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Waldensian symbol <i>Lux lucet in tenebris</i> ("A light shines in the darkness")
Waldensian symbol Lux lucet in tenebris ("A light shines in the darkness")

The Waldensians (also known as Waldenses (/wɔːlˈdɛnsiːz, wɒl-/), Vallenses, Valdesi or Vaudois) are an ascetic movement within Christianity, reputedly founded by Peter Waldo in Lyon around 1173.[1][2]

The Waldensian movement first appeared in Lyon in the late 1170s[1][2] and quickly spread to the Cottian Alps in what is today France and Italy. True to its historic roots, the Waldensian movement today is centred on Piedmont in Northern Italy, and small communities are also found in Southern Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, the United States, and Uruguay. Today the two biggest Waldensian congregations are the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches and the Evangelical Waldensian Church of Río de la Plata.[3][4]

The movement originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon,[5] a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church. By 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution; the group was nearly annihilated in the 17th century and was confronted with organised and general discrimination in the centuries that followed. In the era of the Reformation, the Waldensians influenced early Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger. Upon finding the ideas of other reformers similar to their own, they quickly merged into the larger Protestant movement. With the Resolutions of Chanforan on 12 September 1532, they formally became a part of the Calvinist tradition.

In the 16th century, Waldensian leaders embraced the Protestant Reformation and joined various local Protestant regional entities. As early as 1631, Protestant scholars and Waldensian theologians themselves began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, who had maintained the apostolic faith in the face of Catholic oppression. Modern Waldensians share core tenets with Calvinists, including the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity and a "low" view of certain sacraments such as Communion and Baptism. They are members of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe and its affiliates worldwide.

The main denomination within the movement was the Waldensian Evangelical Church, the original church in Italy. In 1975, it merged with the Methodist Evangelical Church to form the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches—a majority Waldensian church, with a minority of Methodists.[6][7][8]

Congregations continue to be active in Europe, South America, and North America.

Historical sources

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.[10] Because of "the documentary scarcity and unconnectedness from which we must draw the description of Waldensian beliefs,"[11] much of what is known about the early Waldensians comes from reports like the Profession of faith of Valdo of Lyon (1180); Durando d'Osca (c. 1187–1200) Liber antiheresis; 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).[12]


Waldensians held and preached a number of truths as they read from the Bible.

They also rejected a number of concepts that were widely held in Christian Europe of the era.

The "La nobla leyczon" ("the noble lesson"), written in the Occitan language, gives a sample of the medieval Waldensian belief. It was believed that this poem dated between 1190 and 1240,[16] but there is evidence that it was written in the first part of the fifteenth century.[17] The poem exists in four manuscripts: two are housed at University of Cambridge, one at Trinity College in Dublin, and another in Geneva.[17]


It was once held that the Waldenses were first taught by Paul the Apostle who visited Spain and then allegedly traveled on to the Piedmont. As the Catholic Church indulged in excesses in the time of Constantine (Roman Emperor from 306 to 337) - the account tells - the Waldenses held true to their apostolic faith of poverty and piety. These claims were discounted in the nineteenth century.[2]

There were also other claims that the Waldensians predated Peter Waldo's activities in the late 12th century.

Monastier also says that Eberard de Béthune, writing in 1210 (although Monastier says 1160), claimed that the name Vaudois meant "valley dwellers" or those who "dwell in a vale of sorrow and tears", and was in use before the times of Peter Waldo.

Waldensians feature in the theories of Baptist successionism and Landmarkism concerning an alleged continuous tradition of practices and beliefs from John the Baptist onwards.[23]

According to legend, Peter Waldo renounced his wealth as an encumbrance to preaching,[24] which led other members of the Catholic clergy to follow his example.

The Waldensian movement was characterized from the beginning by lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict adherence to the Bible.

In 1179, Waldo and one of his disciples went to Rome, where Pope Alexander III and the Roman Curia welcomed them. They had to explain their faith before a panel of three clergymen, including issues that were then debated within the Church, such as the universal priesthood, the gospel in the vulgar tongue, and the issue of voluntary poverty. The results of the meeting were inconclusive, and the Third Lateran Council in the same year condemned Waldo's ideas, but not the movement itself; the leaders of the movement had not yet been excommunicated.[2]

The Waldensians proceeded to disobey the Third Lateran Council and continued to preach according to their own understanding of the Scriptures.

Waldo and his followers developed a system whereby they would go from town to town and meet secretly with small groups of Waldensians.

Early Waldensians belonged to one of three groups:[29]

  • map showing the spread of PaulicianismSandaliati (those with sandals) received sacred orders and were to prove the heresiarchs wrong
  • Doctores instructed and trained missionaries
  • Novellani preached to the general population

They were also called Insabbatati, Sabati, Inzabbatati, or Sabotiers—designations arising from the unusual type of sabot they used as footwear.[30]The%20n]][31][32] nd that their history may have its origins in the apostolic age,[15] though this idea itself stems from Baptist Successionism, an idea that was very popular among some 19th century Church historians but has been largely rejected by modern scholars in the field. The Roman Inquisitor Reinerus Sacho, writing c. 1230, held the sect of the Vaudois to be of great antiquity, thus preceding Waldo by centuries. According to some early baptist sources there are also accounts of Paulicians, Petrobusians, and Pasaginians, along with the Waldenses of the Alps, who kept Saturday as the Lord's day,[34]. The Sabbatati were known also by the name Pasigini. In reference to the Sabbath-keeping Pasigini, one scholar wrote:

The Catholic Church viewed the Waldensians as unorthodox, and in 1184 at the Synod of Verona, under the auspices of Pope Lucius III, they were excommunicated. Pope Innocent III went even further during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, officially denouncing the Waldensians as heretics.[37][38] In 1211 more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics at Strasbourg; this action launched several centuries of persecution that nearly destroyed the movement.[39] Waldensians briefly ruled Buda, the capital of Hungary from 1304 to 1307. The Waldensians in turn excommunicated Pope Benedict XI.[40]

In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull[41] for the extermination of the heresies of the Vaudois. Alberto de' Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, responded to the bull by organizing a crusade to fulfill its order and launched an offensive in the provinces of Dauphiné and Piedmont. Charles I, Duke of Savoy, eventually interfered to save his territories from further turmoil and promised the Vaudois peace, but not before the offensive had devastated the area and many of the Vaudois had fled to Provence or south to Italy.

The theologian Angelo Carletti di Chivasso, whom Innocent VIII in 1491 appointed Apostolic Nuncio and Commissary conjointly with the Bishop of Mauriana, was involved in reaching a peaceful agreement between Catholics and Waldensians.[42]

When the news of the Reformation reached the Waldensian Valleys, the Tavola Valdese decided to seek fellowship with the nascent Protestantism. At a meeting held in 1526 in Laus, a town in the Chisone valley, it was decided to send envoys to examine the new movement. In 1532, they met with German and Swiss Protestants and ultimately adapted their beliefs to those of the Reformed Church.

The Swiss and French Reformed churches sent William Farel and Anthony Saunier to attend the meeting of Chanforan, which convened on 12 October 1532. Farel invited them to join the Reformation and to emerge from secrecy. A Confession of Faith, with Reformed doctrines, was formulated and the Waldensians decided to worship openly in French.

The French Bible, translated by Pierre Robert Olivétan with the help of Calvin and published at Neuchâtel in 1535, was based in part on a New Testament in the Waldensian vernacular. The churches in Waldensia collected 1500 gold crowns to cover the cost of its publication.[43]

Outside the Piedmont, the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France, and Germany.

The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives permitted to return home, but despite this treaty, the Vaudois, with the other French Protestants, still suffered during the French Wars of Religion in 1562–1598.

As early as 1631, Protestant scholars began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, in a manner similar to the way the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, also persecuted by authorities, were viewed.

Although the Waldensian church was granted some rights and freedoms under French King Henry IV, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, persecution rose again in the 17th century, with an extermination of the Waldensians attempted by the Duke of Savoy in 1655. This led to the exodus and dispersion of the Waldensians to other parts of Europe and even to the Western hemisphere.

In January 1655, the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys of their homeland, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. Being in the midst of winter, the order was intended to persuade the Vaudois to choose the former; however, the bulk of the populace instead chose the latter, abandoning their homes and lands in the lower valleys and removing to the upper valleys. It was written that these targets of persecution, including old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received."[45]

By mid-April, when it became clear that the Duke's efforts to force the Vaudois to conform to Catholicism had failed, he tried another approach.

The Duke's forces did not simply slaughter the inhabitants.

This massacre became known as the Piedmont Easter.

In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects in France. French troops sent into the French Waldensian areas of the Chisone and Susa Valleys in the Dauphiné forced 8,000 Vaudois to convert to Catholicism and another 3,000 to leave for Germany.

In the Piedmont, the cousin of Louis, the newly ascended Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, followed his uncle in removing the protection of Protestants in the Piedmont. In the renewed persecution, and in an echo of the Piedmont Easter Massacre of only three decades earlier, the Duke issued an edict on 31 January 1686 that decreed the destruction of all the Vaudois churches and that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment. But the Vaudois remained resistant. After the fifteen days, an army of 9,000 French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys against the estimated 2,500 Vaudois, but found that every village had organized a defense force that kept the French and Piedmontese soldiers at bay.

On 9 April, the Duke of Savoy issued a new edict, enjoining the Waldensians to put down their arms within eight days and go into exile between 21 and 23 April.

Waldensian pastor Henri Arnaud (1641–1721), who had been driven out of the Piedmont in the earlier purges, returned from Holland. On 18 April he made a stirring appeal before an assembly at Roccapiatta, winning over the majority in favor of armed resistance. When the truce expired on 20 April, the Waldensians were prepared for battle.

They put up a brave fight over the next six weeks, but by the time the Duke retired to Turin on 8 June, the war seemed decided: 2,000 Waldensians had been killed; another 2,000 had "accepted" the Catholic theology of the Council of Trent.

But about two or three hundred Vaudois fled to the hills and began carrying out a guerilla war over the next year against the Catholic settlers who arrived to take over the Vaudois lands.

Arnaud and others now sought help of the allied European powers.

By 2 May 1689, with only 300 Waldensian troops remaining, and cornered on a high peak called the Balsiglia, by 4,000 French troops with cannons, the final assault was delayed by storm and then by cloud cover. The French commander was so confident of completing his job the next morning that he sent a message to Paris that the Waldensian force had already been destroyed. However, when the French awoke the next morning they discovered that the Waldensians, guided by one of their number familiar with the Balsiglia, had already descended from the peak during the night and were now miles away.

The French pursued, but only a few days later a sudden change of political alliance by the Duke, from France to the League of Augsburg, ended the French pursuit of the Waldensians.

After the French Revolution, the Waldenses of Piedmont were assured liberty of conscience and, in 1848, the ruler of Savoy, King Charles Albert of Sardinia granted them civil rights.

Enjoying religious freedom, the Waldensians began migrating outside their valleys.

Waldensian scholarship also flourished in the nineteenth century.

In 2015, after a historic visit to a Waldensian Temple in Turin, Pope Francis, in the name of the Catholic Church, asked Waldensian Christians for forgiveness for their persecution. The Pope apologized for the Church's "un-Christian and even inhumane positions and actions".[55]

The present Waldensian Church considers itself to be a Protestant church of the Reformed tradition originally framed by Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin.[2] It recognizes as its doctrinal standard the confession of faith published in 1655 and based on the Reformed confession of 1559. It admits only two ceremonies, baptism and the Lord's Supper.[2] Supreme authority in the body is exercised by an annual synod, and the affairs of the individual congregations are administered by a consistory under the presidency of the pastor.[2]

Over the centuries, Waldensian churches have been established in countries as far away from France as Uruguay and the United States where the active Waldensian congregations continue the purpose of the Waldensian movement.

Appraisal by Protestants

Some early Protestants felt a spiritual kinship to the Waldensians and wrote positively about them.

Some Anabaptist and Baptist authors have pointed to the Waldensians as an example of earlier Christians who were not a part of the Catholic Church, and who held beliefs they interpreted to be similar to their own. In the 17th to the 19th centuries, Dutch and German Mennonite writers like van Braght, Martyrs Mirror (1660)[56] and Steven Blaupot ten Cate, Geschiedkundig onderzoek (1844),[57][58] linked Anabaptist origins to the Waldensians. Baptist authors like John L. Waller also linked their origins to the Waldensians.[59][60][61][62]A%20Concise%20History%20of%20Baptist]][63][64][65]James Aitken Wylie apostolic Middle Ages[66]

Still later, Seventh-day Adventist Ellen G. White taught that the Waldenses were preservers of biblical truth during the Great Apostasy of the Catholic Church.[67] She showed how the Waldenses kept the seventh-day Sabbath,[68] engaged in widespread missionary activity, and "planted the seeds of the Reformation" in Europe.[69][70]

Scholar Michael W. Homer links the belief in an ancient origin of the Waldensians to three 17th century pastors, Jean-Paul Perrin of the Reformed Church of France and the Waldensian pastors Pierre Gilles and Jean Léger, who posited that the Waldensians were descendants of Primitive Christianity.[71]

Some authors[72][73] try to date a Reformation-era Waldensian confession of faith back into the Middle Ages in 1120 to assert their claim of doctrinal antiquity.[74] However, in the current historiography from the Waldensians themselves it is asserted that this confession was drafted in 1531.[74][76]

Protestant theology in Germany was interested in the doctrinal antiquity and apostolic continuity being expressed by the Waldensian faith.

Waldensians by region

In 1848, after many centuries of harsh persecution, the Waldensians acquired legal freedom in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as a result of the liberalising reforms which followed Charles Albert of Sardinia's granting a constitution (the Statuto Albertino). Subsequently, the Waldensian Evangelical Church, as it became known, developed and spread through the Italian peninsula.

The Waldensian church was able to gain converts by building schools in some of the poorer regions of Italy, including Sicily.

During the Nazi occupation of North Italy in the Second World War, Italian Waldensians were active in saving Jews faced with imminent extermination, hiding many of them in the same mountain valley where their own Waldensian ancestors had found refuge in earlier generations.[83]Christianity%20Outsid]][84]

After 1945, the Evangelical Church in Germany led by Theophil Wurm (who was also Bishop of Württemberg) issued the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt and actively contributed to reconciliation efforts with Italy (and France) based on relationships with the diaspora. The 1948 centenary festivities of the Savoy civil rights declaration were used for efforts of EKD leading staff to support German Italian reconciliation after WW-II.[80]Italienische%20Waldenser%20und%20d]]A most fruitful cooperation was established at the community level, with Waldensian delegates from both sides pioneering.[80] ck to Maulbronn, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Waldensian emigration to Germany.[80] He was unable to come for reasons of health but sent A. Jalla, a teacher, described as being full of spite and hatred against all things German after 1945, but who joined in the effort for reconciliation 1949.[80] Based on these experiences, the first town-twinning partnership between Germany and France was signed 1950 between Ludwigsburg and the Protestant exclave Montbéliard, again based on a special connection of the Württemberg Landeskirche. The German Gustavus Adolphus Union is supportive of Waldesian projects and charitable efforts in Italy till the present.[85]

In 1975, the Waldensian Church joined the Methodist Evangelical Church in Italy to form the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches. It has 50,000 members (45,000 Waldensians, of whom 30,000 in Italy and some 15,000 divided between Argentina and Uruguay, and 5,000 Methodists).

The Eight per thousand tax introduced 1985 in Italy greatly helped the Waldensian community. The Eight per thousand (Italian: otto per mille) law allows taxpayers to choose to whom they devolve a compulsory 8 ‰ = 0.8% ('eight per thousand') from their annual income tax return. They may choose an organised religion recognised by Italy or a social assistance scheme run by the Italian State. While the Waldensians have only about 25,000 enlisted members, more than 600,000 Italians are willing to support the Waldensian community and its charitable works.[86] The ordination of women and, since 2010, the blessing of same-sex unions[87][88] are allowed.

The first Waldensian settlers from Italy arrived in South America in 1856.

The Uruguayan town Colonia Valdense, in the department of Colonia, is the administrative center of the Waldensian Evangelical Church of the River Plate.

Since colonial times there have been Waldensians who sailed to America, as marked by the presence of them in New Jersey and Delaware. Many Waldensians, having escaped persecution in their homelands by making their way to the tolerant Dutch Republic, crossed the Atlantic to start anew in the New Netherland colony, establishing the first church in North America on Staten Island in 1670.[90]

In the late 19th century many Italians, among them Waldensians, emigrated to the United States.

In 1853 a group of approximately 70 Waldensians, including men, women, and children left their homes in the Piedmont Valleys and migrated to Pleasant Green, Hunter, and Ogden, Utah, after being converted to Mormonism by Lorenzo Snow. These Waldensians maintained their cultural heritage, while passing on their mixture of Mormon and Waldensian faiths to their descendants. Their descendants still consider themselves both Mormon and Waldensian, and have met occasionally over the many decades to celebrate both heritages.[93][94][95][96]

In 1906, through the initiative of church forces in New York City, Waldensian interest groups were invited to coalesce into a new entity, The American Waldensian Aid Society (AWS), organized "to collect funds and apply the same to the aid of the Waldensian Church in Italy and elsewhere... and to arouse and maintain interest throughout the US in the work of said Church."

By the 1920s most of the Waldensian churches and missions merged into the Presbyterian Church due to the cultural assimilation of the second and third generations.

The work of the American Waldensian Society continues in the United States today.

The best known Waldensian Churches in America were in New York, Monett, Missouri and in Valdese, North Carolina.

The American Waldensian Society assists churches, organizations and families in the promotion of Waldensian history and culture.

The Waldensian Presbyterian churches in the United States and the American Waldensian Society have links with the Italian-based Waldensian Evangelical Church, but, unlike the South American Waldensian communities, today they are independent institutions from the European organization.

Several thousand Waldenses fled from Italy and France to Germany.

Main parts of the Waldensian refugees found a new home in Hessen-Darmstadt, Kassel, Homburg, Nassau-Dillenburg and in the then Grand Duchée Württemberg. The founded new communities in Rohrbach, Wembach und Hahn (today part of Ober-Ramstadt), Walldorf (today Mörfelden-Walldorf), Bad Homburg-Dornholzhausen, Gottstreu and Gewissenruh (Oberweser), Charlottenberg. Still today, French family names (Gille, Roux, Granget, Conle, Gillardon, Common, Jourdan, Piston, Richardon, Servay, Conte, Baral, Gay, Orcellet or Salen) show the Savoyard background. Stuttgart hosts as well an Italian Waldensian community with about 100 members.

Municipality names like Pinache, Serres (both now part of Wiernsheim), Großvillars, Kleinvillars (part of Oberderdingen), Perouse show the French heritage, the latter communities are close to Maulbronn and its UNESCO world heritage site monastery and school. Maulbronn was the place of the festivities for the 250th anniversary of the Waldensian emigration to Germany,[80]Italienische%20Waldenser%20und%20d]]which played as well an important role in German Italian reconciliation after World War II.[80]

The Waldensian community is active and has various associations maintaining the specific heritage and keep relationships with their counterparts in Italy and South America.[99][100][101][102] That includes as well a close watch on the ecumene, with the Waldensian-influenced theologians being more doubtful about a stronger cooperation with the Catholic Church than others.

See also

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