Joshua Gianavel: The Mountain Warrior Who Trusted the Omnipotent God

5 min

The account of the believers dwelling in the Alpine valleys of the Piedmont, a region in northwest Italy, is a long and interesting one. These men, women, and children live sheltered in their native valleys and surrounded by the natural refuges provided beyond the glacial ice, tumbling rivers, and high cliffs.

These people, known as Waldenses, claim to be the direct descendants of the early apostolic believers who escaped from Rome’s severe persecutions of believers in the second and third centuries A.D. Bravely working their way northward in the Italian Peninsula, these believers found a suitable place to settle in the high valleys near the headwaters of the Po River.

As the centuries passed, many changes were made in the Christianity of Europe. Constantine “Christianized” the Roman Empire. Heresies rose, were combatted, and were silenced. The eastern church split from the western church over the issue of icons in architecture. Gradually, ecclesiastical power was centered in the Bishop of Rome, and the papacy increasingly exerted influence and power over Christendom, and in some places even over civil governmental affairs.

Through these changes, the Waldensian people of the valleys of the Piedmont preserved the ancient forms of worship as best as they were able. They sang the hymns and psalms of their fathers. They read the Bible in their native tongue, translated so long ago that no one remembered or knew of its origin. Sons and daughters memorized huge sections of the Bible so that, if their Bibles were ever taken away, collectively the Waldenses would always possess the Word of God in its entirety in their hearts.

Also through time, various waves of persecution came against these peaceful mountain people. The dukes of Turin in Italy and of Savoy in France would often wage crusades against these people who dared to resist the authority of the Pope and would not submit to Roman Catholic forms of worship.

From time to time, men, women, and children were hunted and slaughtered by the officers of the Pope. Some of these martyrdoms are recorded in shocking detail in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

When the Reformation came to Europe, early reformers such as William Farel, who visited the valleys of the Piedmont, were delighted to find that the Word of God had long been preached in its simplicity by these mountaineers. The Waldenses extended the hand of fellowship to these reformers. They even helped Pierre Robert Olivétan translate the Bible into French, as their previous Bible was outdated in language and sometimes inaccurate.

The new translation was finished in 1535, and for about 100 years the Waldenses lived in relative quiet, finding fellowship with the Huguenots in southern France and with the Swiss Protestants in places such as Geneva and Bern. But as the Huguenots were gradually oppressed after the fall of La Rochelle (a self-declared city-state on the Atlantic Ocean in coastal western France), persecution against the Waldenses gradually increased also.

In the year 1655, the savage dukes of Savoy waged a massive crusade to crush the simple believers of the Italian Piedmont. But God raised up a remarkable individual to show His power. His name was Joshua Gianavel (sometimes spelled Janavel).

Although his name is not well-known today, this man was a true hero who should be remembered. A peace-loving man, Captain Gianavel did not hesitate to take up arms to defend his family. Gianavel had known the mountain passes intimately from his boyhood, and he was familiar with every crevice, boulder, and stream. His knowledge of the Alpine terrain would be used to the fullest advantage. His battles read like the exploits of David’s mighty men.

Many of his men were armed with only wooden slings, just like the slings David used. These men were skilled in using them. As for ammunition for the slings, the Alpine slopes abounded with rocks!

One example of Gianavel’s exploits of arms is a battle known in Waldensian history as the Battle of the Rocks of Rumer. This battle was just one in a long train of stunning victories. The battle was named for the mountain summit where it took place.

At this battle, Gianavel had only about forty men. The strength of the enemy was estimated to be about 1,000 well-armed papists. The papists were marching against the Waldenses to wipe out their villages and kill all the “heretics,” as they termed the pious men, women, and children of the town of Rorà.

As Gianavel prepared his men to meet the enemy, he led them in prayer, as was his custom before battle. Then, Gianavel and his men met the astonished soldiers of Savoy with a ferocious charge as the enemy walked single file along a mountain trail. Cutting their way through the enemy line, the Waldensian warriors ascended to the top of the summit. There they turned to face their opponents.

The enemy, delighted that they faced only about forty commoners, mocked the Waldenses on the heights above them. Having completely surrounded the hill, the papists began to advance against the heights.

Meanwhile, the Waldenses had been busy. Gianavel had instructed his men to position themselves behind boulders and form a complete circle ringing the top of the summit. From this post, Gianavel and his men began raining a perfect hail of musket balls, arrows, and stones down upon the enemy. Alexander Mitchell, the 19th-century historian who chronicled the battle, wrote, “As the snow melts away from the hill-side under the fire of the sun, so did these troops melt away under the fire of the Waldenses.”

But Gianavel was not content with this partial victory. When the enemy had given up, Gianavel and his men chased them from the craggy heights. First, shoving boulders down before themselves, the Waldenses then followed after the bouncing rocks and charged the enemy! The panic-stricken foes fled in terror. Many were so frightened that they jumped off the cliff! Their bodies lay dashed upon the rocks far below.

The victory was complete. Many other battles were like this one. In one battle, the Battle of San Sagonzo, the Waldenses slew 1,400 of the enemy while losing only seven men of their own. In another battle, in which Gianavel made a charge from a hilltop similar to the offense delivered at the Battle of Rorà, the Waldenses killed 500 of their enemies while losing only one of their own men and two others were wounded.

John Foxe wrote in his Book of Martyrs, “After each of these signal victories, Captain Gianavel made a suitable discourse to his men, causing them to kneel down, and return thanks to the Almighty for His Providential protection, and usually concluded with the Eleventh Psalm.” This psalm, Gianavel’s “Battle Psalm,” contains these lines which fit perfectly the life of a mountain warrior who trusts in the power of the omnipotent God to defend his home, his family, and his Bible:

I in the Lord do put my trust;
How is it then that ye
Say to my soul, Flee, as a bird,
Unto your mountain high?
For, lo, the wicked bend their bow,
Their shafts on string they fit,
That those who upright are in heart
They privily may hit.
Snares, fire and brimstone, furious storms,
On sinners He shall rain:

“For the righteous LORD loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright” (Psalm 11:7).

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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