A Waldensian Church History
The following explanation of the Waldensian story was written by Albert De Lange*, a church historian who is much appreciated by Italian Waldensians
The long, eventful history of the Waldensians began more than 800 years ago. At that time most Europeans lived in the countryside and their lives were largely dominated by the nobility and the clergy. In the 12th century, however, Europe’s cities developed into centers of trade and crafts and the number of their inhabitants began to increase. A new social class, the bourgeoisie, emerged in the towns. At the same time, large numbers of destitute people also moved to the cities. In this way, a dangerous gap began to develop between rich and poor.
Many 12th century Europeans regarded this economic and social development with concern. They asked themselves if their wealth was a threat to their salvation. They sought spiritual guidance on this question from the clergy in vain. At that time, the Catholic Church was at the climax of its worldly power. The Pope was even sometimes able to impose his will on the Holy Roman Emperor. In the eyes of many lay people, a church so committed to increasing the defending its power would not be able to give spiritual guidance to ordinary Christians and, therefore, they felt they had no choice but to seek an answer to their questions themselves.
Valdes of Lyon belonged to this group of concerned lay people. He had parts of the Bible translated, searching for an answer to his questions. When he read about how Jesus told the apostles to give away their possessions to the poor and to follow him in preaching the Gospel, Valdes came to the conviction that this was the right way to obtain salvation. In the year 1173 he divided his possessions among the poor, travelled as a wandering preacher and lived only on charity. In this way the movement of “Christ’s Poor”, as the followers of Valdes called themselves, came into existence over 800 years ago. At that time, they were only called Waldensians by their enemies.
Up until his death (around 1206-07) Valdes attempted to avoid a breach with the Catholic Church. “Christ’s Poor” sought to renew the Church from within through their itinerant preaching and wanted, in this way, to lead the Church back to the apostolic way of life. However, the Church was not willing to accept the preaching of lay persons. As early as 1184 the Waldensians were condemned as heretics by the Pope, not on the grounds of false doctrine but because they preached without permission from the Church. For this reason, the Waldensians were forced to go into hiding.
Nevertheless, their movement expanded in the 13th century as far as north of the Alps. The mainstay of the movement was the itinerant preachers who lived in poverty and were unmarried. Disguised as merchants, they travelled from community to community. They no longer limited themselves to preaching but also began administering the sacraments, especially communion and confession. The Waldensian movement grew into a type of underground alternative church. Its members were mainly craftsmen, farmers and women. The Bible was their only authority. The Sermon on the Mount was to be taken literally. Therefore, the Waldensians rejected violence in every form, including violence on the part of rulers. They also felt especially bound by the commandment which forbids the swearing of oaths (Mathew 5:34).
The persecutions of the 14th and 15th centuries hit the Waldensians hard. They were persecuted, tortured and often denounced as “witches”. Hundreds were burned. In this way, the Waldensians were pushed back to the Cottian Alps between Grenoble and Turin. There they lived partly in French territory and partly in the territory of Piedmont. These last remnants of “Christ’s Poor” joined the Reformation in 1532 at Chanforan near present day Torre Pellice and decided to have the Bible newly translated from the original languages into French.
This development signified a far-reaching turning point in the history of the Waldensians. The Waldensians themselves did not regard their union with the Reformation as a break with the past but rather as a continuation of the pre-Reformation Waldensian movement, which had sought to live according to the commandments of the Bible long before the Reformation.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Waldensians were increasingly driven into a corner. The Waldensians from the French territory in the Cottian Alps had to flee in 1685 when King Louis XIV prohibited the Reformed religion. The Waldensians from the Piedmontese part of the Cottian Alps in present day Italy also suffered severe persecution and were expelled in 1686-87. However, they were able to return to their Valleys in 1689 by force of arms and were tolerated in Piedmont from 1690 on due to the diplomatic support of Protestants abroad. When they finally gained their civil rights in 1848, they attempted to evolve from a small French-speaking Calvinist church for birthright Waldensians in the Piedmontese valleys into a larger Italian-speaking Protestant church for the whole of Italy. This aspiration was particularly successful after World War II. The Protestant Federation (FCEI) of Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Waldensians and the Salvation Army in Italy was established in 1967. In 1979, the Waldensian Church entered into union with the Methodist Church and in 1990 decided on a closer collaboration with the Baptists.
Today the “Chiesa Evangelica Valdese” of Italy has a total of just under 20,000 adult members. The memory of Valdes is still alive. Waldensians consider it their task to proclaim the biblical message, to call people to imitate the example of Jesus Christ and to engage actively in Italy’s political and social life.
The author, Albert De Lange, was born in 1952 in Zwolle in the Netherlands and studied theology from 1970 to 1977 at the Reformed Theology Faculty in Kampen, Netherlands. From 1986 to 1990, he worked as an historian at the Society for Waldensian Studies in Torre Pellice. Since 1990 he has lived in Germany, most recently in Karlsruhe, where he works as a church historian specializing in the Waldensian history of the post medieval era. Albert de Lange was one of the presenters at a recent symposium in Valdese, North Carolina, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the town by Waldensian immigrants.
[This story originally was posted by the American Waldensian Society.]