The Waldensians (also called the Waldenses or the Vaudois) were a religious group that arose in the late Middle Ages and is now seen as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation. In the beginning the Waldensians were simply a group of traveling lay preachers within the Roman Catholic Church, but as time went on and they faced mounting persecution, they broke from Catholicism and embraced Calvinism.
Most histories trace the origin of the Waldensians to Peter Waldo (also called Valdes), a wealthy merchant in Lyons, France. In 1174, Waldo renounced his wealth, started giving his money away, and committed to living a life of voluntary poverty from then on. In 1176, Waldo became a traveling preacher. Others joined his group, and they became known as the Poor Men of Lyons. While the early Waldensians still considered themselves Roman Catholic, they soon ran into problems with the established church for two reasons: they had no formal training as clergy, and they were handing out Bibles in the vernacular (instead of Latin). Church officials told Waldo and his Pauperes (“Poor”) to stop preaching without the consent of the local clergy.
But the Waldensians continued to preach, wearing rough clothing and sandals and preaching repentance. A traveling Waldensian preacher was known as a barba and could be either a man or a woman. The barbes taught poverty, individual responsibility, and self-denial, and they promoted evangelism via public preaching and the personal study of the Scriptures (in one’s own language). The Waldensians loved the Bible and insisted that the Bible be their sole authority; at the same time, they publicly criticized the corruption of the Roman Catholic clergy. The Waldensians rejected many of the superstitious traditions of Catholicism, including prayers for the dead and holy water, and they spoke against indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory. Communion, they said, was a memorial of Christ’s death, not a sacrifice. They did not follow the church’s calendar concerning days of fasting, and they refused to bow before altars, venerate saints, or treat “holy” bread as holy. In short, the Waldensians could be seen as launching a pre-Reformation reform movement.
The Waldensians’ back-to-the-Bible approach appealed to many, and the movement quickly spread rapidly to Spain, northern France, Flanders, Germany, southern Italy, and even Poland and Hungary. But the Catholic Church did not take kindly to the Waldensian call to reform. In 1181 the archbishop of Lyons excommunicated the Waldensians. Three years later, the pope declared them to be heretics. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council declared an anathema on Waldensian doctrine.
In the 1230s, persecution against the Waldensians increased and lasted for three hundred years. In some areas Waldensians faced the death penalty if they refused to recant, and the Inquisition began actively seeking the leaders of the various Waldensian groups. The Waldensians went underground, and many groups retreated into remote areas in the Alps in order to survive. In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII pronounced a crusade against two Waldensian groups in the Cottian Alps along the French-Italian border, and many villages were devastated. In April 1545 two Waldensian towns in France, Merindol and Cabrieres, along with twenty-eight smaller villages, were attacked by troops sent by Cardinal Tournon, the archbishop of Lyons. The towns were destroyed, the women were raped, and about four thousand people killed. In response to such severe persecution, many Waldensians fled to Geneva, Switzerland, where they found refuge with John Calvin.
Eventually, most Waldensians became part of the churches of the Reformation, such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Reformed. But today there are still Waldensian churches in existence in Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, the United States, and elsewhere.
The Waldensians are properly remembered for their bravery during a dark period of history, their perseverance under the brutality of the Holy Roman Empire, their commitment to biblical authority, and their conscientious dissent in the face of Catholic error.