Despite centuries of severe persecution, these Christians from the Italian Alps, through the strength of their commitment to Christ, the Bible, and a life of poverty, maintained their evangelical identity, and faithfully carried the Gospel torch from the 12th century to the Reformation.

The late 12th century in Europe was a time rich in spiritual ferment and in its various expressions of religious experience. It is in this distant, shifting period that an ancient group of evangelical Christians—the Waldensians—first appear in the regions of Lyons (France) and, slightly later, Milan (Italy).

In the earliest days the members of this movement were simply called “The Poor.” From their seemingly insignificant beginnings, with the odds against their survival as a distinct group, they did survive, and their difficult journey of faith stands out in history.

More than three centuries would pass before the Waldensians would build their own church buildings and view themselves as outside of the mother church; they would eventually melt into the Protestant Reformation. But until that time in the 16th century, The Poor would live as a scattered but closely knit movement within the Roman Church, with a central devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and a life of poverty in conformity to the example of the Apostles.

In the context of their turbulent time, the emergence of the Waldensian Movement was not exceptional. What is surprising is their survival for such a long period of time. Far from being welcomed by the Church authorities, the Waldensians were harshly repressed. (As opposed to the case, for example, of the great monastic founder Francis of Assisi [1181–1226] and his followers—whose ideas were quite similar in spirit and intention with those of the Waldensians.)

In light of this, the fact that during three centuries the movement of The Poor was able not only to survive but to expand, always attracting new adherents and bringing its testimony into new areas, merits our recognition and special consideration.

Why the Waldensians?

Where can we turn to find an explanation for this success? To the strength of the convictions of single believers? This does not seem to be the case, for in the same period there were other believers just as fervent, of whom every trace has been lost, often cancelled by repression. No, conviction of faith, courage in the face of persecution, and force of spirit do not provide in themselves a satisfactory explanation for the survival of the Waldensians.

We might turn instead (and recent historians have) to reasons of a social and economic nature. Perhaps, since they were simple believers from the most humble classes on the fringe of society, the Waldensians did not constitute a threat to the establishment. They could, therefore, conduct their underground existence without any great risk.

However, this interpretation of the Waldensian phenomenon is contradicted by the evidence: the documentation shows that the Waldensians were present and active in all social classes, in the countryside and in the cities, among farmers and among merchants.

Our answer to the mystery of Waldensian survival and growth is of a different nature: The movement of The Poor was able to survive the Middle Ages because it never closed itself with a sectarian spirit (that is, it did not see itself as an exclusive group, spiritually superior to other Christians); rather, it knew how to continuously renew itself spiritually and theologically. This was possible because, though their social structure and their way of life might change, from their time of origin the Waldensians had a clear and original message to which they held firmly, and to which they remained faithful.

We could say that the Waldensian strength can be found exactly in certain terms we have used so far in referring to them: they were a movement, and a movement of the poor.

Waldo of Lyons and Waldensian Beginnings

These essential Waldensian characteristics already appear clearly in the experience of the founder of the movement, Waldo of Lyons [see A Prophet Without Honor]. This merchant, who lived in the French city at the end of the 12th century, did not intend to give life to a new community that would oppose the Church. He did not intend to found a sect, nor to gather around himself a faithful group to carry his name and espouse his ideas. He did not present himself as a preacher with new ideas, new revelations, or particular interpretations to communicate (something which has occured frequently in the history of the Christian Church).

He had but one purpose: to live the Christian faith according to the teaching of the Gospel; or, to express it in terms closer to the spirituality of his time, to follow Jesus as the apostles did.

He wanted to relive the experience of Jesus’ first disciples. And in this sense we can apply to Waldo and his followers the curious and fascinating definition used at a later time by an inquisitor who was intent on persecuting the Waldensians: they were Nudi nudum Christum sequentes (naked disciples of a naked Christ). The unusual (and to us probably startling) use here of the adjective “naked” can be understood in two ways: with nothing on—that is materially poor, and also, without religious extras, in the sense of Christ only. For the Waldensians, Christ was to be followed in his poverty, and also as the only reference point for faith.

Following Jesus as the apostles did involved certain things for Waldo and his followers. They emphasized the importance of hearing and understanding the Word of God—the Bible; it was from the Scriptures that men and women would know Christ as the center of their faith. They lived in voluntary poverty and were persistent in their intent to preach in public. This last activity was the one that particularly offended the religious leaders of their time, and which brought the wrath of the Catholic Church down upon them.

The archbishop of Lyons attempted to stop Waldo from his public preaching. When he found he could not, he expelled him from the city. Already a group of friends had gathered around Waldo who were devoted to following his example. They did not call themselves “brothers” or “disciples,” as was commonly done in the monastic orders in those days, but referred to themselves as Waldo’s “co-members,” and to their group as a “society.” They took these terms from the business language of the time and not from the religious; it is as if they feared that other Christians would think that they were claiming to found a new religious association superior to the existing Church. They wanted only to be a group of laypersons who were collaborating for a precise goal: in this case, to preach the Gospel. This dedication to preaching provoked a strong reaction from the Church, which led to a search for The Poor of Lyons and to their excommunication as heretics.

By Whose Authority?

It will be helpful here to refer to the Church’s theology at the time. Public preaching, according to the medieval theologians, was reserved for the clergy. They were, as the successors to the apostles, and in virtue of their ordination, the only ones qualified to exercise this ministry. (This notion of apostolic authority being passed down from generation to generation by ordination in the Church is called Apostolic Succession.) So according to Church belief and practice at the time, Waldo the merchant, not being ordained, was not a successor of the apostles, and therefore did not have the right to preach.

Now this is precisely the idea that Waldo contested. He, as one who had called upon the Lord, affirmed that he was called to be a disciple of Christ, even as were the apostles. And who are the real successors of the apostles? Not necessarily those who are ordained, he argued, but rather those who respond to the Lord’s call and live like the apostles of old. What makes one a true heir to the apostles is not ordination, but fidelity to God’s word. Authority to preach did not come through the visible Church order, but by Christ himself.

The consequences of such a belief as this would have been enormous for the Church in Waldo’s time, for the Medieval Church believed that it was the exclusive channel through which God administered his Spirit. If Waldo’s idea had been accepted, the Church could not have been looked upon as the sole depository of the Spirit. Waldo believed that God’s Word and his Spirit do surely act in the Church, but are not solely administered by it.

Probably Waldo did not realize the radical implications of his affirmations, and he continued to feel in full communion with the church, with its tradition, and with all believers. However, the Roman curia (i.e., the Catholic Church government) recognized the danger and after a few years the Poor of Lyons were considered heretics, thus starting their long call to martyrdom.

Against the Donation of Constantine

In the 13th century, especially at its beginning, The Poor were present in Languedoc and Lombardy, that is, Northern Italy (where they were called The Poor of Lombardy). A century later the inquisitors found numerous communities in the Danube Valley in Austria, and in Northern Germany. Already in these periods there appeared an organization, divided into small groups with certain individuals responsible for the care of each group. (In some cases the terms of the official church were even used for these leaders, such as apostle, or prefect.) These various small groups, to a certain degree, were independent, and able to pursue their particular vision of the religious life.

Formally, however, the Waldensians continued to be a part of the Roman Church, where they baptized their children and took communion at least once a year, as was the common practice. They were still within the boundaries of the Church of Rome, and they did nothing that would highlight their criticisms of the Church.

Essentially two things distinguished them from those around them:

1) Before everything else they sought an absolute fidelity to the words of Jesus, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount. Consequently they rejected any form of violence. Not only did they oppose the violence of war and particularly that of the Crusades, but they also opposed “legal” violence, the kind practiced by the courts.

2) They refused to take oaths (based on Matthew 5:33–37), and opposed the practice of lending money at interest. These positions not only stirred reactions from the religious establishment, but the political powers also came to view the Waldensians as dangerous rebels also.

What was the Waldensian motivation for such radicalism? Harsh moral standards, a desire for purity, and coherence with the Gospel? This has often been the explanation. Weren’t the Waldensians just simple people, without influential persons in their ranks, merely trying their best to interpret the Gospel and follow it as best they could? This does not appear to be the case.

To be accurate, the Waldensians were in fact not naive, simplistic interpreters of the Scriptures, but they had an acute understanding of the place of Christian faith in history. They believed that the Church, when it is faithful to its true calling, follows in the steps of the apostles. They also knew that the Church can be unfaithful—and that this infidelity shows itself when Christ’s spirit of humility and poverty are abandoned for the worldly quest for temporal riches and power. They were convinced that when the Church becomes a worldly power it loses its spirit. The strength of their interpretation came through their pinpointing the moment in history in which they believed this betrayal took place: the 4th century, when Christianity was consecrated as the state religion by the emperor Constantine. That event (which is generally considered a great victory) was in reality, according to the Waldensians, the beginning of the Church’s decline; it was a compromise with the world.

“We,” said the Waldensians, “are the true disciples of Christ because we deny the Donation of Constantine” [see “The Donation of Constantine], that is, the compromise of the Church with the world. In this they avoided two attitudes that would have been self-destructive: 1) a feeling that they were outside, or excluded from the Church, which would have led to a sectarian spirit—a closed-group mentality; and 2) a snobbish attitude of seeing themselves as the only true examples of faith, and therefore against the Church. They certainly did have a sense of being the most faithful part of the Church, but without a sense of sectarianism, or of separatism.

The Influence of Hus

This view of being a movement to return to the true apostolic example within the Church, without being separatistic, helps us see why, at the start of the 15th century, the Waldensians became followers of the renewal movement within Christian theology guided by the great Bohemian (Czech) preacher and theologian John Hus.

Hus was condemned and burned at the stake in 1415 for his teachings. He was a devoted Catholic, but taught that the Catholic Church’s authority was secondary to the Bible’s (not equal, as the Church taught), so even laypeople could judge the Church’s actions by Scripture, and therefore the Bible should be translated for public use. He also taught that the real spiritual Church of Christ was not equivalent to the earthly Catholic Church; this implied that even the highest Church officials might not be part of the true spiritual seed of Christ.

Hus argued that the corrupt and extravagant lives of many Church leaders, as opposed to Christ’s life of poverty, made this clear. Though Hus was martyred for his stand, his ideas later had a large influence on Luther and others, and pointed the way, along with the teachings of John Wycliffe, towards the Protestant Reformation. Hus’s followers became known as the Bohemian Brethren. It is not hard to see how the ideas of the Waldensians lined up in many ways with the teachings of Hus, and why they became associated with the movement of the Bohemian Brethren.

The Age of the Barba

The 15th century represents a noteworthy moment in the vitality of the Waldensians. A particularly fascinating characteristic of this vitality was the barba. The term is significant in itself. In the Provencal dialect, in the Alpine area, this term meant “uncle,” but, in its corresponding feminine form, it referred also to a leader who merited respect and obedience. The Waldensians used this term to refer to their pastors, perhaps in deliberate contrast to the Catholic practice of calling priests “father.”

We do not have a lot of information about the barba, but what we have is sufficient to give us an idea. The young persons who decided to respond to this calling were aware of the risks. They prepared for their ministry in two ways. First, there was a fixed period of time in a “school.” These were not only places of study and research, but places where one acquired a familiarity with Scripture, and culture in general. Above all they were places of training, retreats where one experienced life in community with others, young and old, to arrive at that spiritual and moral maturity that are essential in a life full of risk.

A barba received still deeper training, however, by accompanying an older barba in his missions of contact with the dispersed faithful. This on-the-job, practical work gave them the experience necessary to carry on the effort.

The activity of the barba was evidently, in the light of the little we know, prodigious—they accomplished a great deal. They traveled from Northern Italy to Provence, from Bohemia to the Alps, preaching, instructing, receiving the confessions of the faithful, following precise itineraries. They were almost always disguised, for example as religious pilgrims, or travelling merchants, in order to avoid being identified by the Inquisition [the Catholic Church’s organization for exposing heretics]. They have often been presented as simple folk, with a great experience of faith and life, but of little learning.

The truth is quite different. We know this from numerous manuscripts in their Provencal tongue that have been found. These writings were obviously used by the barba. The minute, pocket-sized volumes containing sermons, tracts, poems, and grammar lessons are only the tip of an iceberg, revealing to us the vast cultural world of the Waldensians. Many of them are theological works coming from Hussite sources, which were not only translated, but adapted and elaborated. These accomplishments required sensibility and competence beyond that of the simple and uneducated.

Around the barba there was a well-organized clandestine world [see The Pearl]. In twos (according to the biblical model) they visited the faithful on well-defined itineraries, held assemblies to discuss their problems, and gathered and administered donations. The fact that in the course of the century very few barba were arrested, among the many that were active, is testimony to the perfection of their system.

Waldensian Theology

The Waldensians, probably in part due to the Hussite influence, experienced a growing consciousness of themselves and a new sensibility, which renewed their traditional spirituality. Their consciousness grew of being the “true church,” the authentic community of Christ, in contrast to the Church of Rome, which always seemed to them to take on the form of Antichrist, not only in its compromise with worldly powers, but also in the violence with which it crushed the spiritual renovation in Bohemia.

A second characteristic is related to their concern for individual salvation. From this, the Waldensians showed a particular interest in penance, the Sacraments, and Christian virtue. The barba had the power to hear confessions. They were believed to be the only persons capable of doing so because, in contrast to other corrupt and immoral clerics, they were authentic ministers of Christ. (Waldensians believed, it should be mentioned, that as it says in one of their early poems, “It is God alone who pardons, and no other.”)

Also, for these generations of Waldensians, salvation was clearly and certainly the work of Christ. It was the fruit of his sacrifice, but also the finality of a pure and consistent Christian life; a life of faith could not be separated from a life of obedience. Therefore, we can understand why in the 16th century a central point of debate among barba and the reformers was justification by faith, and how faith related to works.

The Waldensian position was looked upon from a Lutheran perspective as being too influenced by Catholic tradition. In reality, however, barba doctrine was plainly in contrast with the Catholic theology of that century, for it dismissed the major Catholic teaching on purgatory. The Waldensian rejection of purgatory was radical.

One of the most well-known and significant poems of the barba, La Nobla Leiczon (a possible translation is “The Teaching of Profound Things” [included in our From the Archives section]), is constructed entirely on the comparison between the two ways, that of salvation and that of damnation. It formulates a radical criticism of those Christians who expect to resolve their problem of salvation with purgatory and its corollary of mass, indulgences, and good works (teachings that Martin Luther would later challenge in Wittenberg).

These things represented for the Waldensians a negation of the Christian faith, and the triumph of the Constantine Church, that is, of a church which utilizes power and riches to govern the world. What more radical comparison can one imagine than that between the pilgrim barba, messenger of forgiveness to his clandestine communities, and the popes of the Renaissance with their sales of indulgences, claiming their “power of the keys,” the power to forgive sins and grant entrance to heaven? It is clear that these are two very different approaches.

The Great Reformation

To the scattered Waldensians concentrated mainly in the Alps in Provence and in Calabria, and greatly reduced through persecution, but having a solid theology and organization, news of the work of Martin Luther arrived in the period between 1518 and 1520.

What was to be done? Certainly the believers around Luther expressed themselves similarly to the Waldensians, but were the motivations the same? Could the Waldensians safely associate with the new communities coming together as a result of the reform movement, or would it be more prudent to keep a distance and maintain autonomy? It was not the first time that the problem arose for The Poor of collaborating with groups judged heretical by the official church. It had happened before with the Hussites and with the Albigensians. [The Albigensians were a radical group, which originated in southern Italy, and taught that all material things, including the human body, were evil. Among other things, the Albigensians rejected the Sacraments, Hell, the Resurrection, and marriage, and taught a life of extreme denial. They were a part of a much larger world-versus-spirit “dualist” movement in the Middle Ages called Catharism.]

Beginning in 1526 the barba, at their annual reunions in Piedmont and Provence, examined the news which came from Germany with the result that a group was sent to evaluate the situation at first hand, and to question major representatives of the new theology. On the journey a meeting occurred with William Farel, the fiery Swiss reformer who would play an instrumental part in the Waldensians’ future; contact was also made with Oecolampadius, the reformer in Basel, and Martin Bucer of Strasbourg.

From these contacts it was clear that a fundamental unity of purpose did exist, especially in reference to a belief in Scripture as the only rule for faith. However, at the same time the approaches the two groups took to Scripture were different: the Waldensians, on the one hand, emphasized the moral demands made by the Bible, and its teaching on the climactic end of history—its apocalyptic message; the reformed group, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of deep, academic study of the Bible, and the system of theology founded upon such study—“dogmatics.”

The consequences of these emphases on the different groups were shown in the way they applied their faith to their lives in society. The fact that those promoting the Reformation in the cities of the Rhine were the city councils, and in Germany it was the princes, profoundly baffled the Waldensians. Could the men of the world, whose daily lives were given over to the use of riches and power, now be the defenders of the apostolic faith?

This was hard to comprehend. Was this not the process of Constantine renewed—a new mixing of the spiritual with the worldly? Was it possible to transform a local parish (a church district set often by geographical boundaries and determined by men), the typical form of “imperial” Christianity, into a community based on the Gospel?

The Synod of Chanforan

The solution to these questions arrived in 1532 during an assembly held at Chanforan in the Angrogna Valley in the Piedmont Alps. 140 barba participated along with leaders of the Reformation in Switzerland, including William Farel. After days of debate the assembly decided to accept substantially the principles of the new reformation, and to apply them internally to the Waldensian movement itself.

The Waldensians in this way were as integrated into the world of the Reformation. It is necessary, however, to be precise. It must be remembered that in 1532 Protestantism did not yet exist as a confessional and cultural phenomenon. The Reformation at that moment was a movement of opinion, it was not a church.

By declaring themselves in line with the reformers, the Waldensians simply acknowledged their unity with the reformers’ protests for a faith based on the Gospel, for a return to the origins of the Church, and for an abandonment of the compromises with the world. The reformers were rejected by the official church for these beliefs even as the Waldensians had been for generations.

It is also significant that the decisions agreed upon at Chanforan by the barba and the reformers were not limited to the religious dimension, but had social and political importance also. The return to the Gospel meant not only a rediscovery of the purity of the faith, but also a liberation from the burden of economic slavery, of ecclesiastical taxation, and of the dependence which the Medieval Church had placed on the shoulders of the Christian populace.

By adhering to the Reformation the Waldensians expressed in new form the spirit of independence and autonomy which in the Middle Ages had characterized the Alpine peoples in the face of central powers. It was a realization of their sense of independence.

Furthermore, the meeting at Chanforan was but the beginning on a long journey that would lead the Waldensians to eventual organization as Protestant churches. In the face of a Roman Catholicism that assumed the characteristics of unbending worldly control, and that readily used the Inquisition and political power to repress whatever it declared heresy, the Waldensian communities developed increasingly along reformed lines according to the ideas coming from Calvin’s Geneva.

A New Church and the First War of Religion

This difficult search for a specific Waldensian identity culminated around 1555 (twenty years after Chanforan) in the decision to build facilities for preaching and the administration of the sacraments. For years services in the local dialect had been conducted in the open air or in private homes, with the singing of hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the absence of buildings for these services underlined both the temporary, provisional nature of the situation, and the continuing hope for an agreement with the Church of Rome.

Once these hopes vanished it was necessary to recognize the existence of two churches, even from the point of view of architecture: two churches, two bell towers, two services, two theologies, two ecclesiastical organizations, two forms of piety, and two cultures.

In the middle of the 16th century these two identities (the Reformation and the Catholic, or Counter-Reformation) began a conflict that would last 150 years, and have in the area of the Alps where the Waldensians lived, a particularly violent character.

The first battle took place in 1560. The Duke of Savoy, who had recently regained possession of his region, forced the Roman Catholic religion on all his subjects. He based this on the principle established a few years previously at the Diet of Augsburg and accepted by all the rulers of Europe, according to which the religion of the prince must be that of his subjects.

While all the followers of the Reformation in the plains and cities moved to Protestant areas, particularly to Geneva, the Waldensians in the Alpine Valleys stayed put and rejected the imposition of Catholicism. They continued to profess their reformed faith—even against the edict of their ruler. As a consequence the Duke intervened militarily to restore order. This action spurred a response of armed rebellion. Under this severe trial, the Waldensians, who had always opposed violence, had reached the point where they decided they must defend themselves, and fight for their faith.

This was the first war of religion in Europe, and also the first case in which subjects of a ruler rebelled to defend their religious freedom. The conflict lasted several weeks and concluded incredibly with the victory of the Waldensian farmers, who benefitted from a series of complex strategical, political, and geographical elements.

The Duke, taking an historic position unique in Europe at this time, conceded to his Waldensian subjects the right to profess their religion within a specified territory, with the number of worship centers and ministers defined by law.

These remarkable events were enough to assure the Waldensians’ survival. But in subsequent decades the battle would continue, and proceed with tragedies, varying successes, and great risks.

Dr. Giorgio Bouchard is currently President of the Protestant Federation of Italy. He is a Waldens-pastor and serves a congregation in Naples. From 1979 to 1986 he was moderator of the Waldensian Church.