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The Waldenses—From Heresy to Protestantism

The Waldenses—From Heresy to Protestantism

 The Waldenses​—From Heresy to Protestantism

It was the year 1545 in the beautiful Lubéron region of Provence, southern France. An army had assembled to carry out a terrible mission inspired by religious intolerance. A week of bloodshed ensued.

VILLAGES were razed, and inhabitants were imprisoned or killed. Cruel atrocities were perpetrated by brutal soldiers in a massacre that caused Europe to shudder. Some 2,700 men met death, and 600 were sent to work on the galleys, not to speak of the suffering experienced by women and children. The military commander who carried out this sanguinary campaign was lauded by the French king and by the pope.

The Reformation had already torn Germany apart when Catholic King Francis I of France, concerned about the spread of Protestantism, made inquiries about so-called heretics in his kingdom. Instead of finding a few isolated cases of heresy, authorities in Provence discovered whole villages of religious dissidents. The edict to wipe out this heresy was passed and was eventually carried out in the massacre of 1545.

Who were these heretics? And why were they objects of violent religious intolerance?

From Riches to Rags

Those killed in the massacre belonged to a religious movement dating back to the 12th century and covering a wide area of Europe. The way it spread and survived for several centuries makes it unique in the annals of religious dissidence. Most historians agree that the movement had its start about the year 1170. In the French city of Lyons, a wealthy merchant named Vaudès became deeply interested in learning how to please God. Apparently moved by Jesus Christ’s admonition that a certain rich man sell his belongings and give to the poor, Vaudès made financial provision for his family and then gave up his riches to preach the Gospel. (Matthew  19:16-22) He soon had followers who later became known as the Waldenses. *

Poverty, preaching, and the Bible were at the heart of Vaudès’ life. Protest against clerical opulence was not new. For some time, a number of clerical dissenters had denounced the church’s corrupt practices and abuses. But Vaudès was a layman, as were the majority of his followers. This no doubt explains why he felt it necessary to have the Bible in the vernacular, the language of the people. Since the church’s Latin version of the Bible was accessible only to the clergy, Vaudès commissioned a translation of the Gospels and other Bible books into Franco-Provençal, the language understood by the common people in eastern central France. * Acting on Jesus’ command to preach, the Poor of Lyons took to the streets with their message. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Historian Gabriel Audisio explains that their insistence on public preaching became the decisive issue in the church’s attitude toward the Waldenses.

From Catholics to Heretics

In those days, preaching was restricted to the clergy, and the church assumed the right to grant authority to preach. The clergy considered the Waldenses ignorant and illiterate, but in 1179, Vaudès sought official authorization for his preaching from Pope Alexander III. Permission was given​—but on the condition that the local priests approve. Historian Malcolm Lambert notes that this “was the near-equivalent of total refusal.” Indeed, Archbishop Jean Bellesmains of Lyons formally forbade lay preaching. Vaudès responded by quoting Acts 5:29: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” Failing to comply with the ban, Vaudès was excommunicated from the church in 1184.

Although the Waldenses were banished from the diocese of Lyons and hounded out of the city, it seems that the initial condemnation was to some extent theoretical. Many ordinary people admired the Waldenses for their sincerity and way of life, and even bishops continued to speak with them.

According to historian Euan Cameron, it appears that the Waldensian preachers did not “oppose the Roman Church simply for the sake of it.” They merely “wished to preach and teach.” Historians say that the movement was virtually driven into heresy by a series of decrees that progressively and lastingly marginalized them. Church condemnations culminated in the anathema that the Fourth Lateran Council issued against the Waldenses in 1215. How did this affect their preaching?

They Go Underground

Vaudès died in the year 1217, and persecution dispersed his followers into the French  Alpine valleys, Germany, northern Italy, and Central and Eastern Europe. Persecution also caused the Waldenses to settle in the rurals, and this limited their preaching activities in many areas.

In 1229 the Catholic Church completed its Crusade against the Cathari, or Albigenses, in the south of France. * The Waldenses next became objects of such efforts. The Inquisition would soon be turned mercilessly against all the church’s opponents. Fear caused the Waldenses to go underground. By 1230 they no longer preached in public. 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 adds that “preaching remained essential but had completely changed in practice.”

Their Beliefs and Practices

Instead of having both men and women engage in preaching activities, by the 14th century, the Waldenses had developed a distinction between preachers and believers. Only well-trained men were then engaging in pastoral work. These itinerant ministers later came to be known as barbes (uncles).

The barbes, who visited Waldensian families in their homes, worked to keep the movement alive rather than to spread it. All the barbes were able to read and write, and their training, which took up to six years, was Bible-oriented. Using the Bible in the vernacular helped them to explain it to their flocks. Even opponents admitted that Waldenses, including their children, had a strong Bible culture and could quote large portions of the Scriptures.

Among other things, the early Waldenses rejected lying, purgatory, Masses for the dead, papal pardons and indulgences, and the worship of Mary and the “saints.” They also held annual observances of the Lord’s Evening Meal, or Last Supper. According to Lambert, their form of worship “was, in effect, the religion of the ordinary layman.”

“A Double Life”

Communities of the Waldenses were close-knit. Individuals married within the movement, and over the centuries, this created Waldensian surnames. In their fight to survive, however, the Waldenses tried to conceal their views. The secrecy attached to their religious beliefs and practices made it easy for opponents to make outrageous accusations against them, saying for instance that they engaged in Devil worship. *

One way that the Waldenses countered such accusations was by compromising and practicing what historian Cameron calls “minimal conformity” with Catholic worship. Many Waldenses confessed to Catholic priests, attended Mass, used holy water, and even went on pilgrimages. Lambert notes: “In many things they did as their Catholic neighbours did.” Audisio bluntly states that in time, Waldenses “lived a double life.” He adds: “On the one hand, they behaved to all appearances like Catholics to safeguard their relative tranquillity; on the other, they observed a certain number of rites and habits among themselves which ensured that the community continued to exist.”

From Heresy to Protestantism

In the 16th century, the Reformation radically changed the European religious scene. Victims of intolerance could either seek legal recognition in their own country or emigrate in search of more favorable conditions. The  idea of heresy also became less crucial, since so many people had begun to question established religious orthodoxy.

As early as 1523, the well-known Reformer Martin Luther mentioned the Waldenses. In 1526 one of the Waldensian barbes brought back to the Alps news of religious developments in Europe. This was followed by a period of exchange whereby Protestant communities shared ideas with the Waldenses. Protestants encouraged the Waldenses to sponsor the first translation of the Bible from the original languages into French. Printed in 1535, it was later known as the Olivétan Bible. Ironically, though, most Waldenses could not understand French.

As persecution by the Catholic Church continued, large numbers of Waldenses settled in the safer Provence region of southern France, as did Protestant immigrants. Authorities were soon alerted to this immigration. Despite many positive reports about the life-style and morals of the Waldenses, some people questioned their loyalty and accused them of being a threat to good order. The Mérindol edict was issued, resulting in the horrible bloodshed mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Relations between the Catholics and the Waldenses continued to deteriorate. In response to attacks launched against them, the Waldenses even resorted to armed force to defend themselves. This conflict pushed them into the Protestant fold. Thus the Waldenses allied themselves with mainstream Protestantism.

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. In fact, the Waldensian movement had lost much of its initial zeal centuries earlier. That occurred when its members fearfully abandoned Bible-oriented preaching and teaching.


^ par. 7 Vaudès is variously referred to as Valdès, Valdesius, or Waldo. The latter name accounts for the origin of the term “Waldenses.” The Waldenses, or Waldensians, were also known as the Poor of Lyons.

^ par. 8 As early as 1199, the bishop of Metz, in northeastern France, complained to Pope Innocent III that individuals were reading and discussing the Bible in the vernacular. It is most likely that the bishop was referring to the Waldenses.

^ par. 15 See “The Cathari​—Were They Christian Martyrs?” in The Watchtower, September 1, 1995, pages 27-30.

^ par. 21 Persistent defamation of the Waldenses led to the term vauderie (from the French word vaudois). It is used to describe suspected heretics or Devil worshipers.

[Map/Picture on page 23]

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Areas influenced by the Waldenses












Waldenses sponsored the translation of the 1535 Olivétan Bible

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Bible: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

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The burning of two elderly Waldensian women

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Pages 20 and 21: © Landesbildstelle Baden, Karlsruhe