Christendom in the Middle Ages was a cacophony of dissenting voices. Despite its moral and spiritual corruption, the stentorian pronouncements of the Roman Catholic church had long gone unchallenged; but now from its own ranks new speakers emerged, loudly calling for reform.

The splinter movements which resulted covered the whole spectrum from Oriental mysticism to near-atheism, but to the Catholic leaders of the day all were dangerous heretics, and the Waldensians were no exception. Nevertheless, in succeeding centuries this small but resolute band gained respect and renown among Protestants as the earliest heralds of the Reformation.

The origin of the name "Waldensians" is uncertain. In Latin, they were called Valdenses; in French, Vaudois; in Italian, Valdesi, with a host of variants in these and other languages. Though some have suggested that the name points to their origin in the alpine valleys of France and Italy, particularly the region of Vaud, the general view is that the name originated with the movement's reputed founder, Valdes (or Waldo) of Lyons. Known to his followers as Peter, this man lived for years as a prosperous merchant in the city before his conscience was stirred to renounce worldly wealth and follow Christ. In the year 1170, he committed his two daughters to the care of a convent, made arrangements for his wife's lifelong support, and, having given away the rest of his fortune, began to preach in the streets of Lyons.

Lay ministry was forbidden by the Roman Catholic church of the time, yet certain priests found themselves sympathetic to Waldo's message. Two in particular, Bernard Ydros and Stephen of Ansa, agreed to the bold layman's request for a translation of the Gospels and certain epistles into the vernacular for his own study and use.The time Peter spent poring over his new treasure served only to strengthen and clarify his conviction that Christ had called His followers to a life of self-denial, not to the gross materialism and indulgence he saw manifested in the Roman Catholic church. His preaching gained new zeal and depth as he expounded the Scriptures to all who would listen. Impressed by Peter's example and his evident sincerity, others soon joined him, and thus a new movement began.

At first, Waldo had no intention of leaving Roman Catholicism. His desire was to inspire reform, not foment rebellion. Thus he approached Pope Alexander III in 1179 to approve his vow of poverty, and signed a confession of faith which may still be viewed today. However, the papal support of Waldo soon waned when he and his fellow pauperes, or "poor men," refused to stop their presumptuous preaching though they had been directly ordered to do so.The Archbishop of Lyons condemned Peter and his followers, and the papal bull of Lucius III in 1184 excommunicated them. Nevertheless, the Waldensians continued to grow in numbers and in commitment to the Word of God.

Calling themselves simply "brethren" or "the poor of Christ," these laymen began to travel by pairs into the surrounding countryside, penniless and simply dressed in emulation of the apostles.Many of them had cultivated the ability to recite large portions of the Bible from memory, and so, holding to an ever-stricter belief that Scripture alone should be their guide in faith and practice, the Waldensians began to repudiate various popular Catholic doctrines such as purgatory, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation, and submission to the Pope and prelates. They held to the priesthood of all believers, denied the Catholic view of apostolic succession, rejected any form of violence military or legal, and refused to take oaths.Despite their excommunication, however, they did not denounce the Catholic Church as a whole, but objected primarily to the compromise of the church with the world.

The Waldensians were not wholly orthodox by Protestant standards, however.In their early days they held to a doctrine of salvation through good works, placing great emphasis on poverty and celibacy.They accepted women as preachers, citing the example of Anna the prophetess and the command that the older women should teach the younger.They kept the feasts of the Virgin Mary, although they did not put as much emphasis on her as did the mainstream church.They developed anorganizational hierarchy of deacons, priests and bishops similar to that of Catholicism.In their early days they also upheld oracular confession, but believed that the right to hear such confessions belonged to all their members, not merely to the priests. Their enemies accused them of gross immorality and Manichean dualism, but as these were common slanders invariably applied to all non-Catholics at that time, such accusations are hardly to be believed.

One interesting aspect of Waldensian development is the influence of Jews. Lyons, where the movement began, had a strong Jewish community, and where Judaism was tolerated other forms of dissenting thought also tended to flourish.This gave Waldo and his followers a freedom which in a city less favorable to Jews would never have been allowed.It is known that later Waldensians were able Hebraicists; quite possibly earlier members of the sect learned Hebrew from Jewish teachers as well. Unlike many other "heretical" movements of the time, the Waldensians were strongly interested in and maintained a great respect for the Old Testament, and often drew upon it for sermon illustrations. Like the Jews, they were strongly opposed to the creation and worship of icons and images. There is evidence that in the region of Provence Jews and Waldensians lived peacefully side by side for many years.

By the beginning of the 13th century the "Poor Men" had spread into Languedoc and northern Italy, and subsequently moved into Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and even as far as Hungary and Poland. Fearful of the growing number of "heretics," Rome began to persecute the Waldensians, and by the 15th century had greatly diminished their ranks. Those that remained were driven back into the alpine valleys of France and Italy, and remained there for many years.During this time, however, they became followers of John Hus, the famed Bohemian preacher.

Hus's view that the Bible, not the Catholic church, was the ultimate authority for Christian believers fit in very well with the beliefs the Waldensians had held so long. As he taught that the true church and the Catholic church were not the same, and that even men of great prominence in Catholicism might not be true Christians, it is not surprising that by the mid-14th century "Waldensian" was used as a synonym for Hus's followers.

The second wave of strength and influence for the Waldensians began with the introduction of reform theology into their ranks by Guillaume Farel in 1526. At a conference held at Cianforan in the Piedmont Alps in 1532, the Waldensian barbes, or "uncles" as their ministers were now called, agreed to join the budding Swiss Protestant movement.By 1555 they had decided to build their own churches, a bold move in a country dominated by Catholicism, and one which earned them concentrated persecution from the Duke of Savoy.Confronted by the Duke's formidable armies but determined not to leave their alpine home, the Waldensians took up arms for the first time and fought for their faith.At last the Duke relented and allowed the dissenters the right of existence and worship within a certain limited area defined by law.Never before in Europe had such a war, or such a victory, taken place.

Other communities of Waldensians, however, were not so fortunate. Indeed, the movement experienced persecution well into the 19th century, at which time full civil rights were finally granted them across Europe. Some emigrated to Uruguay in the latter part of the century, and from there to the United States, where they were joined by other Waldensians from Europe. Small communities were established in Missouri, Texas, and Utah, where many Mormons today still bear Waldensian surnames.Their strongest presence is found in the town of Valdese, North Carolina, whose population of 3000 is still largely Waldensian today.

At present the Waldensian denomination, though small and little known, still exists.35,000 of the 3,400,000 Protestants in Italy are Waldensians.A recent union with the Italian Methodist Church, creating the Evangelical Waldensian Church, has strengthened its ranks. The denomination is governed by a 7-member board called the Tavola, or "Table," which is elected at an annual synod meeting held in Torre Pelice. A Waldensian population is still found in Uruguay and Argentina.However, the movement has largely been absorbed into other denominations, and a strong ecumenical trend within the modern Waldensian church appears to guarantee their eventual disappearance.

The Waldensians were more influenced by the Reformation than acting as an influence upon it; however, they are remarkable in that they held a primitive form of Protestantism centuries before the movement actually began.In a world darkened by corruption and indulgence, Peter Waldo and his followers briefly shone as a testimony to the sincerity, simplicity, and commitment to the Word of God which characterized the early church, and challenged many a complacent churchman to reexamine his life and his faith. For this, if for nothing else, they deserve a place of honor in the history of Christendom.

Rebecca J. Anderson 1994


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