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|Waldensian Evangelical Church|
Statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany.
|Founding date:||about 1177; in 1532 acceded to Franco-Swiss Protestant Reform|
|Headquarters:||Torre Pellice, Piemonte, Italy|
|Countries:||Argentina, France, Germany, Italy, United States, and Uruguay|
The movement was started partly in response to the schisms that had consumed the Catholic church in the 12th century and advocated a return to the vows of poverty and preaching of the Gospel as advocated by Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Originally a reform movement within the Catholic Church, the movement was declared heretical by 1215 and became persecuted by Church officials.
Upon the rise of the Protestant Reformation, church leaders met with Swiss and German Calvinists and agreed to join with the Reformed church, adopting many of the Calvinist tenets and becoming its Italian arm.
Although the church was granted some rights and freedoms under French King Henry IV with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, Catholic persecution rose again in the 17th century, with an extermination of the Waldensians attempted by the Duke of Savoy in 1655. This led to an exodus and dispersion of the Waldensians to other parts of Europe and even to the Western hemisphere.
While many Waldensian sects eventually were absorbed into other Protestant Christian denominations, active congregations remain in Europe, South America, and North America under the label of the Waldensian Evangelical Church. Organizations such as the American Waldensian Society exist to maintain the history of this movement.
Both the contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage describes itself as proclaiming the Christian Gospel, serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity and freedom of conscience.
Alleged ancient origins
Some groups of Mennonites, Baptists, and other Protestants have claimed that the Waldenses' history extends all the way back to Jesus' Apostles. Some Waldenses also claim for their churches an Apostolic origin, but this is far from universal. The supporters of the ancient origin claimed the Waldenses' name did not in fact come from Peter Waldo but from the area in which they lived. They claim Peter Waldo in fact got his name by association with the Waldenses. This thought was current in the early 19th century:
Some Protestants, on this occasion, have fallen into the snare that was set for them...It is absolutely false, that these churches were ever found by Peter Waldo...it is a pure forgery.
It is not true, that Waldo gave this name to the inhabitants of the valleys: they were called Waldenses, or Vaudes, before his time, from the valleys in which they dwelt.
On the other hand, he was called Valdus, or Waldo, because he received his religious notions from the inhabitants of the valleys.
Other supposed founders for an ancient origin included Claudius, Bishop of Turin (died 827) and Berengarius of Tours (died 1088). Many scholars have contested these claims, asserting that the Waldensians were followers of Peter Waldo. Likewise, the modern Waldensian churches themselves claim their movement began with Peter Waldo.
Origins in the Middle Ages
Much of what is known about the Waldensians comes from reports from Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Cathar who converted to Catholicism and wrote two reports for the Inquisition, Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno-- "On the Cathars and the Poor of Lyons" (1254)
The early Waldensian movement, as preached by Waldo, was one based on voluntary poverty as Jesus and his disciples did during Jesus' ministry. (The early Waldensian community did not call themselves Waldensians, but "The Poor of Lyons" or "The Poor of Christ" or just "The Poor".) Waldo, a successful and wealthy merchant in Lyons, sold all of his possessions and gave the proceeds away to the poor and advocated that his followers do the same. Waldo and his followers relied on donations and handouts collected while they were preaching.
According to Saccho, Waldensians were divided by three types of activity: Sandaliati, who were to study the scriptures to find and correct the 'errors' of the Catholic church and hierarchy; Doctores, who instructed and trained missionaries; and Novellani, who preached to the general population. They were also called Insabbatati, Sabati, Inzabbatati Sabotiers due to the unusual type of sabot they used as footwear.
Waldensians also held and preached a number of 'truths' that they believed represented precepts originally emanating from Jesus and his Apostles but which had subsequently become corrupted and lost when the church became established by the Roman Emperor Constantine:
- That oaths to anyone but God are forbidden;
- That capital punishment is not allowed to any civil power;
- That sacraments given by unworthy priests are not valid; and
- That any layman (who believes in Christ and leads an exemplary, Christ-like life) may consecrate the sacrament of the altar.
Waldo is recorded to have died in or around 1218, possibly in Germany, but he was never captured, and his fate remains unknown.
Catholic reaction and response
In 1179, a representation of Waldensians went to Rome to attend the Third Council of the Lateran, where they met with Pope Alexander III in the hopes of persuading the Pope to adopt some of their suggested reforms. The Pope, while impressed with their tenets of poverty and assisting the poor, forbade them from preaching or providing any explanation or critical interpretation (exegesis) without authorization from the local clergy.
Despite this admonition, Waldo and his followers continued to preach in public, declaring instead that they "must obey God rather than man". They also continued to provide their own exegesis (interpretation) of New Testament writings regardless of Catholic teachings. This 'literal interpretation' of the Bible was a forerunner of the precept propounded by Martin Luther and others in the Protestant Reformation.
Waldo had arranged for a translation of the New Testament into the Provençal language and he and his followers preached from that translation. Waldo's followers developed a system whereby they would go from town to town and meet secretly with small groups of Waldensians. There they would confess sins and hold service. A traveling Waldensian preacher was known as a barba. The group would shelter and house the barba and help make arrangements to move on to the next town in secret.
Because of this ongoing practice, they were formally declared schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 at the Synod of Verona, and heretics during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council stated that the group's principal error was "contempt for ecclesiastical power", but were also accused of teaching "innumerable errors". Waldo and his followers were excommunicated and forced from Lyon.
The rejection by the Church radicalized the movement. In terms of ideology, the Waldensians totally rejected the authority of the Catholic Church and its clergy.
In 1229 the Catholic Church completed its Crusade against the Catharism, or Albigenses, in the south of France, and the Waldenses became the next focus. This caused the Waldenses to go underground and to retreat out of urban areas into more remote rural settings. By 1230 they no longer preached in public. Gabriel Audisio explains: "Rather than going to seek new sheep ..., they devoted themselves to looking after the converted, maintaining them in their faith in the face of outside pressure and persecution." He added that "preaching remained essential but had completely changed in practice." They no longer sold and gave away all of their possessions and lived on handouts; they began to establish households and farming communities on which to raise their families. Still, they continued the egalitarian style of worship and literal biblical interpretation that the early movement had promoted.
1487 order of extermination
In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois. Alberto de' Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, responded to the bull by organizing a crusade to complete the process and launched an offensive in the provinces of Dauphine and Piedmont. Charles I, Duke of Savoy, eventually interfered to save his territories from further confusion and promised the Vaudois peace. But the offensive had devastated the area, and many of the Vaudois fled to Provence and to southern Italy.
When the news of the Reformation reached the Waldensian Valleys, the Tavola Valdese decided to seek fellowship with the nascent Protestantism. A Synod held in 1526 in Laus, a town in the Chisone valley, decided to send envoys to examine the new movement.
In 1532 they met with German and Swiss Protestants and ultimately adapted their beliefs to those of the Reformed Church. The Waldensian absorption into Protestantism led to their transformation from a group on the edge of Catholicism that shared many Catholic beliefs into a Protestant church adhering to the theology of John Calvin, which differed much from the beliefs of Peter Waldo. From then on the Waldensian Church became the Italian branch of Reformed churches.
The Swiss and French Reformed churches sent William Farel and Anthony Saunier to attend the Synod of Chanforan, which convened on 12 October 1532. Farel invited them to join the Reformation and to leave secrecy. A Confession of Faith, with Reformed doctrines, was formulated and the Waldensians decided to worship openly in French.
The French Bible translated by Pierre Robert Olivétan with the help of Calvin and published at Neuchâtel in 1535 was based in part on a New Testament in the Waldensian vernacular. The cost of its publication was defrayed by the churches in Waldensia who collected the sum of 1500 gold crowns for this purpose.
Massacre of Mérindol (1545)
Outside the Piedmont, the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France, and Germany. After they came out of clandestinity and reports were made of sedition on their part, the French king, Francis I issued on 1 January 1545 the "Arrêt de Mérindol", and assembled an army against the Waldensians of Provence. The leaders in the 1545 massacres were Jean Maynier d'Oppède, First President of the parlement of Provence, and the military commander Antoine Escalin des Aimars who was returning from the Italian Wars with 2,000 veterans, the Bandes de Piémont. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated.
The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives were permitted to return home. But despite this treaty, the Vaudois, with the other French Protestants, still suffered during the French Wars of Religion of 1562–1598.
As early as 1631, Protestant scholars began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, in a similar manner to how the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus - who were also persecuted by Roman Catholic authorities - were viewed.
The Piedmont Easter
In January 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys of their homeland, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. Being in the midst of winter, the order, of course, was intended to persuade the Vaudois to choose the former; however, the bulk of the populace instead chose the latter, abandoning their homes and lands in the lower valleys and removing to the upper valleys. It was written that these targets of persecution, old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received."
By mid-April, when it became clear that the Duke's efforts to force the Vaudois to conform to Catholicism had failed, he tried another approach. Under the guise of false reports of Vaudois uprisings, the Duke sent troops into the upper valleys to quell the local populace. He required that the local populace quarter the troops in their homes, which the local populace complied with. But the quartering order was a ruse to allow the troops easy access to the populace. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre.
The Catholic forces did not simply slaughter the inhabitants. They are reported to have unleashed an unprovoked campaign of looting, rape, torture, and murder. According to one report by a Peter Liegé:
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged [raped], then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.
This massacre became known as the Piedmont Easter. An estimate of some 1,700 Waldensians were slaughtered; the massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Protestant rulers in northern Europe offered sanctuary to the remaining Waldensians. Oliver Cromwell, then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Waldensians, writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. (The massacre prompted John Milton's famous poem on the Waldenses, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont".) Swiss and Dutch Calvinists set up an 'underground railroad' to bring many of the survivors north to Switzerland and even as far as the Dutch Republic, where the councillors of the city of Amsterdam chartered three ships to take some 167 Waldensians to their City Colony in the New World (Delaware) on Christmas Day 1656. Those that stayed behind in France and the Piedmont formed a guerilla resistance movement led by a farmer, Joshua Janavel, which lasted into the 1660s.
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the "Glorious Return"
In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects in France. French troops sent into the French Waldensian areas of the Chisone and Susa Valleys in the Dauphiné caused the "conversion" of 8,000 Vaudois to accept Catholicism and another 3,000 to leave for Germany.
In the Piedmont, the cousin of Louis, the newly-ascended Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, followed his uncle in removing the protection of Protestants in the Piedmont. In the renewed persecution, and in an echo of the Piedmont Easter Massacre of only three decades earlier, the Duke issued an edict on January 31, 1686 that decreed the destruction of all the Vaudois churches and that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment. But the Vaudois remained resistant. After the 15 days, an army of 9,000 French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys against the estimated 2,500 Vaudois, but found that every village had organized a defense force that kept the French and Piedmontese soldiers at bay.
On April 9, the Duke of Savoy issued a new edict, enjoining the Waldensians to put down their arms within eight days and go into exile between April 21 and 23. If able, they were free to sell their land and possessions to the highest bidder.
Waldensian pastor Henri Arnaud, who had been driven out of the Piedmont in the earlier purges, returned from Holland. On April 18 he made a stirring appeal before an assembly at Roccapiatta, winning over the majority in favor of armed resistance. When the truce expired on April 20, the Waldensians were prepared for battle.
They put up a brave fight over the next six weeks. But when the Duke retired to Turin on June 8, the war seemed decided: 2,000 Waldensians had been killed; another 2,000 had "accepted" the Catholic theology of the Council of Trent. Another 8,000 had been imprisoned, of which more than half would die of starvation, deliberately imposed, or of sickness within six months.
But about two or three hundred Vaudois fled to the hills and began carrying out a guerilla war over the next year against the Catholic settlers that arrived to take over the Vaudois lands. These "Invincibles" continued their assaults until the Duke finally relented and agreed to negotiate. The "Invincibles" won the right for the imprisoned Vaudois to be released from prison and be provided safe passage to Geneva. But the Duke, granting that permission on 3 January 1687, required that the Vaudois leave immediately or convert to Roman Catholicism. This edict led to some 2,800 Vaudois leaving the Piedmont for Geneva, of which only 2,490 would survive the journey.
From Geneva, Arnaud sought help from William of Orange, who with other European leaders had become fed up with the militarism of French King Louis XIV and formed the League of Augsburg in 1686 to counter the French King's territorial ambitions. William was receptive to his entreaties and decided to include the Waldensian exiles in his war campaign. In the midst of the wars between the League of Augsburg and France in August 1689, Arnaud led 1,000 Swiss exiles, armed with modern weaponry provided by the Dutch, back to the Piedmont. Over 30% of the force perished during the 130-mile trek. They successfully re-established their presence in the Piedmont and drove out the Catholic settlers. But they continued to be besieged by French and Piedmontese troops.
By 2 May 1689, with only 300 Waldensian troops remaining and cornered on a high peak, called the Balsiglia, by 4,000 French troops with cannons, the final assault was delayed by storm and then by cloud cover. The French commander was so confident of completing his job the next morning that he sent a message to Paris that the Waldensian force had already been destroyed. But when the French awoke the next morning, they discovered that the Waldensians, guided by one of their number familiar with the Balsiglia, had already descended from the peak during the night and were now miles away.
The French pursued, but only a few days later, a sudden change of political alliance by the Duke from France to the League of Augsburg ended the French pursuit of the Waldensians. The Duke agreed to defend the Waldensians and called for all other Vaudois exiles to return home to help protect the Piedmont borders against the French, in what came to be known as the "Glorious Return".
Religious freedom after the French Revolution
After the French Revolution, the Waldenses of Piedmont were assured liberty of conscience and, in 1848, the ruler of Savoy, King Charles Albert of Sardinia granted them civil rights. Copies of the Romaunt version of the Gospel of John were preserved in Paris and Dublin. The manuscripts were used as the basis of a work by Gilly published in 1848, in which he described the history of the New Testament in use by the Waldensians. A group of Waldensians settled in the United States at Valdese, North Carolina. Waldensian companies dominated Turin's chocolate industry for the latter half of the nineteenth century and are generally credited with the invention of gianduja (hazelnut chocolate).
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 the Waldensians preserved the apostolic faith during the Middle Ages. Still later, Seventh-day Adventist Ellen G. White taught that the Waldenses were preservers of biblical truth during the Great Apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. She believed that the Waldenses kept the seventh-day Sabbath, engaged in widespread missionary activity, and "planted the seeds of the Reformation" in Europe. Based on the Catechism of the Waldenses they believed in keeping the ten commandments.
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, where some of the communities still exist.
Today, the Waldensian Church is included in the Alliance of Reformed Churches of the Presbyterian Order.
Waldensians by region
In 1848, after many centuries of harsh persecution, the Waldensians acquired legal freedom in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as a result of the liberalising reforms which followed Charles Albert of Sardinia's granting a constitution (the Statuto Albertino). Subsequently the Waldensian Evangelical Church, as it became known, developed and spread through the Italian peninsula.
The Waldensian church was able to gain converts by building schools in some of the poorer regions of Italy, including Sicily. There is still a Waldensian church in the town of Grotte, Province of Agrigento at the southwest part of the island.
During the Nazi occupation of North Italy in the Second World War, Italian Waldensians were active in saving Jews faced with imminent extermination, hiding many of them in the same mountain valley where their own Waldensian ancestors had found refuge in earlier generations.
In 1975 the Waldensian Church joined the Italian Methodist Church to form the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches, which is a member of the World Council of Churches, of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and of the World Methodist Council. It has 50,000 members (45,000 Waldensians, of whom 30,000 in Italy and some 15,000 divided between Argentina and Uruguay, and 5,000 Methodists).
The first Waldensian settlers from Italy arrived in South America in 1856 and today the Waldensian Church of the Río de La Plata (which forms a united church with the Waldensian Evangelical Church) has approximately 40 congregations and 15,000 members shared between Uruguay and Argentina.
United States of America
Since colonial times there have been Waldensians who found freedom on American shores, as marked by the presence of them in New Jersey and Delaware. Many Waldensians, having escaped persecution in their homelands by making their way to the tolerant Dutch Republic, went to start anew in the New Netherland colony. In the late 19th century many Italians, among them Waldensians, emigrated to the United States. They founded communities in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Monett, Galveston, Rochester and Salt Lake City. The Monett congregation was among the first to be established in the United States, in 1875, by some 40 settlers who had formed the original South American settlement in Uruguay in the 1850s, and who had fled violence in the Uruguayan countryside, traveling first back to Europe then across the Northern Atlantic to New York and by train to southern Missouri. Waldensians living in the Cottian Alps region of Northern Italy continued to migrate to Monett until the early 1900s, augmenting the original colony, and founded another, larger settlement in Valdese, North Carolina in 1893. Both the Monett and Valdese congregations use the name Waldensian Presbyterian Church.
In 1853 a group of approximately 70 Waldensians, including men, women, and children left their homes in the Piedmont Valleys and migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, after being converted to Mormonism by Lorenzo Snow. These Waldensians maintained their cultural heritage, while passing on their mixture of Mormon and Waldensian faiths to their descendants. These descendants still consider themselves both Mormon and Waldensian, and have met occasionally over the many decades to celebrate both heritages.
There exists a group under the name "The Old Waldensian Church (of Anabaptists and Nasranis)" that claim to have originally come from the Italian organization but after coming to America has maintained independence from church organizations or government incorporation including any tax exemption status. Once a sizable Church they have dwindled today to a very small group in Ohio and another in Pennsylvania.
In 1906, through the initiative of church forces in New York City, Waldensian interest groups were invited to coalesce into a new entity, The American Waldensian Aid Society (AWS), organized "to collect funds and apply the same to the aid of the Waldensian Church in Italy and elsewhere … and to arouse and maintain interest throughout the US in the work of said Church." Today, this organization continues as the American Waldensian Society. The American Waldensian Society recently marked its Centennial with a conference and celebrations in New York City.
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.
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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.
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-1990s.
The American Waldensian Society assists churches, organizations and families in the promotion of Waldensian history and culture. The society is friend to those who work to preserve their millennial heritage among their descendants. For example, over the course of 45 years, the Old Colony Players in Valdese, North Carolina, have staged From this Day Forward, an outdoor drama telling the story of the Waldenses and the founding of Valdese.
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.
In 1698 approximately 3,000-3,200 Waldenses fled from Italy and came to South Rhine valley. Most of them returned to their Piedmont valleys, but those who remained in Germany were assimilated by the State Churches (Lutheran and Reformed) and 10 congregations exist today as part of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland.
Characteristics of the modern Waldensian Church
The present Waldensian Church considers itself to be a Christian Protestant church of the Reformed tradition originally framed by Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. It recognizes as its doctrinal standard the confession of faith published in 1655 and based on the Reformed confession of 1559. It admits only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Supreme authority in the body is exercised by an annual synod, and the affairs of the individual congregations are administered by a consistory under the presidency of the pastor.
Over the centuries, Waldensian churches have been established in countries as far away from France as Uruguay and the United States. However, most historians agree with Audisio, who says that "Waldensianism came to an end at the time of the Reformation," when it was "swallowed up" by Protestantism.
- Waldensian Evangelical Church
- Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches
- List of Italian religious minority politicians
- Henri Arnaud, writer, pastor, and soldier
- Durand of Huesca, early follower of Peter Waldo (later re-converted to Catholicism)
- Ludovico Vuličević (1839-1916) writer, Evangelist preacher (Waldesian Church), and philosopher (Time).
- Frederick Henry Snow Pendleton, Anglican protector in South America
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Waldensians.|
Texts on Wikisource:
Media related to Waldensians at Wikimedia Commons
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- Bächstädt-Malan Camusso, Christian. Per Una Storia dell'Industria Dolciaria Torinese: il Caso Caffarel. Doctoral thesis (Economics and Business), Universitá degli Studi di Torino. 2002. P. 63.
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- Waldensian History, A Brief Sketch, by Ronald F. Malan, M.A.
- Waldensians: Medieval Reformers, Waldensian history from a Reformed perspective
- The Waldensians chapter from the book The Great Controversy by Ellen White
- The Waldensian Movement From Waldo to the Reformation