The Waldenses—Heretics or Truth-Seekers?
THE time? The 12th century C.E.—200 years before Wycliffe and Huss and 300 years before Luther. The place? Southern France and the Alpine valleys of that country and northern Italy. The situation? The common people live in poverty and are purposely kept in ignorance by a rich and often profligate clergy class. In all Europe, the Roman Catholic Church reigns supreme, being powerful, opulent and worldly.
Against this background we find a group of people that stand out in stark contrast. They believe the Bible to be the Word of God and endeavor to live according to its righteous principles. They go up hill and down dale, two by two, preaching and teaching whatever truths they have been able to discover by their reading of the parts of the Scriptures available to them in their language. For this, they are hounded as heretics, many paying with their life. Who are they?
They came to be known in France as the Vaudois. Their Catholic persecutors called them, in Latin, Valdenses, from which the English word Waldenses is derived.
Catholic and Protestant historians disagree on the origins of the Waldenses. The former would have us believe that what they term the “heretical sect” of the Waldenses was an isolated phenomenon that suddenly sprang up at the end of the 12th century under the leadership of a Frenchman from Lyons named Valdès or Waldo. Many Protestants, on the other hand, claim that the Waldenses were a link in the unbroken chain of dissenters between the time of Emperor Constantine (fourth century C.E.) and the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. These Protestants are of the opinion that the name Waldenses was derived from the Latin word vallis, meaning “valley,” and refers to the fact that these dissenters, hounded persistently as heretics, were obliged to take refuge in the Alpine valleys of both France and Italy.
Naturally, Catholic historians reject this Protestant explanation as unhistorical. However, by claiming that the Waldenses exploded onto the scene of medieval history with Valdès or Waldo, the Catholic Church is playing down the patent historical fact that there were many other dissenters before Waldo began his preaching in the late 1170’s. The truth seems to be that Waldo and his associates became a rallying point for similar groups of dissenters, some of which had long been in existence.
The Catholic Church would like us to forget that seeds of discontent were present within her midst many years before Waldo. For example, Bishop Agobard of Lyons, France (779-840 C.E.), came out strongly against image worship, churches dedicated to saints and church liturgy that was not in line with the Holy Scriptures.
Across the Alps, in Turin, Italy, a contemporary of Agobard, Bishop Claudius, took a similar stand. He condemned prayers to saints, the veneration of relics and the cross and, in general, rejected church tradition as being opposed to the Scriptures. Claudius of Turin has been called “the first Protestant reformer.” He died sometime between 827 and 839 C.E.
In the 11th century archdeacon Bérenger, or Berengarius, of Tours, France, said to be one of the most influential theologians of his time, opposed the dogma of transubstantiation, maintaining that the bread and wine used to commemorate Christ’s death are emblematic and not miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ. He also upheld the superiority of the Bible over tradition. Bérenger was excommunicated as a heretic in 1050.
Very early in the 12th century two men stand out as prominent dissenters in France. They were Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne. The former began his adult life as a priest in the Alps of southeast France. He soon gave up the priesthood because he disagreed with the church on such important doctrines as infant baptism, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, worship of the cross and the need for church buildings. Banished from the dioceses of the southern Alps, he preached directly to the people throughout southern France, making many disciples. He was finally burned at the stake at St. Gilles, near Arles, in 1140.
The work of Peter of Bruys was continued by Henry of Lausanne, also called Henry of Cluny. He was a monk who, as early as 1101, had begun speaking out boldly against church liturgy, the corrupt clergy of his day and the religious hierarchy system. He maintained that the Bible is the sole rule of faith and worship. Henry of Lausanne started his preaching at Le Mans, in western France. Expelled from there, he continued his missionary work throughout southern France, eventually meeting up with Peter of Bruys. In 1148 he was arrested and thrown into prison for life. But the ideas of these men spread like wildfire from the southern Alps to the Mediterranean and right across southern France to the Bay of Biscay.
WALDO AND THE “POOR MEN OF LYONS”
It was in this historical setting that a layman came onto the scene in Lyons, France. Nothing is known of this man’s birth, said to have occurred around 1140 C.E. Even his name is something of a mystery, being variously spelled Valdès, Valdo or Waldo. The forename Pierre, or Peter, does not appear in any manuscript dated earlier than 1368. The name is thought to have been attributed to him by his later followers, to indicate that he was a more worthy imitator of the apostle Peter than were the popes of Rome, who claim to be Peter’s successors.
Waldo was a wealthy merchant of Lyons. He was married and had two daughters. Being a devout man and a practicing Catholic, he asked a theologian friend for Scriptural advice on what he should do to please God. In reply, his friend quoted Matthew 19:21, where Jesus told the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go sell your belongings and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, and come be my follower.”
Waldo took this counsel to heart. After making provision for his wife and putting his two daughters in a convent, he commissioned two priests, Etienne d’Anse and Bernard Ydros, to translate the Gospels and other Bible books into the vernacular language spoken in the Provence and Dauphiné provinces of southeastern France. He then distributed the remainder of his worldly possessions among the poor and set about studying the Word of God. Moreover, he preached in the streets of Lyons, inviting the inhabitants to awake spiritually and to return to simple, Biblical Christianity.
Having been well known as a prosperous businessman, Waldo gained many hearing ears and soon had a group of followers. They rejoiced at hearing the Bible’s comforting message in their own tongue, for up to that time the church had prevented the translating of the Bible into any language other than Latin. Many agreed to give up their belongings and to devote themselves to teaching the Bible in the language of the common people. They became known as the “Poor Men of Lyons.”
This lay preaching aroused the ire of the clergy. In 1179 Pope Alexander III forbade Waldo and his followers to preach without permission of the local bishop. As was to be expected, Bishop Bellesmains of Lyons refused to consent to this. Historical records indicate that, faced with this ban, Waldo replied to the hierarchy in the words of Acts 5:29: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”
Waldo and his associates kept on preaching. So in 1184 Pope Lucius III excommunicated them, and the bishop of Lyons banished them from his diocese. The result was similar to what occurred when the early Christians were hounded out of Jerusalem. Of them, the Bible states: “Those who had been scattered went through the land declaring the good news of the word.”—Acts 8:1-4.
These 12th-century dissenters took refuge in the Alps and throughout southern France, teaching the Bible as they went from place to place. Undoubtedly they met up with other dissident groups, such as the followers of Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne. Across the Alpine passes leading into northern Italy, they met up with dissident groups that already existed in the valleys of Piedmont and Lombardy. These Bible-oriented dissident groups, who later became known all over Europe as the Waldenses, are to be distinguished from contemporary “heretical” groups, such as the Cathars and the Albigenses, whose doctrines were based more on Persian philosophy than on the Bible. Historical records show that by the beginning of the 13th century Waldenses were to be found not only in southern France and northern Italy but also in eastern and northern France, Flanders, Germany, Austria and even Bohemia, where Waldo is said to have died in 1217.
THE SEARCH FOR BIBLE TRUTH
Whether Waldo was the actual founder of the Waldenses or not, to him must go the credit for taking the initiative of having the Bible translated from Latin into the vernacular languages then spoken by the common people to whom he and his associates preached. And remember, this was some 200 years before Wycliffe translated the Bible for English-speaking dissidents.
The basic position of the early Waldenses was that the Bible is the one source of religious truth. In a world that was just emerging from what has been termed the “Dark Ages,” they groped in search of Christian truth. They apparently did the best they could with the few books of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures they possessed in a language they could read and understand. It would seem, from certain records, that they did not get straightened out on such doctrines as the Trinity, immortality of the soul and hellfire.
Nonetheless, these early Waldenses understood the Bible well enough to reject image worship, transubstantiation, infant baptism, purgatory, the worship of Mary, prayers to saints, veneration of the cross and relics, deathbed repentance, confession to priests, Masses for the dead, papal pardons and indulgences, priestly celibacy and the use of carnal weapons. They also rejected imposing, elaborate church buildings and considered “Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots” to be the Church of Rome, from which they invited their listeners to flee. (Rev. 17:5; 18:4) All of this in the late 12th and early 13th centuries!
In their preaching work the early Waldenses taught the Bible, laying much emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Model Prayer, both of which set forth God’s kingdom as the thing to pray for and to seek first. (Matt. 6:10, 33) They maintained that any Christian man or woman who possessed a sufficient knowledge of the Bible was authorized to preach the “good news.” Additionally, they believed Jesus to be the only intermediary between God and man. Inasmuch as Jesus had died once for all time, they held that his sacrifice could not be renewed by a priest celebrating Mass. The early Waldenses celebrated the Memorial of Christ’s death once a year, using bread and wine as symbols.
PREACHING BRINGS PERSECUTION
The primitive Waldenses contended that it is not necessary to go to a church building to worship God. They held underground meetings in barns, private homes or wherever they could do so. There they studied the Bible and trained new preachers, who were sent out with more experienced ones. They traveled two by two from farm to farm and, in the towns and villages, from house to house. The authoritative Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Vol. 15, column 2591) states in an article that is otherwise unfavorable to the Waldenses: “From their very earliest years, their children began to learn the Gospels and the Epistles. The preaching of their deacons, priests and bishops consisted mainly of quotations from the Bible.”
Other works inform us that the Waldenses had a fine reputation for hard work, high morality and honesty in paying their taxes. They disfellowshiped unrepentant sinners. Moreover, they have been called “the most ancient and the most evangelical of the medieval sects.”
Such were these God-fearing people who were hunted down by their religious persecutors, many of them being burned at the stake. A great number of them were victims of the terrible crusade that Pope Innocent III ordered in 1209 against the Cathars and the Albigenses in the south of France. Others were tortured and killed by the dreaded Inquisition that began in southern France in 1229. Some of the Waldenses succeeded in fleeing to other countries, and many more took refuge in the high mountain valleys of the French and Italian Alps, where Waldensian communities survived for centuries.
However, as time passed by, many of the Biblical doctrines that Waldo and others had discovered by reading the Bible were abandoned. In the early 16th century, the Waldenses were absorbed by the Protestant Reformation. Toward the end of the 17th century they even took up arms.
But the early Waldenses, although accused of being “heretics,” were in fact sincere truth-seekers and pioneers in Bible translation, Bible teaching and simple Christian living. To be sure, they did not break free from all the false doctrines of Babylonish false religion. But they apparently lived up to the knowledge they had of God’s Word. Many, it would appear, were willing to die rather than renounce their faith. Of course, only “Jehovah knows those who belong to him.” We can, therefore, safely leave any reward of future life in his hands.—2 Tim. 2:19.