By Tim Lambert
The Waldensians are a Christian sect that began in the 12th century and continues to the present day. By the Middle Ages, the Church was rich and powerful and some people criticized its worldliness.
About 1175 a merchant of Lyons called Peter Waldo gave away his wealth and began preaching. He soon gained many converts. His followers were called Waldenses after his name or sometimes the Poor Men of Lyons. They went out and preached and they translated the Bible into Provencal (the local language)
In 1179 Pope Alexander III forbade them to preach without the permission of the bishops. Waldo replied that he must obey God rather than man So he was excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184. The Waldensians came to be seen as heretics by the Catholic Church.
Waldensians denied the doctrine of purgatory (the idea that people are ‘purified’ of their sins after death before they enter Heaven) and prayers for the dead. They also forbade taking oaths and capital punishment. They also denied the authority of the Catholic Church.
In the 13th century, the Waldensians spread to Italy, Germany, Austria, Bohemia (Czech Republic) Poland, and Hungary. (In Bohemia they merged with the Hussites in the 14th century). They soon became a sect with their own clergy of bishops and priests.
Not surprisingly the Catholic Church responded with persecution but they failed to destroy the Waldensians. In 1488 a crusade was launched against the Waldensians but it failed to destroy them.
After the Reformation, most of the Waldensians merged with the Protestants (although the Waldensian Church in Italy kept its name and remained separate). In the later 17th century waves of violent persecution were launched against the Waldensians but failed to destroy them. The 18th century brought relief and today there are Waldensian churches in Italy and the USA.
Last revised 2023