A Prophet Without Honor
We know little about the life of Waldo of Lyons, the man who started the Waldensian Movement, other than his social class. He was a wealthy merchant, well integrated into the political community of Lyons, in France—a man of influence, a man of the establishment.
We know nothing of his life after he was cast out of the city, of his last years, or of his death around the year 1217. Everything centers around a few years, perhaps only a few months. Yet, what we do know about Waldo is very significant in understanding the Waldensians and their beliefs and practices.
Approximately in the years 1173–1176 Waldo made some decisions that radically changed his life. 1) He commissioned the translation of several books of the Bible from Latin into his local dialect, French-Provencal (French was not yet established as a language).
This decision did not meet opposition. According to a document of the time, he even went to Rome with a friend to present this translation to the pope, and received words of appreciation and praise. 2)He abandoned his business and distributed his goods, reducing himself to a beggar.
This second decision is more unusual. The inspiration for this change is uncertain, but evidently some drastic experience, or experiences, caused Waldo to question the very foundation of his life. According to the different accounts, which are shrouded in legend, his decision may have been as a result of the death of a friend. There is also mentions of his having been deeply moved by the lyrics of a minstrel’s song.
Another element in this second decision was a message from the Gospel: Jesus’ words to the rich man recorded in Mark 10:22, “IF YOU WISH TO BE PERFECT, SELL WHAT YOU HAVE AND FOLLOW ME.” This statement seems to have resolved Waldo’s personal crisis, and to have pushed him to his decision. Deciding to follow literally this exhortation, Waldo freed himself of his goods with the conviction of following Jesus.
This Gospel message is fundamental in the experience of Waldo and his friends and must be elaborated. It should be immediately noted that the vow of poverty was not extraordinary in the 12th century, as it might appear today. All those entering a convent took this vow, and the examples of princes, nobles, and other important persons who adopted lives of denial are not uncommon.
However, almost always such a decision was made as a renunciation of the world in order to merit salvation. The vow of poverty is part of a “professional” religious life. Yet Waldo remained a layman.
Poverty for Waldo seems to have been a constructive element of Christian discipleship. When he was called by the pope’s representative to clarify his position and to sign a declaration of faith containing the fundamental principles of Christianity, he signed without hesitation, but added, “We have decided to live by the words of the Gospel, essentially that of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Commandments, that is, to live in poverty without concern for tomorrow. But we hold that also those who continue to live their lives in the world doing good will be saved.”
3)He determined to preach the Gospel message in public.
This decision is still more significant in defining the experience of Waldo. Actually, he did not limit himself to Scriptural passages, which he had translated, but took high points from these and from his personal experience to appeal to and exhort his contemporaries to repentance and to the way of salvation.
His preaching certainly was not that of the average preacher, presented on Sunday to the congregation. A closer and more recent parallel would be the early Methodist preachers in the slums and countrysides of England and the United States. This preaching, which Waldo considered the direct consequence of his conversion and his call to follow Jesus, was the beginning of conflict and persecution for Waldo and his followers.
Because of his activities, Waldo was expelled from the city of Lyons. It is told that in his last meeting before the archbishop of Lyons, the archbishop severely threatened Waldo and warned him to stop his preaching, to which Waldo’s response was, “It is better to obey God than man.”
Of course, these are from the words of the Apostle Peter as recorded in Acts 4:19, and spoken to the High Priest who wanted Peter’s preaching to cease. And just as in the case with Peter, whose calling was to establish the Church of Jesus Christ on the foundation of God’s Word, Waldo was intent on basing his apostolic community not on the usual human structures of his day, but purely on the Gospel. Perhaps this is the episode from which the 14th-century Waldensians took the idea of referring to Waldo as “Peter Waldo.”
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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