Throughout the Middle Ages God always preserved in the church a remnant who kept the light of the gospel burning in the midst of the prevailing darkness. The Waldenses were such a group. They were not, for the most part, learned men or theologians. Originally they formed a group within the existing church, nor did they have any real desire to leave the church or to reform it. While their contribution to the history of doctrine is small, they did serve to a certain extent in preparing the way for a return to Scripture in the days of the Reformation and are therefore worthy of our attention.
The Waldenses derive their name from Peter Waldo, a prosperous merchant of Lyons, France who lived in the latter part of the 1100s and probably died around 1218. While little of his life is known for certain, there are several things which can be said of him. He was evidently a faithful son of the Roman church. In his day, spiritual piety and devotion were measured in terms of voluntary acts of humiliation, pilgrimages, monastic seclusion, and other outward acts of devotion. He therefore who desired to live a more spiritual, religious, and holy life would separate himself as much as possible from the material things of the world in order to devote himself to spiritual contemplation and good works. This idea of a physical separation from the world was partially rooted in the Roman Catholic idea that evil was found in material things, as well as in a lack of a clear understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith without works. Monasticism and celibacy were viewed as the highest form of the religious life.
In this environment there were various avenues or ways of life open to laymen who were seeking a more meaningful spiritual life and a sanctified walk. It was such a desire which moved Peter Waldo, under the instruction and counsel of a priest, to take literally the command to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, to give to the poor, and to follow Christ. Around the year 1170 he made provision for his wife and daughters, the latter of whom entered a convent, and distributed his remaining possessions among the poor. His desire was to live simply according to the literal commands of the gospel.
This desire led him to seek a translation of the gospels and other parts of the Scriptures from the Latin into the common language of the people. Then he, and those who found themselves in agreement with him went about from village to village, preaching. In this he and his followers sought to follow directly the command of Christ to the apostles to go forth two by two, taking nothing with them but the bare necessities of life. The name they took for themselves was “the poor of Christ.” They sought, by their preaching, to spread the simple precepts of the gospel among the people. As this movement spread it was resisted by the church which forbade them to preach. When the Waldenses sought approval from the church authorities for their way of life and for their translation of the gospels, the church refused its consent.
This rejection by the church authorities is understandable. In the first place, the Waldenses were not ordained and sent to preach; they were laymen, not officebearers. Although the church was technically correct, she passed over the real issue: that the clergy themselves had neglected to preach faithfully the Word, and that those who were God’s people hungered for His Word. In the second place, this preaching of the gospel, however simple in form, stood as a threat to the whole structure the Roman church had built, as it was founded upon human traditions and the commandments of men. A return to the Word of God as the authority for faith and life must necessarily undermine the whole Roman Catholic system of doctrine, of the sacraments, of hierarchy, of popes, and with them the temporal power of the church. And so they were forbidden to preach, and when they refused to stop, saying that they must obey God rather than men, they were excommunicated, which at that time also exposed them to punishment by the civil authorities. The movement, however, continued to spread, from France into Italy, Austria, Germany, and even into Poland.
In addition to their preaching the Waldenses also distributed and sold copies of the gospels and other portions of Scripture, and that in the common language of the people. This led to a greater knowledge of the Word of God among the common people and would also serve to prepare the way for reformation.
Despite being driven from the church, the Waldenses continued their labors. Their zealous teaching and preaching of the Scriptures in the common language could not be without effect. The group more and more began to question certain doctrines of the church. In the first place, they emphasized the importance of preaching. This was at odds with the Roman church’s emphasis on the sacraments, particularly the mass, and the priority of these over the preaching. They also began to challenge such doctrines as purgatory and prayers for the dead. Positively, they began to assert, in an early form, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. The right of unfaithful clergy to function in their office was also challenged by them. This in itself was indeed a serious threat to Rome, as many of her priests lived in open fornication and concubinage.
While all this does not mean that the Waldenses were true Protestants, yet, in their development they were heading in the direction of the Reformation. Their movement was rooted chiefly in the desire for personal piety and spirituality, while its doctrinal development stood in the background. Their simple approach to Scripture often led to a definite lack of clarity in their views as well as to several serious errors. Some of their groups for example, taught that women also could preach. This was a confusion of the office of believer with the official work of the ministry, a confusion which arose out of the Waldenses’ rejection of the authority of the offices in the church. They also showed a tendency to drift into anabaptist and baptistic ideas and to reject infant baptism and the lawful oath.
But it was their emphasis on preaching and on the power and authority of the Word of God, and their dissemination of the Scriptures to the people which reserves for them a special place in the history of the church. These things the hierarchy of Rome could not tolerate. In attempting to deal with the Waldenses the church created an ecclesiastically approved counterpart to them from disaffected members of their group. This group of “Catholic poor” emphasized the same ideas of poverty and personal piety, but under the strict control of the church. This idea later found a home in the religious order of the Franciscans within the Roman church.
A second response of the church to this growing movement was to forbid laymen to possess copies of the Scriptures. Heretofore the church had taken no official stand on the matter, but at the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, the Bible was officially removed from the hands of the laity. All translations were also denounced. The laity might only possess the portions of the Scriptures which were in use in the church’s liturgy such as the psalter. The decree of this Synod was not a universal one, but it did set the pattern for the later Middle Ages, and it reflects the church’s hardening in her position of removing the Scriptures from the people.
The church’s primary response however was one of suppression and persecution. This persecution at first varied in degree and from place to place, but it increased in severity as the influence of the Waldenses spread. As early as 1212 some of their number may have suffered martyrdom in Strassbourg. In some areas of Europe they were able to gain a considerable following, especially in Bohemia where the pre-reformer John Huss was to arise. To counteract these developments the church established the Inquisition. The Inquisition was organized by the popes and its purpose was the rooting out and destruction of heresy by means of interrogation and threats under torture. While the Inquisition was directed at groups other than the Waldenses as well, they too fell victim to its methods of torture, imprisonment, and execution by burning at the stake. In the 1300s the Inquisition was sent to Bohemia, Poland, and Austria to root out the Waldenses. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called upon the king of France to set out on a crusade against the Waldenses in order to root them out of the alpine valleys to which many of them had retreated for safety.
In spite of these things the Waldenses survived, and when the Reformation took place in the 1500s they appropriated it and its doctrine. It was then that they endured some of the fiercest persecution yet to come upon them.
In the Waldenses therefore also is revealed the fact that the way of the church’s return to Scripture would not be a way of peaceful Reformation, but a way of suffering and death for the Word of God. For the church of Rome was more and more manifesting herself as the false church. Only in the way of suffering would the yoke of tradition and false doctrine be broken and the church reformed upon the foundation of the pure Word of God.