A pre-Reformation Christian movement advocating simplicity, poverty, and adherence to the Bible.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Waldensian Church
Founder: Peter Waldo (Pierre Vaudès)
Founded: 12th century
Location: Originally in Lyon, France, later spread to other parts of Europe
Size: Approximately 30,000 members (estimate)
Other Names: Waldenses, Vaudois

The Waldensians, known also by names such as Valdenses, Valdesi, and Vaudois, represent a Christian movement that traces its origins back to the 12th century in France. They were characterized by their commitment to live in poverty and simplicity, closely following the teachings of Christ. This movement is considered by some to be a precursor to the Reformation due to its rejection of various Catholic doctrines. Over time, the Waldensians became associated with the Protestant church, especially after joining the Swiss Protestant reformers, thereby forming a Protestant community concentrated around the Franco-Italian border​​.

The early history of the Waldensians is marked by obscurity and scarcity of reliable sources. The movement’s reputed founder, Valdes (also known as Peter Waldo or Valdo), was a lay preacher in Lyon, France, from 1170 to 1176. His actions, including preaching in the vernacular and critiquing the wealth of the church, drew the ire of ecclesiastical authorities. Despite seeking approval from Pope Alexander III and professing orthodox Catholic beliefs at the third Lateran Council in 1179, Valdes and his followers, known as the Poor, faced condemnation and excommunication. This rejection led them to diverge further from Roman Catholic teachings, rejecting practices like the use of indulgences, confession to priests, infant baptism, and the doctrine of transubstantiation, among others​​.

The Waldensians spread rapidly across Europe, with their message reaching Spain, northern France, Germany, and Italy. However, their growth was met with severe persecution from the Catholic Church, which included excommunication, active persecution, and execution. Despite this, the Waldensians continued to practice their faith, holding services in homes or other non-traditional spaces, and emphasizing a simple, biblically-based Christianity that renounced the veneration of saints and the necessity of oath-taking in secular courts​​.

The Reformation period brought significant change to the Waldensians. Initially a sect on the fringes of Catholicism, they embraced Protestantism after being exposed to the Reformation’s teachings. A synod held in 1526 in Laus, a town in the Chisone valley, led to the decision to align with Protestantism. By 1532, after meetings with German and Swiss Protestants, they formally adopted the beliefs of the Reformed Church. This transformation was marked by a “Confession of Faith” in Reformed doctrines and the decision to worship openly in French. The Waldensians’ incorporation into Protestantism significantly altered their identity, distancing them from the original teachings of Peter Waldo and aligning them more closely with the theology of John Calvin​​.

Throughout their history, the Waldensians faced numerous challenges, including massacres, forced migrations, and periods of intense persecution. Notably, in 1655, a brutal massacre initiated by the Duke of Savoy provoked widespread indignation across Europe, leading figures like Oliver Cromwell to intervene on their behalf. Despite these hardships, the Waldensians persevered, and after centuries of persecution, they were granted legal freedom and civil rights in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1848, thanks to liberal reforms. This newfound freedom allowed them to practice their faith openly and contributed to the preservation of their religious and cultural identity​​.

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