September 11, 2001 has been called the Day the World Changed. There is truth in that statement, but it was a very minor change compared to the comprehensive political and social upheavals experienced in Europe at the dawn of the 19th Century. Before that era of change, it had been an entirely different world.

Medieval Europe

A recent visit to the city of Rheims in France gave us a glimpse of that old world. It really was the kingdom of a Beast! Even today the physical presence of the Church dominates this city, as it does many other European communities. In medieval times however, it was not merely the physical dominance of the Cathedral over the landscape that had everyone’s attention—it was the authoritative influence of the Church over every aspect of social and political life. Few people today appreciate the degree to which the Roman Catholic Church controlled that whole system.

In Rheims we visited the cathedral and saw the massive penthouse attached to it, where once the Archbishop would have lived in lavish opulence and splendour. This was his palace—whilst outside the peasants lived in poverty, squalor and virtual servitude.

The other bastion of authority in medieval times was concentrated in the royalty and privileged aristocracy. The king or emperor represented the authority of God in the secular world, just as the pope did in spiritual affairs. But in those days arrangements were very different from today. The idea of the sovereign nation state is fundamental in our political system and it is difficult for us to appreciate how kings in these medieval times often fought with words and swords in order to maintain their sovereignty against the universalist claims of a pope or emperor. The terror of excommunication was launched against Catholic princes who came into political conflict with the Church, and lands could be seized as the result of disputes. In fact, during the 16th Century half the land in France was held by the Church.

It was a world in which the established and privileged classes maintained themselves at the expense of the mass of humanity. Their privileges were upheld by a judicial system of one law for the great and another for the poor. At the base of this social order lay the institution of serfdom in the agricultural community. It was a condition which was hereditary and it was marked by an annual payment of “head money” (poll-tax). For the peasant, his lot was one of poverty and oppression—and it was his shoulders that supported the magnificence of the privileged classes.

All major events in life (birth, marriage, death) involved the Church—and this gave the ecclesiastical authorities considerable power. At the heart of this power was the mysterious—almost magical— function of the priest in the celebration of mass and the supposed “miracle” of transubstantiation. The ingenious use of rich vestments, incense and music heightened the mystery and power of the services and conferred an almost godlike aura on every priest. The veneration of relics added to the prestige of the Church. The whole performance, mystery and splendour helped the Church tighten its hold upon men’s minds. Furthermore, the only literate men in European society were churchmen, and their monopoly of books and learning greatly assisted in the attempt to control thinking. Their agents were everywhere and with the setting up of the Inquisition life in those times has been compared to living in a police state.

In the words of the Roman Catholic writer Malachi Martin, this control over the minds of men was almost inescapable:

“…the ‘Fathers’ of Christian thought poured out a new stream of literature. They were media men. No matter that to us their language seems abstruse, their thinking convoluted, their tomes inaccessible to all but a few. They worked in a society of severely restricted literacy. But it was a society of the spoken word and oral tradition, of of scholars were actually the subject matter of talk and discussion and partisanship in the marketplace, the wine shop, the public baths, the inter-city convoys. What the new anthropologists taught filtered down through preacher, teacher, itinerant monk, cathedral school, parish prayers, guild functions, extended family activities, folk songs, theater, agricultural methods, church music, university, seminary, down into the daily lives of peasant and king and warrior and artisan. Men and women had no other way of thinking about themselves except in terms of this Christian message…

Rules for depiction in art… ensured that the beliefs of Christianity (ie Catholicism) were accurately and adequately mirrored in the media of the time. Without benefit of electronic media or mechanical transport, a monolithic and unitary mind was created, accepted, elaborated, perpetuated.”

So it was that the minds of men—their “foreheads”—were marked, stamped and impressed with the charagma of the all-powerful system that deceived them “by the means of those miracles which he had power to do,” and “causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:16,17).

An Impulse for Change

Small pockets of resistance to the superstition and claims of the Church always existed in one form or another—often political, sometimes religious. In the language of the Revelation, these “witnesses” testified against “the god of the earth” who summoned the civil power to make constant war against them (Rev 11). This witnessing element in society was strengthened by the Bible becoming more widely available, first by the invention of printing, and second through its translation into the vernacular. During the 16th Century this resistance mushroomed as Protestants of varying hues became a threat to the authority of the Church. History records the ruthless response of the authorities to movements such as the Vaudois, the communities of Piedmont, the Albigenses and the Huguenots. The usual treatment was to eliminate them by massacre—men, women and children were butchered. The massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s day 1572 is an example of the technique that was used.

Civil rulers became indifferent to, or began to question the authority and teaching of the Church— Henry VIII in England, German princes, and in France Henry of Navarre who issued the Edict of Nantes (1598) giving Protestants equal political rights and a measure of religious freedom. Over eighty years later Louis XIV revoked that edict and launched a harsh persecution of Huguenots (1658); but in fact the genie was now out of the bottle—the scales were falling from the eyes of the deluded multitudes and students of the Scripture were identifying the Beast system of the Apocalypse with the regime that had oppressed them for so long. One Huguenot minister, Pierre Jurieue, commenting upon Revelation chapter 11 in 1687 wrote:

“Now what is this tenth part of this City, which shall fall? In my opinion, we cannot doubt that ’tis France. This kingdom is the most considerable part or piece of the ten horns, or States, which once made up the great Babylonian City… The kings, who yet remain under the Empire of Rome, must break with her, leave her solitary and desolate. But who must begin this last revolt? ’Tis most probable that France shall” (The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies pages 265,266).

This was a remarkable statement to make over one hundred years before the French Revolution released that country from the control of Rome.

A Nation Convulsed

Commenting further upon Revelation 11:13 Jurieue wrote:

“I will not spend time upon the signification of this representation, an Earthquake: For ’tis known by all who are versed in the Prophets, that in the Prophetic style, an Earthquake signifies a great commotion of nations, that must change the face of the world” (page 261).

He also correctly pointed out that “in the Greek it is seven thousand names of men, and not seven thousand men” who are slain in this earthquake. Jurieue suggests that, “Perhaps there is here a figure of Grammar called Hypallagecasus, so that names of men are put for men of name, ie of raised, and considerable quality, be it on the account of riches or of dignity, or of learning” (page 266). It is doubtful that Jurieue realised the full extent of what he was saying; for indeed, when the impoverished masses of France rose up against their oppressors in the summer of 1789, it was “men of name” (the titled nobility and aristocracy) that perished in the political earthquake that convulsed France.

In the French Revolution we see the dramatic break-up of the old social system as the power of the masses revolted against both civil and ecclesiastical rule. The great force of democracy with its cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” burst forth and has echoed down the years to our own time. The impact of that Revolution upon civilisation has been tremendous, “changing the face of the world”. Indeed, this event is key to the understanding of the modern world in which we live.

The convulsion that shook France was a severe blow to the Roman Catholic Church which was stripped of its lands and power. The force that broke out against the aristocracy also turned its wrath upon the monarchy and upon priestcraft. Church estates were nationalised, religious monuments destroyed and church treasures seized. As revolutionary zeal rose a de-christianisation campaign (1792) brought many Catholic leaders to the guillotine. The Catholic writer Malachi Martin wrote:

“… France, ‘eldest daughter of the church’… abolished all religion, beheaded its king, enthroned Reason officially as supreme deity, massacred over 17,000 priests and over 30,000 nuns as well as forty-seven bishops, abolished all seminaries, schools, religious orders, burned all churches and libraries, then sent the Corsican Bonaparte to ‘liberate Italy and Rome….’”

As many have recognized, this was a major turning-point in the history of the world.

The Wrath of God

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who internationalised the Revolution after 1792; he was the moving force which brought about “a noisome and grievous sore” upon Europe (Rev 16:2). This “sore” is better expressed by Rotherham as an ulcer—one which the New English Bible described as “malignant”. A malignant ulcer exactly describes the spreading disease which consumed the old system in Europe. It truly was a “plague” in which the wrath of God was made manifest (see Rev 15:1).

Such is the appropriate language that is used in these first five vials. It sets before us a precise imagery to describe the mission undertaken in the person of Napoleon, and they are presented in the exact order of history as this incredible French general swept through Europe to establish the revolutionary principles which were to change the continent for ever.

We must note that these “vials of wrath” (God’s judgments, chapter 15:4), are poured out “upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image” (16:2). This is apocalyptic language describing Catholic Europe. We must also note the fact that these judgments did not bring about true repentance (see chapter 16, verses 9 and 11). The religious reformation that writers like Jurieue had hoped for, did not transpire, whereas the blasphemy of a humanist philosophy took hold upon the minds of men and women. It was a philosophy that even the Church itself would later accommodate.

In fulfilment of the second vial Britain had blockaded Napoleon’s Europe from the sea (1793), and his losses in the great sea battles of the time metaphorically turned it into blood! Napoleon then turned his wrath upon northern Italy and the Tyrol (1796 onward)—that is “the rivers and fountains of waters” in Europe.

“Thou art Righteous…”

The alpine regions of northern Italy and the valleys of the Piedmont had been once inhabited by small communities of Bible believers known as Vaudois and Waldenses. The history of these people has been recorded in the works of Peter Allix (published 1690) and those of Samuel Moreland (published 1658). These accounts give contemporary evidence of the cruel and dreadful persecutions that obliterated those communities. The massacres were savage. Men, women and children were attacked, tortured and horribly mutilated; only after much suffering did many of them find escape in death.

Allix says that the very name Waldenses (Wallenses) originated “because they abode in the valley of tears”; an etymology that connects with the valleys of Piedmont, rather than to the name of Peter Waldo. From what we can read, it seems that there was a wide variety of doctrinal beliefs among these communities. Their name—Waldenses (or Vaudois)—must be understood in a general sense as is “Protestant” or “Evangelical”, so that the articles of their “Confession of Faith” which come to us via Moreland and others, give us only a part of the picture. It is, however, Revelation 16:6 that tells us that “saints and prophets” were avenged by the third vial of wrath. So we know that true believers had been put to death in this area of “the rivers and fountains of waters”.

On April 2, 1796 Bonaparte led his army into Italy. His 38,000 French soldiers faced the Austrians and their allies, the Piedmontese—a total force of 63,000. The odds against him were overwhelming. One commentator wrote:

“He goes up in the mountains…He spreads his forces out. The enemy doesn’t know where he is so they begin to spread their forces out. Then at the last minute he quickly concentrates his forces, he achieves mass superiority at one point and then blasts them. It’s lightning. Napoleon’s armies could go up to thirty miles a day, the enemy were rolling along at about six or seven miles a day.”

Napoleon struck the Piedmontese forces first—those who represented the persecutors of the saints in that area.

In just two weeks, Napoleon broke the back of Piedmont’s army, crushing their troops with lightning attacks at the battles of Montenotte and Mondovi. One Piedmontese officer would later complain: “They sent a young madman who attacks right, left, and from the rear. It’s an intolerable way of making war”. On April 26, Piedmont surrendered and Bonaparte pursued the Austrians. The Austrians fortified a narrow wooden bridge in Lodi with fourteen cannons and three battalions, and dared Bonaparte to cross it. Bonaparte ordered a simple frontal assault on the bridge. The French made it halfway across the bridge but fell back under a vicious hail of fire. Bonaparte urged them forward and, in a final charge, they stormed across. The Austrian guns fell silent.

The battle at Lodi convinced Napoleon Bonaparte that he was a man of destiny. “From that moment,” he said, “I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee from beneath me, as if I were being carried into the sky”.

Gunther Rothenberg in his book The Napoleonic Wars makes the profound and sweeping statement that, “In his first command Bonaparte had changed the face of Europe…” That of course was his “destiny”. After Italy, Napoleon proceeded to crush Austria, bringing the 1000 year-old Holy Roman Empire to its final collapse. The fifth vial followed and was directed against “the throne of the Beast”—Revelation 16:10.

Napoleon and the Pope

The “kingdom” of the Beast had included most of Europe and had been especially represented by the Holy Roman Empire. But in this “kingdom” there had been many secular thrones—thrones which Napoleon had overthrown. The kingdom of the Beast had thus been “darkened”—except for the papal throne itself, which also had spiritual jurisdiction throughout the territory occupied by the Beast. This was the throne, the overthrow of which would complete the darkening of Revelation 16:10.

In February 1798 the French General Berthier occupied Rome and established a Roman Republic. The French Government’s orders were: “Destroy Rome and the papacy utterly.” Pope Pius VI (now reduced to “Citizen Pope”) was ordered out of Rome under armed arrest. On August 29 he died as a prisoner in Valence, France.

To consolidate his hold on power in France Napoleon had restored Christian worship and the churches in measure. He signed a concordat with the Pope (1801), but now the state had full control—not the Church (or the Pope) as in former times. In demonstration of this new situation, Larousse records: “The Pope agreed to a coronation (of Emperor Napoleon—1804) in Paris but at the ceremony Napoleon took the crown from him and crowned himself to show his independence of the Church.”

In 1806 the seizure of property in the papal domains was a prelude to a breach with the Pope which was followed by his deportation and imprisonment (1809). The Pope issued a bull of excommunication—against the “Usurper” while priests, monks and Jesuits unsuccessfully tried to undermine Napoleon’s authority. In another concordat (1813) the Pope renounced all temporal power, but it was later repudiated—such was the roller-coaster relationship between Napoleon and the Papacy as the “throne of the Beast, was darkened.

It is significant that Revelation 16:11 tells us again that there was no repentance. The throne having been darkened (verse 10) by Napoleon, and Europe having been freed from the papal chains of superstition and ignorance, the perverseness of human nature could not rise above itself to recognize the deliverance. The powers of Europe allied themselves together, banished Napoleon and restored the papal power. Truly “they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of Heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.”

More Revolutions

It is important to understand that the pouring out of these vials is an action that continues long after the initial events that commenced them. Like waves of the sea they continue to pound away at the political systems that they are sent to destroy. The Revolution itself was, as we have said, like a “malignant ulcer” spreading through Europe. As the advance of invention and of science brought about the Industrial Revolution, the pattern of social life changed and workers began to be aware of their power. All over Europe, in back rooms and cellars, revolutionary clubs and meetings proliferated and maintained ferment. In January 1848 Karl Marx published his Communist Manifesto and distributed a rousing pamphlet that cried: “Workers of the World Unite!” In February 1848 Revolution broke out in Paris—it has become known as the Year of Revolutions, throwing all Europe into turmoil.

John Thomas, who was contemporary with these events, commented as follows:

“Providence…let loose a power (that)…has no sympathy with kings, priests, government, religion, property, respectabilities, or anything that pertains to them. The sentence of God is against all these things as they are now constituted; because they have usurped His authority, abrogated His laws and institutions, blasphemed His name, murdered and oppressed His saints and entirely corrupted His way upon the earth, Hence upon the principle that ‘the wicked are the sword of the Lord’, He has let loose the wicked to destroy the wicked, and to bring their tyranny and institutions to an end. This power is antagonistic to all peace, law, and order. It is known amongst the nations by various names, such as socialist, communist, physical force chartism, red republicanism, democracy, Owenism, atheism, etc, etc; the essence of all these is one and indivisible. It is a monster, but necessary, evil in the world. It is an evil like the flood, that will aim to destroy everything before it, until the time arrives for its inundation to be stayed by the direct interposition of the Almighty.

There is great wisdom and justice in all the arrangements of God. The ascendant evil of more than 1300 years, incorporated in the imperial, regal, and sacerdotal institutions of Europe, has fostered and matured the earthly, sensual, and devilish spirit of the masses.

The powers that be have kept the people in ignorance of the only knowledge that can make them participators of the divine nature, that is, THE WORD OF GOD. They have sought to indoctrinate them with the crude and jejune precepts of a dogmatic and professional theology. They have reduced them to the lowest degradation, and to the verge of destitution; and converted them into mere instruments of agriculture, and factory machines. Thus demonised by ignorance and priestism, and goaded to desperation by oppression, the deep groans of the suffering and festering masses have roared forth in thunders of civil discord and convulsion.”

Roma or Morte!

“Rome or Death” was the war-cry of Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary leader of the ‘Red Shirts’. He believed passionately in the unification and independence of all Italy, with Rome as capital.

His appeal was:

“I offer neither pay, nor quarters nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death…”

It was a rallying-call echoed many years later by Winston Churchill in one of his famous wartime speeches. Garibaldi’s call enlivened the nationalist movement in Italy. In order to achieve the objectives of the Nationalists, the Papal States and the temporal power of the Pope would have to be removed. King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont with his Prime Minister Mazzini followed liberal, anti-clerical policies, and being aware of the forces agitating the nationalist cause he moved in to occupy all central Italy, pleading popular invitation to do so. In May 1860, Garibaldi with a thousand volunteers landed in Sicily, was joined by local forces and took Palermo. As volunteers flocked to his colours, he soon was threatening Naples. In September 1860 Victor Emmanuel’s forces defeated the papal army and, in October, entered Naples which voted to join Piedmont. Garibaldi, from a sense of patriotic duty, retired from the political scene. All Italy was now united apart from Rome and Venice.

Pope Pius IX had been elected in June of 1846. At first he had given the impression that he was a liberal, and was declared to be “the prophet, not only of his own people but of the whole world”. That image soon faded however. As the nationalist movement grew in Italy, it soon became clear that in the long run, nothing would satisfy its logical demands short of the abdication of the papacy from its temporal power; and Pius could not even contemplate that. On December 8, 1864 Pius IX issued his completed Syllabus of Errors through which he attacked liberalism, nationalism and democracy. He regarded ‘the revolution’ as a danger to Catholicism comparable to Islam in the Middle Ages. Rage as he might, however, the inevitable doom of his temporal throne was sealed. On September 20th, 1870, Italian troops entered Rome and the unification of Italy was completed.

The pope refused to enter into any relation with the kingdom of Italy and Pius became a voluntary prisoner in the Vatican, henceforth deprived of all temporal power—thus was the throne of the Beast and his kingdom utterly and finally filled with darkness.

It was in these circumstances that Pius called the ecumenical council, which declared the pope “infallible”. He was “the prophet, not only of his own people but of the whole world”. Indeed, he was now “the false prophet” in a changed world.