The Waldenses were living proof that Christ has never been without His true church, not even in the Middle Ages, when the church institute was apostate and corrupt beyond description.

In every age Christ builds His church and keeps His own. The ‘sect’ known as the Waldenses are proof of this truth.

We generally associate the Waldenses with the great slaughter of these humble believers that took place in the Alpine valleys that lie on the border between France and Italy, a slaughter that began on April 24, 1655 and continued for many days.

On that fateful Saturday, a day that lives on in infamy, papal soldiers under the command of the Duke of Savoy—soldiers who had been housed in Waldensian homes for a week with the assurance that the army came only to track a few fugitives and would leave once these were apprehended—rose up at a prearranged trumpet signal, hauled men, women, and children from their own homes, and began to slaughter these families without mercy, often abusing the women and children as their families watched, before put ting them to death in the cruelest ways imaginable. This went on for days. The mutilated bodies were left to lie in the streets and open fields without burial, food for every predator and carrion bird.

The corpses numbered in the thousands.

The reports of the brutality and the scale of the slaughter in the Piedmont valleys, along with its treachery, swept through Northern Europe, outraging the sensibilities even of those who had little sympathy for the Protestant religion. Could human beings be so diabolical as to outdo even the brute beasts? Rome’s outrages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrate they can be, and that in the name of Christianity and of their own Christ.

The slaughter of the Waldenses is immortalized, as most know, in Milton’s poem entitled On the Late Massacre in Piedmont (Sonnet 18).

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 worshipp’d stocks and stones;

Forget not: in thy book record their groans

Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold

Slain 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’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway

The triple tyrant; that from these may grow

A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way

Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

Moving, to say the least. Indeed, as the blood of Abel cried to God for vengeance, so does the blood of these Waldenian martyrs to this present day.

But the history of the Waldenses does not begin in the 1600s. This ancient ‘sect’ traces its beginnings back some 500 years prior to the great massacre in the Piedmonts.

Those whom we remember as the ‘Waldenses’ find their origin in a man whom we know as Peter Waldo, who lived in the twelfth century (c. 1140-c. 1218). In his hometown of Lyon, France, his family name was Valdes, or Vaudois in its Latin version. Others would label those who followed his teachings as ‘the Vaudois’, which the English has transposed to ‘Waldenses’.

Valdes’ followers, however, called themselves ‘The Poor of Christ’ as well as ‘The Poor of Lyon.” In other words, they were not the followers of a man, the earmark of a sect. Rather they were those who were returning to the teachings of Christ and the apostles and of the early Christian church, when the believers had all things in common and bore witness to all and sundry of the salvation found in Christ Jesus.

Little is known about Peter Valdes’ life. His contemporaries wrote no biography; he left behind no writings. What historians have gathered is that he came from a wealthy family, was himself a successful, well-known businessman and a good son of Rome, one to whom Christianity was for the most part ritual and formality, but who, like Luther later, would undergo a powerful change of heart and perspective on life, especially as it pertained to the (un)spiritual condition of the church of his age.

What is known is that, mid-life, Valdes came under a spiritual conviction and determined to give all that he had to the poor and go out and preach to all and sundry, teaching them what true Christian discipleship was all about.

Traditions vary as to what brought this about. One tradition maintains that he read the gospel record of the rich young ruler and Christ’s stinging admonition to this young man, exhorting him to sell all that he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and then to take up his cross and follow Christ. Valdes identified himself with that rich young ruler, one who, when it came to the kingdom of heaven, was so close, and yet, so far away.

Another tradition is that a close friend died at a banquet in which wine flowed freely, giving Valdes occasion to ask, “What if death were to take me in like manner? What would be the end of my journey?”

Perhaps Valdes’ dramatic change of heart was occasioned by a combination of these two events. Whatever it was, Valdes sold all that he had, saw to it that his wife was taken care of, and gave the rest to the poor. He remained married, but his life was now dedicated to preaching the Word to others, calling them to do as he had done. He assured those who did so that those to whom they preached would provide for them, just as was true of the apostles of old.

In time, this requirement of selling all that one had was relaxed, but in the beginning many heard Valdes’ message, took it to heart, and did precisely that. They became, for all intents and purposes, a mendicant group (like monks taking a vow of poverty), except they did not promote celibacy over marriage nor retire to some monastic separation from the world. Rather, they remained ‘in the world’ so they could preach Christ and teach the biblical life.

Exactly because Rome’s crass materialism and sexual corruption—especially amongst her prelates and priest—were so transparent and well known, this return to renouncing the things of this world and seeking first the things of heaven and its righteousness had such an appeal to the spiritual of those days. This was the authentic Christian life, not what the majority of Rome’s worldlyminded clergy promoted and practiced.

The number of adherents to Valdes’ preaching swelled remarkably and began to spread, so much so that the Romish prelates of southeast France could not ignore it. They reacted with vigor, petitioning the pope to label these Waldenses as a sect promoting heresy. This would mean, of course, excommunication of all who practiced this new ‘heresy’, giving the prelates the right to turn them over to the inquisitors to perform their evils. It was crystal clear to Rome’s prelates that the poverty and piety of this new movement stood as a public condemnation of their greed, opulence, and perversions.

At that time Valdes and his followers also petitioned Pope Alexander III to give papal approval of their movement and recognize them as a preaching order. Alexander refused this petition, but neither was he willing at this point to declare them heretics, not as long as they preached against the Cathari, a growing heretical movement troubling southern Europe at that time. Catharism (known also as Albigensianism) essentially was a revival of the old Manichean error that posited two forces of equal power in this world, the force of light and the force of darkness. Physical reality was inherently of darkness and evil, and so believers were called to practice a strict asceticism if the spiritual was to prevail. The Cathari went so far as to identify the God of the New Testament with light and good, and the God of the Old Testament with darkness and evil, one represented by Satan himself. It was a heresy that not even Rome could allow.

As long as Valdes and his followers joined Rome in condemning the Cathari, Alexander was willing to letm them exist unmolested, though not as an officially recognized order. As a result, the Waldensian movement was given time to grow.

This all changed in 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council under a new and ambitious pope, Innocent III, categorized the Waldenses with the Cathari, making them an heretical sect. This meant they were to cease their preaching on pains of arrest, loss of property, and death.

The response of Valdes (who would die three years later, in 1218) and his followers was “We must obey God rather than men.” They refused to recant or to cease preaching. From that point on persecution and its threat became the looming reality of their lives. It also explains their gradual migration into the Alpine mountains and the remote valleys of the Piedmonts in the interests of survival.

Rome justified her charging the Waldenses with heresy by arguing that they allowed all to preach, none of whom was ordained. Surely this was contrary to Scripture’s clear teaching that only those ordained by Christ’s church might preach! “How shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:15).

Technically, Rome was correct. However, the reality is, extraordinary times in the church call for extraordinary measures. Consider the record of Deborah the prophetess in the days of the judges.

Rome’s real issue with the Waldenses was not that unordained men and women were ‘preaching.’ Their issue, like that of the Pharisees with John the Baptist, was what they preached, a word that exposed them in their immoralities and gross materialism, and, as time went on, challenged Rome’s great doctrinal errors as well.

Significantly, historical evidence is that when Valdes began to preach to the multitudes, he carried with him his own translation of the Gospels, foreshadowing the Reformers and their insistence on the importance of giving God’s people God’s Word in their native tongue. As time went on, copies of this translation could be found in the homes of his followers. Over time translations of other books, such as Paul’s epistles, were added.

It was this growing familiarity with the Scriptures that led the Waldenses to doctrinal stances that anticipated the Reformation itself.

In time, the Waldenses denied such doctrines as purgatory and the penance connected with it, the effectiveness of prayers to the saints, as well as elevating the Virgin Mary to that of a co-mediatrix. Eventually they even challenged the doctrine of transubstantiation, so crucial to Rome’s sacerdotal system and her tyranny over the conscience.

A report filed by an inquisitor in 1320 reads:

Question addressed to the [Waldensian] elder: If, according to their custom, he could not consecrate the bread and wine, could he bless the bread and wine, if not in the sense of accomplishing a sacrifice or offering, [then] in the sense of a memorial of the blessing of the bread and wine which Jesus gave when he transformed the bread and wine into his body and blood. He answered that he could not do it….

[Rather, the leader] sits at the table with the others. Then taking the bread, fish and wine, he blesses them, not as an offering or sacrifice [!], but as a remembrance of the first supper.1

This confession, of course, served to establish the ‘guilt’ of the accused beyond all question.

It was these doctrinal developments that incurred the on-going wrath of Rome, and prompted her edicts across the pre-Reformation centuries to stamp out those pestiferous Waldensians.

A study of the history of the Waldenses reveals that their preaching zeal and observable piety served to gain adherents across Northern Europe through the centuries preceding the Reformation. But once the gathering of new Waldensian adherents was brought to the attention of the Romish prelates, they pressured the princes to forbid such gatherings and to extinguish this ‘heresy’ from their realm. As a result of the vigorous and relentless suppression, when the Reformation broke out across Europe in the 1500s, those still carrying the name ‘Waldenses’ were confined mainly to the Alpine mountain strongholds of the Piedmont region. The rest had been pursued and executed to extinction.

In time, the writings and teachings of the Reformers reached the mountain strongholds of the Waldenses, where many adopted them as biblical truth. With some exceptions, the Waldenses identified themselves with the Reformation movement.

Significantly, the Reformers of both the Lutheran and Calvinistic camps acknowledged the Waldenses (togeth er with the Hussites) as forerunners of their own break with Rome and return to the teachings of Scripture. When the Waldenses drew up a more complete translation of the Scriptures in the 1530s, Calvin reviewed it and wrote its preface.2

But identifying themselves with the Reformers came at a fearsome price. Rome’s counter-Reformation came into existence in the later 1500s, and the Waldenses of the Piedmont region were identified as one of the rebellious ‘sects’ to be exterminated once and for all. Whoever rid the land of the Waldenses would earn the special dispensation of the Papal See.

A series of assaults were made upon the humble but doughty Waldenses, only to be thrown back a number of times. It was in 1655 that the Papal See found its zealot, the Duke of Savoy, who, like Doeg the Edomite who slaughtered the priests and families of the house of Ahimelech, slaughtered the families of the Waldenses without mercy and with Herodian venom.

The pope said those who rendered him such service would, for their zeal, be spared the fires of purgatory. Something we do not dispute. But the fires of hell? Another matter entirely.

Those who remained of the Waldenses were scattered to the corners of Europe. Those of a Calvinistic persuasion would be absorbed into the Reformed community, their separate identity coming to an end.

But the testimony of these pious, stalwart, humble folk remains with us to this present day. Surely they are numbered with those spoken of in Hebrews 11:37, 38, “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword,…afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy…).”

Surely, as Christ in His grace enabled the Waldenses to persevere across centuries of abuse and yet keep the faith, He shall sustain His present church, upon whom the end of the age quickly comes.

1 Giorgio Tourn, You Are My Witnesses: The Waldensians Across 800 Years (Cincinnati, OH: Friendship Press, 1989), 41.

2 Cf. J.A. Wylie, History of The Waldenses (Gallatin, TN: Church History Research and Archives, 1985), 62.