THE WALDENSES: Unorthodox or Searchers of Truth?

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Forerunners

The Catholic Church would love everyone to forget the seeds of discontent that were present in her midst many years before Peter Waldo. For example, there was Bishop Agobard of Lyons, France (779-840 C.E.), who had come out strongly against image worship, churches dedicated to saints, and church liturgy, which was not in agreement with the Word of God, the Bible.

Across the Alps, in Turin, Italy, of the same time as Agobard, Bishop Claudius, he too took a similar stand. He also condemned prayers to saints, the veneration of relics, and what amounted to the worship of cross and, in general, rejected church tradition, saying that it was in opposition to Scripture. Claudius of Turin has been called “the first Protestant reformer.” He died sometime between 827 and 839 C.E.

In the 11th century archdeacon Bérenger, or Berengarius, of Tours, France, who became known as one of the most influential theologians of his time, opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation, saying that the bread and wine used to commemorate Christ’s death are emblematic and not miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ. He also stood firm on the superiority of the Bible over Church tradition. Bérenger was excommunicated as a heretic in 1050 C.E.

The great bulwark of the Reformed Church is the Word of God; but next to this is the pre-existence of a community spread throughout Western Christendom with doctrines and worship substantially one with those of the Reformation.[1]

The early Waldensian movement sought reform within the Catholic Church and believed that learning and reading the Bible for yourself would only assist priests in fulfilling their responsibilities.  The permanent break with Rome came when the Waldensians stated that if a teaching or belief cannot be found in Scripture than it is without authority.  Catholicism saw this not only as heretical but also as a direct assault on its place as the successor to Peter and the apostles.

Yet, with all of this division, many in the Waldensian movement continued to attend Catholic Churches for mass and to allow their children to be baptized.

The Waldensians were able to escape much of their persecution until the early fifteenth century.  They created the Waldensian Catechism late in the same century, which influenced many of the reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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Reformers

The Waldensians had a translation of the Bible in their native language hundreds of years before Luther’s translation or other translations of the Reformation. Luther himself used the Tepl translation of the Waldensian Bible in his translation of the New Testament.

Four Bibles produced under the Waldensian influence touched the history of Calvin: namely, a Greek, a Waldensian vernacular, a French, and an Italian.

The Waldensians and Reformers shared many of the same beliefs but the Waldensians could not bring themselves to change their ways or direction of their founder.  This partial alliance with the Reformers only added to their troubles with the Catholic Church.

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Post Reformation and Beyond

The Catholic Church continued its attempted purge of the Waldensians even as they expanded and gathered new alliances with other Protestants.  In 1655 the Duke of Savoy of Italy, a defender of the pope, began a campaign in the Piedmont region that led to the persecutions and deaths of thousands of people.  The campaign itself was so vicious that it drew condemnation across Protestant Europe.  John Milton, the famous British poet, wrote the following poem about this campaign:

“Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not:  in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks.  Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven.  Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.”[2]

Even Oliver Cromwell wrote to the Duke to request he cease the campaign against the “people of the valley”.  Two hundred years later, in the mid-1800s, the Duke of Savoy’s ancestor granted civil rights to the Waldensians of the Piedmont.  It was during this time that most Protestant groups, large and small, began to see themselves as a part of the history of the Waldensians.

By the opening of the twentieth century, the Waldensian Church became known as the Waldensian Evangelical Church, and in 1975 they merged with the Italian Methodist Church.

The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century is seen as a watershed moment in history. Father Martin Luther sought to reform the church from the inside. But 500 years earlier in France another good Catholic had declared his desire to preach the Bible as he read it. Although history cannot provide the true or correct name of the founder of this movement, for the last five hundred years he has come to be called “Peter the Waldense”; Waldense being the translation of vaudois or valley. This article will use the historical name of Waldo.

Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant from Lyon, believed in reading and discerning scripture for himself and preaching what he had learned without a priest. The Waldenses drew the attention of the Catholic church with their beliefs that priests were not needed as mediators for man in talking with God, and that the existing papacy wasn’t truly Biblical.  They also believed in a return to the roots of Christianity that are found in Scripture.  But who were these people, and what exactly did the Waldensian movement stand for?

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Origins

Peter Waldo sold all that he had and lived a very austere life while following Christ according to his reading of the Bible.  The name of the movement was actually given to them by those who persecuted them.  The Waldensians called themselves “brothers”, or “the poor of Christ”.  Wherever they sought to live and worship the Catholic Church persecuted them as it followed them across Europe seeking to destroy the movement.

By 1215 the Catholic Church had declared these once faithful Catholics to be heretics. Early adherents to the Waldensian movement had survived the Catholic Inquisition, and multiple attempts by the church to eradicate them.  The movement had spread across Northern Italy and Germany. By the end of the eighteenth century, they existed throughout most of Central Europe. The Waldenses never joined any other Protestant or Reformed churches, but the early Reformed Movement adopted the majority of their beliefs.

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Epilogue

The history of this movement shows that its early adherents were faithful to the Bible, and attempted to practice Christianity in its earliest forms, and never had any desire to pull away from the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church condemned them as heretics and many modern days groups and sects that orthodox Christians may find unorthodox call them their own.  But what history has shown through many years of research and writing is that the Waldensians were, to the best of their ability, seekers of truth.

NOTE: The author of the article is unknown, which we have searched the internet to discover. We will use it until told otherwise.

[1] J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, New York, Castle & Company, Limited,

  1882, p. 431

[2] Jean Leger, The History of the Waldenses, Paris, 1669, p. 167

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