Disillusioned with Italy's Catholics, the Mormons preached to the Waldenses
MIchael W. Homer
LORENZO SNOW HAD BEEN AN apostle less than a year when called by Brigham Young during the 1849 October conference to "establish a mission in Italy and wherever the spirit should direct."(1) Two weeks later Snow left for Europe with Joseph Toronto, a native of Sicily who had been with the Saints since Nauvoo. When they finally reached Liverpool in April, Snow began to consider how best to spread the gospel into the Italian region which at that time was a patchwork of separate but geographically contiguous political entities, united in language, loyalty to the Catholic church, and hostility to outside missionaries. Snow's interest was piqued by a group that must have seemed a welcome exception-the Waldenses, a Protestant group living in the Piedmont re on of the Sardinian states where certain religious liberties had been granted them only two years before.
He therefore visited the public library in Liverpool, seeking more information about the Waldenses:
The librarian to whom I had applied informed me he had a work of the description I required, but it had just been taken. He had scarcely finished the sentence, when a lady entered with the book. "O," said he, "This is a remarkable circumstance." I was soon convinced that this people were worthy to receive the first proclamation of the Gospel in Italy.
Snow was initially attracted to the Waldenses because they, like the Mormons, had suffered religious persecution and had been driven to a mountain retreat.
There were other striking similarities. Both groups had doctrines which emphasized a belief in an apostasy, rejection of papal authority, and a return to primitive Christianity. Snow was soon convinced that he had been directed to a branch of the House of Israel.
Snow traced the origins of the Waldenses to the twelfth century and a French merchant named Waldo who renounced his wealth in order to serve God and preach. Waldo quickly established a community of followers known as the Poor Men of Lyons, which, at first, did not challenge Catholic doctrine but only claimed the right to preach repentance and a return to primitive Christianity. After seeking in vain for ecclesiastical recognition, he and his followers were excommunicated for refusing to abide by a church degree which prohibited lay persons from preaching unless invited to do so by the ordained clergy. Forced to leave Lyons, they gathered in other European cities where they increasingly separated themselves from the church. The sect, which was more popular than intellectual and grew most among the lower classes, became characteristically anti-sacerdotal. It rejected the authority of the pope and priests as well as the efficacy of masses and alms for the dead and instead maintained the right of lay personsboth men and women-to preach and pray.
Severely persecuted beginning as early as 1198, many of the Waldenses were eventually eliminated. Nevertheless a portion found refuge in the small valleys of the Cottian Alps, located on the present day border between France and Italy, a remote mountain location where they survived repeated onslaughts during the next 400 years against the nonconforming beliefs and practices. Even when the persecution against them subsided in the eighteenth century, they continued to evoke the sympathy of writers and philanthropists because of the extreme poverty which existed in their communities.
WITH THE WALDENSES IN MIND Snow began making more detailed plans for the Italian mission. While visiting various Church conferences in England, he met two British converts whom he asked to travel with him and Toronto to Italy. Jabez Woodard was studying the Bible in Italian when Snow first met him.(2) T.B.H. Stenhouse, the newly chosen president of the Southampton Conference, was asked, according to his wife Fanny, because he had impressed the apostle with his "great zeal and untiring energy" in a religious discussion with a non-Mormon after a church meeting.(3)
On 15 June 1850 Snow, Toronto, and Stenhouse left Southampton for Genoa, Italy; Woodard remained behind for several months to arrange his personal affairs. After their arrival in Genoa, Snow sent his two companions to Torre Pellice, the largest community of the Waldenses, to make inquiries and preparations. The favorable report they sent Snow on July 20 convinced him that there was "an opening ... presented in the valleys of Piedmont when all other parts of Italy are closed against our efforts." Three days later he left Genoa to join his associates.
Upon his arrival, Snow was impressed by how much the valleys of Piedmont resembled the Salt Lake Valley and began at once to write a pamphlet about the Mormons for the Waldenses, hoping that the parallels in history and belief would be as striking to them as theirs had been to him. Tracing Mormon history from the visions of Joseph Smith to the arrival of the Saints in the Great Basin, "The Voice of Joseph" also included glowing accounts of life in Utah and the newly organized program of the Church to aid converts emigrating to America. Since French was the most generally understood language of the region, Snow had his pamphlet sent to Liverpool for translation. It was later published in Turin with "a woodcut of a Catholic nun, anchor, lamp and cross on the first page, and on the last Noah's ark, the dove and the olive"-presumably to give it a Catholic appearance in order to get it published.
Snow and his associates were initially very cautious about introducing such Mormon ideas to the Waldenses. They first tried to create a favorable impression among the inhabitants and were encouraged when a blessing they gave to a sick innkeeper's child seemed to prompt the child's complete recovery. Soon after this experience Snow, Stenhouse, and Jabez Woodard (who had finally arrived the day before) ascended an imposing mountain near Torre Pellice, dedicated the land for missionary work, and organized the Church in Italy. Nothing could impede the progress of the Church in that country Snow declared; it would "increase and multiply and continue its existence in Italy."(4) Meanwhile, Joseph Toronto traveled to Sicily where he hoped to spread the Mormon message to his family and friends.(5)
Shortly after the mountain top ceremony the missionaries began to visit a number of the Waldenses' ministers; some permitted the Mormons to explain their beliefs to a few congregations. After one such meeting in October 1850, which had been organized and attended by the "most talented ministers," the missionaries were finally successful in converting Jean Bose. A few days after he had personally baptized Bose, Snow sent a letter to Brigham Young in which he "rejoiced that the Lord had thus far blessed our efforts and enabled us to open the door of the kingdom in dark and benighted Italy."
However in the same letter to Young, he complained that the Waldenses were part of "a Church where organized dissent has been unknown . . . and . . . [t]he people regard any innovation as an attempt to drag them from their martyred ancestry." It had become painfully evident to Snow that the religious legacy of the Waldenses, which he had hoped would help attract converts to Mormonism because of the parallels between the two religions, was as much a hindrance as an aid to the missionaries. He also asserted that lies and slander had been printed about the Mormons which would "bleach the memory of many a vile traducer in other lands."
BY THE END OF THE YEAR THERE had been no additional conversions, and Snow decided to return to England to supervise the translation of the Book of Mormon into Italian. He hoped by so doing the mission could be expanded to the larger and in some cases better educated Italian-speaking population. He also wanted missionary work to begin in other nearby countries. To accomplish this, he sent Stenhouse to Switzerland and encouraged Woodard to send missionaries to other locations in the Sardinian States. On the eve of his own departure from Italy, in January 1851, Snow sent a thoroughly discouraged letter to Orson Hyde. The Waldensian Church, he wrote,
has been flattered into immeasurable self-importance. ... Their self-esteem, combined with deep ignorance, presents a formidable barrier to the progress of the gospel. They have had so little intercourse with other parts of the earth-so little knowledge of anything beyond their own scenes of pastoral life, that it is difficult for them to contemplate the great principles of temporal and eternal salvation.
Despite Snow's pessimism, however, the Mormon mission among the Waldenses was hardly over. Within a month of his departure two more men and then the family of one of the men-eight children and two parents-were baptized. The father, John Daniel Malan, had refused to take the office of elder in the Waldensian church and became instead a Mormon elder-"a firm believer in 'The Voice of Joseph.' "
Woodard, left in charge of the mission by Snow, was enthusiastic about the turn of events. "The veil over Italy has burst," he wrote in a letter to Snow. The March 15 edition of the Millennial Star echoed these euphoric sentiments: "the Alpine hills have commenced to reverberate the tidings of salvation, the gift of the Holy Ghost, to those who have wandered long in darkness... they speak like Saints." The next year saw only eleven additional persons baptized, however. Even by May a more seasoned Woodard wrote to Snow: "I am still alive and able to climb mountains if I cannot move them."
Snow again visited the Waldensian valleys for two weeks during January 1852. He was still convinced that the Italian mission should be expanded beyond the "narrow sphere" of the Waldensian valleys and, therefore, talked about leaving John Daniel Malan to preside over the Waldensian converts temporarily and sending Woodward to Nice to do missionary work among the Catholic population. In the end Snow took Woodard to Malta instead where they organized a separate mission. Then Snow was called back to Salt Lake (he had wanted to go to India), and Woodard returned to Piedmont to preside over the mission in Italy.
Shortly after Snow's departure the Book of Mormon was published in Italian (May 1852). No doubt remembering Snow's wishes, Woodard did send missionaries to Genoa and Turin to preach among the Catholics, but they had little success.(6) They were welcomed by neither the people nor their governments. On one occasion, while Woodard was in Turin in September 1852, he even received a government directive ordering him to leave the Sardinian states.
By the end of 1852-two and a half years following the arrival of Mormon missionaries in Italy-there had been only 39 converts, all of them Waldenses. Although 1853 proved to be the most successful of the nineteenth century Italian mission, only 53 additional persons were baptized. During the same year Woodard, in keeping with Church policy, began preparing the Italian converts for emigration to America. The first group to depart, consisting of 20 persons from the families of John Bertoch, Phillippe Cardon, and Barthelemy Pons, left Piedmont in January 1854. Jabez Woodard, a European convert himself, went with them. At the time of their departure, property values were depressed because of crop failures and converts received little in exchange for the few possessions they sold to help pay for the journey. Like most Mormon emigrants, they could not have left without the aid of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund that had been promised in "The Voice of Joseph." This first group of Italian converts sailed from Livepool on the John M. Wood 22 March 1854.
With Woodard's departure, the Italian and Swiss missions were consolidated and placed under the direction of T.B.H. Stenhouse. During the next several years Church membership in Italy declined rapidly because of additional emigration, excommunications, and lack of new conversions. In 1855 two more groups of Waldensian converts departed for Utah, 15 persons in March aboard the Juventa and another 30 in December aboard the John M. Boyd. These groups included the Malan, Beus, Stale, Rochon, Rivoire, and Justet families as well as singles traveling without relations. Eventually 73 of the 170 persons (43 percent) who were baptized in Italy between 1850 and 1861 emigrated to Utah.(7) The large majority of those who did not emigrate, a total of 73 persons (43 percent of the total converts), were excommunicated between 1852 and 1862. Among the stated reasons for these excommunications were negligence, rebellion, infidelity, evil and immorality, apostasy, absurdities, unbelief, criticism, nonchalance, cowardice, lyig, bad conduct, fear of the world, and deceit.(8)
After 1853 the missionaries had a very difficult time attracting new converts even among the Waldenses. In 1854 the missionaries reported that the ministers of the Waldensian faith, in order to discourage further conversions to Mormonism, told their congregations that their forefathers had sworn that "they would die before they would change their religion or again quit their country." They also exhorted "their listeners not to change their religion, but cleave to that faith which their fathers had sworn to maintain." The ministers also criticized Mormonism and its peculiar institution, polygamy. On one occasion a congregation was warned that the Mormon missionaries were "hired by Brigham Young to convert them as bait to bring them to Western deserts of America and, the recruits would be slaves, and young women possessed by that infamous polygamist and his associates to satiate their lust and debauchery."(9) The strong influence the ministers held over the people of these small communities was a constant sourc of frustration to missionaries who, like Snow before them, complained about the ignorance of the people and bitterly judged that the Waldenses were "no longer worthy of their faithful ancestors."
By 1861 it was reported that "the work in Italy.. . has been at a standstill for a long time." In 1863 there were only 13 Mormons remaining and by 1867 that number had dwindled to six. In that same year Mormon missionary work in Italy ceased for almost 100 years.(10)
THE HISTORY OF THE EARLY Italian mission illustrates some of the problems Mormonism has encountered taking its message to all nations. It also provides insights into some of the factors which attracted early converts to Mormonism. Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton in The Mormon Experience show that converts in the nineteenth century frequently had multiple motives for embracing the faith: "The unique feature of Mormonism's appeal was its combination of theological intelligibility and spiritual reassurance with a specific program offering material and emotional satisfaction in the present."(11) Certainly the Waldensians of Piedmont were attracted for both spiritual and economic reasons.
Lorenzo Snow had expected large numbers of the Waldenses to join the Mormon church when they discovered similarities and parallels which seemed obvious to Snow. Though Snow and other missionaries were disappointed by the number of converts, certainly it was true that many of those who did join the Mormon church in Piedmont did so because of the similarities between the two religions.
In 1853 a missionary named Thomas Margetts noted that Mormonism's message had found acceptance among some Waldenses because that group of people, unlike the Catholics of Italy, did not believe in the doctrine of confession, and they have suffered much for their religion. From these sufferings, many of these people have learned to be kind to the stranger that may call upon them. They will invite you into their houses ... will give their ears to your words, and, where they are honest in heart, they will acknowledge the truth of the gospel, and prove they believe it by being baptized.
Many of these "honest in heart" were dissatisfied Waldenses who had been taught that their movement was a continuation of the original church organized by the Apostles. Like many of Mormonism's converts in other parts of the world, they were, by upbringing, primitive gospelers, already sympathetic to the hope that "the practices of original Christianity were again on the earth-a lay ministry, baptism of believers by immersion, and the gifts of the spirit."(12) Some of those who had grown dissatisfied, for a variety of reasons, with the Waldensian faith were prepared to accept such claims from the Mormons. In 1893 Stephen Malan wrote that previous to the arrival of the Mormon missionaries his grandfather had denounced the false precepts and unscriptural dogmas of the day and announced publickally [sic] that there were [sic] but one true religion practiced according to the petern [sic] of Jesus Christ primitive Church; he did not know in which part of the world it was. . . .(13)
Similarly a missionary in 1853 wrote:
While conversing with the master of the house, he expressed his astonishment at the great difference between the truths I advanced, which were believed an and practised [sic] by the ancient Saints and Apostles, and those impositions which had been imposed on them (my entertainers), and to which they had quietly submitted without even calling into question the validity of the doctrine.
The new converts seemed particularly attracted by Mormonism's belief in modern day revelation, the gifts of the Spirit, and the claim contained in "The Voice of Joseph" that miraculous occurrences were possible, desirable, and an important part of the restoration. Some of the Waldensian converts claimed religious experiences similar to those contained in the Bible including dreams, visions, speaking in tongues, and healings. For example, on his return to Piedmont in 1852, Snow was greeted by a newly converted woman who stated that she had seen him in a vision a few weeks previously. Several other converts on the same occasion also claimed to have experienced visions and healings. Other accounts, recorded many years later, indicate that Phillippe Cardon and one of his daughters, Madalaine, had foreseen in dreams the coming of the Mormon missionaries several years before their arrival.(14) Similarly Stephen Malan wrote in 1893 that at the time of Joseph and Hyrum Smith's death there were signs in the heaven ad people in the community had received visions and dreams telling them "that the religious principles of the day were not in accordance with Holy writ." Madelaine Malan, another convert, wrote that at the time of their baptisms the gifts of the Spirit were manifest and that her mother had sung by the gift of tongues and had given the interpretation.(15)
SPIRITUAL AND THEOLOGICAL reasons accounted for only part of Mormonism's appeal, however. As early as the seventeenth century, many Waldenses had left their mountain homes because of religious persecution.
But during the 1800s other Waldenses left their homeland for social reasons, looking for more economic opportunities than their valleys, which had massive unemployment and overcrowded communities, could offer.(16) By 1844 over 1000 persons (of a total population of 20,000) had left for other locations in Europe. In 1854 one missionary wrote of the terrible poverty he observed:
It is heart-sickening to see the great poverty that exists among these mountains. Last year there was a great falling short of crops of grain, which, together with the grape disease and potato rot, contributes largely to augment the miseries of the labouring poor. The country is teeming with beggars. I never saw such miserable holes in my life as some of the people dwell in.
In that same year, with at least 3000 families suffering great hardships, the Venerable Table, the ruling council of the Waldensian Church, began to seriously consider a plan to sponsor the emigration of its people to locations outside continental Europe, including Sardinia, Algeria, the United States, Australia, and Argentina
Converts to Mormonism shared the widespread desire to emigrate to a place of great opportunity. Mormonism's program to relocate its converts in America was featured in "The Voice of Joseph," which by 1851 had been widely circulated. It described Salt Lake City as located in "a beautiful valley beyond the 'pass' of the Great Rocky Mountains... where peace and happiness dwell." The tract went on:
Oh, what a life we live! It is the dreams of the poets actually fulfilled in real life.... Here, too, we are all rich . . . . There is no real poverty; all men have access to the soil, the pasture, the timber, the water power, and all the elements of wealth, without money or price.
Regarding emigration the tract noted:
Having come up through great tribulation; they [the Mormons] are not forgetful in their prosperity of their brethren who are still in adversity, scattered among the nations; Accordingly they have established a "Perpetual Emigrating Fund," for the migration of the poor. As the gathering of Israel from every nation has been decreed by the Lord, this fund has been arranged as to be increased to millions.
Not surprisingly, such descriptions sometimes attracted those with mixed motives for joining the Mormons. Samuel Francis, a missionary, wrote: "In these valleys, a great many lovers of emigration join the church, expecting to get free emigration to America." Mormons accused the Protestant ministers of resorting to blackmail to retain their flocks in the face of promises of emigration: offering "presents of money, wheat, potatoes, and other things" to investigators and free transportation to Algiers to Mormon converts who would leave the American church. Francis indicated that he was glad that these other opportunities to emigrate were given to the Italian saints since "it is the best things that could be put into operation to find out those who join the Church for emigration.
Some LDS converts did leave the Church in 1855 to take advantage of these competing opportunities to emigrate. Others, frustrated because they had not been sent to Utah by 1857, asked to be excommunicated. Those who remained in the Church were reportedly "willing to walk all the way to Liverpool (excepting the crossing of the channel) if the servants of the Lord could furnish them means to cross the ocean, to go to Zion." By 1863, with no baptisms in over two years, the thirteen remaining members of the Italian branch were likewise "anxious to gather to Zion:"
Most of the Waldenses who remained in the Church eventually came to Utah. But the converts were often as disillusioned with the missionaries' homeland as the missionaries had been with the converts.' Stephen Malan, who left an account of his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1855, was scarcely unique:
I could not sense the descriptions given while in my native land, of the flowery border of the Jordan River, nor of the virgin prairies of the valleys of Deseret, nor of the dense forest, and shrubs of its mountain dales and limpid water brooks, and salubrity of its climate. Having never seen it, I conjectured something of a similarity to my country's nature's gifts.
He was so eager to see the land which had been described in such glowing terms that he left his company, without eating breakfast, and climbed a slight elevation at the mouth of Emigration Canyon to see the valley for the first time: "My eyes surveyed the whole landscape from the spot upon which I stood; nothing but desert was visible; from the east to west mountains, I could not perceive anything indicative of anticipation." Malan was so confused that he asked a group of teamsters entering the canyon "where was that great valley of Salt Lake and where was the city located; with a burst of laughter they asked me if I was deprived of my eyesight." Almost forty years later Malan, still a Mormon, reminisced about the experience:
The test was a severe one but it was momentary. As I walked along the road the fragrance of the sage was beginning to cause a cogitation upon my mind that this indigene plant growing so profusely could be changed into fruitful orchard, and gardens by man's industry, and that the whole valley could eventually be converted into that condition in which I had anticipated. It is so now to a great extent.
Thus the Waldenses, though few in number, became part of the richly varied tapestry of the Mormon Zion. Their unique strand was singled out by Brigham Young as Johnston's army approached Utah in the fall and winter of 1857-1858: he reminded the Mormons of the courage and perseverance demonstrated by the Waldenses in defending their mountain -homeland and enjoined his people to emulate them.(17) The story of the Waldenses has also been memorialized in the LDS hymn book. In 1851 Lorenzo Snow included, "Hymn of the Vaudois Mountaineers in Times of Persecution," a poem about the Waldenses written by the English poet Felicia Hemans, in his report of the Italian Mission. This poem was adapted for the hymnal as "For the Strength of the Hills We Bless Thee" in 1863.(18) Snow also recorded a dream about the Waldenses, which highlighted his own mixed feelings about the success of the Italian mission and which could perhaps characterize many of the nineteenth century missions which seemed at the time to accomplish so little:
I discovered a fish had got upon my hook.... I then drew my line, and was not
a little surprised and mortified at the smallness of my prize. I thought it very strange
that among such a vast multitude of noble, superior looking fish, I should have made so
small a haul. But all my disappointments vanished when I came to discover that its
qualities were of a very extraordinary character.
1. Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1884). Unless otherwise noted all material about the history of the Italian mission comes from this book or from the Millennial Star or from Lorenzo Snow, The Italian Mission (London: W. Aubrey, 1851).
2. Jabez, Woodard, MS, "Autobiography and Diary /C. A.1 18537." Church Archives, Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter cited as Church Archives.
4. The mountain they most likely ascended was Monte Vandalino, which they renamed Mount Brigham. The large projecting rock upon which they organized the Church and renamed the "Rock of Prophecy" was the summit of Monte Casteluzzo-which Snow described as being part of Mount Brigham, but which today is considered a separate peak.
5. Toronto was baptized in Boston in 1843 and moved to Nauvoo shortly thereafter. A few years later, he donated $2500 in gold to the Mormons to help provide bread and other provision for those working on the temple. This act ingratiated him to Brigham Young, who called on him in 1846 to drive his cattle west. Upon his arrival he became the first settler in Utah of Italian descent. It is not clear when Toronto returned from his first Italian mission. In 1875 he traveled to Italy and returned to Utah with fourteen of his relatives and friends from Sicily. Toronto's activities were monitored by a U.S. consular official in Palermo who wrote, in 1879, that Mormons of Sicilian extraction had visited Palermo, within the last five years, to look after their pecuniary affairs. Dispatches-U.S. Consul in Palermo, Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota.
7. The record of the Italian Mission indicates that between 1850-1866, 184 persons were baptized, 58 emigrated and 73 were excommunicated. These emigration figures are inconsistent with the rosters of emigrant ships which contain the names of at least 73 Waldenses who emigrated between 1853-1866. One possible reason for the discrepancy is that some of the children of the emigrants were not baptized Mormons, either because they were too young or because they chose not to be. See "Emigration Records and ship Roster," and "Record of Membership of the Italian Mission," MS, Church Archives.
10. There were scattered attempts to find additional converts among the Waldenses by some of the original Waldensian converts themselves after 1867. James Bertoch and Jules Grague spent a portion of their German-Swiss Mission in Piedmont between 1891-1893. Daniel Richards and Paul Cardon also proselyted among the Waldenses in 1900. However, these efforts failed to produce any additional converts. Some additional Waldenses have affiliated with the Church since the Italian mission was opened in 1966.
11. Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 43. See also Oscar Handlin, Foreward to Homeward to Zion, by William Mulder (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), p. vii.
14. Marie Madalaine Cardon Guilde, "Autobiography," Typescript in possession of author, p. 3. Rebecca Cardon Hickman, "History of John Paul Cardon, 1839-1915," Typescript in possession of author, pp. 7-8. Ella Vida Cardon Adams and Blondel Cardon Potter Smith, "Phillippe Cardon, Pioneer," Typescript in possession of author, p. 2.
18. Helen Hanks Macare, "The Singing Saints," (Diss. UCLA, 1961), pp. 401-02, 545-59. See also J. Spencer Cornwall, Stories of Our Mormon Hymns (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1963), pp. 247-48.
| Republished with permission of the author. This article was originally published on "Sunstone" magazine, n. 33, May - June 1982. © 2005, all rights reserved by Sunstone Education Foundation, Inc., a Utah non-profit corporation. For subsriptions to "Sunstone" and/or purchases of single copies, please click here |
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