The Waldensians

by Stuart Murray Williams

Valdes and the early Waldensians

In 1174, a French businessman in Lyons, Valdes, was challenged by the radical teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and responded by committing himself to a life of voluntary poverty and preaching. He experienced a dramatic conversion, renounced his previous business practices, threw his money out into the street, and after running a soup kitchen during the famine of 1176, began a new life as an itinerant preacher.

There had been other wandering preachers in the Middle Ages who had acted in a similar way. What was different about Valdes, apart from being a layman, was his concern to have the Bible translated into the local dialect, and his success in gathering a group of followers, drawn from different social classes, but sharing a life of poverty and preaching. Their preaching and the provision of a Bible people could understand led the formation of a lay association, known as the ‘Poor in Spirit’. Taking Jesus’ sending out of the Seventy as their pattern, they formed apostolic missionary bands, wore rough clothes and sandals and went around preaching a message of repentance.

They had no intention of separating from the Catholic Church. They simply wanted to live as whole-hearted followers of Jesus. But the challenge of their simple lifestyle, the popularity of this new movement and their unauthorised preaching aroused local opposition. They were in breach of canon law that restricted doctrinal preaching to the clergy. Valdes appealed for permission to preach. The Pope, while approving their motives and vows of poverty, insisted they were not to preach unless invited by local clergy. They must remain within the discipline of the established church. But, as they grew more aware of the corruption of the church, they continued their unauthorised preaching and began to face trouble. The archbishop of Lyons excommunicated the movement in 1181 and expelled them from the area under his jurisdiction. In 1184, they were included in a papal decree against dangerous heretics and became subject to anti-heresy legislation, despite lack of evidence that they were unorthodox. But repression was patchy, depending on the interest of the authorities.

Meanwhile, through planned missions and enforced expulsion, Waldensian groups were established in new areas. They won converts from all social classes, including some wealthy citizens, priests, monks and nuns, and their egalitarian stance towards women attracted many to the movement, as well as further provoking hostility. By 1198 some authorities took firm action, including the imposition of the death penalty on those who refused to recant, though in many places persecution was still sporadic. Furthermore, their missionaries reached Lombardy and began to make common cause with another radical group, the Humiliati, benefiting from the atmosphere of freedom and anti-clerical feeling in that area, and establishing congregations and schools.

Gradually tensions appeared within the movement. Valdes hoped for reconciliation with the Catholic Church and having a reforming influence in it. More radical groups, in Lombardy and elsewhere, were challenging many areas of Catholic teaching and practice. Some seemed determined to form new churches. In 1205, a serious split occurred between the French and Italian branches of the movement. The ‘Poor of Lyons’ followed Valdes. The ‘Poor Lombards’, the group that emerged from the Humiliati and Waldensian groups in Lombardy, gradually separated from them.

Ineffective attempts to deal with Waldensians were replaced in the thirteenth century by a more discerning approach. Innocent III, who became Pope in 1198, distinguished between the genuinely heretical or schismatic, and those whose discontent with the Church had caused them to pull away from Catholicism. The former were pursued vigorously; the latter were wooed back to the Church by making concessions and creating space for their activities within its structures. Some Lyonists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, as were some Humiliati.

Meanwhile, contact between the French and Italian branches continued and there were sporadic attempts to bring about reconciliation. A final attempt was made in 1218. Six representatives from each group met near Bergamo. Disagreements were discussed at length and the conference foundered on the issue of the validity of the sacraments and the role of the celebrant. But the division represented the different perspectives of a group still wanting to see the established church reformed and a group that had given up and was committed to building an alternative church.

Later Waldensians

French Waldensians enjoyed peace and freedom in many areas of the country until the 1230s. Persecution increased then, however, driving the movement underground and detaching its less committed members. Numbers fell steadily during this century, and early in the next century, inquisitors found few traces of the movement in its area of origin. Waldensians survived by retreating into quietism or into the mountains, where they formed communities that were too remote to bother the authorities. In Italy, the Lombards too found themselves under increasing pressure and unable to establish an alternative church. Gradually, they withdrew and took refuge in rural areas in the south of Italy or further north in the Alpine valleys. These losses in the heartlands were more than compensated for numerically by the growth of the movement in other areas. During most of the thirteenth century, both groups of Waldensians spread, into Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Poland and Spain.

By the start of the fifteenth century, Waldensians in France and Italy seemed to be in terminal decline, a beleaguered minority of Alpine peasants in remote valleys and small communities scattered throughout other parts of France. Only in the Piedmont area did Waldensians experience significant growth. Persecution was less intense than before, but there were periods of severe pressure. The response of the Waldensian communities varied. Usually, they tried to hide and avoid confrontation; occasionally, they resorted to violence. In 1487 a determined campaign against Waldensians was launched, which resulted in executions, emigration and the return of some to the Catholic Church. The survival of the movement into the sixteenth century was the result of the resilience of small groups and the courage and faithfulness of travelling leaders who continued to visit these isolated communities.

In the fifteenth century, German-speaking Waldensians were also an underground movement, surviving through a combination of outward conformity and quiet but tenacious transmission of beliefs within families to subsequent generations. But in Bohemia, and then Moravia, reform ideas were circulating and a new movement was emerging. Influenced by the writings of John Wyclif, but energised also by nationalist stirrings, the movement became associated with Jan Hus, rector of the Bethlehem chapel in Prague. The Hussite reform movement encouraged and breathed new life into the Waldensian groups who came into contact with it.

By the start of the sixteenth century, much of the heat had gone out of the conflict in the Alps. Waldensians had survived, in Italy, France and various German-speaking areas. By the end of this century, the Waldensian movement was absorbed into the Reformation. Exhausted by centuries of repression, it gratefully received the leadership and new energies of Protestantism. From the 1560s the emergence of the Waldensian Church, rather than a loosely linked movement, can be dated, a church which continues to provide an alternative to Catholicism in Italy and elsewhere.

Waldensian beliefs

An 800-year history presents difficulties in trying to set out the beliefs and practices of the Waldensians. These were not uniform everywhere or throughout the centuries, but there are some common features.

(1) Anti-clericalism. Waldensians preached a simple message of repentance, individual responsibility and holy living. They criticised the corruption of the clergy and denied that such men should be trusted. Instead they endorsed lay Bible study. The movement was marked by deep love for the Bible and passionate desire to understand and obey it. They were committed to a ‘believers’ church ecclesiology, where the local congregation ordered its life together, and they were determined to submit to biblical authority alone.

(2) Church structure. There was emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, men and women. The role of the preachers was crucial for the movement, but these leaders were not ordained, nor generally regarded as belonging to a separate class of Christians, nor ranked in any kind of hierarchy. They were committed to a life of celibacy, travelling and poverty, dependent for their support on the gifts of members of the movement. Once trained, they were sent out in pairs to visit scattered groups. Those who were not preachers remained in their homes and jobs, devoting time to Bible study and nurturing their faith in secret. They collected support for the preachers, ran training schools in their homes and, where they could, tried to draw others into the movement.

(3) Ethical integrity. They were not interested in speculative theology or doctrinal issues, but in spirituality and ethics. They called people to follow Jesus and obey his teachings. They advocated personal integrity, simple lifestyle and rejection of greed and excess. They opposed all forms of lying and deception. They also generally rejected the swearing of oaths. And usually they practised what they preached.

(4) Non-violence. Early Waldensians were committed to non-violence, deriving this emphasis from a literal reading of the Gospels. They spoke out against violence: crusades against infidels and warfare in general; killing Jews; execution of thieves who were caught stealing food for their families in times of famine; capital punishment; and coercion in matters of faith. This instinctive non-violence persisted through the centuries, though there are instances of Waldensians resorting to violence. Generally, this was provoked by repression, or the threat presented by defectors who might betray them, and was regarded as necessary to defend homes and family. Occasionally, there seem to have been attempts to use violence for political ends, as a form of revolutionary action.

(5) Rejection of superstition. Waldensians discovered that some familiar Catholic practices had no biblical basis. Gradually they removed these practices from their churches in order to cut back their church life to the simpler pattern they found in the New Testament. They rejected prayers for the dead, regarded indulgences as benefiting greedy priests and challenged the doctrine of purgatory. They rejected official fast days and refused to bow before altars, venerate crosses or treat as special holy bread or water. Somewhat surprisingly, many retained devotion to Mary, despite the teachings of their leaders.

(6) The sacraments. They regarded communion as a remembrance, not a sacrifice, and allowed all to take bread and wine. They rejected the theology of the mass and were dubious about the idea of transubstantiation. Initially many continued to receive communion from the priests, but increasingly communion was celebrated in their homes without clerical involvement. On baptism, there was uncertainty. They were not fully convinced infant baptism was biblical or appropriate, but they seem rarely to have abandoned it.

(7) Confession. The importance of confessing sins, doing penance and receiving absolution was retained throughout the movement. Although some continued to confess to the Catholic priests, in many places their low view of priests precluded these as suitable candidates to hear confession. The natural alternative was the travelling preachers, and they certainly performed this role, but the underlying conviction that all believers were priests allowed the development of the practice of confession to one another.

(8) Mission. A remarkable feature of the movement was its determination to continue pressing ahead despite sustained pressure and opposition. Only in the darkest periods was its energies taken up with survival. At other times missionaries travelled across Europe, risking their lives to spread their convictions. Sometimes new churches were planted. In other places seeds lay dormant for years until watered by similar ideas brought by the Hussites in Bohemia or the Reformers or Anabaptists in central Europe. Much of the evangelism must have been cautious and through quiet conversations, since any form of public witnessing would have incurred severe penalties. There are accounts of evangelists operating as door-to-door salesmen, offering various goods and then referring to more valuable treasures, which could be revealed if the local clergy were not informed about the visit. Where there was a positive response, the gospel would be explained and invitations given to join a study group.