Leben readers are acquainted with our staff writer Greg Uttinger, but in this issue we are pleased to introduce his daughter Emily, who reminds us that long before Luther and Calvin there were reformers committed to reclaiming the Gospel.

“Do you believe in God the Father?” asked Walter Map, the interrogator.

“We do,” they replied.

“And in the Son?”

“We do.”

“And in the Holy Spirit?”

“We do.”

“And in the Mother of Christ?”

“We do.”

After the last answer, the Third Lateran Council delegates erupted into laughter because the answer was technically incorrect. The precise title of Mary, as decided by the Council of Ephesus in 431, is Theotokos, or, Godbearer. “The Mother of Christ” was the title the Nestorians had given to Mary to imply that the child she bore was not God. Furthermore, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church applied the words, “believe in,” only to the three Persons of the Trinity, not to Mary, a mere creature.1Giorgio Tourn, You Are My Witnesses (Torino, Italy: Claudiana Editrice, 1989), 20.

Waldensian Emblem — candle burning in the darkness, 1895

Those being examined were followers of a wealthy Lyonnese named Valdesius. In French his name is Valdes, in Italian, Valdo, and in English, Waldo.2Ibid., 309.

Peter Valdes was most likely a merchant. Valdes commissioned the translation of the Bible and other theological works into the vernacular. And then he did something equally unusual. He gave his wealth away to the poor.
Soon he amassed followers, called appropriately enough, “the Poor.” They were not all poor or homeless. Many were middle class merchants and artisans.

Heeding Jesus’ command in Matthew 10, the Poor went out preaching two by two, without a purse, and wearing sandals. The preachers included men and women who wished to remain lay preachers, avoiding a hierarchy of clergy as the Roman Catholics had done. The Poor did not want to withdraw and become hermits and monks, but rather to remain part of city life. The Poor also wanted the emphasis of their preaching to be the gospel.3Ibid., 16.

Soon there was conflict between the Poor and the local bishops. The bishops believed that, as the successors of the apostles, it was their job to preach. The Poor believed that anyone who lived like an apostle of Christ could preach.4Ibid.

Valdes and a few of his followers decided to attend the Third Lateran Council in 1179 to obtain the pope’s approval for their work. The Poor brought a copy of their translation of the Bible and presented it to Pope Alexander III. The pope received it, but told them that the issue of preaching had to be solved by their local bishop. The interrogation by Walter Map raised the suspicions of the clergy.

Around 1182 the archbishop of Lyon forbade Valdes and his followers to preach, expelling them from his diocese.
Two years later the Council of Verona listed the Poor as a schismatic movement. They were condemned, banished, and further persecuted, ending up in southern France.

About this time the movement also spread to northern Italy, reaching Lombardy, where it caught fire. While the Poor of Lyon emphasized missionary preaching, the Poor of Lombardy emphasized Christian community. The Poor of Lyon were itinerant preachers, without a fixed home or job. They believed that work was not helpful in preaching and that accumulating wealth was a temptation to sin. The Poor of Lombardy, many of whom were artisans and craftsmen, believed that their work was an opportunity for them to witness.

The tension between the two groups increased. Some of the Lyonnese Poor even tried to reengage with the Roman Catholic Church. (A few years after Valdes’ death, a few Lyonnese Poor, led by Durand of Huesca, were readmitted to the Roman Catholic Church and founded their own order, calling themselves the Poor Catholics.)5Ibid., 24. In 1205, the differences between the Lyonnese and the Lombards grew so great that Valdes split from the Lombards.6Ibid., 24-25.

In 1208 a crusade was called against the Cathari, now called Albigensians. (The religion of the Cathari was dualistic and Gnostic.) This resulted in the destruction of many Waldensian groups as well. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Poor were officially condemned, and the papacy launched an official crusade against them.
As a result, representatives from the Poor of Lyon and the Poor of Lombardy met and discussed their situation. In the end, “the missionary spirit of the Lyonnese was no longer seen as a stumbling block, but as complementary to the more concrete work of the Lombards.” Thus the societas valdesiana was created, and the Poor became more commonly called the Waldensians.7Ibid., 27.

Meanwhile, Lombardy was being torn apart by the struggle between the two warring factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. The Guelfs favored the papacy and were generally middle class burghers. The Ghibellines were anti-papacy and were normally aristocrats.8Archibald T. MacAllister’s introduction to John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno (New York: New American Library, 1954), xvi. The Ghibellines welcomed the Waldensians and other dissidents because of their anti-papal leanings. While the Ghibellines had the upper hand, the Waldensians were free from persecution. Some cities even refused to pass laws against heretics, and other cities freed Waldensians and others from prison. However, the Guelfs eventually won, and persecution resumed.

The Waldensians of the later middle ages … were accused of worshipping at inverted/perverted “sabbats” in which they are envisioned paying homage to a goat/devil. A text from the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Tinctoris’s Traite du crisme de Vauderie, includes a graphic illuminated image of a Waldensian sabbat—note the flying figures in the sky.

The rise in popularity of the Franciscan order further tore down the Waldensians. People now saw that they could be poor, preach, and commit to the Church without becoming heretics like the Waldensians. The rise of existence of the Franciscans was partly what enabled the Guelfs to gain control.9Tourn, 33.

The Medieval Inquisition made public preaching an impossibility. Many Waldensian preachers were itinerant, often masquerading as merchants who stayed in a place for only a few days and then moved on. The Inquisition made the term “Waldensian” almost synonymous with the terms heresy and witchcraft. Joan of Arc, for example, was burned for Waldensian heresy and witchcraft, even though she was not a Waldensian.10Ibid., 43.

When John Hus was burned at the stake in the 1415, many of his followers revolted and actually fought the papal armies to a standstill. When the Waldensians heard about this, they eagerly sent a few of their barba (literally “uncles,” what they called their pastors) to Bohemia. The Hussites trained the Waldensian barba in theology, and many Hussite works were translated and circulated among the Waldensians.

In 1526, after reading many of Luther’s works, a Waldensian council eagerly agreed to send representatives to investigate the Reformation. One of the representatives was a young man named Martin Gonin. After meeting William Farel, Gonin became convinced that the Waldensians should join this reform.

A few years later, another Waldensian assembly sent other barba to consult with Reformers in Bern, Basel, and Strasbourg. Although the Swiss Reformers were concerned with the Waldensians’ “Anabaptist and perfectionist tendencies,” they received the Waldensians warmly and encouraged them “to rework their theology and to declare themselves openly a part of the mainstream of the Reformation.”11Ibid., 67.

The Waldensians joined the Reformed church in Geneva at the Synod of Chanforan in 1532. William Farel led the negotiations.

The Waldensians wanted a Bible that could reach more people than their Bible written in Provençal could. The Geneva Reformers assisted the Waldensians in translating the Bible into French. A relative of John Calvin’s, Olivetan, completed the translation, which was printed and delivered to the Waldensians in 1535. This Bible, called the Olivetan Bible, was the first Bible of the French Reformation.12www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/

In 1630, plague ravaged Europe. In Piedmont alone, the northernmost region of Italy, at least 9,000 Waldensians died. Only two of the thirteen pastors in the valley survived. New pastors from Geneva were installed as soon as possible. Because the Genevan pastors spoke French, French became the language used in church services.

Although the Waldensians spoke both French and Italian, they had previously used Italian in church because that was the language of the people they were trying to convert. The use of French helped tie the Waldensians to the rest of Protestant Europe, but also isolated them from the Italian-speaking world around them.13Tourn, 111.

Oppression and persecution persisted throughout the next twenty years. In 1655, the Marquis of Pianezza, a strong supporter of the Counter-Reformation, ordered the citizens of the valley to quarter his French and Italian troops. The quartering quickly degenerated into massacre. April 24, the day of the massacre, became known as the “Piedmont Easter.” Edicts followed, ordering Waldensians to leave their homes under pain of death unless they converted to Roman Catholicism.14Ibid., 124.

When news reached Puritan England, a time of national fasting was declared. Oliver Cromwell himself wrote a letter to the Duke of Savoy, asking him to revoke the edicts.15Ibid., 124-125. In light of the massacre, John Milton wrote a sonnet titled, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.”

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

In 1686, the Duke of Savoy forbade all Waldensian worship. The Swiss tried to intervene, working to secure the option of exile for those Waldensians who were not for armed resistance. Under the command of Marshal Catinat, the French and Italian troops destroyed the

Artist depiction of massacre of the Waldensians of Merindol in 1545

Waldensian resistance. Those who survived were imprisoned, and many died. The Swiss delegates continued to insist on exile, and a year later, the duke agreed. He ordered the Waldensians to be sent to the provinces of Germany, but he kept the pastors imprisoned in Turin. In January, Swiss guards accompanied the 2,700 Waldensians through the frozen Alps. Only 2,490 Waldensians made it to Geneva. One group perished in a blizzard. Others were lost, including children who were kidnapped.16Ibid., 128-134.

The displaced Waldensians were unable to settle down. They wanted to return to Piedmont, and in 1689, their chance came. William of Orange had an idea to send a military expedition back to Piedmont so as to open a front for guerilla warfare against Catinat. The preparations for what is now known as the “Glorious Return” were kept secret. About 1,000 men, including about six hundred Waldensians, awaited orders.

On the night of August 17, 1689, the expeditionary corps sailed across Lake Geneva and began to march the 130 miles over the mountains. By winter the guerilla soldiers were in trenches in the mountains of Piedmont. By the end of the grueling winter, only 300 Waldensians were left. But they only had to wait until spring, when the Piedmontese were planning to attack. And on May 2, the Marquis de Feuquiere led his four thousand troops into battle.

After French cannon destroyed the trenches, the remaining Waldensians consolidated and waited for the end. But during the night, a heavy fog descended on the battlefield, and the Waldensians escaped. The marquis, however, confident of his victory, had already sent word to Paris

A memorial stone placed on the occasion of the 2nd anniversary of the Waldensian “Glorious Return”

declaring the capture of the “bandits.”

A few days later, Duke Victor Amadeus II, nephew of Louis XIV, broke his league with France and allied himself to England and Austria. The Waldensian prisoners in Piedmont were freed and exiles returned home. The Edict of Toleration quickly followed, guaranteeing the Waldensians the right to live on their own land.17Ibid., 137-141.

Nicolas Catinat, Lord of Saint-Gratien (16371712), Marshal of France

The next hundred and fifty years were relatively peaceful for the Waldensians, although they did not have full civil or religious freedom. On February 17, 1848, King Charles Albert signed a declaration giving Waldensians full civil liberties. This date is now known as Waldensian Freedom Day.

In the 1850s, crop failure, population increase, and poverty led a large number of Waldensians to leave Italy. Some moved to Switzerland and France. Others sailed overseas to the Americas, where many settled in Uruguay

King Charles Albert of Sardinia

and Argentina. Some moved to the United States and settled mainly in New York, Missouri, and North Carolina.18Ibid., 186-187.
Around 1860, Methodist missionaries began establishing churches and schools around Milan. Soon Methodist influence spread to all of Italy. The Methodists began to work with the Waldensians, and in 1979, the Waldensian and Methodist churches were federated.19Ibid., 231.

In 1984, the laws in Italy granting the Waldensians freedom of worship were finally signed.20http://www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/
Today in Italy, there are over 150 Waldensian churches and 30,000 professing Waldensians. In Uruguay and Argentina there are about 15,000 members.21Ibid., 231-232.


Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Giorgio Tourn, You Are My Witnesses (Torino, Italy: Claudiana Editrice, 1989), 20.
2. Ibid., 309.
3. Ibid., 16.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 24.
6. Ibid., 24-25.
7. Ibid., 27.
8. Archibald T. MacAllister’s introduction to John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno (New York: New American Library, 1954), xvi.
9. Tourn, 33.
10. Ibid., 43.
11. Ibid., 67.
12. www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/
13. Tourn, 111.
14. Ibid., 124.
15. Ibid., 124-125.
16. Ibid., 128-134.
17. Ibid., 137-141.
18. Ibid., 186-187.
19. Ibid., 231.
20. http://www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/
21. Ibid., 231-232.