were extirpated by the sword, the gibbet, or the flames by Theodora for opposing and destroying idolatrous images. The bloodthirsty zeal of Theodora kindled a flame which well-nigh consumed the Empire of the East. The Paulicians like the Waldenses, Hussites and Huguenots were driven to arms. In the mountains between Sewas and Trebizond, and for thirty-five years (AD 845-880), warfare raged. At length the Paulicians passed from righteous defence to inexcusable revenge until they were eventually driven back into their mountains where they enjoyed partial independence and maintained their faith.
New life in Europe
The Paulicians eventually crossed the Bosphorus and migrated towards Europe. No chronicle records their dispersion. The fact is attested by the sudden and simultaneous outbreak of their opinions in many of the Western countries. They incorporated themselves into the preexisting bodies of those who opposed Rome, and from this time a new life is seen to animate the efforts of the Waldenses of Piedmont, the Albigenses of Southern France, and some in other parts of Europe who, revolted by the growing superstitions, had begun to retrace their steps towards the original fountains of truth. Their opinions were silently propagated in Rome, Milan, and the kingdoms beyond the Alps. It was soon discovered that many thousands of Roman Catholics of every rank, and of either sex, had embraced the Manichean heresy. From this point the Paulician stream becomes blended with that of the other early confessors of the Truth. To these we now return.
South of France
When we cast our eyes over Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, our attention is irresistibly riveted on the south of France. Cities and provinces are seen rising in revolt against the Church of Rome.
Superficially it seemed as if all opposition to Rome had died out. Every succeeding century deepened the foundations and widened the limits of the Romish Church until her dominion seemed unchallenged. Yet it was at this moment that her power begins to totter, though she will rise higher ere terminating her career. Her decadence has already begun, and her fall, though postponed, cannot be averted. How do we account for the sudden powerful opposition appearing at the foot of the Alps if Rome has won the battle? Nevertheless to attack her now, seated amidst her vassal kings and obedient nations entrenched behind her triple rampart of darkness, was surely to invite destruction.
The Romance Version
The causes of this movement had been in silent operation since the time of Polycarp and Irenaeus when such apostolic men had planted Christianity in the shadow of the Alps. Hundreds of thousands of martyrs were still remembered a thousand years later. In the Cottian Alps (see illustration) and the province of Languedoc, Vigilantius‘ ancient protest was not forgotten. And now the Romance version of the New Testament was issued. The people that sat in darkness saw a great light.
This was like a second giving of Divine Revelation to the nations. Jerome's translation, the Vulgate, though preserved, was in Latin, now a dead language, and even the priests could barely read it. They possessed it but knew nothing of its contents revering only the rich illuminations of its writing, the gold and gems of its binding, and the curiously-carved and costly cabinets in which it was locked away. Now the nations of Southern Europe could read, each in "the tongue wherein he was born," the wonderful works of God.
Peter Valdes or Waldo, the rich merchant in Lyons who had been a prime mover in producing the Romance vernacular version of the Bible, oversaw the bringing of joyful wonder to the people when this light broke upon them.
Cost of the Scriptures
We must not imagine a rapid diffusion of the Bible. Each copy was laboriously produced by the pen; its price corresponded to the time and labour expended in its production. It had to be carried long distances, often by slow and uncertain conveyances; and, last of all, it had to encounter the frowns and ultimately the prohibitory edicts of a hostile hierarchy.
But there were compensatory advantages. Difficulties whetted the desire of the people to obtain the Book so that when their eyes finally lighted on its page, its truths made the deeper an impression upon their minds. God's Word stood out starkly sublime from the fables on which they had been fed. The conscience felt that a greater than man was speaking from its page. Each copy served scores and hundreds of readers.
Christians worked tirelessly to overcome the lack of mechanised printing. The Bible was sung in the lays of troubadours and minnesingers. It was recited in the sermons of Barbes. And these led men to the yet more earnest perusal and the yet wider diffusion of it. The Troubadour, the Barbe, and, mightiest of all, the Bible, were the three missionaries that traversed the south of Europe. Disciples were multiplied: congregations were formed: barons, cities, provinces, joined the movement. It almost seemed as if the Reformation was come. But not yet. Rome had not filled up her cup; nor had the nations of Europe yet tasted that full and woeful demonstration which they have since received, of just how crushing to liberty, to knowledge, to order, is her yoke, to induce them to join universally in the struggle to break it.
Fire and sword
From Rome, Pope Innocent III too truly guessed the character and divined the issue of this movement. He sounded the tocsin of persecution. Mail-clad abbots, lordly prelates, "who wielded by turns the crosier, the sceptre, and the sword", barons and counts ambitious of enlarging their domains, and mobs eager to wreak their savage fanaticism on their neighbours, whose persons they hated and whose goods they coveted, assembled at the Pontiff's summons. Fire and sword speedily did the work of extermination.
Where before had been seen smiling provinces, flourishing cities, and a numerous, virtuous, and orderly population, there was now a blackened and silent desert. That nothing might be lacking to carry on this terrible work, Innocent III. set up the tribunal of the Inquisition. Behind the soldiers of the Cross marched the monks of St. Dominic, and what escaped the sword of the one perished by the racks of the other.
In one of those dismal tragedies not fewer than a hundred thousand persons are said to have been destroyed. Over wide areas not a living thing was left: all were given to the sword. Mounds of ruins and ashes alone marked the spot where cities and villages had formerly stood. But this violence recoiled in the end on the power which had employed it. It did not extinguish the movement: it but made the roots strike deeper, to spring up again and again, and each time with greater vigour and over a wider area, till at last it was seen that Rome by these deeds was only preparing for Protestantism a more glorious triumph, and for herself a more signal overthrow.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism and edited by Dr Clive Gillis.