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In Search of Religious Freedom


History of the Waldenses

Waldensians (Wikipedia)

A Brief Sketch of the Ancient Waldenses

An 1895 Article on The Waldenses in America

Valdese, NC





The Waldenses (or Waldensers)

In about 1170, a rich merchant from Lyons, France, named Valdes (Vaudes, Valdesius, Valdensius, Valdo, Waldo) had a religious experience which led him to renounce all of his wealth (after planning for the welfare of his family) and live a life of extreme poverty, preaching the Gospel in the streets as had the Apostles.  He had the four Gospels and several other books of the Bible translated into the local dialect from an existing Latin form which most people could not read.  The movement Valdes began was known as "the Poor" or the "Poor Men of Lyons".  Their enemies  referred to them as Vaudois (Waldensians, Waldenses, Waldensers), a term meant to be derogatory in the sense of "Protestant public enemies."  (It was only after the Protestant Reformation that the church referred to themselves as Waldensers (Germany), Valdese (Italy), Waldensian (U.S.), and Vaudois (France).)  They viewed themselves as Roman Catholics who were carrying the doctrines of Christianity further than their weaker brethren (reacting to the great splendor and outward display existing in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, as well as the worldly lives of some contemporary churchmen).  They sent a delegation to the Third General Lateran Council in 1179 to obtain approval of their work from the Pope.  However, the council rejected Valdes as lacking proper theological training, and viewed him as spreading errors and misinformation among the people.   They demanded the Poor cease their aggressive evangelism.  The Poor continued  their lay person preaching, including allowing women to teach (certainly a revolutionary practice for the era).  These activities finally led to the excommunication of Valdes' followers in 1184, and then  labeled as heretics at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  Following their excommunication, the Poor became even more polarized from the Roman Catholic theology, and began to include radical protest in its views.


It is difficult to summarize the theology of this church due to the changes it underwent in different geographic areas and time periods.  Their fundamental principles were:
  • The literal interpretation of the Bible
  • Genuine poverty
  • The right for laymen to preach

Other common aspects prior to the Protestant Reformation are as follows:

  • Did not acknowledge the authority of the Pope (obey God rather than men) and criticized the corruption of the clergy
  • Generally rejected the swearing of oaths
  • Committed to non-violence
  • Did not fast, bow before altars, follow superstitions, or pray for the dead
  • The sacrament of the Lord's Supper was viewed as a memorial, not as a sacrifice
  • Confessions to be heard by another person are useless; it is enough to confess sins to God
  • The church and the state should remain as separate authorities.


During the several hundred years that followed their excommunication, the Waldenses were persecuted through court trials and genocidal crusades against them by the Roman Church.  Yet they survived and continued to spread widely throughout Europe.  The most visible center of Waldensian activity remaining in France during the later middle ages was Dauphiné and the western slope of the Cottian Alps.  In an ordinance issued in 1478 by King Louis XI, royal protection was given to the Waldenses as Louis did not condone the attempts to repress them.  The period of peace ended in 1488 when a crusade was summoned by Pope Innocent VIII against the Waldenses.  Again the attempted extermination did not succeed, but a heavy toll of lives was taken on both sides.  After years of being attacked, the Duke of Savoy promised they should be unmolested in the future.  While he was able to protect them from the Church's army, it's missionaries and inquisitors were still able to seduce or kidnap Waldensian followers. 

When the protestant reformation erupted in 1517, the Waldenses were anxious to join forces with the new fellow revolutionaries.  The doctrine of the movement had changed somewhat over the years, and was similar to that of the Calvinist movement led by John Calvin.  In 1532, Calvin's friend William Farel, who was the the founder of the Reformed Church based in Geneva, was one of several representatives commissioned to attend a Waldensian synod meeting to invite them to join the Reformed Church.  After negotiations on various points of differing doctrine (such as the separation of church and state, and have the Waldenses introduce an emphasis on the doctrine of predestination), the Waldenses officially became a part of the Reformed Church based in Geneva.  This decision was not unanimous, however, and a small group of Waldenses resisted the decision.  They appealed to their Bohemian brethren for assistance, which led to a new convention held in 1533.   The original decision was confirmed, and they were absorbed into the Reformed Church.  Unfortunately, the reformation was followed by even worse massacres, bloodshed, and persecution on all of the French Protestants.  In the end, tens of thousands of Waldensers will have died for their religious beliefs.

To a large extent, this marked the end of the Waldensian Church.  However, it does continue to exist today in various forms in Italy, the United States, Germany, and South America.


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(1)  Malan, Ronald F, M.A., Waldensian History: A Brief Sketch, Genealogist and Trustee, Piedmont Families Organization, <>.

(2)  Bellon, Eugen. Zerstreut in alle Winde [Scattered to all the Winds], 1685-1720. Trans. by Erika Gautschi. (West Lafayette, Indiana: Belle Publications, 1983). This is an English translation of historical papers originally published by the German Huguenot Society. Describes the Dauphine French Huguenots’ migration into Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. 245 pages. Family History Library, microfiche, FHL INTL Fiche 6068505, Salt Lake City.

(3)  "Waldenses", The Catholic Encyclopedia, <>.

(4)  McCallum, Dennis, "The Waldensian Movement From Waldo to the Reformation: A Research Paper", Xenos Christian Fellowship, <>, 1987.

(5)  Williams, Stuart Murray, "The Waldensians", Anabaptist Network, <>, 2004.

(6)  Wylie, J. A., The History of the Waldenses, (London: Cassell and Company, 1860), <>.




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