Last week, I mentioned that one of my upcoming posts would feature more on the Moravians.

However, before I cover their pietism in more detail, it seems apposite to look to the group which partly inspired them — the Waldensians, or Waldenses.

Reviewing pietism’s earliest origins

Yet, before I cover the Waldenses, it seems appropriate to look at what probably inspired their faith, which were the beliefs of the Bogomils.

Last year, an horrific murder occurred in the resort of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The suspect, a Bulgarian, was said to be ‘obsessed’ with the ancient heresy of Bogomilism, which originated in his native land in the 10th century.

I wrote both about the murder and the heresy back in May 2011, explaining exactly what Bogomilism is. It would appear that, because of the trade routes between Bulgaria and the rest of Europe (see the Wikipedia map which you can click to enlarge), there could be a link to this heresy and other Christian denominations:

Cathars, Albigenses and Waldenses, people who later turned to the Reformed churches.  This might partly explain why there is so much Catholic distrust of Calvinists in France and Italy.  There may be something deeper than the Reformation going on here.  This is a sensitive topic, especially when one reads Huguenot (Calvinist) histories of these mountain dwellers which present them as being martyrs for the faith.  I remain neutral on this but welcome contributions in the comments.  

To that, I would now add pietists.  The Bogomils and the subsequent pietist groups share certain beliefs about Christianity. From my post which cited the Wikipedia article on Bogomilism (emphases mine):

The Bogomils called for a return to early Christianity, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and their primary political tendencies were resistance to the state and church authorities.

… the corruption of the church as an institution, led to the grave disappointment among its recently converted flock.

They regarded every material being to be work of Satan, and therefore sinful. 

Each community had its own twelve “apostles,” and women could be raised to the rank of “elect.”

… keen missionaries, traveling far and wide to propagate their doctrines.

Its followers refuse to pay taxes, to work in serfdom, or to fight in conquering wars.

… they elected their “teachers” from among themselves to be their spiritual guides …

each member could obtain the perfection of Christ and become a Christ or “Chuist.”

Bogomils refused to fast on Mondays and Fridays, and that they rejected monasticism.

they declared … that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were not physically transformed into flesh and blood; … that the images and the cross were idols and the veneration of saints and relics idolatry

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say:

The popes in Rome whilst leading the Crusade against the Albigenses did not forget their counterpart in the Balkans and recommended the annihilation of the heretics

The Bogomils were the connecting link between the so-called heretical sects of the East and those of the West.[citation needed] They were, moreover, the most active agents in disseminating such teachings in Kievan Rus’ and among all the nations of Europe. In the 12th and 13th century, the Bogomils were already known in the West as “Cathars” or in other places as “Bulgari”, i.e. Bulgarians (българи). In 1207 the Bulgarorum heresis is mentioned. In 1223 the Albigenses are declared to be the local Bougres, and in the same period mention is made of the “Pope of the Albigenses who resided within the confines of Bulgaria” (see also Nicetas, Bogomil bishop). The Cathars and Patarenes, the Waldenses, the Anabaptists, and in Russia the Strigolniki, Molokani and Doukhobors, have all at different times been either identified with the Bogomils or closely connected with them.

My post explained that Bogomilism seems to be experiencing a small revival these days, particularly judging from the supportive commentary on the Wikipedia discussion page.

Peter Waldo

Bogomilism reviewed, we can now move on to Peter Waldo, early pietist and spiritual leader of the Waldenses.  We do not have much information about him, but it is believed that he was born in 1140, by which time Bogomilism was already spreading through Europe.

Waldo lived in Lyon, France, where he was a successful merchant and clothier. He was a man of means. In 1160, he had a spiritual awakening. Three factors played a part:

– Waldo had heard a sermon about St Alexius, a wealthy man who left his marriage and lived on alms whilst teaching the Christian faith in seclusion.

– A disbelief in transubstantiation was made punishable by death.

– A friend of his died whilst eating dinner.

If you look at the Bogomilism map, you’ll see that its teachings reached Lyon around 1160, so, around the time that Waldo experienced his spiritual awakening. Whether there is a definite connection between the two events is difficult to determine, however, it is an interesting coincidence.

Again, at the same time, Waldo began preaching publicly:

– “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon“, he proclaimed, in accordance with Jesus.

– He criticised Papal materialism and Catholic dogma — including, amongst other things, transubstantiation.

– He accused the Catholic Church of being the ‘harlot’ of the Book of Revelation.

So far, these teachings tie in with those the Bogomils were proclaiming.

He gave his property to his wife and sold the rest of what he had to provide alms for the poor. By 1170, Waldo had gathered quite a few followers. However, for reasons of safety, they disguised themselves as pedlars in order to spread their teachings.  They became known as the Poor of Lyons, the Poor of Lombardy, the Poor of God and as the Waldenses.

The Wikipedia entry on Waldo states that the Waldenses were distinct from the Albigenses, or Cathars, however, some of the teachings of the two groups are quite similar: rejection of the established Church, anti-materialism, charity and simplicity. Furthermore, both groups drew heavily from Bogomilism, although the Albigenses embraced it more fully than had the Waldenses.

The Waldenses believed in:

– the importance of lay preaching.

– a universal priesthood.

– voluntary poverty.

– the primacy of Scripture, especially being able to read it in one’s own language.

The last point is particularly important, because Waldo commissioned a cleric from Lyon — and possibly collaborated with him — on a translation of the Bible into the local dialect, Arpitan, between 1175 and 1185.  This was the first European translation of the Bible into the vernacular.  This is why Waldo features on the Luther Memorial in Worms (see photo at left, courtesy of Wikipedia).

In 1179, Waldo and one of his followers had an audience with Pope Alexander III and the Curia. They were required to explain their theology. Later that year, the Third Lateran Council condemned Waldo’s movement.

Waldo and his followers were no longer safe in Lyon. Many fled to the valleys of Piedmont, today in northern Italy but then a part of the Duchy of Savoy.  Those who remained in France moved eastward to the Luberon region of Provence.  Both areas are mountainous and Waldo’s followers settled in remote valleys in the southern Alps. Controversy carries on as to whether these inhabitants, known as Vaudes or Waldenses, were named after Waldo. Note the Bogomil map above and the words ‘Les Vaudois’ which cover Provence and Piedmont. Waldo’s name in French is Pierre Vaudès or de Vaux. However, the Waldensian Church, which still exists, states that they are named after him.

My own opinion is that the word ‘Vaudois’ means ‘people from mountain valleys’. I base this on the Swiss canton near Geneva — Vaud — which is in the Alps and with which I am well acquainted. Their residents are also called ‘Vaudois’. Therefore, I hypothesise that it is possible that Waldo’s surname ‘Vaudès’ or ‘de Vaux’ might come from his Provençal (Alpes-Maritime) and Piedmont followers. If his surname really was ‘Vaudès’ or ‘de Vaux’ and his followers had to hide in the mountain valleys — becoming ‘les Vaudois’ — well, what a coincidence.

Because of the lack of documentation, it is unclear exactly when or where Peter Waldo died. Some scholars say he died in 1218. Some also think that he died in Germany. Others say that he died not long after his audience with Pope Alexander III in 1179. However, it seems as if he must still have been alive in 1184, as Pope Lucius III excommunicated him during the synod at Verona that year. In 1211, 80 Waldenses were burnt at the stake in Strasbourg; this event nearly put paid to Waldo’s movement. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council under Pope Innocent III declared that his doctrine of the Poor of Lyons was a heresy.

The Waldenses

The Wikipedia entry on Waldensians explains the significance they had to subsequent pietist groups:

Some groups of Mennonites, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and other Protestants have claimed that the Waldenses’ history extends back to the Apostles.[1]

Indeed, the Bogomils said that their beliefs came from St Paul and that their movement originated in the region where he preached — Asia Minor. Refer to the map above where you see the words ‘Les Pauliciens’:

Karp Strigolnik, who in the 14th century preached the doctrine in Novgorod, explained that St. Paul had taught that simpleminded men should instruct one another; therefore they elected their “teachers” from among themselves to be their spiritual guides, and had no special priests. There is a tradition that the Bogomils taught that prayers were to be said in private houses, not in separate buildings such as churches.[citation needed]

That seems to be the origin of small groups.

The Waldenses were known by the sabots, or wooden clogs, they wore:

Sandaliati, who received sacred orders and were to prove the heresiarchs wrong; Doctores, who instructed and trained missionaries; and Novellani, who preached to the general population.[6] They were also called Insabbatati, Sabati, Inzabbatati Sabotiers due to the unusual type of sabot they used as footwear.[7][8]

Some Catholics believed that Waldensian women were witches; illustrations to that effect appear in a French manuscript from 1451.

Piedmont borders France and Switzerland, therefore, it was possible for determined Waldenses to travel if necessary, although it would not have been easy.  In 1526, an Italian synod of Waldenses decided to send envoys to Germany and Switzerland to meet with new Protestant groups. This meeting took place in 1532. This Italian branch then decided to break all ties with the Catholic faith and become a Reformed church.

Calvinists William Farel and Anthony Saunier attended a French Waldenses synod of Chanforan that same year, at which they  invited the group to come out into the open and ally themselves with the Reformed Church. The French Waldenses developed a confession of faith and began to worship openly.

The French Waldenses later contributed 1,500 gold crowns to help finance a translation of Waldo’s Provençal New Testament into French for Calvinist use.

French religious tensions between Catholics and Calvinists increased to bloody battles and massacres, which I intend to cover at some point in a history of the Huguenots, with whom the French Waldenses are linked. As such:

As early as 1631, Protestants scholars began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, in a manner that is similar to how the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus – who were also persecuted by Roman Catholic authorities – were viewed.

Jan Hus founded the Moravians, and some Waldenses allied themselves with his ‘Bohemian’ movement.

In England, Cromwell — in power during the Interregnum — and poet John Milton, sympathetic to the Calvinists then to the pietist, quietist Quakers, openly opposed French Catholic civil rulers who persecuted the Waldenses.

Also (emphases mine):

Later denominations such as Anabaptists and Baptists also began to point to the Waldensians as an example of earlier Christians who were not a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and held beliefs they interpreted to be similar to their own. The Mennonite book Martyrs Mirror lists them in this regard as it attempts to trace the history of believer’s baptism back to the apostles. James Aitken Wylie (1808–1890) likewise believed that the Waldensians preserved the apostolic faith during the Middle Ages.[31] Still later, Seventh-day Adventist Ellen G. White taught that the Waldenses were preservers of biblical truth during the so-called Great Apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church.[32] She believed that the Waldenses kept the seventh-day Sabbath, engaged in widespread missionary activity, and “planted the seeds of the Reformation” in Europe.[33][34] Based on the Catechism of the Waldenses they believed in keeping the ten commandments.[35]

Some Waldensian families joined Anabaptism. A group from North Italy fled to Switzerland for religious protection and then to Pennsylvania later on after becoming followers of Menno Simons. Some later migrated north to Canada,[36] where some of the communities still exist.[37]

Today, the Waldensian Church is included in the Alliance of Reformed Churches of the Presbyterian Order.

Waldenses today

Even if you have never heard of them until now, Waldenses still exist today.

During the Second World War, the Italian Waldenses actively protected Jewish people in Italy. The Italian Waldensian Evangelical Church allied with the Italian Methodist Church and, in 1975, formed the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches.

Germany became a point of refuge for a number of Waldenses in 1698. Most eventually returned to Piedmont. However, some stayed and eventually joined the Lutheran or Calvinist churches. However, there are still 10 Waldensian congregations today united with the Evangelical Church in Germany, a united church on the Prussian model of the 19th century.

In South America, Waldenses first arrived in 1856. Their Waldensian Church of Rio de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay, has 40 congregations and 15,000 members.

In the United States, Waldenses, who began arriving in the late 19th century, are largely affiliated with Presbyterian practice:

By the 1920s most of the Waldensian churches and missions merged into the Presbyterian Church due to the cultural assimilation of the second and third generations.

The work of the American Waldensian Society continues in the United States today. The mission of the American Waldensian Society is to foster dialogue and partnership among Waldensian Churches in Italy and South America and Christian churches within North America in order to promote a compelling vision of Waldensian Christian witness for North America.

The vision of the society is to be a passionate witness in North America to the contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage: to Proclaim the Gospel; to Serve among the Marginalized; to Promote Social Justice; to Foster Inter-religious Work; and to Advocate Respect for Religious Diversity and Freedom of Conscience. As such, the society is committed to: Tell the Story; Encourage ‘Crossings’; and Provide Financial Support.[46]

The most well known Waldensian Churches in America were in New York, Monett, Missouri and in Valdese, North Carolina. The church in New York City was disbanded by the mid-1990’s. [47]

The Waldensian Presbyterian churches in the United States and the American Waldensian Society have links with the Italian-based Waldensian Evangelical Church, but, unlike the South American Waldensian communities, today they are independent institutions from the European organization.

Next: More on the Moravians