The Bible and a true church never disappeared from the face of the earth. Scripture repudiates a total apostasy, but history also shows it didn't happen. The French Protestants discovered this in real time before Calvin, before Protestants period, started over in Geneva. They weren't alone. The Waldenses spread all over the French Alps had lived in relative solitude and independence, outside of the purvey of Roman Catholic control, from before Constantine.
There is only one truth of church history. Devising a handy, different one can be used to buttress a convenient belief and practice, that works for you and your career. Inventing a new history became the cause of William Heth Whitsitt at Southern Theological Seminary, where he invented the English separatist theory, an impossible and unbiblical position to move Southern Baptists in a far more ecumenical direction. Whitsitt didn't survive long as president at Southern (1895-1899) because of the immediate response among Baptists, but his theory over time received widespread embrace. He said Baptists originated in the English Reformation, a view debunked by the reality of the Waldenses, but imagining Baptists according to a kind of restorationist or renewal sect, akin to a Campbellite or Mormon philosophy of history.
While the Waldenses among other independent Bible believing and practicing saints continued on a separate aboriginal path through history, out of His grace God was working upon another track that had diverged from the truth and a true church over a millennium before. Most of the world, almost mimicking an antediluvian era, settled into an imperceptive rut of spiritual oblivion, only suddenly joggled by the religious war between the West and the East from the 11th through the 13th centuries. A ray stabbed through the darkness and self-interest saw an end to the impoverishment of feudalism.
Pockets of resistance surfaced, some well known now, such as Wycliffe, his early handwritten English translation, and his followers, the Lollards. John Hus sparked a movement in central Europe in the very early 14th century. Along with these overt counteractions, a more subtle impact began with the interest in information of all kinds ending in Gutenberg's printing press and a study of ancient languages. A quiet devotional strain of Christianity within Roman Catholicism, known as devotio moderna, emphasized a personal approach to Christ through the intense study of early Christian texts, perhaps best represented by Thomas a Kempis and his The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418).
The dabbling with ancient texts of all kinds began with renewed interest in the humanities with such men as the Dutch Desiderius Erasmus but also with the French Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) and Jacques Lefevre (1455-1536). Erasmus's education in the Netherlands in the late 15th century was provoked by devotio moderna, trending toward reformation of Roman Catholicism. With his curiosity in the original language of the New Testament for purposes of individual growth, education, and improvement, Erasmus endeavored and then succeeded at publishing the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament on March 1, 1516.
Men knew something was wrong in the world. Roman Catholicism didn't better the lives of its adherents. The study of scripture exposed the corruption and revealed the right way. The movement started among the nobility, because it had the money and leisure for education, books, and travel. As men read and then believed true doctrine, they spread it among themselves and then became a contrasting alternative through increasing numbers. Enough then rejected the state church to become a risk to the establishment and afford some safety in the mainstream.
As the reformation of Roman Catholicism grew, its proponents intersected with the existing track, the Waldenses and others, alone and surviving detached from the rest of civilization. The two met and compared and found important similarities with some differences. They had in common the Bible as a source of authority.
In their seclusion, the Waldenses followed the Bible. They had a Bible. The Bible was preserved within their preserved church. Suspicious of the Latin Vulgate and interested in a Bible in their own language, the Germans and the French both translated and published from the original Hebrew and Greek, the latter the text of the printed edition of Erasmus, the textus receptus, into their native tongue.
As the reformation grew, the separated church, known by different names, but I'll call Baptist, heard and met the reformed, and vice versa. Interaction ensued. The two saw similarities. The Baptists did not reject the reformed wholesale. They saw themselves in them. The Baptists, however, distinguished themselves, for instance, in 1527 with the Schleitheim Confession. It is easy to see that both affected the other. Some Baptists followed more in the direction of the reformed. Some reformed became more Baptist, perhaps taking the path of semper reformanda, reformed and always reforming.
The junction of the reformed with Baptists did not always succeed. Many reformed remained loyal to Roman Catholic ecclesiology, the state church teaching, and their allegorical hermeneutic yielding paedobaptism. Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Cajacob stood against infant sprinkling in Zurich, Switzerland. You read the following in John T. Christian's A History of the Baptists:
Zwingli and the Council of Zurich knew no mercy towards the Baptists. At first Zwingli held debates with their leaders with indifferent success, then he evoked the strong arm of the law. The first Zurich decree, A. D., 1525, was as follows:
We, therefore, ordain and require that hereafter all men, women, boys and girls forsake rebaptism, and shall not make use of it hereafter, and shall let infants be baptized; whoever shall act contrary to this public edict shall be fined for every offense, one mark; and if any be disobedient and stubborn they shall be treated with severity; for, the obedient we will protect; the disobedient we will punish according to his deserts, without fail; by this all are to conduct themselves. All this we confirm by this public document, stamped with the seal of our city, and given on St. Andrew’s Day, A. D., 1525.
The decree went into effect at once. For the good name of Zwingli it could have been wished that he would never be more severe. There is preserved another official decree which indicates that the Baptists of Switzerland practiced immersion. On March 6, 1526, the Senate of Zurich decreed:
Decrevit clarissimus Senatus aqua mergere, qui merscrit baptismo suo, qui prius emerserat (Zwingli, Elenchus contra Cantabaptistas. III. p. 364).
It is elsewhere written in shorter form. Qui mersus fuerit mergatur, that he who immerses shall be immersed (Starke 183). This is the official statement of the Senate of Zurich that the Baptists of Switzerland practiced immersion.
The civil authorities of Zurich set an example of severity scarcely surpassed by Protestants, and of the deplorable execution of the sentence many examples are on record. The persecutors delighted to fit the penalty, as they cruelly judged it, to the fault, and so they put the Baptists to death by drowning.
Upon the very day of the decree of the Senate, of Zurich against the Baptists, Zwingli, who evidently was greatly pleased with the action of the Senate, wrote to Vadian:
It has been decreed this day by the Council of the Two Hundred (of Zurich) that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower, in which they formerly lay, and allured by bread and water diet until either they give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that he who after this is dipped shall be submerged permanently (qtti posthac tingatur, prossus mcrgatur) ; this is not published (Zwingli, Opera, VII. p. 477).
Before the French Calvinists escaped to Geneva, the Waldenses among other factors influenced ecclesiology of certain French Protestants. This percolated for many years independent of the predominant effect of the theological titan, John Calvin. The French had their own freedom revoked on multiple occasions by the government of their nation. Through the proceeding years with the establishment of its own state church in Switzerland, French Protestants were excommunicated and banned under the influence of Waldenses and Anabaptist ecclesiology.
The first big internal conflict of major scale in the French Reformed movement was incited by the publication of French Protestant Jean Morely’s Traicte de la discipline et police Chrestienne (1562). He said the law of church government established by Christ and practiced by the Apostles is perfect and, therefore, must be applied permanently to all ages and circumstances. He said that the Calvinists were not “restitutionist” enough, not to “restore things in their primitive stage.” Morely was convinced that the Apostles had never usurped the power and authority of local congregations. He said that the power of the keys was once exercised by the Apostles as a special gift necessary to the church in its beginning, but now it belongs to the church as a whole, that is, each congregation.
When Morely submitted the manuscript of his book before publication, Calvin rejected its teaching. When the book appeared, it was publicly burned in Geneva and then Morely was excommunicated. In Calvin's own handwriting in the Geneva Consistory, Jean Morely was condemned and in danger of civil pains. Morely, however, was only expressing what had already become the thinking of a considerable part of professing believers in France. They resented the clericalism of the Reformed as much as the Catholic. This dispute ran right up to the St. Bartholomew's massacre in 1572, another iteration of Roman Catholicism practicing its unique take on the kingdom of God, similar to that of Islam.
Theodore Beza succeeded Calvin as leader in Geneva, and he was loyal to Calvin in the Morely conflict, but after Calvin died in 1564, it is easy to see a shift and growth in Beza's ecclesiology henceforth more in tune with a French laity. He emphasized the church as a congregation in a way one would not have read in and from Calvin. The Waldenses affected the French Protestants and their shared suffering of French Roman Catholicism all too well revealed the corruption and destruction of a state church.
More to Come.