Peter Waldo, statue on the Luther
Memorial in Worms, Germany. Waldo
lived three centuries before Luther but
anticipated his call for reform.
Peter was born sometime about the year 1140 in Lyon in what is today France. At the time it was not yet incorporated into that kingdom but an autonomous county of the Holy Roman Empire with the Archbishop as both civil and ecclesiastical ruler. Peter was immensely wealthy—a cloth merchant—some say the wealthiest man in Lyon which, in turn, was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. He also was very devout. He paid a priest to translate the gospels from the official Latin text into the French patois of Lyons so that he could read and study them. And he had a great devotion to Saint Alexis, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, whose story inspired many to acts of charity.
Saint Alexis was a fifth century Roman who left his wealthy family to become a hermit in Syria, living in great poverty while preaching the gospel to the poor. He eventually returned to Rome in disguise where his parents—without recognizing him—took him into their household as a charity case. He lived in a closet beneath some stairs—like Harry Potter—where he spent his life in prayer and teaching the faith to poor children. Only after his death did his family discover his identity.
One day, while at Mass, Peter heard the gospel text: if you would be perfect: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor—then you will have treasure in heaven—and come, follow me. (Matthrew 19:21) Peter came home and gave his wife a choice between his business and his cash. She wisely chose the business—always choose the goose not the golden egg. With his capital he endowed his daughters in the reformed convent of Fonterevault in Anjou and gave the remainder of his money to the poor. Living in voluntary poverty he began preaching the gospel in the streets and markets of Lyons. This did not delight the Count-Archbishop. The last thing a wealthy prelate wants is for some layman in voluntary poverty to stand outside his palace talking about Jesus and his love for the poor. It doesn’t look good when the laity take the gospel more seriously than the bishop. Hmmm. We should think about that.
In any event, the Archbishop forbad Peter to preach because canon law limited preaching to bishops, priests, and deacons and Peter was “only” a layman. Lay people can’t preach. Peter reminded him that Jesus told his disciples: "Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece" (Luke 9:3), arguing that a poor person had a great commission to preach the gospel than a rich priest or bishop. That did not go over. So Peter, in good faith, went to see the Pope, Alexander III. Alexander was suitably impressed by Peter’s devotion but, being a canon lawyer, agreed with the Archbishop of Lyons that Peter had no authority to preach. Peter could not accept that. He continued to preach and followers gathered around him impressed by his evangelical fervor in both his message and his life. In 1184 Pope Lucius III excommunicated Peter and his followers. As excommunicates they were harassed and even persecuted by both Church and civil authorities. They fled from the cities and towns into the mountain valleys of Savoy and Lombardy where the isolation gave them peace and security.
The Waldensians maintained the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Among Waldo’s followers were a number of priests but, at least as far as we know (and we know very little) there were no bishops. There is just next to nothing when it comes to records. It is unclear how sacramental ministry was maintained through this period. In fact, we know very little about the doctrines of Waldo and his followers other than they maintained Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy. They were not very sophisticated doctrinally—their emphasis was more on an evangelical fidelity in life than on doctrinal formulas, Catholic or otherwise. Some sources say that they denied transubstantiation and other Catholic beliefs but it seems that their doctrines were more fringe-catholic than proto-protestant. In other words, they probably maintained basic Catholic attitudes rather than developed sophisticated Protestant ideas. However, in the 1520’s and 30’s they were quick to make contact with Calvin, Zwingli, and other Swiss and French reformers. It is probably at this time, rather than before, that they accepted the ideas that have become the hallmark of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition.
Over the centuries the movement never grew dramatically but it did survive. Over the centuries the Waldensians were subject to bitter persecution by Catholic Kings of France and Dukes of Savoy. In April 1655 Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, ordered a horrendous massacre of the Waldensians in which countless people of all ages and both sexes were brutally killed. It inspired Milton to write his sonnet On The Late Massacre in Piedmont.
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
The Catholic Church resented the Waldensians deeply. Many Italian nationalists converted to Waldensianism during the Risorgimento (the Italian Unification movement of the 19th century). When Pius IX lost Rome to the new Kingdom of Italy, one of the first acts of the anti-papal administration was to build several Waldensian churches in Rome. (Under papal governance, no Protestant worship had been allowed in the city.) One of those churches, albeit a small one, was built within site of the Pope’s window at the far end of the Ponte d’Angelo leading from the Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber. It is now the English language Methodist Church in Rome, but a plaque on the façade recounts its history and ties to Garibaldi, the notoriously anti-Catholic leader of the Italian armies in the reunification of Italy. The prejudice was so strong that as late as the 1950’s the normally urbane Pius XII refused to acknowledge the presence of Waldensian congregations in the city. That began to change with the election of John XXIII and the convocation of Vatican II to which the Waldensians, like other Protestant Churches, were invited to send a representative. Today there are approximately 50,000 Waldensians, nine tenths of whom live in Italy.