The Waldensians were followers of Peter Waldo (or Valdes or Vaudes); they called themselves the Poor men of Lyon, the Poor of Lombardy, or the Poor. A Christian sect believing in poverty and austerity, they were founded around 1173 promoting true poverty, public preaching and the literal interpretation of the scriptures. Declared heretical, the movement was brutally persecuted by the Roman Catholic church during the 12th and 13th centuries.


Origin: Peter Waldo and his followers

Waldo began to preach on the streets of Lyon in 1173. He was a wealthy merchant and decided to give up all his worldly possessions, he was sick of his own affluence, that he had so much more than those around him. He went through the streets throwing his money away and decided to become a wandering preacher who would beg for a living. He began to attract a following. Waldo had philosophy very similar to Francis of Assisi.

Preaching required official permission which he was unable to secure from the Bishop in Lyon and so in 1179 he met with the Pope at the Third Council of the Lateran and asked for permission to preach, and permission was denied. He continued to preach and by the early 1180s he and his followers were excommunicated and forced from Lyon. The Catholic church declared them heretics - the group's principle error was "contempt for ecclesiastical power" - that they dared to teach and preach outside of the control of the clergy "without divine inspiration". They were also accused of the ignorant teaching of "innumerable errors" and condemned for translating parts of the Bible into vernacular. None of the charges were heretical, nothing was against what the Roman Church believed, but rather because it went against the authority of the Roman Church rules.

Waldo and his followers developed a system where they would go from town to town and meet secretly with small groups of Waldensians. There they would confess sins and hold service. A traveling Waldensian preacher was known as a barba and could be either man or woman. (The idea of a female preacher was novel, almost revolutionary in and of itself, for the era.) The group would shelter and house the barba and help make arrangements to move on to the next town in secret.

Seen as schism and heretics

The members of the group were declared schismatics in 1184 in France and heretics more widely in 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran's anathema. The rejection by the Church radicalized the movement, in terms of ideology the Waldensians became more obviously anti-Catholic - rejecting the authority of the clergy, declaring any oath to be a sin, claiming anyone could preach and that the Bible alone was all that was needed for salvation, they also rejected the concept of purgatory and the idea of relics and icons.

Much of what is known about the Waldensians comes from reports from Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Waldensian who turned state's evidence and wrote some reports for the Inquisition, Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno "Of the Sects of Modern Heretics" (1254) (first rediscovered and printed in S. R. Maitland), Facts and Documents Illustrative of the History, Doctrine, and Rites of the Ancient Albigenses and Waldenses, (London, 1832). Reinerius' lists of their tenets reveals that the heirs of Waldo considered themselves the true representatives of the apostolic Christian church, that statues and decorations were superfluous, that their obedience was to God, not to prelates, of whom the pope was the chief source of errors, and that no one is greater than another in the church, following Matthew 23: "All of you are brethren." The Waldensians believed that the Pope and bishops were guilty of homicides. They believed that the land and its people should not be divided up, that bishops and abbots ought not to have royal rights and that the clergy should not own possessions. They believed that none of the sacraments, including marriage, were of any effect.

They absorbed a number of other groups including the Humiliati and had their own internal split and reformation with the Lombards. Because the Cathars had also been condemned around the same time, the Waldensians became associated with them as part of the target for the Albigensian Crusade from 1208. However the Waldensians and Cathars were not similar in their core beliefs. Waldo possibly died around this time, possibly in Germany, but he was never captured and his fate uncertain.

As early as the twelfth century, the Waldensians were granted refuge in Piedmont by the Count of Savoy. While the House of Savoy itself remained strongly Roman Catholic, this gesture angered the Papacy. While the Holy See might be willing to tolerate the continued presence of large Muslim populations in the Normans' Kingdom of Sicily, it was less than willing to accept a new Christian sect in Piedmont.

The Albigensians and other Bogomil heretics were apparently believers in Dualism and denied the third person of the Holy Trinity. The Waldensians did not. However, both the Waldensians and Albigensians were folk movements that involved public preaching. In the thirteenth century, there was a substantial enough problem with clerical literacy that preaching to the laity in churches was hampered. Therefore, the field was somewhat clear for peripatetic evangelism of these heretical and protesting movements. At the same time, the lack of ecclesiastical structure and training meant that each sect could be at wide variance with others. The Waldensians maintained greater coherence than the Cathars by virtue of its spiritual leader.

Unlike the Cathars, the Waldensians survived elsewhere in Europe, remaining strong in France and also having a presence in northern Italy, southern Germany and down into central Europe. Particular efforts against the movement began in the 1230s with the Inquisition seeking the leaders of the movement, and the Church creating a new order of Poor Catholics that had some success in drawing back heretics. The movement had been almost completely suppressed in southern France within twenty years but the persecution lasted into the 14th century.

A final crusade against the Waldensians was declared in 1487, but Papal representatives continued to devastate towns and villages into the mid 16th century as the Waldensians became absorbed into the wider Protestant Reformation.

Assessment in later Protestantism

Later Protestant groups such as Baptists and Anabaptists sometimes point to the Waldensians as an example of earlier Christians who held beliefs similar to their own, including the belief in Believers Baptism and opposition to pedobaptism. The Mennonite book Martyrs Mirror lists them in this regard as it attempts to trace the history of believer's baptism back to the apostles.

Modern Waldensians

In Italy

After many centuries of harsh persecution, they acquired legal freedom under the King Carlo Alberto of the Piemonte, in 1848. Since then the Waldensian church developed and spread through the Italian Peninsula. In the 1970s the Italian Waldensian church joined the Methodists to form the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese (Waldensian Church), which is a member of the World Council of Churches.

In the United States of America

Since colonial times there have been Waldensians who found freedom in the American Shores, as we see the presence of them in New Jersey and Delaware. In the late 1800s many Italians, among them, Waldensians, immigrated to United States. They founded communities in New York City, Chicago, Monett, Mo, Galveston, Tx and Rochester, NY as well as the most notable Waldensian settlement in North America in Valdese, North Carolina, USA, where the congregation uses the name Waldensian Presbyterian Church. By the 1920s the Waldensian churches and missions merged into the Presbyterian Church (USA) due the cultural assimilation of the second and third generations. The American Waldensian Society is a cultural organization that works to preserve their millennial heritage among their descendants.

In South America

The first Waldensian settlers from Italy arrived in South America in 1856 and today the Waldensian Church of the Rio de La Plata has approximately 40 congregations and 15,000 members shared between Uruguay and Argentina.

In Germany

In 1698 about 3.000 Waldenses fled from Italy and came to South Rhine valley. Most of them returned to their Piemond valleys, but those who remained in Germany were assimilated by the State Churches (Lutheran and Reformed) and 10 congregations exist today as part of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland.

External links

nl:Waldenzen ja:ワルドー派 pl:Waldensi


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