Life

The Waldensians

What one small town’s celebration of immigration tells us about how white Americans think about history.

The cast of From This Day Forward, dressed in colonial-era garb.
The cast of From This Day Forward, an outdoor drama performed in Valdese, North Carolina.
Old Colony Players

This is the newest meme I’ve seen circulating among my conservative acquaintances on Facebook: It’s a picture of the migrant caravan from Honduras that’s making its way toward the United States border. The people are on the march; some carry backpacks, some carry nothing but the clothes on their backs. Stamped on top are the words, “Imagine if these people marched on their own government and demanded change instead of marching toward ours and demanding charity.” Of course, we don’t have to imagine; when Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in for his second term in January, people took to the streets to protest election irregularities and were met with tear gas and bloodshed. These people have tried asking for change, but they still face political turmoil, extreme poverty, and deadly violence.

The people who post these types of memes are the descendants of migrants, too, but to them it’s a historically acceptable migration—the kind where you dumped tea in Boston Harbor to earn your freedom, or you came through Ellis Island and cried tears of joy when you finally saw the Statue of Liberty. In other words, it happened a long time ago and it happened for white people, and it’s been recast as a story of triumph.

When I see memes about migrant caravans or refugee children in cages at the border, I think about Valdese, North Carolina, a town I visited this summer. Valdese was settled 125 years ago by a migrant caravan of sorts, and the town mythologizes that migration with a walking tour that recounts the journey from Italy to North Carolina and an outdoor drama that’s been running for 51 years. It’s a celebration of immigration in a town that is 97 percent white and leans conservative Republican, and my visit made me wonder how the news we live through today will be portrayed a hundred years from now.

Valdese is about an hour from Charlotte and an hour from Asheville, just off I-40, the east-west interstate in North Carolina. The town is just 7.6 square miles and had a population of 4,490 people in the 2010 census. According to the Yellow Pages, there are 18 restaurants within the town limits, five of them fast-food chains, but there are more than 20 churches.

If you’ve heard of the Waldensians, the religious sect that settled Valdese in 1893, it may be because Pope Francis went to a Waldensian church in Turin in 2015 to ask forgiveness from the sect on the part of the Catholic Church. The Waldensians sometimes receive credit for being the first Protestants or the oldest evangelical movement. Before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door, before Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce, there was Peter Waldo. Waldo was a wealthy merchant in France in the 1180s who gave up all his possessions, took to the streets, and began to preach that the Catholic Church was a sinful example of gluttony to anyone who would listen.

Waldensians settled in the Cottian Alps between France and Italy. They were excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and endured several centuries of persecution. Waldensians were burned at the stake and depicted as witches. There were numerous massacres tacitly approved by the papacy, including one in 1655 that inspired John Milton to write the sonnet, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.” The Waldensians were forced from their land and walked in the snow to Switzerland before mounting a comeback to their Italian homeland in 1689 that became known as the Glorious Return.

Those centuries of persecution are the centerpiece of Valdese’s tourism economy, such as it is. Act 1 of From This Day Forward, the outdoor drama performed each year in Valdese by the Old Colony Players, focuses on the years of 1685 to 1690 and the political tensions and massacres that forced the Waldensians to leave. Early in the play, which is “rated PG13 for battle scenes,” a man is burned at the stake for the crime of having a Bible. The current production includes gunfire, swordplay, and booming cannons. As Waldensians were slaughtered, the actors—there are 37 of them, many wearing pristine white aprons—hit the red dirt stage with such a force that I had to wonder how much laundry was required after each show. An 11-year-old lay face down for so long that I worried about her ability to breathe.

The first part of the Trail of Faith, a walking tour of 15 monuments in Valdese, is similarly violent. More than half of the monuments deal with the persecution the Waldensians endured in Italy and the ways in which their faith helped them to overcome. The trail’s first stop is a plain three-story building meant to show how Waldensian evangelists studied in secret, memorizing the Bible and sleeping with stabled animals for warmth. On the walls are engravings of the torture that Waldensians endured. One man had his penis cut off and stuffed into his mouth, and then he was put on public display like that. Waldensians were cooked alive so they could be eaten. They did not lose their faith.

The trail also features a replica of a cave where Waldensians gathered to practice their faith in secret. Visitors are invited to crawl into the entrance of the cave to understand how hard it was for Waldensians to worship. From the cave, the trail goes to a replica of a Waldensian church. The original, known as the Temple of Ciabas, located in the small village of Angrogna, Italy, is thought to be the oldest church built from the ground up for Protestant worship. It was destroyed by Catholic sympathizers many times, but rebuilt over and over. As they rebuilt, the Waldensians started adding things like spikes on the windows and a special window above the entrance where they could pour hot oil on soldiers trying to break in. Despite all the violence, Waldensians are always depicted in Valdese’s tourist attractions as brave, hardworking, and strengthened by their faith. The trail includes a one-room schoolhouse, where kids would memorize the Bible for hours so they’d know scripture in case their Bibles were confiscated. Waldensian schoolhouses usually had a big bookcase where the kids would take their naps. As proof, there is a historical photo of a teacher standing sternly by a bookcase, a child on every shelf.

The persecution that the Waldensians endured was so intense that you might think it was what led the people to leave Europe. However, King Charles Albert of Sardinia granted the Waldensians full legal and political rights in 1848. It was not danger but safety that led to their journey to North Carolina. Not being raped or murdered or forced underground led to a new problem: overpopulation.

Luckily, there was a man in North Carolina with some land for sale. In 1892, two Waldensian scouts came to North Carolina to see the 10,000 acres that were available. One scout thought the land would work well for a new settlement, but the other thought it was terrible—too rocky, not enough fertile soil. The latter scout was correct, but the Waldensians bought the land as a group and came to the United States anyway.

This is the point where the second act of From This Day Forward and the second half of the Trail of Faith begin. The Trail of Faith becomes a tribute to how hard the Waldensians worked to make this land their home, with replicas of community bread ovens and the local sawmill. In the play, the hardworking Waldensian immigrants are determined to hold on to the ways of their native land; it sometimes seems they would have stayed in Italy if it was possible. But they persevere, even though working in the sawmill is difficult and they live far away from each other. Their farms are so far apart, in fact, that one character becomes hysterically homesick and lonely and begins talking to her doll. Her husband brings a doctor and some local townspeople to see her, and one of them says that if she misses the Alps so much, she should just return there. Another character says that she can’t; she and her husband spent all of their money coming to North Carolina, so there’s no way to return now. The character eventually cheers up when she receives an invitation to a wedding between a Waldensian woman and a native North Carolinian.

The cast of From This Day Forward juxtaposed with migrants traveling from Honduras.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Old Colony Players and Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images.

It’s at moments like that, when immigrants are accepted and supported, when the idea of an immigrant returning to her home country is unthinkable because there’s no money for the trip, that it becomes impossible to forget that you’re in Burke County, where Donald Trump captured 67 percent of the vote in 2016. Perhaps in a different time, the immigration plotlines wouldn’t stand out so much, but in this particular year, I was very conscious of the fact that the Waldensians were white and from the Italian Alps, not “shithole countries.” The Waldensians were the epitome of the “good immigrant”: They worked hard and worshipped a Christian God. They were able to enter the country because they made a fortunate connection with a man willing to sell them land before they arrived. It wasn’t completely easy; some locals prayed that the ship carrying the immigrants would sink and were suspicious of their faith, but in the play, at least, they soon learn to accept their new neighbors.

Immigrants are often told to assimilate as quickly as possible, and in some ways, the Waldensian immigrants did. They became Presbyterian in 1895. They learned English (the play depicts an elderly widow learning the English word for “bloomers”). In the 1930s, Valdese was known as “North Carolina’s Fastest Growing Town” because of its successful industries. Valdese Weavers is currently one of the largest employee-owned companies in the state and the largest provider of decorative fabric for the home in the country, and Bimbo Bakeries, the corporation responsible for Thomas’, Arnold, and Entenmann’s, among other beloved bread products, works out of buildings originally owned by Waldensian Bakeries.

And yet the town clings to its history and insists via its websites and promotional materials that it be known for its association with those long-ago Waldensians, the ones who would die for the crime of memorizing the Bible in the 1600s. In his director’s note for the program of From This Day Forward, Matthew Boerger writes that the play “is our retelling of perhaps one of the most inspiring and remarkable examples of human spirit ever recorded in the annals of history. An example of a repressed, persecuted community who simply wished to live and worship in peace, and instead were met with bloodshed and blind intolerance from their fellow man … If we forget the story of the Waldensians, the persecution, hardship, and prejudice they endured, then history is doomed to repeat itself.” It’s a lofty statement, to be sure, but again, the Waldensians didn’t come to America looking to escape this persecution; they came because there were too many of them.

It’s not uncommon for white Americans to tell others to get over persecution that came centuries before—black people who bring up slavery, for example, or Native Americans who talk about the loss of their ancestral homes. The people of Valdese are able to celebrate immigration and their ancestors’ history of persecution because they, and those ancestors, are white. While the Waldensians struggled for their freedom, they were fortunate, in a way, to do so at a time when it was still possible to sail, en masse, to another land and to imagine you would be welcomed there. The fact that From This Day Forward still exists speaks to Americans’ desires to see our nation’s ideals of freedom and tolerance celebrated. But the memes on Facebook speak to the ugly fact that we have a hard time extending those values to those who aren’t white and have the bad luck to be coming in 2018. If someone from the migrant caravan were to write the outdoor drama of their experience—the desperate poverty, the hope for a better life—I don’t think it would end with the jubilant dance numbers that Valdese’s story does.