The Waldensians, Waldenses or Vaudois began as a Christian spiritual movement of the later Middle Ages, descendants of which still exist in various regions. Over time, the denomination joined the Genevan or Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation. About the earlier history of the Waldenses considerable uncertainty exists because of the lack of extant source material. They were persecuted as heretical before the 16th Century, endured near annihilation in the 17th century, and were then confronted with organized and generalized discrimination in centuries that followed. There are active congregations in Europe, Latin America, and North America. The contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage includes proclaiming the Gospel, serving among the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity and freedom of conscience.
General descriptionThe earliest Waldensians believed in poverty and austerity, promoting true poverty, public preaching and the personal study of the scriptures. The sect originated in the late 12th century as the Poor Men of Lyons, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of Lyon, who gave away his property around 1177 and went about preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection.
In 1179, they went to Rome, where Pope Alexander III blessed their life but forbade preaching without authorization from the local clergy. They disobeyed and began to preach according to their own understanding of scripture. Seen by the Roman Catholic Church as unorthodox, they were formally declared heretics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1211 more than 80 were burned as heretics at Strasbourg, beginning several centuries of persecution that nearly destroyed the sect. Part of their legacy is recognized as works of the writer Henri Arnaud. The Waldensian Church of Italy has survived to the present day.
Some groups of Mennonites and Baptists who feel the need to trace apostolic succession through the Waldenses, claim that the Waldenses history extends back to the apostolic church. Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that this has no basis in fact. The mainstream academic view is that the Waldensians were followers of Peter Waldo (or Valdes or Vaudes).
Ancient origins asserted and dismissedSome researchers argue that the group has existed since the time of the apostles, a claim disproven by modern scholarship. The supporters of the ancient origin claim the Waldenses' name does not in fact come from Peter Waldo, as modern scholars contend, but from the area in which they lived. They claim Peter Waldo in fact got his name by association with the Waldenses. This thought was current in the early 19th century:
- "Some Protestants, on this occasion, have fallen into the snare that was set for them...It is absolutely false, that these churches were ever found by Peter Waldo...it is a pure forgery."
- "It is not true, that Waldo gave this name to the inhabitants of the valleys: they were called Waldenses, or Vaudes, before his time, from the valleys in which they dwelt."
- "On the other hand, he "was called Valdus, or Waldo, because he received his religious notions from the inhabitants of the valleys."
The claim of an ancient origin was for a long time accepted as valid by Protestant historians. The alexandrine Nobles Lessons, written in Provençal, was thought at one time to have been composed in 1100, but all scholars now date it between 1190 and 1240. Other scholars claimed Claudius, Bishop of Turin (died 840), Berengarius of Tours (died 1088), or other such men who had preceded Peter Waldo, as the founder of the sect. In the nineteenth century, however, it became evident to critics that the poem and other Waldensian documents offered as proof had been altered. The respected Waldensian scholar Dr. Emilio Comba was a historian, a teacher, and a pastor who dismissed the theories in the middle 19th century. As a result the claims to high antiquity for the sect were largely accepted to be myth.
Origins in the Middle AgesAccording to the Waldense Church and the Waldense Scholarship, the Waldensians started with Peter Waldo, who began to preach on the streets of Lyon in 1177. 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 giving his money away and decided to become a wandering preacher who would beg for a living. He began to attract a following. Waldo had a 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 Pope Alexander III at the Third Council of the Lateran and asked for permission to preach. Walter Map, in De Nugis Curialium, narrates the discussions at one of these meetings. The pope, while praising Peter Waldo's ideal of poverty, ordered him not to preach unless he had the permission of the local clergy. He continued to preach without permission and by the early 1180s he and his followers were excommunicated and forced from Lyon. The Catholic church declared them heretics - the group's principal error was "contempt for ecclesiastical power" - that they dared to teach and preach outside of the control of the clergy "without divine inspiration." Though there is evidence early Waldensians affirmed doctrines like transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and infant baptism, they were also accused of the ignorant teaching of "innumerable errors".
In 1207, one of Waldo's early companions, Durand of Huesca, converted to Catholicism after debating with Bishop Diego of Osma and St. Dominic. Durand later went to Rome where he professed the Catholic faith to Innocent III. Innocent gave him permission to establish the Poor Catholics, a mendicant order, which continued the Waldensian preaching mission against the Cathars. The Franciscans and Dominicans later supplanted the Poor Catholics.
Waldo and his followers developed a system whereby 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.
The Catholic response to Waldensians
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.
Much of what is known about the Waldensians comes from reports from Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Cathar who converted to Catholicism and wrote two reports for the Inquisition, Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno (roughly) "Of the Sects of Modern Heretics" (1254) Waldo possibly died in the early 13th century, 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 have been 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.
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 the Waldensians. At the same time, the lack of ecclesiastical structure and training meant that each sect could be at wide variance with others. The Waldensians became a diverse movement as it spread out across Europe in France, Italy, Germany, and Bohemia.
Particular efforts against the movement began in the 1230s with the Inquisition seeking the leaders of the movements. The movement had been almost completely suppressed in southern France within twenty years but the persecution lasted beyond into the 14th century.
ReformationThe Waldenses were most successful in Dauphiné and Piedmont and had permanent communities in the Cottian Alps southwest of Turin. In 1487 at the insistence of Pope Innocent VIII a persecution overwhelmed the Dauphiné Waldenses, but those in Piedmont defended themselves successfully. A crusade against Waldensians in the Dauphiné region of France 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.
When the news of the Reformation reached the Waldensian Valleys, the Tavola Valdese decided to seek fellowship with the nascent Protestantism. A Synod held 1526 in Laus, a town in Chisone valley, decided to send envoys to examine the new movement.
In 1532 they met with German and Swiss Protestants and ultimately adapted their beliefs to those of the Reformed Church. Moreover, the Waldensian absorption into Protestantism led to their transformation from a sect on the edge of Catholicism that shared many Catholic beliefs into a Protestant church adhering to the theology of John Calvin, which differed much from the beliefs of Peter Waldo. From that moment the Church became the Italian branch of Reformed churches.
The Swiss and French Reformed churches sent William Farel and Anthony Saunier to attend the Synod of Chamforan, which convened in October, 12th 1532. Farel invited them to join the Reformation and to leave secrecy. A Confession of Faith, with Reformed doctrines, was formulated and the Waldensians decided to worship openly in French.
The first French Bible translated by Pierre Robert Olivétan with the help of Calvin and published at Neuchâtel in 1535 was based in part on a New Testament in the Waldensian vernacular. The cost of its publication was defrayed by the churches in Waldensia who collected the sum of 1500 gold crowns for this purpose.
Outside the Piedmont the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France and Germany. After they came out of clandestinity, the French king, Francis I, armed a crusade against the Waldensians of Provence, completely destroying them in France in 1545.
The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives were permitted to return home. The Reformation was also somewhat beneficial to the Vaudois, with the religious reformers showing them respect, but they still suffered in the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
As early as 1631, Protestants scholars began to regard the Waldensians as prophets of the Reformation (like the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus) who were also persecuted by Roman Catholic authorities.
Later historyIn 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Vaudois to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. In a most severe winter these targets of persecution, old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received." There they found refuge and rest. Deceived by false reports of Vaudois resistance, the Duke sent an army. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre, the horrors of which can be detailed only in small part.
The massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Oliver Cromwell, then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Vaudois, writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. The massacre prompted John Milton's famous poem on the Waldenses, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.". The resistance which lasted into the 1660s was then led by a farmer, Josué Janavel ).
In 1848, after many centuries of harsh persecution, the Waldensians (as well as the Jews) acquired legal freedom in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as a result of the liberalising reforms which followed Charles Albert of Sardinia’s granting a constitution (the Statuto Albertino). Subsequently the Waldensian Evangelical Church, as it became known, developed and spread through the Italian peninsula.
The Waldensian church was able to gain converts by building schools in some of the poorer regions of Italy, including Sicily. There is still a Waldensian church in the town of Grotte, Province of Agrigento at the southwest part of the island. The Waldensians that belonged to this church were derided as "crazy Protestants" by their countrymen and those that married Waldensians were sometimes disowned by their predominantly Roman Catholic families. The Grottese that emigrated to Rochester, New York in 1910 and the years after that had their own church and minister until about the 1930s, when they merged with the Waring Baptist Church after their church was burned by the neighborhood Catholics.
During the Nazi occupation of North Italy in the Second World War, Italian Waldensians were active in saving Jews faced with imminent extermination, hiding many of them in the same mountain valley where their own Waldensian ancestors had found refuge in earlier generations.
In 1975 the Waldensian Church joined the Italian Methodist Church to form the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches, which is a member of the World Council of Churches, of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and of the World Methodist Council. It has 50,000 members (45,000 Waldensians, of whom 30,000 in Italy and some 15,000 divided between Argentina and Uruguay, and 5,000 Methodists).
Río de La Plata (which forms a united church with the Waldensian Evangelical Church) has approximately 40 congregations and 15,000 members shared between Uruguay and Argentina. More history is available in Spanish at the website of the Waldensians in South America.
In the United States of AmericaSince colonial times there have been Waldensians who found freedom on American shores, as marked by the presence of them in New Jersey and Delaware. In the late 1800s many Italians, among them Waldensians, emigrated to the United States. They founded communities in New York City, Chicago, Monett, Galveston and Rochester. Some Waldensians living in the Cottian Alps region of Northern Italy migrated to North Carolina in 1893 and founded the most notable Waldensian settlement in North America in Valdese, North Carolina, where the congregation uses the name Waldensian Presbyterian Church.
In 1906, through the initiative of church forces in New York City, Waldensian interest groups were invited to coalesce into a new entity, The American Waldensian Aid Society (AWS), organized “to collect funds and apply the same to the aid of the Waldensian Church in Italy and elsewhere…and to arouse and maintain interest throughout the US in the work of said Church…” Today, this organization continues as the American Waldensian Society. The American Waldensian Society recently marked its Centennial with a conference and celebrations in New York City.
By the 1920s most of the Waldensian churches and missions merged into the Presbyterian Church due to the cultural assimilation of the second and third generations.
The work of the American Waldensian Society continues in the United States today. The mission of the American Waldensian Society is to foster dialogue and partnership among Waldensian Churches in Italy and South America and Christian churches within North America in order to promote a compelling vision of Waldensian Christian witness for North America.
The vision of the society is to be a passionate witness in North America to the contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage: to Proclaim the Gospel; to Serve among the Marginalized; to Promote Social Justice; to Foster Inter-religious Work; and to Advocate Respect for Religious Diversity and Freedom of Conscience.
There exists a group under the name "The Old Waldensian Church of Anabaptists" that claim to have originally come from the Italian organization but after coming to America has maintained independence from church organizations or government incorporation including any tax exemption status. Once a sizable Church they have dwindled today to a very small group in Ohio and another in Pennsylvania.
The most well known Waldensian Churches in America were in New York and in Valdese North Carolina. There is no longer a church in New York City.
The American Waldensian Society assists churches, organizations and families in the promotion of Waldensian history and culture. The society is friend to those who work to preserve their millennial heritage among their descendants. For example, over the course of 41 years, the Old Colony Players in Valdese, North Carolina, have staged "From this Day Forward," an outdoor drama telling the story of the Waldenses and the founding of Valdese.
Both the Waldensian Presbyterian Church and the American Waldensian Society have links with the Italian-based Waldensian Evangelical Church, but, differently to the South American Waldensian communities, they are independent from it.
In GermanyIn 1698 approximately 3,000 Waldenses fled from Italy and came to South Rhine valley. Most of them returned to their Piedmont 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.
Characteristics of the Waldensian Church
TodayThe present Waldensian Church considers itself to be a Christian Protestant church of the Reformed tradition originally framed by John Calvin. It recognizes as its doctrinal standard the confession of faith published in 1655 and based on the Reformed confession of 1559. It admits only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Supreme authority in the body is exercised by an annual synod, and the affairs of the individual congregations are administered by a consistory under the presidency of the pastor.
Historic doctrineAmong the earliest beliefs taught by the Waldensians were the denial of purgatory, and of indulgences and prayers for the dead. They considered all lying as a serious sin, they refused to take oaths and considered the shedding of human blood a crime. They consequently condemned war and the death penalty. In the pre-Reformation days of the movement, they also taught that the validity of the sacraments depended on the worthiness of the minister. They challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church insofar as it was not based on the Scriptures.
Historical organizationAmong the Waldenses the perfect, bound by the vow of poverty, wandered about from place to place preaching. Such an itinerant life was ill-suited for the married state, and to the profession of poverty they added the vow of chastity. Married persons who desired to join them were permitted to dissolve their union without the consent of their partner. Orderly government was secured by the additional vow of obedience to superiors. The perfect were not allowed to perform manual labour, but were to depend for their subsistence on the members of the sect known as the friends. These continued to live in the world, married, owned property, and engaged in secular pursuits. Their generosity and alms were to provide for the material needs of the perfect. The friends remained in union with the Roman Catholic Church and continued to receive its sacraments with the exception of penance, for which they sought out, whenever possible, one of their own ministers.
The name Waldenses was at first exclusively reserved to the perfect; but in the course of the thirteenth century the friends were also included in the designation.
The perfect were divided into the three classes of bishops, priests, and deacons. The bishop, called "major" or "majoralis", preached and administered the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and Holy Orders. The priest preached and enjoyed limited faculties for the hearing of confessions. The deacon, named "junior" or "minor", acted as assistant to the higher orders and by the collection of alms relieved them of all material care. The bishop was elected by a joint meeting of priests and deacons. In his consecration, as well as in the ordination of the other members of the clergy, the laying-on of hands was the principal element; but the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, so important in the Waldensian liturgy, was also a prominent feature. The power of jurisdiction seems to have been exercised exclusively by one bishop, known as the "rector", who was the highest executive officer. Supreme legislative power was vested in the general convention or general chapter, which met once or twice a year, and was originally composed of the perfect but at a later date only of the senior members among them. It considered the general situation of the sect, examined the religious condition of the individual districts, admitted to the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate, and pronounced upon the admission of new members and the expulsion of unworthy ones.
- List of Italian religious minority politicians
- Henri Arnaud, writer, pastor, and soldier
- Italo Calvino, writer
- Durand of Huesca, early follower of Peter Waldo (later re-converted to Catholicism)
- Paolo Ferrero, politician
- Riccardo Illy, politician
- Lucio Malan, politician
- Domenico Maselli, politician and pastor
- Frederick Henry Snow Pendleton, Anglican protector in South America
- Valdo Spini, politician and writer
- Wylie, James Aitken, History of the Waldenses, (c.1860) ISBN 1572581859, online ebook
- Audisio, Gabriel, The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival, c.1170 - c.1570, (1999) Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521559847
- Cameron, Euan, The Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe, (2001) ISBN-10: 0631224971, ISBN-13: 978-0631224976
- Muston, Alexis, The Israel of the Alps : a complete history of the Waldenses and their colonies : prepared in great part from unpublished documents, (1978) ISBN 0404161405
- Comba, Emilio, History of the Waldenses of Italy, from their origin to the Reformation, (1978) ISBN 0404161197
- Chiesa evangelica valdese, Italy
- Iglesia Valdense, South America
- Waldenservereinigung, Germany
- American Waldensian Society, North America
- Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, North Carolina, USA
- Town of Valdese, North Carolina, USA
- The Waldensians, an Anabaptist perspective on the Waldensians
- The Waldenses: Catholic Encyclopedia, a Roman Catholic point of view from the New Advent Encyclopedia
- Waldensian History, A Brief Sketch, by Ronald F. Malan, M.A.
- Janavel, Combats, Exil et Pouvoir d'un Grand Capitaine, Biography of Josué Janavel (in French)
Waldensian in Bulgarian: Валденси
Waldensian in Czech: Valdenští
Waldensian in Danish: Valdensere
Waldensian in German: Waldenser
Waldensian in Spanish: Valdense
Waldensian in Esperanto: Valdenanoj
Waldensian in French: Église vaudoise
Waldensian in Italian: Valdismo
Waldensian in Hebrew: התנועה הוולדנסית
Waldensian in Dutch: Waldenzen
Waldensian in Japanese: ワルドー派
Waldensian in Norwegian: Valdensere
Waldensian in Polish: Waldensi
Waldensian in Portuguese: Valdenses
Waldensian in Russian: Вальденсы
Waldensian in Slovak: Valdénstvo
Waldensian in Swedish: Valdenser
Waldensian in Chinese: 瓦勒度派