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
new speakers emerged, loudly calling for reform.
movements which resulted covered the whole spectrum from Oriental
mysticism to near-atheism, but to the Catholic leaders of the day all
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.
origin of the name "Waldensians" is uncertain. In Latin, they
in French, Vaudois;
in Italian, Valdesi,
with a host
of variants in these and other languages. Though some have
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
years as a prosperous merchant in the city before his conscience was
stirred to renounce worldly wealth and follow Christ. In the
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.
ministry was forbidden by the Roman Catholic church of the time, yet
priests found themselves sympathetic to Waldo's message. Two
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
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
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,
papal bull of Lucius III in 1184 excommunicated them.
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
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
such as purgatory, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation, and
submission to the Pope and prelates. They held to the
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
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
days they held to a doctrine of salvation through good works, placing
great emphasis on
poverty and celibacy.They accepted women as preachers, citing
example of Anna the prophetess and the command that the older women
should teach the younger.They kept the feasts of the Virgin
although they did not put as much emphasis on her as did the mainstream
church.They developed anorganizational hierarchy of
priests and bishops similar to that of Catholicism.In their
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
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
in a city less favorable to Jews would never have been
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
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
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
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
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
move in a country dominated by Catholicism, and one which earned them
concentrated persecution from the Duke of Savoy.Confronted by
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
of existence and worship within a certain limited area defined by
law.Never before in Europe had such a war, or such a victory,
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,
Utah, where many Mormons today still bear Waldensian
strongest presence is found in the town of Valdese, North Carolina,
whose population of 3000 is still largely Waldensian today.
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
Tavola, or "Table," which is elected at an annual synod meeting held in
Torre Pelice. A Waldensian population is still found in
and Argentina.However, the movement has largely been absorbed
denominations, and a strong ecumenical trend within the modern
Waldensian church appears to guarantee their eventual disappearance.
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
for nothing else, they deserve a place of honor in the history of
Broadbent, E. H.
The Pilgrim Church
Southhampton: Pickering & Inglis, 1985.
Gui, Bernard. "The Waldensian Heretics." In The Portable Medieval Reader
Ed. J. B. Ross and M. M. McLaughlin. New York:
Viking Press, 1949.
Kurtz, Prof. History
of the Christian Church to the Reformation
Trans. & Ed. Alfred E. Edersheim.
Edinburgh: T & T Co., 1860.
Newman, Louis Israel. Jewish
Influence on Christian Reform Movements
York: Columbia University Press, 1925.
Schaff, David S. History
of the Christian Church Vol. V: The Middle Ages, A.D.
. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
"The Waldensians." Christian
Vol. VIII, No. 2, Issue 22, 1989.
. 1979 ed.
Walker, G. S. M. Advance
of Christianity Vol. 2: The Growing Storm
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961.
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