Waldensians: An Historical Overview

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There is much mystery about the sect of Christians known as the Waldensians. Wikipedia provides the common understanding:

Originally known as the “Poor Men of Lyon” in the late twelfth century, the movement spread to the Cottian Alps in what are today France and Italy. The founding of the Waldensians is attributed to Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215 the Waldensians were declared heretical [..] because they were not willing to recognize the prerogatives of local bishops over the content of their preaching, nor to recognize standards about who was fit to preach. Pope Innocent III offered the Waldensians the chance to return to the Church, and many did, taking the name “Poor Catholics”.

As noted in our last discussion on the Albigensians (or Cathars), the problem with many sects who protested the Roman Catholic Church is that most of our written records are exclusively written by the Roman Catholic Church, hardly unbiased sources. Wikipedia confirms:

Most modern knowledge of the medieval history of the Waldensians originates almost exclusively from the records and writings of the Roman Catholic Church, the same body that was condemning them as heretics. Because of “the documentary scarcity and unconnectedness from which we must draw the description of Waldensian beliefs”, much of what is known about the early Waldensians comes from reports like the Profession of faith of Valdo of Lyon (1180); Liber antiheresis by Durando d’Osca (c. 1187–1200); and the Rescriptum of Bergamo Conference (1218). Earlier documents that provide information about early Waldensian history include the Will of Stefano d’Anse (1187); the Manifestatio haeresis Albigensium et Lugdunensium (c. 1206–1208); and the Anonymous chronicle of Lyon (c. 1220). There are also the two reports written for the Inquisition by Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Cathar who converted to Catholicism, published together in 1254 as Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno (On the Cathars and the Poor of Lyon).

All of this makes it seem as if the Waldensians were a minor breakout sect of largely Roman Catholics that disagreed on minor issues related to the episcopal nature of the church and that this was largely resolved, except for a few especially obstinate people who didn’t respond to Pope Innocent III’s offer to return. So eager are Roman Catholics to claim the Waldensians as their own…

The Waldensians were Catholic. Their teachings didn’t become Protestant until the Reformation.

…that we have to be suspicious. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. Without a hint of irony as to its error, Wikipedia further notes:

They were accused, moreover, of having scoffed at the doctrine of transubstantiation, and of having spoken blasphemously of the Catholic Church as the harlot of the Apocalypse. They rejected what they perceived as the idolatry of the Catholic Church and considered the Papacy as the Antichrist of Rome.

Which is it? Were they heretics who mostly just disagreed on the nature of bishops, or did they reject the most cherished core Roman Catholic belief? It cannot be both.

Many denominations claim to trace their ‘true church’ ancestry through the Waldensians: Baptists, Anabaptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and others. The Roman Catholic is eager to claim the Waldensians as their own to cut off the supposed apostolic link of the later Protestants with the earlier protestants—those who protested the Roman Catholic Church’s corruption of doctrine. Their claim is invalid.

Origin

Most critical to the idea that the Waldensians were minor Roman Catholic dissidents is that they existed for an indeterminately long period before Peter Waldo, its alleged founder, was born. A paper from the seventh-day adventists summarizes the evidence:

Comba presented arguments to demonstrate that the name Waldenses derives from valley (“vallis densa” valdensis) or from “vaudès,” indicating also sorcery and heresy,[1] and that they already existed before the time of Waldo. Comba cited Atto, bishop of Vercelli, who in his letters complained of apostates in that mountainous area. And in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Trudon in Belgium, the abbot Rodolf on his way to Rome indicated the Alps as a district with deep-rooted heresy. This was about 50 years before Waldo. Eberhard de Béthune mentioned the name Waldenses more than a decade before Waldo, while the abbot Bernard de Foncald wrote about heretics named “Valdensis” who were condemned during the pontificate of pope Lucius II (1144), nearly three decades before Waldo.[2] Both Eberhard and Bernard said that their name is derived from “vallis densa,” a dreary, deep valley.[3]

Christians had been living in the Alpine regions for centuries, ever since at least 2nd century, which is known from the writings of Eusebius. It was to them that Vigilantius fled in 389AD, after Pope Siricius I excommunicated him. The paper continues:

Further, a letter written by the bishop of Liège to pope Lucius II mentions heretics as “old enemies” who scattered themselves all over France with their own church polity and discipline.[4] This proves clearly that a church organization, apart from Rome, was in existence before the year 1144. Well before the time of Waldo, in the early twelfth century, a report was written in the chronicle of the abbey of Corbie, telling about the activities of a “peculiar and ancient kind of people” inhabiting the Alps, who learned the Bible by heart and often wandered about as merchants. They despised the ceremonies and customs of the church and showed no regard for images and relics.[5]

There is no question that Peter Waldo was an ex-Roman Catholic who joined the Waldensians, but he did not found the church there. Moreover, the confession of Waldo used to extrapolate the beliefs of the Waldensians was written before his conversion. Since Waldo was born in 1140, the mention by Pope Lucius II referring to the Waldensians would have happened when Peter was only 4 years old. The widespread belief that Peter Waldo was the founder of the Waldensians (and thus the name) is in error.

Doctrine

In his condemnation of the Waldensians, Pope Innocent III they held the same doctrines as the Albigensians. Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay complained that the Albigensians had their own bishops and deacons, so we can see why also Peter Waldo found a home with the Waldensians given his own problem with the Roman Catholic episcopal structure. Both the Albigensians and Waldensians held that the bread of communion was just common bread:

“They do not believe the body and blood of Christ to be the true sacrament, but only blessed bread, which by a figure only is called the body of Christ, in like manner as it is said, and the rock was Christ, and such like.” Rainerius Sacchone, 33 errors of the Waldensians, (Annotationes in omnes penè nostri temporis haereses, maximè aute[m] in Waldensium errores, Coussord, Claude p. 127)

There is evidence that the Waldensians—like the Albigensians—rejected the other Roman Catholic innovations of doctrine, but the mere fact of their rejection of the Catholic Mass, with its focus on the liturgy of the Eucharist, is sufficient on its own to conclude that they rejected Roman Catholicism.[6]

Footnotes

[1] Cf. William Jones, The History of the Christian Church Vol. II (London: Paternoster Row, 1826), p. 2; Perrin, Introduction, p. x; Monastier, p. 106; Johannes Florentius Martinet, Kerkelyke Geschiedenis der Waldenzen in de Valeyen van Piemont, tot op deezen tyd (Amsterdam: Wed. Loveringh en Allart, 1775), pp. 14, 15.

[2] Ernesto Comba, De Waldenzen, hun Oorsprong en Geschiedenis (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1927), pp. 7-11.

[3] Monastier, pp. 102-105; George Stanley Faber, An Inquiry into the History and Theology of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses (London: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1838), pp. 351-356.

[4] Monastier, p. 102, n. 2.

[5] Ibid., pp. 181, 182.

[6] We therefore respect the Waldensians, who called themselves the “Poor Men of Lyons”, for following the command of Jesus “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” while objecting to the opulence of the Roman Catholic bishops, mirroring that of the criticisms of Aerius of Sebaste towards the Roman Catholic church in the 4th century.

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