House Church Talk - The Waldensians

R.L. Johnson rjohnson at
Fri Mar 5 09:58:40 EST 2004

Chapter 19
The Waldensians

On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter'd Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship't Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll'd
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl'd to the Hills, and they
To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O're all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant [the pope]: that from these may grow
A hunder'd-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

With the words of this sonnet the blind poet John Milton commemorated the
terrible massacre of the Waldensians by the Romish Church.
Even in the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic Church ruled supreme and
invincible over all Europe, it did not always have everything its own way.
Almost always during these dark times individuals or groups raised voices of
protest against the tyranny and corruption of Rome.
The only explanation for the presence of such dissenters from Romish
teachings is the great work of God in preserving His church.
One evidence of God's preservation of His church is the existence throughout
most of the Middle Ages of a group called The Waldensians. They have got to
be some of the most faithful of all the dissenters in the Middle Ages; and
they have got to be one of my favorite groups of saints.
Although there is some dispute over the origin of the Waldensians, most
historians consider Peter Waldo, after whom they were named, to be the
founder of the movement.
Although almost nothing is known of Peter's early life, it is known that he
was the son of a rich merchant in Lyons, France, and that he inherited his
father's wealth. No one knows the date of his birth, but his death was in
1218; which puts him very early in the Middle Ages, a child of the Twelfth
Troubled by his wealth, the fact that it had been increased through usury,
and the obvious worldliness of his life, Peter asked his priest concerning
the best way to God. He was told, as was common in those days, that the way
to God was to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow Christ.
Peter did not hesitate to follow what to him was a clear command of his
Lord. Because he was married, he provided sufficient money for his wife; he
placed his daughters in a convent to be cared for there; he paid back all
those from whom he had taken usury; and he gave everything else he owned to
the poor.
Peter Waldo gathered about him a small group of men who began to translate
the Scriptures into the vernacular and began to assume the responsibilities
of preaching. They were known by different names: The Brethren in Christ;
The Poor in Christ; The Poor in Spirit; but finally became known by the name
of their founder, Peter Waldo. They lived lives of total poverty and
dedication to God.
In 1179, Peter Waldo asked his archbishop for permission to be recognized as
a separate and approved movement and asked for permission to be organized as
a preaching fraternity. The request was passed on to the pope, Alexander
III, who refused the request. The group appealed to the Third Lateran
Council in 1179, but this Council also refused their request.
Convinced that they were only doing that which was Biblical, they continued
to preach anyway, and thus incurred the wrath of the church which
excommunicated them at the Council of Verona in 1184.
What is particularly interesting about the Waldensians is their views. I
doubt whether any group of people in all Europe, prior to the Reformation,
understood the truths of Scripture so clearly as these poor people. Philip
Schaff even calls them, "the strictly biblical sect of the Middle Ages." It
is almost impossible to imagine how these simple folk could have come to
such excellent knowledge of the truth in the times in which they lived. They
were the lowly, the uneducated; they were despised and persecuted; they had
been brought up in the chains of Roman Catholic heresy; and yet they were so
clear on such important points. So much were they forerunners of the
Reformation that when the Calvin Reformation dawned, most of them were quick
to join it; it was as if the Calvin Reformation was exactly what they had
been waiting for all these centuries. Only the fact that God preserves His
church can adequately explain their existence.
At the beginning of the movement the Waldensians did not depart from Roman
Catholic teachings. They did not reject the authority of the pope, the
entire sacramental system of Roman Catholicism, nor the church itself as the
mother of believers. They were, in fact, very much like a religious order.
They demanded vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for full membership
and insisted on a novitiate before allowing adherents to become full
But from the outset their main emphasis was on preaching. It was preaching
that got them into trouble with the church, for they preached without
permission. But they continued even in the face of excommunication because
they were convinced that preaching is decisive for salvation -- a
Reformation doctrine that stood at the heart of both the Lutheran and
Calvinistic reform of the church. Rome taught that the sacraments were
essential for salvation and that preaching was subordinate to the
sacraments. The Waldensians saw the error of this and insisted that the Lord
had added the sacraments to the preaching and that therefore, God saved His
people by the preaching of the Word. It was especially this doctrine which
Rome hated with a passion, for the sacraments stood at the very heart of the
entire papal-sacerdotal system of which Rome was so proud.
It really ought not to surprise us, in the light of the times, that the
Waldensians even went too far with their idea of preaching. They were
opposed to Roman Catholic clericalism, and soon came to see the importance
of what Luther later called the office of all believers. With their emphasis
on the office of all believers, and failing to distinguish between the
special offices in the church and the general office of believers, they gave
to the laity, including women, the right to preach. All God's people were
preachers, and they were preachers not by virtue of ordination, but by
virtue of a Godly and spiritual life which manifested that they were
One benefit of this erroneous viewpoint, however, was the fact that they saw
the need for all God's people to possess the Scriptures. And so they
translated the Scriptures into the vernacular, and even insisted on the
final and absolute authority of the Scriptures for life, doctrine and
preaching. Preaching had to be exposition of God's Word.
After persecution and excommunication, their views developed. They saw
inconsistencies with the position they had taken and the other teachings of
Rome. And so, bit by bit, they rejected the oath, purgatory, prayers for the
dead, the mass, and transubstantiation.
Such teachings as these attracted immense throngs to the Waldensians and the
movement spread rapidly into France, Italy, Switzerland and even parts of
Eastern Europe. It was exactly because of the threat to Romish power and the
popularity of the movement that the fury of Rome was brought down upon the
Waldensians. The full force of that cruel, unjust, and frightening
institution for the suppression of heresy, the Inquisition, was brought to
bear against them.
The stories of suffering and torture which these folk endured make one weep
even today. Their fathers and mothers were torn apart on the rack and burned
at the stake. Their children were burned with irons to force them to report
evil deeds of their parents. A whole cave of men, women and children, who
had fled to the mountains to escape, was suffocated by a huge fire built at
its entrance and smoke being forced into the cave. As the poem at the
beginning of this article points out, mothers and their infants clutched in
their arms were hurled over the sides of cliffs.
Under the pressures of persecution, they fled into the Alpine valleys and
high plateaus of Switzerland, and there they survived.
Were they so cruelly treated for wrong doing? An inquisitor himself said of
them: "They are modest and well behaved, taking no pride in their dress,
which is neat but not extravagant. Avoiding commerce, because of its
inevitable lies and oaths and frauds, they live by working as artisans, with
cobblers as their teachers. Content with bare necessities, they do not
accumulate wealth. Chaste in their habits, temperate in eating and drinking,
they keep away from taverns, dances and other vanities. They refrain from
anger and are always active. They can be recognized by their modesty and
precision of speech."
On the other side of the coin, one man suspected of Waldensian error proved
at his trial that he was not and could not be a Waldensian, but had to be a
good Catholic, because he lied, swore and drank.
These saints of God who stained the Alps with their blood eagerly embraced
the Reformation. But Rome? To this day Rome has not confessed any
wrong-doing for shedding the blood of the saints. Nor has Rome changed at
heart. It would, I am convinced, do the same today, given the opportunity.
But the souls of the Waldensians cry from under the altar. And the Lord will
answer their prayer.

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