AT 21: The Waldensians and the Healing of the Wounds of History


by Ian M. Randall
Originally Published by Anabaptism Today, Issue 21, Spring 1999

In February 1997, a delegation representing Italian Roman Catholic bishops apologised to Italian Protestants at a service held at the Waldensian church in Piazza Cavour, Rome, for the injustices inflicted on Italy’s Protestants over the centuries. The Catholic archbishop of Perugia spoke of the need to “tend the wounds in our memories first by recognising them and then, where necessary, by asking and giving forgiveness”. The occasion was of special importance for the Italian Waldensian church, which dates from the twelfth century, and Paolo Ricca, professor of church history at the Waldensian seminary in Rome, spoke of the courageous step that had been taken.1

A year later, I was at the Waldensian seminary myself and heard Ricca speak of the remarkable way in which dialogue between Catholics and Protestants was taking place. He traced how this began with secret ecumen-ical discussions in the 1950s and had moved to official dialogue in the years following Vatican II. Ricca suggested that new attitudes on both sides, following centuries of mutual suspicion, were evidence of a true movement of the Holy Spirit. The way in which Waldensians have been providing models of reconciliation and hope has been highlighted by world Protestant leaders.2 The reconciliation service at the Piazzo Cavour church was supposed to be preliminary to a more general reconciliation, but no further action appears to have been taken on the Catholic side.

The Waldensian Church has its origins in the 1170s. As such, it is the oldest church body in membership of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The story of the movement has recently been retold by Prescot Stephens in a thoroughly researched book, The Waldensian Story (1998). The other pre-Reformation Protestant communities that still exist today are the different strands of the Czech brethren. These have their origins in the preaching and leadership of Jan Hus in Prague, in what was then Bohemia, in the fifteenth century. The Waldensians, who had their main centres further south in Europe, are named after Valdes, a wealthy businessman from Lyons in France. Around 1174, Valdes became concerned about his relationship with God. He experienced a dramatic conversion and decided to distribute most of his considerable wealth. He also commissioned two priests to translate parts of the Bible into the local language. This seems to have been the earliest western medieval vernacular translation of the Bible.

Valdes began to preach and to gather a group of lay men and women who formed a community dedicated to recovering the standards that they saw in early Christianity. They read the Bible and prayed together and went out in pairs to engage in mission. One contemporary commentator from England, Walter Map, described them in this way: “They go about two by two bare-footed in woollen habit, possessing nothing, holding everything in common like the apostles; naked, they follow a naked Christ.”3

In their early period these “Poor of Lyons”, as they became known, operated within the Catholic Church, and indeed Valdes sought approval from the pope, Alexander III. The pope was not unsympathetic to the “Poor” but was opposed to any sanctioning of their preaching activities. In 1181, the followers of Valdes were expelled from Lyons by the archbishop and three years later were condemned by a council at Verona; but, rather than being brought under control by these measures, the Waldensians spread to the north of Italy, new areas of France (the north-east and the south), and German-speaking regions beyond the Rhine.4 A split occurred between the French and Italian branches of the movement in 1205, towards the end of Valdes’ life. The Italians – known as “the poor Lombards” – were adopting a stance which was more antagonistic to the Catholic Church than that of Valdes himself. It was still Valdes’ hope that there might be reconciliation with the Catholic authorities. Innocent III, who became pope in 1198, was keen to explore new initiatives and, in 1208, the Society of Poor Catholics was established as an authorised Catholic movement. Former followers of Valdes who joined the new society were given licence to preach, although this ministry was not extended to women. The “poor Catholics” stated that through their distinctive religious garb they wanted to be “recognised as separated in body as in heart from the poor of Lyons”.5 Pressure on the Waldensians who were outside the Church built up and, by the end of the thirteenth century, the Inquisition had forced many French Waldensians into underground congregations.

During the thirteenth century, however, Waldensians spread widely in central Europe. Synods were convened which brought together up to 1,000 delegates. German-speaking Waldensians held their meetings in Austria and there were also important centres in Bohemia and Moravia (now Czech Republic). An inquisitorial statement from this period confirmed that the Waldensians held to orthodox belief in the main areas of Christian faith. Some of the crucial areas in which they differed from accepted teaching and practice was in maintaining that the Bible was the only source of authority in spiritual matters, that there was an obligation to preach the gospel, and that the Christian way was one of non-violence. There was no defined position on the nature of the Eucharist and confession of sin was practised.6

Travelling preachers, called barbas, which means “uncles”, gave direction to the Waldensian communities and heard individual confessions. The Waldensians did not formulate a doctrine of justification by faith, but they did, nonetheless, prepare the way for the sixteenth-century Reformation. Their role as a bridge from the medieval protest movements to the new Protestant outlook is a crucial one.

By the time of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations in mainland Europe, most Waldensians were meeting in small groups rather than in larger churches. These enclaves were usually based on families. But a more vibrant and outgoing wing of the movement, with its centre in Bohemia, made common cause with some of the followers of Jan Hus, the powerful preacher at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, who was put to death for heresy in 1415. This stream of Waldensianism became increasingly politicised, the original Waldensian commitment to non-violence, which in any case had been implemented in a patchy way, being abandoned. One Hussite leader who seems to have been influenced by the Waldenisans was Petr Chelcicky, who formed a movement called the Unity of the Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum. As someone who conceived of the church as a voluntary association of believers, Chelcicky’s radical ecclesiology was unparalleled among the voices of the fifteenth-century era.7 His thinking in this respect anticipated that of the Anabaptists, although no clear connection between the Czech brethren and Anabaptism has yet been established, and, like the Waldensians, the Hussites were eventually to identify with the mainstream of the Reformation.

For the Waldensians, this identification took place from the early 1530s, when Waldensian leaders had conversations with William Farel, who was a leader in the Swiss Reformation and who worked closely in Geneva with John Calvin. The details of these contacts are not entirely clear and Euan Cameron, in The Reformation of the Heretics, has argued that there is not enough evidence to support the traditional view that Waldensian leaders embraced the Protestant Reformation at a synod in 1532.8 Certainly there were differing opinions among the leaders as to whether such a move was wise, but from that point Waldensians embarked on a path which would, in the 1560s, see them emerge as a Protestant church committed to Calvinist beliefs. From 1550-1700, the valleys in the Piedmontese Alps inhabited by the Waldensians were regarded as an outpost of European Protestantism and, as such, suffered oppressions from the governing family of Savoy. The aim of the Savoy policy, which was encouraged by the Catholic Church, was to reconquer this area in the name of Catholicism. A notorious massacre, known as the Piedmontese Easter, took place in 1655. The horrific reports of the killings aroused protests around Europe and brought about the diplomatic intervention of the English under Oliver Cromwell. An outraged John Milton wrote a sonnet about the atrocities – “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”.

The troubles of the Waldensians were not over. In 1686, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and thus the removal of the rights previously given to Protestants, whole communities of Waldensians, by now confined to the Piedmont Valleys, were wiped out. They attempted to put up a fight, but they were massively outnumbered by Catholic forces. Out of a Waldensian population of approximately 14,000, almost half were killed or later died in prison. About 3,000 found their way to Geneva and were welcomed by the city authorities. This influx of people strained the resources of a city noted for its hospitality to refugees. For their part, the Waldensians spoke of being indebted to the Genevan citizens for their life and liberty.9 The absorption of this medieval protest movement into Reformed Protestantism was now virtually complete. A further cementing of the relationship of the Waldensians with the mainstream Protestant cause in Europe came three years later when William of Orange, who was by then king of England, with his wife Mary as queen, helped to finance the return of the Waldensians to their Alpine centres. Mary organised collections in a number of Protestant churches and set up a fund from which many Waldensian pastors were paid.

It was not until almost two centuries later, on 17 February 1848, that Italian Waldensians were finally given civil (though not initially religious) rights. Gradually churches began to be established throughout various parts of Italy. Because of their concern for freedom, Waldensians also participate actively in movements working for civil and political renewal. Spring-ing from the original work of Valdes in Bible translation, Waldensians remained strongly committed to education. Their aim was that each local community should have a primary school and a teacher, together with a seller of Bibles. In addition there were initiatives to create boarding schools, children’s homes and training centres. Waldensians have seen the gospel as having specific social implications and have founded hospitals, old people’s homes and centres for those with special needs. There are five Waldensian hospitals (of which two, at Genoa and Naples, are administered in collaboration with other evangelical churches) and nine old people’s homes.

In 1979, the Methodist Church of Italy joined the Waldensian Church and from then on the two bodies began to operate through a united denominational synod. The organisation of the Waldensian Church is similar to the Presbyterian system, reflecting the sixteenth-century influence of Geneva. Today the Waldensians-Methodists have a joint membership in Italy of about 30,000. Although traditionally Waldensians were the main Protestant group in Italy, Pentecostalism is now much larger. Half of the Italian Waldensians live in their traditional heartlands, while many others who are in membership in churches in cities such as Rome still have roots in Piedmont. Pastoral care of the churches is undertaken by about 100 pastors and 25 lay workers. Pastors are trained at the theological college in Rome, which is also used by Italian Baptists, and those in training spend some time abroad. There are also about 15,000 Waldensians in two South American countries, Argentina and Uruguay. Baptists and Waldensians now jointly publish a weekly newspaper, Riforma, a sign of their increasing co-operation.10 Waldensians have an internationally renowned ecumenical centre in Italy called Agape.

Valdes founded his original movement not as a breakaway from the Catholic Church but as a movement of mission and renewal. Waldensians are indebted both to their pre-Reformation Catholic roots and also to the Reformed convictions which they later embraced. Their distinctive story has, therefore, a unique contribution to make to an understanding of catholicity in European church history. In this connection there may be a parallel with Anabaptism. It has recently been argued by Abraham Friesen that the Anabaptists followed Erasmus in their understanding of Christ’s great commission to teach and then to baptise. For Friesen, the Erasmian focus on teaching the central doctrines of the faith had the potential to bridge Catholic/Protestant divides.11 Viewed from this perspective, both the Anabaptist and Waldensian traditions offer trans-denominational insights. The contemporary Waldensian churches, as Prescot Stephens puts it in The Waldensian Story, want to spread the gospel in word and in deed, but also seek to act as agents of reconciliation. “If the wounds of history can be healed through repen­tance and forgiveness,” Stephens writes with reference to the significant 1997 Catholic statement, “it would enable Catholics and Protestants to stand closer together against the evils of the age.”12 Radical movements such as the Waldensians can disturb, renew – and even unite.

Ian M. Randall is the tutor in church history and spirituality at Spurgeon’s College, London.


1 Press notice from the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, 28 February. I am grateful to Prescot Stephens for this notice and to Erica Scroppo Newbury for other details. Information about the Waldensian Church Missions can be obtained from her at 21 de Freville Avenue, Cambridge CB4 1HW.

2 See, for example, Into the Light, Vol. 10, No. 16 (1997), pp. 3, 5.

3 Cited by P Stephens, The Waldensian Story (Lewes: The Book Guild, 1998), p. 15.

4 M Lambert, Medieval Heresy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 69.

5 W L Wakefield and A P Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 226.

6 Stephens, Waldensian Story, chapter 8.

7 M L Wagner, Petr Chelcicky (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983), p. 161.

8 E Cameron, The Reformation of the Heretics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 138-44.

9 A J Wylie, History of the Waldensians (Rapidan, Virginia: Hartland, 1996), p. 162.

10 The Waldensian Review, Autumn 1997, p. 10.

11 A Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 126.

12 Stephens, The Waldensian Story, p. 344.