The Waldensians encompass a religious tradition within Western Christianity.
The Waldensians, referring to the traditions of early Christians, advocated apostolic poverty, mutual assistance and simple preaching. They sought a life without private property and the free reading of the Bible.
In the 12th and 13th centuries in southern France alongside the Waldensians, there existed a group called The Albigensians (or Cathars). Though their beliefs had many aspects in common, it is incorrect to say that Waldensians and Cathars were similar.
Nowadays there are still about 45,000 Waldensians, of which 20,000 live in Piemonte (Italy), about 3,000 in Germany, 10,000 are in Argentina and 12,000 in Uruguay.
Origins of the name
There are two versions of the origins of the name Waldensians of the movement:
History of origin
Peter Waldo studied some sections of the translated Bible, and concluded that renouncing one’s wealth and offering one’s property to the poor brings one to the original purity of Christian morals. He and his adherents started preaching the Gospel. They were called Lyonists or “The Poor of Lyon” since they rejected private property. In Milan, the Lombardian Waldensians joined the local community of “humiliates” or “poor in spirit”.
A confrontation arose between the Waldensians and the Catholic Church. Despite this, the Waldensians did not try to leave the official church. The reason for the confrontation was that the Waldensians advocated the free reading of the Bible and freedom of sermon. Only later did they denounce the Catholic rites. In 1179 the Waldensians went to Rome in the hope of gaining the blessing of Pope Alexander III, but the Pope prohibited their preaching. In 1184 during the Verona council, Pope Lucius III excommunicated the Waldensians. Later, in 1215, this action was approved at the Fourth Lateran Council by Pope Innocent III.
In 1211 more than 80 Waldensians were burned at the stake as heretics in the city of Strasbourg. However, despite long-term persecution, the Waldensians continued to spread their beliefs in France, Czechia (Bohemia) and Italy. Their main sanctuaries were the valleys of Savoy and Piemonte.
There was a struggle between the Waldensians and Albigensians and they preached against each other with discussion and dispute. These controversies are the topic of a book called Liber Antiheresis by Durando d’Osca. He was one of Waldo’s adherents who later returned to the Catholic faith.
Although the Waldensians preached the Gospel and a moral life according to the Sermon on the Mount, before the 18th century they were severely persecuted. Pope Sixtus IV organized a Crusade against them, but at about that time a famous Waldensian poem Nobla Leycon was written.
During the Reformation era, many Waldensians joined the new teachings. They became alined with the Swiss Reformed church at the synod of Chanforan in 1532, and soon after the Waldensians addressed Olivetan, John Calvin’s cousin, to translate the Bible into French. In 1535 his work was published with two prologues written by Calvin. These essays are honoured as the first Protestant theological works.
Meanwhile, the fierce persecutions went on. In 1545 in Dauphiné, about 4,000 Waldensians were murdered and hundreds and maybe even thousands were killed by soldiers of the Pope in Mérindol. In 1655 the Piemonte army with bandits and mercenaries from Ireland, killed about 2,000 Waldensians. Later, in 1685 about 3,000 Waldensians were slaughtered by French and Italian soldiers, 10,000 were captured and about 3,000 children were taken to Catholic countries. In 1688 a Waldensian group led by Henri Arnaud and Joshua Janavel fled to Germany since their attempts to return home were unsuccessful.
England and Geneva tried to help and to support the Waldensians in the midst of persecutions. John Milton wrote a poem dedicated to the Piemonte massacre of 1655. This poem led to diplomatic and financial support by Oliver Cromwell.
On February 17, 1848, through the support of the Protestant countries (for example, Prussia) Charles Albert, King of Sardinia granted the Waldensians political rights and freedom of worship.
In the 19th century, many of the Waldensians lived in the Alpine valleys of Val Martino, Val Androna and Val Lucerna. They were famous for their moral and diligent work in the fields and vineyards. There were about 800,000 Waldensians in 1500 but by the 19th century, their numbers had reduced to 25,000. In 1883 there were no more than 14,866 Waldensians living in Italy – 68 communities and 16 mission centres. There was also a Waldensian school in Florence, and in 1879 it had three teachers and seventeen pupils.
The Waldensians had their own newspaper Rivista Christiana. Originally, anyone could become a preacher in the Waldensian community, man or woman, but in 1839 a new church charter was issued. This introduced educational qualifications and a synod approval necessary for the appointment. The synod was the supreme legislative body, which gathered in Waldensian valleys and consisted of clergy and laymen.
During the Second World War Italian Waldensians saved many Jews from being murdered.
In 1975 Italian Methodist Church and Italian Waldensian Church united and formed the Union of Methodist and Waldensian churches. It is now part of the World Church Council.
About 15,000 believers and 40 congregations comprise the Waldensian Church of Argentina and Uruguay which was formed in 1865. There are some Waldensian communities in Germany and the USA which are a part of the local Presbyterian Churches.
The history of this religious tradition is full of brutal executions and persecutions. Nevertheless, enemies could not destroy the faith in the hearts of the people and could not prevent the development and evolvement of the Waldensians.