Charles Beckwith

Charles Beckwith

December 2012 \\ Peter Meadows

150 years ago Major-General John Charles Beckwith was buried in the cemetery of Torre Pellice, the Waldensian capital. He was 72. He was survived by his wife, Caroline, whom he had married in 1850 when aged 60, and by his only child, Charlotte, who was born six months after his death. Thousands of Waldensians accompanied his coffin and contributed to the cost of his monument. How had Beckwith, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who had campaigned through Spain and France in the Napoleonic Wars, fought at the Battle of Waterloo and lost a leg, come to be so honoured in Torre Pellice at his death in 1862? 

Having semi-retired from the Army in 1820, as a Lieutenant-Colonel on half-pay, aged just 30, Beckwith needed a new cause into which to channel his formidable military organisational skills. He remained on good terms with his commander-in-chief, the Duke of Wellington, and in 1827, before an interview with the Duke at Apsley House, he picked up William Gilly’s account of his visit to the Waldensian valleys, published in 1823. Gilly, a clergyman, publicised the plight of the Waldensians, downtrodden Protestants in Catholic Piedmont. The book’s success had encouraged Gilly to help found the English Committee in 1825. Beckwith was so inspired by it that he immediately bought his own copy and visited Piedmont the same year, saw the squalor and lack of education of the Waldensians, and decided to settle among them and devote his life to assisting them. 

There might have been another reason for his moving to Italy. It is likely that Beckwith was in receipt of British secret service money, for acting as an informal diplomat and a spy. Quite possibly Wellington and others saw the advantage of having this talented man able to report on the government in Turin without attracting too much attention. His lifestyle could not have been maintained on his half-pay alone. Nor could his military promotion (Colonel 1837, Major-General 1846) have been rewards for his work for the Waldensians alone.

According to his biographer, Jean-Pierre Meille, writing in 1872, Beckwith spent his time between 1820 and 1827 in self-improvement and study, and spent several years in the United States, investigating its development. According to Meille, Beckwith was a late developer physically, very short in stature until he was 18, but then growing rapidly until at 25 he was tall and handsome, even with the loss of a leg at 26. It is unclear why he did not marry until he was 60, and fathered his first child just three months before his death aged 72. 

Meille gives a summary of Beckwith’s life among the Waldensians. His first visit was in autumn 1827, but he stayed only three or four days on account of bad weather. He returned every year in October, and generally stayed until the following May. In spring 1833 he was taken seriously ill, and returned to England until autumn 1834. He was again in the valleys from 1834 to spring 1839, then in London until 1841. He was again in the Valleys from 1841 to 1851, when he moved to Turin. He moved to Paris in 1856 and Calais in 1859, and finally returned to the Valleys in 1861, dying at Torre Pellice on 19th July 1862. Meille’s chapter headings show the range and scale of his work: primary education, secondary instruction, churches and parsonages, works of charity, ecclesiastical questions, evangelisation of Italy, writer and editor. 

One of Beckwith’s chief concerns was to educate the Waldensians. There were many primitive hamlet schools operating in winter only, often in barns or stables, the master poorly paid and scarcely educated himself, and lacking books and equipment. In a few years in the 1830s, from Beckwith’s design, with his money and under his supervision, over 100 hamlet schools were built and equipped. Afterwards, Beckwith regularly inspected them. 

Larger villages had schools which operated for up to 10 months a year, but many of them were dilapidated and lacked resources. Beckwith repaired them and provided new furniture and equipment. At secondary level there was a Latin school, funded by Dutch benefactors, where the children learnt enough Latin and Greek to be able to attend university in Lausanne, Geneva or Strasbourg. With the founding of the College of the Holy Spirit in Torre Pellice in 1831, such teaching began to be made in the Valleys. The college was William Gilly’s great benefaction to the Waldensians. Its purpose was to train students for the ministry, teaching and the professions, without the need for them to study abroad. The handsome building, completed in 1837, was designed by Beckwith and built under his supervision. 

Beckwith next turned his attention to the state of the Waldensian churches. Many were in a dilapidated and neglected state, particularly those at Rodoretto and Rora. Between 1843 and 1846 Beckwith rebuilt both churches, as well as the parsonage at Rodoretto. 

Beckwith also built a parsonage for Prali, and houses for the College professors and a church in Torre Pellice. Although it was the Waldensian capital, Torre had always been forbidden by government edict to hold evangelical worship in the town. In the 1840s, 2300 out of 3300 inhabitants were Waldensians, the rest Roman Catholic. In 1847 the approach of emancipation prompted Beckwith to plan a large, impressive church just outside the town’s boundaries, almost opposite the College. William Gilly asked his Durham friend the architect Ignatius Bonomi for designs, though Beckwith and his builder Gastaldi slightly modified them in execution. The Torre church was begun in 1849 and finished in 1852. 

In 1851 Beckwith moved to the Piedmontese capital, Turin, to promote the evangelisation of Italy. Until 1848 evangelical worship was absolutely forbidden in the capital except in foreign embassy chapels. Beckwith wanted a Waldensian church in Turin to be a bold statement that reformed religion was on the move in emancipated Piedmont. It was important that such a building should be architecturally impressive. Beckwith designed it in conjunction with the architect Luigi Formento. The foundation stone was laid in 1851, and the church was opened in 1853. 

One bar to evangelisation was the language issue. The Waldensians spoke a form of Provençal, with many variations from valley to valley. Their language of instruction and worship was French; the national language was Italian. In the 1830s and 40s Beckwith tried several experiments to improve access to education, first by publishing New Testaments translated into Waldensian, which by and large failed, because of the variations in dialect, and then by providing Bibles in French with parallel Italian texts. When emancipation came in 1848, Beckwith saw that it was vital for expansion that the Waldensians should understand Italian. Few of the pastors spoke it well. At Beckwith’s expense, four of the College professors were sent to Tuscany to learn Italian; and he organised intensive courses for schoolmasters, so that Italian might be taught in Waldensian schools.

Both Gilly and Beckwith hoped that the Waldensians would move from their synodical form of church government to something closer to Anglicanism, even perhaps to accepting bishops and the Book of Common Prayer. The Synod met every five years and elected the Moderator and 5-member Tavola. The Moderator was also a parish pastor. Beckwith thought this system inefficient. He felt it needed a permanent shepherd-figure, and he proposed that the Moderator should be appointed for life. When his idea was rejected in 1838, Beckwith, feeling that, with the help he and other British people had given, his ideas should bear greater weight, wrote to the Moderator in somewhat condescending tones: ‘We understand your interests better than you ... and possess all that is needed to form a sensible judgment’. 

Beckwith tried again after emancipation to persuade the Waldensians to reform their structure and their liturgy, in order to present, as he saw it, a confident, disciplined and doctrinally sound alternative to Roman Catholicism to the Italian people. Once again his suggestions were rejected. Coming soon after his crowning achievement, the opening of the Turin church, this hit Beckwith hard, and he concluded that he could do no more for the Waldensian church and people. He left Turin in 1856 and settled in France for several years. But despite his differences with the Waldensian church, something – perhaps his Waldensian wife – drew him back to Torre Pellice in 1861, to the love and affection and gratitude of the Waldensian people themselves.

The restored tomb of Charles Beckwith in Torre Pellice

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This article was orginally featured in the Winter 2012 edition of the Waldensian Review.  Download