The Waldesians, a small community of Christians, originated in Lyon, France in the12th century. According to the Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions they rejected the authority of the pope, prayers for the dead and the veneration of saints. Despite severe persecution and excommunication by the Roman Catholic church over many years they have survived to the present day and have churches in Germany, Italy and in both North and South America.
Peter Waldo ( also known as Pierre ( 1160 -1318) is said to have made a fortune by working as a merchant and by lending money as a usurer, according to ‘The Conversion of Peter Waldo’ an anonymous document of about 1218.
The writer records how, in about 1173 Peter Waldo of Lyon heard a troubadour telling a story. He was enthralled and invited the story teller to his home.
Waldo was so affected by what he heard that next day he went to a school of theology and asked what he should do.
He was told :- “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast,” ( Matthew 19 v 21) Waldo asked his wife which she would prefer to keep – his personal property or his real estate. She was not pleased at having to make any choice, but chose the real estate. He then placed his daughters in a convent and distributed the majority of his money, some to those he had misused, but most to the poor of the area.
At that time there was a famine and several times each week he provided food for the people. The people thought he was mad. At the time of the Assumption of the blessed Virgin, casting some money among the village poor, he cried, “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon.” Then his fellow-citizens ran up, thinking he had lost his mind. But he said. :-
My fellow-citizens and friends, I not insane, as you think, but I am avenging myself on my enemies, who made me a slave, so that I was always more careful of money than of God, and served the creature rather than the Creator. I know that many will blame me that I act thus openly. But I do it both on my own account and on yours; on my own, so that those who see me henceforth possessing any money may say that I am mad, and on yours, that you may learn to place hope in God and not in riches.”
Waldo was very interested in the Bible and in 1160 paid for a translation of it into the Romance language. Waldo began to travel about preaching. H e and his companions were known as ’the poor men of Lyon’. The group promoted pacifism according to Kreider and Yoder in ‘The History of Christianity’. ( page 25). The idea of lay folk, many of them illiterate, living in simple poverty was approved by the papacy at the Third Lateran Council in 1179.
The pope did however add the proviso that they obtain permission to preach from local church authorities. At this time Waldo’s ideas were in keeping with the Catholic church. Waldo and his followers, by their poverty showed up the laxity and worldliness of many in the church and in 1181 the Archbishop of Lyon banned them from preaching. In 1184 they were excommunicated by the pope. So what had begun as a popular movement had become heresy in a few years.
Although a few former Waldesians were welcomed back into the church the response of the majority was to establish their own church with all the organization that implies – deacons, priests and bishops. Later they would claim that they were the only true church. They quickly became established in Lombardy and Provence Outbursts by the hierarchy of the Catholic church against unlicensed preaching and the group’s refusal to acknowledge the authority and need for the intermediary role of the clergy only served to make them identify Roman Catholicism as ‘the Great Whore of Babylon’ and thus not worthy of acknowledgement.
They considered at that time that the validity o f the sacrament depended upon the worthiness of the celebrant – and as they rejected the worthiness of Catholicism they rejected its priests and sacraments that they administered. Waldesians preferred to study the scriptures for themselves rather than have them interpreted for them by priests as was the rule a the time. Gradually they established churches in most parts of Europe an d became the most widespread of ‘heretic’ groups of the time.
They rejected or re-interpreted Catholic sacraments. The eucharist was only celebrated annually and in theory anyone could administer it. The priest became simply ‘a good man’. Most feast days were rejected as not being Biblical . Because they could not find evidence for purgatory within the scriptures they rejected it together with the idea of prayers for the dead. Similar thinking led them to reject saints not mentioned in the Bible.
Their ideas became mixed with that of other groups. In southern France for instance they mixed with the ideas of the Cathars. They were so oppressed that there was a crusade against them in 1488 according to Ronald Finucane the pope so feared what he perceived as a threat to the stability o f the church that an attempt was made to destroy their whole culture. Organised attacks were made upon them in Provence and in Italy. The Waldesians would no t have fought back physically as they condemned war and the shedding of blood.
By the time of the Reformation the Waldesians were in contact with many groups across Europe and there was consequently a great exchange of ideas. Many joined local Protestant churches. Gradually they were absorbed into the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation.
Not without continued opposition however. In 1655 the Duke of Savoy for instance ordered members to take communion or sell their lands and leave his territory. After hearing false reports twenty days later a massacre ensued. By this time the Waldesians were worshipping openly in French. In 1685 the king of France Louis XIV renounced the edit of Nantes and so made it illegal to be a Protestant in France. They were under penalty of death or banishment if they refused to admit that they had been wrong.
After the French Revolution the Protestants of Piedmont were finally given religious freedom to worship as they wished and in 1848, the king of Sardinia , who also ruled Savoy gave them full rights, both civil and religious.
Today’s Waldesians consider themselves Protestants in the Calvin tradition. They accept the doctrines of mainstream Protestantism and celebrate only two sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist. Authority is exercised by a yearly synod and individual churches by the pastor and a council of members. This is perhaps far removed from one man giving away his wealth and life style for the gospels sake, but the Waldesian church has evolved as all churches do, while at the same time remaining true to its ideals of justice, freedom conscience, and respect for religious diversity.
This is exemplified in the American Waldesian Aid Society who carry out such activities as earthquake relief, the care of orphans of war and give help to refugees as well as the formation of Italian language Protestant churches. The fact that they are now considered as a mainstream church can be seen by their close links with the Methodist church and their links with the ecumenical movement . The Waldesians may be numerically a small group, as they always were , but they were the forerunners of Protestantism and so are worthy of their place in church history.
American Waldesian Aid Society found at http://www.waldensian.org/aws01.php and retrieved 13th November 2007
Finucane,R. 1980, The Waldesians in The History of Chrsitianity, Lion Publishing, Hertfordshire.
Goring R. ( editor)1992 Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, Chambers, Edinburgh.
Kreider, A and Yoder, J. 1980, Christians and War in The History of Christianity, Lion Publishing , Hertfordshire.
Robinson, J.H.( translator) The Conversion of Peter Waldo found at and retrieved 14th November 2007
Waldesians found at ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldensians#Later_history and retrieved 13th November 2007