Lessons from the Waldensians

By Geoffrey Botkin, 29 April, 2010
Once upon a time, God made a promise to a faithful family known as the Rechabites. He said there would be at least one believer among their descendants forever.[1] Historians have lost track of the Rechabites. We do not know where that one believer may be living today. But we do know about God’s remarkable faithfulness to a group of living families which traces its Christian heritage back to the days of the apostles. Known as Waldensians, they are the only group of families whose Christian legacy appears to span the entire 20 centuries since the apostles. I recently spoke to a living Waldensian by phone. He can trace his family name and ancestry back to baptismal records in an Italian church of the 16th century. Other Waldensians can trace their heritage back another 500 years, and it has been argued that they represent a legacy of faithfulness which stretches all the way back to the 1st century A.D.[2] The Waldensians may also hold the record for the most intense suffering of any body of Christians, having endured ruthless attack, torture, and slaughter during five straight centuries of relentless persecution by the Roman Catholic church and its agents. Throughout their history, the Roman hierarchy hated and feared them as the threat that could bring down the cult of popish conformity. Its relentless efforts to wipe out the Waldensians completely—man, woman, and child—probably form the most prolonged and shameful chapter of martyrdom in all of Christian history.[3] Why study the Waldensians? The character and history of these people through 20 centuries of moral tests hold critical lessons for students of multigenerational faithfulness to Christ who also seek wise obedience and wise leadership in His churches. Roman Empire Map

17 Lessons from the Waldensians for Christ’s Followers Today

The story of the Waldensians may rightly begin with the faithful first-century disciples of Christ who saw fruit in preaching the gospel in Asia Minor and around the Mediterranean. Converts from Turkey, Greece, and Italy moved deliberately westward into Gaul and Britain and across central Europe carrying a common faith that was simple enough to inspire young Christians to love and good deeds which were consistently similar from region to region. There was no international church bureaucracy dictating conduct, belief, or religious conventions to these converts. They embraced and followed the scriptural doctrines they learned from the apostles, which passed from spiritual father to spiritual son. Individual Christians and their families assumed direct responsibility to spread the gospel verbally and to organize local churches as they went. Beginning as early as the 5th century, many of these communities began to be subsumed under the authority of the bishops of Rome and to lose their independent apostolic legacies. But not all did. There were churches and abbeys in Ireland, elsewhere in Europe, and especially in the mountain valleys of the Alps, which maintained their scriptural, apostolic doctrine uncorrupted. Cottian Alps As early as the 11th century,[4] there was a poem circulating which suggests that the Vaudes, or Vaudois people of the Cottian Alps were considered enemies of the Roman church because they were champions of Scripture. Scottish historian J.A. Wylie summarizes the doctrine of this historic poem: The Nobla Leycon sets forth with tolerable clearness the doctrine of the Trinity, the fall of man, the incarnation of the Son, the perpetual authority of the Decalogue as given by God, the need of Divine grace in order to [do] good works, the necessity of holiness, the institution of the ministry, the resurrection of the body, and the eternal bliss of heaven. This creed its professors exemplified in lives of evangelical virtue.[5] The literary trail of the Waldensians picks up in earnest in the 12th and 13th centuries—a time period which saw an explosion of fruitfulness among these families. Historians suggest that they derive their common name from Peter Waldo,[6]a merchant of Lyons, in southern France. Waldo did not attempt to found a movement, but became memorable for translating and circulating Scripture in the common Romansch language of eastern France and northern Italy, starting around 1170. The lives of Waldo and the Waldensian families from this time forward illustrate at least 17 important lessons for followers of Christ in the year 2010.

1. Poems and stories about righteousness, self control, and the judgment to come can soften the heart and be used of God to start world-changing movements of repentance.

Though the Roman church had long begun to conceal Scripture from the common people, truth stayed alive in stories, songs, and poems in the common languages, like the Nobla Leycon. Peter Waldo was a worldly merchant, until the message of a traveling balladeer led to his conversion: Life is short; prepare for heaven; watch out for false religious distractions from the truth. Wylie observes of these wandering minstrels, before and after Waldo: Many of the troubadours were religious men, whose lays were sermons. The hour of deep and universal slumber had passed; the serf was contending with his seigneur for personal freedom, and the city was waging war with the baronial castle for civic and corporate independence. The New Testament—and . . . portions of the Old—coming at this juncture in a language understood alike in the court as in the camp, in the city as in the rural hamlet, was welcome to many, and its truths obtained a wider promulgation than perhaps had taken place since the publication of the Vulgate by Jerome.[7]

2. Humble converts can be greatly misled by unwise mentors who have failed to take their thoughts captive to obey Christ.

Upon his conversion Peter Waldo asked the wrong man for advice. Many groups at this time, including mendicant orders of monks, were renouncing all possessions and traveling around as beggars and preachers.[8] Acting on the advice he received, Waldo placed his daughters in a nunnery and gave away much of his capital. Those converted under Waldo’s preaching soon came to be called the humiliati, or Poor of Lyons.

3. When believers rediscover the authoritative doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the unleashing of Scripture transforms culture.

However, Waldo did keep enough money to finance extensive translation and copying of Scripture into the vernacular. One inquisitor wrote of Waldo’s activity: He arranged for the Gospels and some other books of the Bible to be translated in common speech . . . which he read very often, though without understanding their import. Infatuated with himself, he usurped the prerogatives of the Apostles by presuming to preach the Gospel in the streets, where he made many disciples, and involving them, both men and women, in a like presumption by sending them out, in turn, to preach.[9] In the eyes of Rome, thus, the Waldensian heresy was one of orthopraxy[10] rather than doctrine.[11] Their sin was to take the Great Commission[12] too literally—”Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” rather than leaving this to the professional clergy class, which, according to its apologists, alone was “to preach, and exercise an office which was confided to the Apostles and to their successors only.”[13] [M]en and women, great and lesser, day and night do not cease to learn and teach; the workman who labors all day teaches or learns at night . . . When someone has been a student seven days, he seeks someone else to teach, as one curtain pulls another. Whoever excuses himself, saying that he is not able to learn, they say to him, “Learn but one word each day, and after a year you will know three hundred, and you will progress.”[14]

4. Local churches are kingdom outposts, and many local churches change civilization as they reflect the character of the disciplemaker.

For the Poor the bond of unity lay not in the sacraments but in their apostolic mission. Christian virtue, then, was in demonstrating love, and care for the brethren. . . . Everyone of them, old and young, men and women, by day and by night, do not stop their learning and teaching of others.[15] The result, as the Nobla Leycon so colorfully puts it: If there be an honest man, who desires to love God and fear Jesus Christ, who will neither slander, nor swear, nor lie, nor commit adultery, nor kill, nor steal, nor avenge himself of his enemies, they presently say of such a one he is a Vaudes, and worthy of death.”[16]

5. Whenever Scripture is studied, discussed, preached, gossiped—darkness and superstition are forced away by light and wisdom and more people understand the truth, sowing the seeds of reformation.

One of the Waldensians’ opponents, Alan of Lille, writing around the year 1200, bemoaned in a chapter titled, “By what authority and for what reason it is shown that no one ought to preach unless he has permission from the Bishop”: Everywhere in our cities and villages, not only in our schools but at the street corners, learned and ignorant, great and small, are discussing the gravest mysteries.[17]The Waldensians paved the way for the Reformation of the sixteenth century not only by circulating the Scriptures in the common tongue, but by challenging the Roman bureaucracy’s elevation of ritual, its cultivation of a fundamental clergy-laity separation, and especially its claim to monopoly in interpreting and teaching Scripture.

6. The disapproval of the wicked can be healthy for the righteous.

As for Luther some 350 years later, their official excommunication, either in 1184 or 1215,[18]forced the Waldensians to reexamine doctrines which they had picked up by default as part of the Roman Catholic church. Their exclusion from the sacramental “means of grace” forced a new study of the meaning of the church, worship, the sacraments, salvation, and sanctification. Some of their early conclusions:

  • The Holy Scriptures alone are sufficient to guide men to Salvation.
  • The blessings and consecrations practiced in the Church do not confer any particular sanctity upon the things or persons blessed or consecrated.
  • Catholic priests . . . have no authority; and the Pope of Rome is the chief of all heresiarchs.
  • Everyone has the right to preach publicly the Word of God.
  • Every oath is a mortal sin.
  • Purgatory is a dream, an invention of the sixth century.
  • The indulgences of the Church are an invention of covetous Priests.
  • There is no obligation to fast, nor to keep any holy day, Sunday excepted.
  • The invocation of Saints cannot be admitted.
  • Every honor given in the Church to the holy images of paintings, and to the relics of Saints is to be abolished.
  • Auricular Confession is useless, and . . . it is enough to confess our sins to God.
  • The definition of the church is, “the whole of the elect from the beginning of the world to its end.” and that regarding ministries, “the holy Catholic Church is the congregation of all ministers and people obeying the Divine will, and by obedience united. . .”
  • The church and the state should remain as separate authorities.
  • The Eucharist is to be viewed as a memorial, not as a sacrifice.[19]

7. Persecution spreads gospel light when believers respond to it wisely.

Pope Innocent III (c. 1160-1216) knew that scriptural truth would undermine his financial and political empire. Starting in 1208, the Roman bureaucracy declared that the Waldensians had to be exterminated. The man-hunt pushed Waldensian families all across Europe, as far as Poland, sowing seeds of reformation in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Holland.[20] Mont Chaberton

8. Hatred of truth often develops into deadly force.

The Christian religion is a living and non-compromising challenge to those who hate God. It is imperative for believers to understand just how deadly Christ’s enemies can be.[21] Here are a few snapshots from the half-millennium of slaughter which these families underwent. In 1212, 80 Waldensians were caught and burned in Strasbourg.[22] In 1332, inquisitors were ordered to root out the heretics in the valleys of Perosa, in northern Italy, and Lucerna, in what is now Switzerland.[23] In 1393, the Franciscan inquisitor Borelli burned 150 men, besides women, girls, and young children, in a single day in Dauphine.[24] Around Christmas 1400, he led troops into the town of Pragelas, slaughtering all upon whom he could lay hands; many of those who fled perished in the snow, dead children clasped in the frozen arms of their mothers.[25] In 1487 the pope recruited some 36,000 men to crush the Waldensians “like venomous snakes.” 18,000 regular troops plus a similar number of criminals and desperados assembled to slaughter the Waldensians in their Alps, village by village. These criminals would be, absolved from all ecclesiastical pains and penalties, general and particular; it released all who joined the crusade from any oaths they might have taken; it legitimatised their title to any property they might have illegally acquired; and promised remission of all their sins to such as should kill any heretic. It annulled all contracts made in favour of Vaudois, ordered their domestics to abandon them, forbade all persons to give them any aid whatever, and empowered all persons to take possession of their property.”[26]

9. The villages which prepared and organized to survive and resist were unmolested. The unprepared were destroyed.

The 1487-8 war lasted for a long year of suffering.[27] But the thousands of assassins were eventually killed or driven off by the best-led Christian families—mostly by high altitude avalanche and surprise attacks on detached bands.[28] Precipitous alpine terrain

10. Small compromises are more spiritually seductive and deadly than outright persecution.

The Duke of Savoy, who formally ruled their mountain homeland, promised the remaining Waldensians a measure of peace. But he soon introduced priests among them who plied them with religious seductions of compromise and reward for compromise. These began to take effect and the strength and convictions of the Waldensians weakened. Many bowed to superstitious Roman Catholic ritual in order to gain freedom from molestation.[29]

11. Friendly fellowship with true brothers benefits and strengthens the entire body.

When news of the Reformation filtered across the Alps, the declining Waldensians were eager to make contact with these new fellow-believers. In 1530, the Waldensians of southern France sent two of their pastors to meet with the leading reformers, bringing great joy to the representatives of the ancient and new churches alike. The Waldensians asked counsel of the reformers and humbly embraced their loving rebukes over compromise. Two years later the Synod of Chanforan brought the Waldensians formally into accord with the reformed churches of Switzerland. In the same year, they commissioned a new translation of the Bible—the first in the French language.

12. Christ’s enemies may wage economic warfare as a means of manipulation and control.

In 1560 the Duke of Savoy declared total war against the Waldensians once again, and assembled an army of “outlaws, convicts, and vagabonds,” to whom he promised free pardon if they would enroll to fight the Vaudois. The Duke’s general, Count La Trinita, advanced into the valleys and despite the size of his force met with resistance and reverse. The general soon realized that these hardy mountaineers would rather die than submit their consciences to the pope or their families to the mercies of his soldiers. But he also realized that they were utterly ignorant of the art of intrigue. He therefore entered into negotiations: If they would lay down their arms and raise a large tribute, he would withdraw his troops. While they awaited the result of a petition to the faraway duke himself, the Waldensians made concession after concession, selling their flocks and herds to pay La Trinita’s price. The general did withdraw his army for the winter—after he had destroyed all the stores of food he could find and even wrecked the mills. He nevertheless left garrisons in the valleys and forced the people to supply his troops with bread out of the starvation rations they had remaining.[30]

13. Friendly negotiations with a true enemy are only friendly until he gains the upper hand.

In 1655 a fresh attempt was made to exterminate the Vaudois. The Marquis de Pianeza attacked the mountain forts and passes with an army. Despite surprise, the Waldensians hurled the invaders back at every point, but were then lured once again into negotiations. As a token of loyalty, they permitted troops to be garrisoned in the valleys. Then, on the morning of April 24, the occupying troops fell on every man, woman, and child for days of rape, torture, and slaughter.[31]

14. Statesmen can use their positions to defend the flock from wolves.

Oliver Cromwell and all the Protestants of Europe were outraged, but it was too late to save these villages. Nevertheless, Cromwell, whose New Model army was feared throughout Europe, used his influence to bring about a peace which for a time preserved the remaining Waldensians.

15. A multitude of counsel on life-and-death decisions can preserve from destruction.

In January 1686 came an edict before unmatched in centuries of tyranny. It completely banned exercise of their religion, required the recantation or exile of their pastors, and mandated the compulsory training of their children as Roman Catholics. Even as the Covenanters were being harried across the moors of Scotland or hanging in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh, the combined forces of France and Savoy gathered at the mouths of the Alpine valleys. So dire was the impending storm that Swiss envoys counseled the Vaudois to “transport elsewhere the torch of the Gospel, and not keep it here to be extinguished in blood.”[32] Alpine homestead

16. Sentimental love of good things can blind Christians to greater priorities.

Instead of migrating, the Waldensians, loving their ancient and beautiful homeland, resisted, then—perpetually desirous of avoiding conflict—surrendered on the promise of restoration to their homes and ancient liberties. Instead, they were massacred and the entire remaining population imprisoned. Released months later, the 3000 gaunt survivors were forced-marched across the Alps in December.[33] A few of the strongest made it to Geneva, where they were received with open arms as brethren in the faith. In hindsight, it is clear that purposeful migration could have preserved many families for future fruitfulness. Waldensians in earlier times had spread across Europe, driven by persecution. The next best option would have been unified resistance to the end. The worst was piecemeal surrender to the mercies of lawless evildoers. Christ transforms families and can use intact families to change history. Young converts grow quickly when mature families can disciple them. Families can rise to great maturity and fruitfulness as they take advantage of the brotherhood within the Christian ecclesia. Christian churches can exhibit great strength of unity, maturity, and cultural potency when they have sensible, resourceful, and bold leaders. Deliberate migrations of Christian families during times of God’s judgment on a homeland can be God’s means of blessing other lands with the sanctifying influence of Christian immigrants bringing a biblical understanding of dominion and godly seed.[34] But when the sheep are ignorantly nationalistic,[35] they can easily become prey to compromise, ambush, genocide, and the destruction of generations of progress in the faith. Mature Christian civilization flows from long lines of generational faithfulness and spiritual sanctification. To subject accumulated wisdom and fruit to destruction and re-cultivation from zero is to squander capital which should be preserved and re-invested. Christians must sacrifice personal sentimentalities to keep their families’ spiritual capital alive from generation to generation, never forgetting God’s periodic and necessary judgment on others around them.[36] Alpine sheep

17. Longterm fruitfulness is a product of multigenerational faithfulness and generational apostasy is usually the result of failed discipleship.

Amazingly, the story of the Waldensians does not end there. A few years later a small band recaptured a portion of their homeland in a series of remarkable exploits,[37] and their physical descendants still inhabit their historic valleys today. In the 19th century, many emigrated to South America or the United States. But in the 20th century, the descendants of those who preferred death to letting their children be educated by Roman priests permitted their children to be discipled in government schools.[38]These children of the Waldensians, firmly within the mainstream of liberal Protestantism, now retain only the memory of the fruits of their ancestors’ militant, mature faith.

Closing Thoughts

Look at this short summary of the collective testimony of these families over perhaps 2000 years.

  • They were the faithful inheritors of primitive Christian cultural practices which had been gradually compromised by early Roman Catholic sacerdotalism.[39]
  • They recovered a newfound zeal for the Great Commission when one faithful convert provided them Scripture.
  • Their enthusiasm earned them fierce enemies, noble martyrdom, and productive dispersion across Europe.
  • Some fell into patriotic sentimentality toward their beautiful alpine homeland estates, later building proud community loyalties to edifice-centered churches.
  • Their dominion vision was clouded by minor compromises with ecumenism[40] in a desperate search for economic stability.
  • Inappropriate sentimentalism cost them 85-95 percent of family assets (lives and property) in painful conflicts of political insignificance and few spiritual victories.
  • Physical numbers were finally rebuilt, but not their historic maturity.
  • Their heritage was compromised by religious syncretism with Protestant apostasy until they were subsumed by the culture of modern socialism.
  • Today the descendants are nominal, mainstream Protestants who formally remember the theological heritage of their fathers, but they have lost the character to fully appreciate or build on what has become mere sentimental legend.

The history of the Waldensians illustrates that the Christian faith is not mysticism, but a tradition of obedience to a living King who requires orthodoxy and orthopraxy rooted in His written and spoken Word. The early Waldensians began in faith and ignorance, but with dependence on the Scripture. Though the professional clergy of their day judged them harshly for being young and illiterate of precise tradition, the Waldensians exercised their license to preach the gospel as coming from Christ Himself. Some Waldensian families were well prepared for the challenges they faced over the centuries. Some were ill prepared and faltered. Some lived in great fruitfulness for Christ and trained their children well. Many Waldensians died as brave martyrs. Sometimes, entire families died in battle for the faith. Other families died foolishly and needlessly because of carelessness. Some lived in cowardice and hiding, while many lived in productive privacy. Some migrated to new territory; some tried to cling to ancestral lands and houses. Some compromised shamefully, while others inspired courage in hundreds of their kinsmen, discipling them for greatness. The early militancy of the Waldensians provides a model for believers in an age which has constructed a new clergy-laity distinction. Their late apostasy is a sober warning. Christian families who lay to heart the lessons in the history of these remarkable families will be better equipped to handle God’s Word as sufficient and advance the Great Commission into the third millennium. Enduring fruitfulness is the will of Christ for His people. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. — John 15:16 The valleys are still home to descendants of the Waldensians    see original article and notes here: http://westernconservatory.com/article/2010/04/lessons-waldensians

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Waldensians”

  1. I am a faithful Waldensian who has never relinquished the original intent of what my grandfather Daniel Planchon (2d generation French Waldinsian from Villar Pellice Italy) instilled in me… “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Randy

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  2. Je suis un huguenot! Mes ancêtres étaient des Vaudois! Laissez ľ inquisition!!!
    Vous catholiques paϊennes..! une véritable histoire de soldats qui luttent pour le prostestant unité de la chrétienté contre la tyrannie du vatican, manger ce que vous porcs ermite! vous brûlerez en enfer, AMEN!

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