The Waldenses

Updated May 02, 2019

The history of the Waldensians is a story of persecution, perseverance, and devotion to the teachings of the bible. This nearly 800-year-old evangelical Christian movement was known in its earliest days as simply “The Poor.” Originating in the 12th-century Italian Alps, the Waldensians came into existence through the actions of Peter Waldo of Lyons.

Key Takeaways: The Waldensians

  • The Waldensians, one of the earliest evangelical Christian groups, were founded by Peter Waldo (Valdes in French) of Lyons around A.D. 1170.
  • Beginning in the latter part of the 12th century, the Waldensian movement was an early forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.
  • After expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church, the Waldensians settled in the Alpine mountain regions of France and Italy, where they still exist today.

The Waldensian movement was one of the first Christian efforts to translate the Bible into a local dialect and engage in public preaching of the gospel. The commitment of the group can be summarized in these three activities: making the gospel known and understood in the native language of the people, identifying with the poor by becoming poor, and pursuing closer obedience of a life of faith by following the teachings of Jesus Christ and the example of his disciples.

Other similar evangelical movements were common during medieval times, but none endured like the Waldensians. Pre-dating the Protestant Reformation by 300 years, the beginning of the Waldensian movement is sometimes referred to as the “First Reformation.” The group has also been called the “Oldest Evangelical Church” and “Israel of the Alps.”

Although the Waldensians did not set out to oppose the Roman Catholic Church, they were branded heretics, and excommunicated by Pope Lucius 111 in 1184, and targeted for extermination in several campaigns. In truth, they were a small, scattered but close-knit group that professed orthodox beliefs and generally remained faithful to the Catholic Church until the time of the Reformation.

Waldo of Lyons (c. 1140–1217)

The founder of the Waldensians was Waldo (Valdes in French) of Lyons, a wealthy and influential young merchant from Lyons, France. After the sudden death of a close friend, Waldo began to search for deeper meaning in life. Around A.D. 1173, Waldo was profoundly moved by the words of Jesus Christ to the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark 10:21:

  • Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Voluntary Poverty

Between 1173–1176, Waldo’s life changed radically. Deciding to follow the Lord’s words literally, he gave away his wealth to the poor and started a life of intentional poverty. Later, his disciples would become known as “The Poor Men of Lyons,” or simply “The Poor.” The name they claimed for themselves was “The Poor of Spirit” from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3.

Preaching the Gospel

Believing that all people ought to have the opportunity to hear and understand the Word of God, Waldo employed Bernard Ydros and Stephen of Ansa to translate several books of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into his local French-Provencal dialect. When the translation was presented in Rome, it received words of approval from the pope. Encouraged by the positive response, Waldo had hoped his efforts would begin a renewal in the whole church.

From this translation, Waldo began preaching and teaching the Bible in public. Copying his example, Waldo’s followers (traveling in twos) took the gospel to surrounding towns and villages. This activity of public preaching was particularly offensive to Catholic authorities and instigated the conflict and persecution that Waldensians would endure for centuries.

‘Peter’ Waldo

In the spring of 1179, Waldo and his followers were forbidden by the church to preach unless explicitly invited by a priest. But Waldo was convinced the body of Christ should base its experiences on those of the Apostles and not on the human constructs of his day. He continued to preach openly. Several years later, around 1183, Waldo was banned from the city by the archbishop of Lyons.

When he was warned to stop preaching, Waldo responded with the words of the Apostle Peter in Acts 4:19: “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him?” Some historians believe this episode was the catalyst for Waldo being referred to as “Peter Waldo” by future Waldensians.

Peter Waldo of Lyons. ZU_09 / Getty Images 

After Waldo was cast out of Lyons, little more is known of his life except that he probably died around A.D. 1217 or 1218.

Followers referred to themselves as Waldo’s “co-members,” and called their group a “society.” They did not want to be thought of as a religious entity apart from the Catholic Church. They merely wanted to be a group of lay people Christian disciples who followed Christ and preached his message.

Once expelled from the city, Waldo and his followers moved to the remote Alpine mountain areas of France and Italy. For the next three centuries, the Waldensians would be persecuted, forced underground, and on the run. Nevertheless, they formed strong communities and eventually spread into Austria, Germany, and other parts of Europe.

The Teachings of Jesus

  •  “They go about two by two, barefoot, clad in woollen garments, owning nothing, holding all things common like the apostles, naked, following a naked Christ.” – The observations of a twelfth-century churchman, Walter Map. 

One historian explained this unusual use of the adjective “naked” to mean both “materially poor” and “of Christ alone.” With no religious “extras,” the Waldensians sought to follow Christ in his poverty and as their only reference point for faith.

Thus, the goal of the Waldenses was to live in absolute faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially those in his Sermon on the Mount. Adherents wanted to relive, as close as possible, the experiences of the first disciples. As a result, the practice that most sharply defined the Waldensians was their vow to live in poverty and simplicity as the earliest Christians did.

Belief in the Bible

Waldensian beliefs are based on the Bible, yet the movement began at a time when ordinary people had no access to the Scriptures. Therefore, the Bible needed to be translated into the native language and preached in public so that all people could hear and understand the Word of God. Only then could men and women know Jesus Christ as the center of their faith. Salvation, they believed, was the work of Christ alone.

Waldensians believed that the church, when faithful to its true calling, follows in the steps of the apostles. Waldensians were opposed to any form of violence. Based on Matthew 5:33-37, they refused to take oaths. They also rejected the practice of selling indulgences and refused to lend money at interest. These views often made the Waldensians seem like dangerous rebels to both the religious authorities and political powers of the time.

Everyone participated in the Waldensian community; men and women, young and old, all could preach the gospel. Because of their devotion to Scripture, many of the Waldensian religious practices and views aligned with those of the 16th-century Protestant Reformers. They rejected the notion of purgatory, transubstantiation, and some of the Catholic sacraments. They refused to worship saints or pray for the dead.

Waldensians were convinced that the church would lose its spiritual life if it became wealthy, privileged, and powerful in the world. Therefore, when Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the state religion in the 4th century, the Waldensians saw it as a compromise with the world and the start of the church’s downfall.

Nevertheless, most Waldensians generally remained orthodox in their views and continued to see themselves as part of the Roman Catholic Church until the time of the Reformation. Many took communion at least once a year and baptized their children.

The Barba

In the 15th century, the Waldensians began to refer to their pastors and preachers as the barba, a term of respect which means “uncle” in the local Alpine dialect. The title kept them from being confused with Catholic “fathers.” Young barbas were sent to school for training in the Scriptures and preparation for life in ministry. After training, they would accompany an experienced barba to gain on-the-job experience. Barbas traveled in pairs visiting small groups of underground believers. Disguised as pilgrims and merchants, they avoided the Catholic Inquisitions.

The Reformation

Also in the 15th century, the Waldensians became associated with the Bohemian Brethren and supported their leader, the Czech Church Reformer Jan Hus. Hus was labeled a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415 for his radical teachings. Although he remained a devoted Catholic priest, his views allied with those of the Waldensians. Hus believed that Scripture was the final authority, not the Catholic Church. He also felt the Bible should be translated into common languages to be read and publicly preached.

Eventually, through the influence of Swiss reformer William Farel (1489–1565), the Waldensians joined the Protestant Reformation and aligned with the reformed views of Calvinism.

Persecution and Massacre

The Waldensians endured persecution not just in their beginnings, but throughout the centuries and in different locations. These are only a few of the more significant massacres.

  • In 1251, Waldensians in Toulouse, France, were massacred for non-conformity to the church, and their town was burned to the ground.
  • The massacre of 22 villages in the French region of Luberon in Provence took place in 1545. Royal troops led by the Baron of Oppède were ordered to punish religious dissenters by King Francis I of France. The papal army brutally murdered nearly 3,000 Waldensians in the bloody crusade, including those in Mérindol and Cabrières.
  • In January 1655, the massacre known as the “Piedmont Easter” or the “Bloody Spring” took place. Under the forces of the Duke of Savoy, hundreds of unarmed Waldensians were cruelly tortured and killed.
  • In 1685, King Louis XIV rescinded the Edict of Nantes which had provided a brief time of religious protection for the Waldensians. Once again, a widespread campaign began to purge the Waldensians and force them back into Catholicism. In 1686, the new duke prohibited the Waldensians from practicing their religion, and for the first time, the church formally resisted. Within three days of combat, the Waldensians were defeated, their churches burned, and more than 8,000 were thrown into prison. Two-thousand Waldensians died in the massacre.
Papal Crusade Against the Waldenses. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Most of the surviving Waldensians took refuge in Switzerland. But a few years later, in 1689, they were able to return to their valleys in what is remembered as the “Glorious Return.”

A Story of Survival

Although they remained suppressed in numbers, the Waldensians continued to survive centuries of hardship and oppression. By the 18th century, they maintained a cloistered Protestant presence in the mainly Catholic Piedmont region of northwest Italy. Only with the aid of surrounding Protestant countries did the Waldensians endure.

In 1848, the Waldensian church was finally liberated through the Edict of Emancipation that gave them legal and political freedom. Nevertheless, the church still struggled beneath Catholic subjugation. When Alexis Muston, a 19th-century French Reformed pastor, wrote a thesis on the Waldensians without the church’s official permission, he was taken to court and had to flee the country. Later, Muston’s book, The Israel of the Alps: A Complete History of the Waldenses of Piedmont and their Colonies, originally published in 1875, was translated into English and German. The text provides perhaps the most significant history of the Waldensians from the time of their origins until the time of their emancipation.

The Waldensians still exist today, primarily in the Piedmont region of Italy.

In 2015, Pope Francis visited the Waldensian Church in Turin, Italy. It was here that Waldensian Christians endured brutal persecution by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. On behalf of the Church, Pope Francis asked Waldensians believers for forgiveness:

  • “On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behavior that we have shown you. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”

A Light in the Darkness

The traditional emblem of the Waldensian church is a candle on top of a Bible. The motto above the symbol reads “Lux Lucet in Tenebris,” meaning “a light shining in the darkness.”

Waldensian emblem. Public Domain

At the heart of Waldensian history is a people of indestructible faith. Against all odds, their light would not be extinguished through the darkness of violent oppression and isolation. The unstoppable spirit of the Waldensians mirrors that of their Savior, the Light of the World, whom they dared to follow.

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