We now take up the search for manifestations of prophetic light during the blackness of that long, harsh night that began to settle down upon the religious world during the fourth century. That spiritual night grew fearfully dark and dismal. The dominant church had hidden the Bible behind a mass of tradition. She had turned from God's holy law. She had substituted a human priest and an earthly ministry for our great High Priest and His heavenly ministry. The nominal church had become the synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9), even where Satan's seat was (verse 13), and from it the true church, symbolized by the woman, later had to flee into the wilderness where God had prepared a place for her (Rev. 12:1-6).
As the church began to depart more and more from the true doctrines of the Bible, and to turn from the high spiritual and moral standards of the apostolic church, devoted, loyal believers were first grieved, and then alarmed, and finally aroused to determined opposition. In vain they appealed and protested to bishops, priests, and other leaders. Receiving no friendly response assuring them of a reformation, and seeing the apostasy expanding steadily and becoming entrenched, some of the zealous, courageous leaders, together with their churches, began to withdraw from the main body of the professedly Christian church, as has been stated in the preceding chapter:
After a long and severe conflict, the faithful few decided to dissolve all union with the apostate church if she still refused to free herself from falsehood and idolatry. They saw that separation was an absolute necessity if they would obey the word of God.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 45.
It was this opposition to the growing apostasy, and this withdrawal of loyal groups from the dominant church, that marked
the beginning of the long series of protests and conflicts which kept the true light shining through the long, dark night. The great Reformation of the sixteenth century and the marvelous light of the gospel that floods the whole world today form the climax to the service of those loyal, suffering believers through the struggles of a thousand years. It is fitting, therefore, that we should acquaint ourselves with some of these courageous leaders and their loyal churches, for this acquaintance will reveal the forces that culminated in the glorious Reformation.
Open conflict, begun by the Montanists, continued under Novatian, or Novatianus, the ordained minister of a church in the city of Rome. Let us now trace the secession of the Novatians, which took place a century or so before the sharp, general division that came throughout Christendom. Says Jones:
Long before the times of which we now treat [370-400 A.D.] some Christians had seen it their duty to withdraw from the communion of the Church of Rome. The first instance of this that we find on record, if we except that of Tertullian [the Montanist], is the case of Novatian, who, in the year 251, was ordained the pastor of a church in the city of Rome.History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 3, sec. 2, p. 180.
As this separation was a drastic step, and was followed by that of other devout leaders and their followers through the centuries, it should be clearly understood why these separations seemed imperative. It becomes necessary, therefore, to survey rather specifically some of the historical aspects that form the background to the object of our study.
Of the time and the conditions when the Novatians withdrew, Mosheim says:
The face of things began now to change in the Christian church. The ancient method of ecclesiastical government seemed, in general, still to subsist, while, at the same time, by imperceptible steps, it varied from the primitive rule, and degenerated toward the form of a religious monarchy.
This change, in the form of ecclesiastical government, was soon followed by a train of vices, which dishonored the character and authority of those to whom the administration of the church was committed. For, though several yet continued to exhibit to the world illustrious examples of primitive piety and Christian virtue, yet many were sunk in luxury and voluptuousness, puffed up with vanity, arrogance, and ambition, possessed with a spirit of contention and discord, and addicted to many other vices that cast an undeserved reproach upon the holy religion, of which they were unworthy professors and ministers.An Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I, Cent. III, pp. 258, 259.
Novatian was a kind of minister who refused to take any part in the apostasy. His character, and some of the evils that forced him to separate from the main body, are set forth by Robinson:
Novatian was a man of extensive learning, and held the same doctrine as the church did, and published several treatises in defense of what he believed. His address was eloquent and insinuating, and his morals were irreproachable. He saw with extreme pain the intolerable depravity of the church. Christians, within the space of a very few years, were caressed by one emperor and persecuted by another. In seasons of prosperity, many rushed into the church for base purposes. In times of adversity, they denied the faith, and ran back to idolatry again. When the squall was over, away they came again to the church, with all their vices, to deprave others by their examples. The bishops, fond of proselytes, encouraged all this, and transferred the attention of the Christians from the old confederacy for virtue, to vain shows at Easter, and other Jewish ceremonies, adulterated too with paganism . In the end, Novatian formed a church, and was elected bishop. Great numbers followed his example, and all over the empire Puritan churches were constituted and flourished through the succeeding two hundred years. Afterward, when penal laws obliged them to lurk in corners, and worship God in private, they were distinguished by a variety of names, and a succession of them continued till the Reformation.Ecclesiastical Researches, Robert Robinson, p. 126. Cambridge: Francis Hodson, 1792.
Of the surprising extent of this body, we read:
With respect to the extension of the schismatic (Novatian) church, notice, for Spain, Pacian; for Gaul, the polemical work of Bishop Reticius
of the fourth century; for Upper Italy, Ambrose (De poenitentia); for Rome, where in the fifth century, the Novatians had a bishop and many churches, Socrates (Hist. Eccl., V. 14, VII, 1, 11); for Mauritania, Alexandria (where they also had a bishop and several churches), Syria, Paphlagonia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Scythia, etc., Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. In Constantinople they had three churches; and Socrates gives the list of their bishops, with the principal events of their lives. At the Council of Nicaea the Novatian bishop Arius was present. He accepted the decisions of the council concerning the faith and the Easter controversy, and was treated with much regard by the council. But the emperor did not succeed in alluring him (the Novatian bishop) and his party back into the bosom of the church. Ten years later, however, (after the Council of Nicaea) when Constantine had somewhat changed his theological views, he placed the Novatians in rank with the Marcionites and Valentinians, forbade them to worship in public, closed their (heretical) churches, and ordered their books to be burnt. During the Arian controversy the relation between the Novatians and the Catholic Church was generally good, as the former showed no inclination towards that heresy. But the danger was hardly over, before the Catholic Church began persecutions. In Rome, Innocent I closed their churches, and Celestine I forbade them to worship in public.Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (three-volume edition, 1889), Vol. II, art., Novatian, p. 1672.
Of the Novatian doctrines and discipline, Jones says:
The doctrinal sentiments of the Novatians appear to have been very scriptural, and the discipline of their churches rigid in the extreme. They were the first class of Christians who obtained the name of (Cathari) Puritans, an appellation which doth not appear to have been chosen by themselves, but applied to them by their adversaries; from which we may reasonably conclude that their manners were simple and irreproachable.The History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 3, sec. 2, p. 181.
Robertson adds this:
As to the chief doctrines of the gospel, however, the Novatianists were and continued steadily orthodox, and many of them suffered, even
to death, for the faith. The Council of Nicaea attempted to heal the schism by conciliatory measures; but the Novatianists still regarded the laxity of the church's discipline as a bar to a reunion with it, although they were drawn into more friendly relations with the Catholics by a community of danger during the ascendancy of Arianism. The sect long continued to exist.History of the Christian Church, James C. Robertson, M. A., Vol. I, p. 170. London: John Murray, 1907.
Of the conflict with Catholic Church discipline, and the challenge of arbitrary church authority by Novatian, Neander has written:
With regard to the second main point of the controversy, the idea of the church, Novatian maintained that, purity and holiness being one of the essential marks of a true church, every church which, neglecting the right use of discipline, tolerates in its bosom, or readmits to its communion, such persons as, by gross sins, have broken their baptismal vow, ceases by that very act to be a true Christian church, and forfeits all the rights and privileges of a true church. On this ground the Novatianists, as they held themselves to be alone the pure immaculate church, called themselves. the Pure.General History of the Christian Religion and Church, Augustus Neander, Vol. I, p. 343. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
Novatian, on the other hand, laid at the basis of his theory the visible church as pure and holy, and these qualities were, in his view, the essential conditions of the truly catholic church. The catholic (universal) church, though carried on by the succession of bishops, ceases, in his opinion, to be a truly catholic one as soon as it becomes stained and desecrated through fellowship with unworthy men.Id., pp. 344, 345.
The Novatians gained the confidence and sympathy of people everywhere who saw the peril and groaned for relief. When this one man, Novatian, showed the courage to break away from the professing Christian church, the crisis was on, and thousands took their stand with these Reformers. Truly he was led of God. It was such courageous loyalty to the teachings of Christ and the apostles that kept the channel open for the manifestation of the prophetic gift. It should likewise be remembered that a succession of the Novatians under different names continued till the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
In the early part of the fourth century the Novatians were joined, or perhaps followed, by another company of sincere Christians who broke away from the Catholic Church. These were the Donatists, receiving their name from Donatus, their leader, who had been elected Bishop of Carthage about the year 306 A. D. The reader will recall that it was in this century in which the emperor and the bishops joined hands, and organically united church and state. Of this time Mosheim says:
An enormous train of different superstitions were gradually substituted in the place of true religion and genuine piety. When we cast an eye toward the lives and morals of Christians at this time, we find, as formerly, a mixture of good and evil; some eminent for their piety, others infamous for their crimes. The number however of immoral and unworthy Christians began so to increase, that the examples of real piety and virtue became extremely rare.An Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I, Cent. IV, pp. 355, 372.
With such a departure as this from the high standards of the apostolic church, it is not surprising that true spiritual leaders and their followers separated from the dominant church. Indeed, it was inevitable. Regarding Donatus and his followers Jones says:
He [Donatus] was a man of learning and eloquence, very exemplary in his morals, and, as would appear from several circumstances, studiously set himself to oppose the growing corruptions of the Catholic Church. The Donatists were consequently a separate body of Christians for nearly three centuries, and in almost every city in Africa, there was one bishop of this sect and another of the Catholics. The Donatists were very numerous, for we learn that in the year 411, there was a famous conference held at Carthage between the Catholics and Donatists, at which were present 286 Catholic bishops, and of the Donatists, 279.The History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 3, sec. 5, p. 222.
The Donatists, like the Novatians, remained separate from the main body, and worked untiringly for the maintenance of the
true teaching and spiritual living of the people of God. Thousands of the devout in all parts of northern Africa joined them. Of course, they were not without imperfections and marked limitations. They must be studied and judged in the light of comparison with the apostasies and degeneracies of the time. As was always the case with dissenters, the Catholic Church endeavored to exterminate them. They continued, however, until the middle of the sixth century. Says George Waddington:
The Donatists have never been charged, with the slightest show of truth, with any error of doctrine, or any defect in church government or discipline, or any depravity of moral practice.A History of the Church From the Earliest Ages to the Reformation, p. 153. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1834.
Historians have brought to light a vast amount of information about the people and events that center in the Christian church, or churches, known as the Waldenses, or Vaudois. It is now certain that the Waldenses were not a single, isolated class of one nation only. In their broadest and most comprehensive history, they embrace and represent, under variant names, many of the protesting, reforming groups of Christians from early centuries to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and on for a hundred years later. Concerning their antiquity and origin, Alexis Muston in his monumental work, based on sources, says:
The Vaudois of the Alps are, in my opinion, primitive Christians, or descendants and representatives of the primitive church, preserved in these valleys from the corruptions successively introduced by the Church of Rome into the religion of the gospel. It is not they who have separated from Catholicism, but Catholicism which has separated from them by changing the primitive religion.History of the Waldenses, Vol. I, p. 17, 1875.
The noted Waldensian authority, William S. Gilly, M. A. states the same essential fact in these words:
The terms, Vaudois in French, Vallenses in Latin, Valdesi, or Vallesi in Italian, and Waldenses in English ecclesiastical history, signify nothing
more or less than Men of the Valleys; and as the valleys of Piedmont have had the honor of producing a race of people, who have remained true to the faith introduced by the first missionaries, who preached Christianity in those regions, the synonyms Vaudois, Valdesi, and Waldenses, have been adopted as the distinguishing names of a religious community, faithful to the primitive creed, and free from the corruption of the Church of Rome.
Long before the Roman Church, (that new sect, as Claude, Bishop of Turin in 840, called it,) stretched forth its arms, to stifle in its Antæan embrace the independent flocks of the Great Shepherd, the ancestors of the Waldenses were worshiping God in the hill countries of Piedmont, as their posterity now worship Him. For many ages they continued almost unnoticed.Waldensian Researches During a Second Visit to the Vaudois of Piemont, p. 6. London: Printed for C. J. G. & F. Rivington, 1831.
Speaking further of these relationships, he adds:
The Waldenses of Piemont are not to be regarded as the successors of certain reformers, who first started up in France and Italy at a time, when the corruptions of the Roman Church and priesthood became intolerable, but as a race of simple mountaineers, who from generation to generation have continued steadily in the faith preached to their forefathers, when the territory, of which their valleys form a part, was first Christianized. Ample proof will be given of this, as I proceed, and without attempting to fix the exact period of their conversion, I trust to be able to establish the fact, that this Alpine tribe embraced the gospel as it was first announced in all its purity, and continued true to it, in the midst of almost general apostasy. Nothing is more to be regretted than the mistakes which have been made upon this point, even by Protestant authors.Id., pp. 8, 9.
The leading territory, or headquarters, of the Waldenses was in the region of the Alps, in northern Italy and southern France. The most central and prominent place of location seems to have been in the valleys of Piedmont along the southern foothills of the Alps. According to these authorities, the gospel had first been preached, and churches established, in all that region by preachers of the early centuries. From the churches in northern Italy the Church of Rome met decided protests. Says Wylie:
The country in which we find the earliest of these protesters is Italy. The See of Rome, in those days, embraced only the capital and the surrounding provinces. The diocese of Milan, which included the plain of Lombardy, the Alps of Piedmont, and the southern provinces of France, greatly exceeded it in extent. It is an undoubted historical fact that this powerful diocese was not then tributary to the papal chair. The bishops of Milan, says Pope Pelagius I (555), do not come to Rome for ordination.The History of Protestantism, J. A. Wylie, LL.D., Vol. I, pp. 18, 19. London, Paris, and New York: Cassell Petter & Galpin.
That there were flourishing churches in northern Italy in the fourth century is evident, for Ambrose was elected Bishop of Milan in 374 A. D. Wylie comments:
His [Ambrose's] theology, and that of his diocese, was in no essential respects different from that which Protestants hold today . Rufinus, of Aquileia, first metropolitan in the diocese of Milan, taught substantially the same doctrine in the fifth century.id., p. 20.
But the bishops in the region of Piedmont and the adjoining provinces did more than decline to go to Rome for ordination.
In the year 590, the bishops of Italy and the Grisons (Switzerland) to the number of nine, rejected the communion of the pope, as a heretic.Dr. Allix's Remarks on the Ancient Churches of Piedmont, chap. 5, p. 32, quoted in The History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 4, sec. 1, p. 244.
About a century later, Paulinus, Bishop of Aquileia, in Italy, stood firmly against the domination and the innovations of the papacy, and was joined by other bishops in condemning the worship of images as idolatrous.
Turin, an important city a short distance to the west of Milan, was the center of an important diocese at the beginning of the ninth century. About the year 817 A. D. Claudius was appointed Archbishop of Turin, by Emperor Louis. Of him we read:
This man beheld with dismay the stealthy approaches of a power which, putting out the eyes of men, bowed their necks to its yoke, and
bent their knees to idols. He grasped the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and the battle which he so courageously waged, delayed, though it could not prevent, the fall of his church's independence, and for two centuries longer the light continued to shine at the foot of the Alps.The History of Protestantism, J. A. Wiley, Vol. I, p. 21.
This is all supported by Lawrence, the learned essayist, who writes:
Here, within the borders of Italy itself, the popes have never been able, except for one unhappy interval, to enforce their authority. Here no Mass has been said, no images adored, no papal rites administered by the native Vaudois. It was here that Henry Arnaud, the hero of the valleys, redeemed his country from the tyranny of the Jesuits and Rome; and here a Christian church, founded perhaps in the apostolic age, has survived the persecutions of a thousand years.Historical Studies, Eugene Lawrence, p. 199.
Soon after the dawn of Christianity, they assert, their ancestors embraced the faith of St. Paul, and practiced the simple rites and usages described by Justin or Tertullian. The Scriptures became their only guide; the same belief, the same sacraments they maintain today they held in the age of Constantine and Sylvester. They relate that, as the Romish Church grew in power and pride, their ancestors repelled its assumptions and refused to submit to its authority; that when, in the ninth century, the use of images was enforced by superstitious popes, they, at least, never consented to become idolaters; that they never worshiped the Virgin, nor bowed at an idolatrous Mass. When, in the eleventh century, Rome asserted its supremacy over kings and princes, the Vaudois were its bitterest foes. The three valleys formed the theological school of Europe. The Vaudois missionaries traveled into Hungary and Bohemia, France, England, even Scotland, and aroused the people to a sense of the fearful corruption of the church. They pointed to Rome as the Antichrist, the center of every abomination. They taught, in the place of Romish innovations, the pure faith of the apostolic age. Lollard, who led the way to the reforms of Wycliffe, was a preacher from the valleys; the Albigenses of Provence, in the twelfth century, were the fruits of the Vaudois missions; Germany and Bohemia were reformed by the teachers of Piedmont; Huss and Jerome did little more than proclaim the Vaudois faith; and Luther and Calvin were only the necessary offspring of the apostolic churches of the Alps.Id., pp. 200, 201.
With these illuminating statements may be placed this interesting and significant sentence:
In lands beyond the jurisdiction of Rome, there existed for many centuries bodies of Christians who remained almost wholly free from papal corruption.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 63.
Two centuries after the death of Claudius of Turin, the Waldenses were greatly blessed and strengthened by the coming to them of the great preacher and leader, Peter Waldo. He had been a wealthy merchant in the city of Lyons, France. After his conversion to Christianity, he became a most successful opponent of the papacy. He secured the translation of the New Testament into the Latin tongue, the common language of the people in Southern Europe at that time.
This Romaunt version was the first complete and literal translation of the New Testament of Holy Scripture; it was made not later than 1180, and so is older than any complete version in German, French, Italian, Spanish, or English. This version was widely spread in the south of France, and in the cities of Lombardy. It was in common use among the Waldenses of Piedmont, and it was no small part, doubtless, of the testimony borne to truth by these mountaineers to preserve and circulate it.History of Protestantism, J. A. Wylie, Vol. I, p. 29.
Through the extraordinary devotion and flaming zeal of Waldo, the Waldenses were aroused to greater missionary activity. Their young men traveled everywhere, making known to the people the truth of the gospel. These sincere, devout people of the Lord continued through centuries of seclusion, suffering, and persecution, to hold up the torch of light and truth to millions in superstition and darkness. They were living and active throughout the years spanned by Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther, thus preparing the way for the great Reformation.
We include here a somewhat extensive quotation, again from the moving words of that gifted writer, Lawrence:
The fable of a united Christendom, obeying with devoted faith a pope at Rome, had no credence in the period to which it is commonly assigned; and from the reign of Innocent III to the Council of Constance (1200-1414) the Roman Church was engaged in a constant and often doubtful contest with the widely diffused fragments of apostolic Christianity.
The popes had succeeded in subjecting kings and emperors; they now employed them in crushing the people. Innocent III excited Philip of France to a fierce crusade against the Albigenses of the south; amidst a general massacre of men, women, and children, the gentle sect sunk, never to appear again. Dominic invented, or enlarged, the Inquisition; and soon in every land the spectacle of blazing heretics and tortured saints delighted the eyes of the Romish clergy. Over the rebellious kings the popes had held the menace of interdict, excommunication, deposition; to the people they offered only submission or death. The Inquisition was their remedy for the apostolic heresies of Germany, England, Spaina simple cure for dissent or reform. It seemed effectual. The Albigenses were perfectly extripated. In the cities of Italy the Waldenses ceased to be known. Lollardism concealed itself in England; the scriptural Christians of every land who refused to worship images or adore the Virgin disappeared from sight; the supremacy of Rome was assured over all Western Europe.
Lawrence then discusses the Alpine church, in its stand against the furious destroying tyranny of Rome. He continues:
Yet one blot remained on the fair fame of the seemingly united Christendom. Within the limits of Italy itself a people existed to whom the Mass was still a vain idolatry, the real presence a papal fable; who had resisted with vigor every innovation, and whose simple rites and ancient faith were older than the papacy itself. What waves of persecution may have surged over the Vaudois valleys in earlier ages we do not know; they seem soon to have become familiar with the cruelty of Rome; but in the fifteenth century the popes and the inquisitors turned their malignant eyes upon the simple Piedmontese, and prepared to exterminate with fire and sword the Alpine church.
And now began a war of four centuries, the most remarkable in the annals of Europe . For four centuries a crusade almost incessant went on against the secluded valleys. Often the papal legions, led by the
inquisitors, swept over the gentle landscape of Lucerna, and drove the people from the blazing villages to hide in caves on the mountains, and almost browse with the chamois on the wild herbage of the wintry rocks. Often the dukes of Savoy sent well-trained armies of Spanish foot to blast and wither the last trace of Christian civilization in San Martin or Perouse. More than once the best soldiers and the best generals of Mazarin and Louis XIV hunted the Vaudois in their wildest retreats, massacred them in caves, starved them in the regions of the glaciers, and desolated the valleys from San Jean to the slopes of Guinevert.
Yet the unflinching people still refused to give up their faith. Still they repelled the idolatry of the Mass; still they mocked at the Antichrist of Rome. In the deepest hour of distress, the venerable barbes gathered around them, their famine-stricken congregations in some cave or cranny of the Alps, administered their apostolic rites, and preached anew the Sermon on the Mount. The Psalms of David, chanted in the plaintive melodies of the Vaudois, echoed far above the scenes of rapine and carnage of the desolate valleys; the apostolic church lived indestructible, the coronal of some heaven-piercing Alp.Historical Studies, Eugene Lawrence, pp. 202-204.
In closing this chapter, we again go back to the seventh century to note briefly the remarkable story of the Paulicians in the territory of the Eastern church.
While the Christian world, as it has been the fashion to call it, was thus sunk into an awful state of superstitionat a moment when darkness seemed to cover the earth, and gross darkness the peopleit is pleasing to contemplate a ray of celestial light darting across the gloom. About the year 660, a new sect arose in the east under the name of Paulicians.The History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 3, sec. 5, p. 239.
The name of this body of zealous Christians seems to imply that they claimed to be followers of the great apostle Paul, through faithfulness to the instruction contained in his epistles. Be that as it may, the Paulicians appear to have been the descendants of those churches established in the earliest centuries in the region of Armenia. Wylie says concerning their origin:
Some obscurity rests upon their origin, and additional mystery has on purpose been cast upon it, but a fair and impartial examination of the matter leaves no doubt that the Paulicians are the remnant that escaped the apostasy of the Eastern church, even as the Waldenses are the remnant saved from the apostasy of the Western church.History of Protestantism, J. A. Wylie, Vol. I, p. 33.
A great awakening, and a new spiritual life, courage, and zeal came to these Christian people in the latter part of the seventh century by the conversion and preaching of one Constantine, an Armenian. They carried on an extensive missionary enterprise, and gained great numbers of adherents in many countries.
The Paulicians protested against the immoralities that were permitted among the clergy and the churches. They also opposed the worship of the Virgin Mary, the adoration of saints and images, and reverence for so-called sacred relics. Infant baptism they rejected as unscriptural.
It appears, from the whole of their history, to have been a leading object with Constantine and his brethren, to restore, as far as possible, the profession of Christianity to all its primitive simplicity.The History of the Christian Church, William Jones, chap. 3, sec. 5, p. 239.
Thus they were branded as heretics by the leaders of the Eastern church in which they were located territorially, and became the victims of the most deadly persecution which ever disgraced the Eastern church. But they withstood all the imperial edicts and penal cruelties that were brought against them. They increased in numbers, and traversed great regions in their missionary activities. The Paulicians form another of those connecting links between the primitive Christian church and the Reformation of Wycliffe, of Huss, and of Luther, that followed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
With this historical picture of the Novatians, Donatists,
Waldenses, and Paulicians before us, we are now prepared to seek further for
evidences of God's endowing with the power of the Spirit men of His choosing as
leaders in reform.