Where’s Waldo? The Waldensians as a case study of the early “free church”

Part of my study on this sabbatical is a pre-Reformation movement in NW Italy and Southern France called the Waldensians. These people were reformers long before the reformation, and ‘Covenanters’ centuries before there was a Covenant Church.

Peter Waldo had been a wealthy merchant in Lyons in the late 12th century. In response to the gospel he gave up his wealth and lived a life of poverty. He and his friends became known as “The poor men of Lyons.” They preached the Bible in everyday language. Waldo he is credited with providing in Europe the first non-Latin translation of the Bible in a modern language for the common people.

These are some of their beliefs:

1. Only the holy Scripture is to be believed in matters pertaining to salvation, and no man or man’s writing can add to or fully express the Scriptures themselves. In the Covenant Church, we hold to the centrality of Scripture as ‘the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.’

II. All things which are necessary for someone to come to salvation are contained in Holy Scripture; therefore, nothing is gained by mere man-made religion, but only what is made clear in the Word of God. Covenanters wholeheartedly agree!

III. There is one only Mediator between God and people, Jesus Christ. The saints of the church are not mediators, nor are to they to be prayed to or through. 

IV. There is no such thing as Purgatory. All people are either justified through Christ to eternal life, or, if not believing in Him, to be sentenced to everlasting destruction. Besides these two, there is no third or fourth ‘place’ or state for existence after death and judgment.

V.   There are only two Sacraments, baptism and Holy Communion.’ This lines up with ECC theology and is supported in Scripture.

VI.    All religious services for the salvation for the dead are wicked, and ought to be stopped.

VII.  All human traditions ought to be rejected, at least not to be reputed as necessary to salvation; and therefore religious singing and chanting in the church are to cease.  Religious fasts set down on a church calendar for different days and times, superfluous holidays, different degrees and orders of priests, monks, and nuns, religious blessings of creatures, vows, pilgrimages, and all the ‘rabblement of rites and ceremonies’ brought in by man, ought to be abolished.

VIII. The enforced ‘supremacy’ of the pope above all churches, and especially his usurped power above all governments, is to be utterly denied. There are to be no priestly offices in the church other than priests, deacons, and bishops.

IX.  The communion under both kinds is godly and necessary, being ordained and enjoined by Christ.

X.   The church of Rome is the very Babylon spoken of in the Apocalypse (The book of Revelation), and the pope is the fountain of all errors, and the very antichrist.

XI.   The pope’s pardons and indulgences are to be rejected.

XII.   The marriage of priests is godly, and even necessary in the church.

XIII.  Those who hear the word of God and have biblical faith are the true Church of Christ. To this Church ‘the keys of the church’ (Matthew 16) are given. True pastors of Christ should preach the Word and minister the sacraments.

To the Waldensian people and those they reached out to this meant there had been no true pope since the time of Sylvester (313-335 AD); that the Pope`s pardons were a fallacy; that purgatory was not supported in Scripture; that “holy relics” were simply rotten bones of uncertain origin; that “holy water” was not more holy than other water; that prayer in a barn was just as worthwhile as if prayed in a church building; etc. But to the Roman Church and Empire, this was heresy of the worst kind!

The Waldensians were named after Waldo. Later followers were also called similar names after the valleys into which they retreated to escape persecution. Even before Waldo’s time, there were people called “men of the valleys” Waldenses, Valdenses, Vaudes, or Vaudians because of the valleys in which they retreated. There is also evidence from the time of Ambrose ( Archbishop of Milan, 374-397 AD) and St. Jerome (340-420) that there were mountain valley churches with beliefs very similar to the Waldenses of later times. Evidence therefore suggests the Waldensians had beliefs that preceded even Peter Waldo. The point is that there have been “people of the Book” since the First Century.

The true Waldensians went on to become part of the Reformation by 1532, when they produced their Confession of Faith that was agreeable to the Reformers in Geneva.

In Peter Waldo’s time, preaching required official permission from the Bishop in Lyon which he was unable to receive. In 1179 he met with Pope Alexander III and asked for permission to preach but was denied. When Waldo preached anyway, by the early 1180’s he and his followers were excommunicated by the Church. Pursued as heretics they left Lyons and went to the Lombardy region of Italy and the mountain chain west of Turin. Here in the valleys of Piedmont region the Waldensians clung to the valleys, minded their own business and for a while prospered. 

The `Church of the Valleys` as it has been called, became well organised. The joining with the Reformers brought with it better structure and organisation.  The region was divided into parishes each with a pastor to preach and guide the people. The pastor was assisted by lay people; and an annual meeting was held. One of the pastors was elected head of the community. No distinction was made between the pastors and the people. The church emphasized the Christian education of the young, who were encouraged to learn the Gospels and the Epistles. Putting the Scriptures into common usage and in the common language of the day was a priority.

For these reasons it seems to me that the Waldensians were Covenanters long before there was a Covenant Church! The Waldenisians were forming their church along the lines of the Scriptures. Later on, Calvin echoed these forms and even later they were in the establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland. 

A person who desired to become a pastor would spend three years in missionary work, often disguised as peddlers and merchants. “They traveled in pairs, an elder (regidor) and the younger (coadiutor). Their preaching was necessarily clandestine and took place in the open air or in private houses. The spreading of the Word was also actively pursued in normal trade when other merchants were recruited.”History.

The early history of the Waldensians is sparse, but exceedingly bloody. When Pope Innocent III approved the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church, the Inquisition began against ‘heretics.’  The first Waldensian Martyr was a woman who was burned to death in Pinerolo (the town in which we intend to change from train to bus) in 1297.


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