Peter Waldo and the Waldensians

The Church of Thyatira

“I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Revelation 2:19 NIV).

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Waldo lived around 1150 AD and was a rich merchant from Lyon, France.
One day he heard the story of the rich young ruler asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After some discussion Jesus finally said, “Sell everything that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22 NIV).

The young man in the story went away sad because he was wealthy, but Peter Waldo had a very different reaction. He was so moved that, after making provisions for his wife and children, he eventually distributed his own wealth to the poor. In fact, in 1170 AD he foundered a group known as “The Poor of Lyons.”

Because Waldo and his contemporary followers never wrote about themselves, what we know of their early experiences is gleaned from other sources. Following is a comment on Waldo from a Catholic Inquisitor’s report found in the archives of a church in southern France.

“He arranged for the Gospels and some other books of the Bible to be translated in common speech … which he read very often, though without understanding their import. Infatuated with himself, he usurped the prerogatives of the Apostles by presuming to preach the Gospel in the streets, where he made many disciples, and involving them, both men and women, in a like presumption by sending them out, in turn, to preach. These people, ignorant and illiterate, went about through the towns, entering houses and even churches, spreading many errors round about” (see xenos.org/essays/waldensian-movementwaldo-reformation).

This was written from a Catholic Inquisitor’s perspective. The fact that Waldo gave his substantial wealth to help the poor and encouraged others to do the same and then devote themselves to public witness showed a humble, consecrated lifestyle, not an infatuation with himself.

The Inquisitors’ report goes on to say, “The principal heresy, then, of the aforesaid Waldensians was and still remains the contempt for ecclesiastical power. Excommunicated for this reason and delivered to Satan, they were precipitated into innumerable errors. … The erring followers and sacrilegious masters of this sect hold and teach that they are not subject to the lord Pope or Roman pontiff or to any prelates of the Roman Church.”

Notice the Inquisitor never denounced Waldo’s character. He simply criticized the belief that people were not subject to the Pope or the Roman church. The Inquisitor referred to Waldo’s followers as “Waldensians.” At the beginning of Waldo’s ministry, he and his followers did not have a contempt for ecclesiastical power as the Inquisitor had written. They were simply Catholics who wanted to live simple austere lives and preach the Gospel to the world. It was a noble sentiment from the beginning.

The church had no problem with the Waldensians living in poverty. This was a
common practice in Catholic monasteries, but these brethren did not want to live in monasteries. They desired to help people through preaching of the Word. But the church’s position was that only priests were qualified to preach, and so the Waldensians would have to stop. However, they did not stop, believing that every Christian was divinely authorized to witness, and so they are. Waldo went on to have four Gospels translated into Provence, an ancient version of French. It was the first common language Bible people could read.

Waldo and the Waldensians were excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184. No longer safe in Lyon, France, they took refuge in the beautiful mountains of southeastern France as well as in a region known as Piedmont, a province in Northwestern Italy. Surrounded on three sides by the Alps, their enemies would eventually catch up with them.

At this time in history many groups saw errors in the church and these influenced the thinking of the Waldensians. Some of the common issues among these groups related to the propriety of poverty and asceticism as a means of spiritual growth. They questioned the role of ritualism in their lives. Rather than leaving all religious matters to the priests they espoused laity involvement in Christian service and activity. They questioned the integrity of the clergy and the worldly lifestyle of many priests. They openly questioned Papal interpretations of the Bible. And so with this influence Waldensian doctrinal positions began to form more solidly.

During the 30 or so years between the excommunication of Waldo and the first crusade against the Waldensians, the movement spread at an astonishing rate. There were groups of Waldensians all across southern Europe. People could relate to their views simply by looking at the arrogance and lifestyles of the priests. The Waldensians claimed to preserve a pure and uncorrupted form of primitive Christianity.

By this time in history, Papacy’s Crusades against Muslims had been going on for over a century, but in 1214 AD Crusades against the Waldensians began. It was the first time the crusade concept had been used against nonconforming Christians.

“For twenty long years Languedoc and Provence in France were subjected to a blood bath which not only wiped out the most advanced culture of the time but introduced … into the Church, …the rule that any ideological deviation must be crushed by force” (Giorgio Tourn, The Waldensians, page 18).

This was the pattern that would characterize Roman Catholic reaction to the Waldensians for the next 450 years. The history of the Waldensians during this period is an incredible litany of genocide. It is difficult to know how many Waldensians were murdered, likely in the tens of thousands. The first Crusade began in France, then spread to Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and even Switzerland. The death toll mounted and the prisons filled to capacity.

What is remarkable through all this is that, in spite of the Crusades, the movement continued to grow. The growth came because of their continued witness efforts. Persecution forced their efforts underground. “Men and women, great and lesser, day and night do not cease to learn and teach; the workman who labors all day teaches or learns at night” (Edward Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, page 153).

These brethren persevered through very difficult times. The Waldensians became one of the most widespread non-conformist groups of the Dark Ages. They were excommunicated and became one of the most persecuted groups in history. For almost 700 years, they fled across Europe but would not deny their faith. They loved, they served, they witnessed, they put their lives on the line for the Lord. They thirsted for the Scriptures and they did not let anyone tell them they could not read the Bible.

Looking forward prophetically in time, Jesus said “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance.” We can now look back and clearly see how faith overcame the fear that came with persecution. What a blessing to have the Lord prophetically describe a group of brethren like this. How we should want to share the courage that stands for truth and does not allow opposition to silence our voices. They are part of our Gospel Age heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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