A Brief History of The Waldensians - Old Waldensian Paths

I want to take a brief pause and look into a Historical subject that caught my attention a few years ago. Many folks have not heard about the Vaudois of the Piedmont Valley before. Most historians link them to the Waldensians, who were founded by a man named Peter Waldo in the Middle Ages. However, some sources like Antoine Monastier's work on the Vaudois of the Piedmont Valley show us that they have older roots than Mr. Waldo. Legend has it that they date back to the Apostles. Many would deny it while some would accept the proposition. Some say that the Manuscripts they used to translate their Bible into the Latin and French tongue have their roots in the first Century. Off and on I will be exploring these people's history. I hope you will join me. For now I have a blog post from another website that I think will be helpful. Christians need to know their history and embrace those who follow the legacy of the Apostles, not those who have added to or taken away from their Traditions. I'll link the Title to the original source.

Brief History of the Waldensians

Waldensians, Waldenses, Vallenses or Vaudois are names for a Christian movement which started in Lyon , France, in the late 1170s. The movement was started in the 12th century and advocated an adherence to the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his disciples. The movement was declared heretical by 1215 and became persecuted by Roman Catholic Church officials.
Upon the rise of the Protestant Reformation , church leaders met with Swiss and German Calvinists and agreed to join with the Reformed church, adopting the Calvinist tenets and becoming its Italian arm as the official Waldensian Confession of Faith still witnesses to.
Although the church was granted some rights and freedoms under French King Henry IV with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, Catholic persecution rose again in the 17th century, with an extermination of the Waldensians attempted by the Duke of Savoy in 1655. This led to an exodus and dispersion of the Waldensians to other parts of Europe and even to the Western hemisphere. While many Waldensian sects eventually were absorbed into other Protestant Christian denominations, active congregations remain in Europe, South America, and North America under the label of the Waldensian Evangelical Church . Organizations such as the American Waldensian Society exist to maintain the history of this movement.
Both the contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage describes itself as proclaiming the Christian Gospel, serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity and freedom of conscience.


Alleged ancient origins

Some groups of Mennonites, Baptists, and other Protestants have claimed that the Waldenses' history extends all the way back to Jesus' Apostles. Some Waldenses also claim for their churches an Apostolic origin. Other supposed founders for an ancient origin included Claudius, Bishop of Turin (died 827) and Berengarius of Tours (died 1088).

Origins in the Middle Ages

Much of what is known about the Waldensians comes from reports from Reinerius Saccho (died 1259), a former Cathar who converted to Catholicism and wrote two reports for the Inquisition: "Summa de Catharis et Pauperibus de Lugduno" (On the Cathars and the Poor of Lyons", 1254).
The early Waldensian movement, as preached by Waldo, was one based on the tenets of the Bible. They were also called Insabbatati, Sabati, Inzabbatati Sabotiers because they kept the Seventh day as the Sabbath instead of the papal Sunday.
Waldensians also held and preached a number of truths as they read from the Bible. Some of these were:
  • The atoning death and justifying righteousness of Christ (This was their cardinal truth)
  • The Godhead
  • The fall of man
  • The incarnation of the Son
  • The perpetual authority of the Decalogue, originally holding the Seventh day as the Sabbath in objection to the papal Sunday. This position was later abandoned when they joined with Calvinism.
  • They denied purgatory and said it was the 'invention of the Antichrist' (referring to the Romish Church).
  • They held that ... temporal offices and dignities were not meet for preachers of the Gospel; that relics were simply rotten bones which had belonged to one knew not whom; that to go on pilgrimage served no end, save to empty one's purse; that flesh might be eaten any day if one's appetite served him; that holy water was not a whit more efficacious than rain water; and that prayer in a barn was just as effectual as if offered in a church. They were accursed, moreover, of having scoffed at the doctrine of transubstantiation, and of having spoken blasphemously of the Roman Catholic Church as the harlot of the apocalypse.

Catholic reaction and response

1487 order of extermination

In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois. Alberto de' Capitanei , archdeacon of Cremona, responded to the bull by organizing a crusade to complete the process and launched an offensive in the provinces of Dauphine and Piedmont. Charles I, Duke of Savoy , eventually interfered to save his territories from further confusion and promised the Vaudois peace. But the offensive had devastated the area, and many of the Vaudois fled to Provence and to southern Italy.


When the news of the Reformation reached the Waldensian Valleys, the Tavola Valdese decided to seek fellowship with the nascent Protestantism. A meeting held in 1526 in Laus, a town in the Chisone valley, decided to send envoys to examine the new movement. In 1532 they met with German and Swiss Protestants and ultimately adapted their beliefs to those of the Reformed Church.
The Swiss and French Reformed churches sent William Farel and Anthony Saunier to attend the meeting of Chanforan, which convened on 12 October 1532. Farel invited them to join the Reformation and to leave secrecy. A Confession of Faith, with Reformed doctrines, was formulated and the Waldensians decided to worship openly in French.
The French Bible translated by Pierre Robert Olivétan with the help of Calvin and published at Neuchâtel in 1535 was based in part on a New Testament in the Waldensian vernacular. The cost of its publication was defrayed by the churches in Waldensia who collected the sum of 1500 gold crowns for this purpose.

Massacre of Mérindol (1545)

Outside the Piedmont, the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France, and Germany. After they came out of seclusion and reports were made of sedition on their part, the French king, Francis I issued on 1 January 1545 the "Arrêt de Mérindol", and assembled an army against the Waldensians of Provence . The leaders in the 1545 massacres were Jean Maynier d'Oppède , First President of the parlement of Provence , and the military commander Antoine Escalin des Aimars who was returning from the Italian Wars with 2,000 veterans, the Bandes de Piémont. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated.
The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship . Prisoners were released and fugitives were permitted to return home. But despite this treaty, the Vaudois, with the other French Protestants, still suffered during the French Wars of Religion of 1562–1598.
As early as 1631, Protestant scholars began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, in a similar manner to how the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus - who were also persecuted by Roman Catholic authorities - were viewed.

The Piedmont Easter

In January 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys of their homeland, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. Being in the midst of winter, the order, of course, was intended to persuade the Vaudois to choose the former; however, the bulk of the populace instead chose the latter, abandoning their homes and lands in the lower valleys and removing to the upper valleys. It was written that these targets of persecution, old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received."
By mid-April, when it became clear that the Duke's efforts to force the Vaudois to conform to Catholicism had failed, he tried another approach. Under the guise of false reports of Vaudois uprisings, the Duke sent troops into the upper valleys to quell the local populace. He required that the local populace quarter the troops in their homes, which the local populace complied with. But the quartering order was a ruse to allow the troops easy access to the populace. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre.
The Catholic forces did not simply slaughter the inhabitants. They are reported to have unleashed an unprovoked campaign of looting, rape, torture, and murder. According to one report by a Peter Liegé:
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged [raped], then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die."
This massacre became known as the Piedmont Easter. An estimate of some 1,700 Waldensians were slaughtered; the massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Protestant rulers in northern Europe offered sanctuary to the remaining Waldensians. Oliver Cromwell , then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Waldensians, writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. (The massacre prompted John Milton 's famous poem on the Waldenses, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont ".)[13] Swiss and Dutch Calvinists set up an 'underground railroad' to bring many of the survivors north to Switzerland and even as far as the Dutch Republic, where the councillors of the city of Amsterdam chartered three ships to take some 167 Waldensians to their City Colony in the New World (Delaware) on Christmas Day 1656.[14] Those that stayed behind in France and the Piedmont formed a guerilla resistance movement led by a farmer, Joshua Janavel , which lasted into the 1660s.[15]

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the "Glorious Return"

In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes , which had guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects in France. French troops sent into the French Waldensian areas of the Chisone and Susa Valleys in the Dauphiné caused the "conversion" of 8,000 Vaudois to accept Catholicism and another 3,000 to leave for Germany.
In the Piedmont, the cousin of Louis, the newly-ascended Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II , followed his uncle in removing the protection of Protestants in the Piedmont . In the renewed persecution, and in an echo of the Piedmont Easter Massacre of only three decades earlier, the Duke issued an edict on January 31, 1686 that decreed the destruction of all the Vaudois churches and that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment. But the Vaudois remained resistant. After the 15 days, an army of 9,000 French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys against the estimated 2,500 Vaudois, but found that every village had organized a defense force that kept the French and Piedmontese soldiers at bay.
On April 9, the Duke of Savoy issued a new edict, enjoining the Waldensians to put down their arms within eight days and go into exile between April 21 and 23. If able, they were free to sell their land and possessions to the highest bidder.
Waldensian pastor Henri Arnaud , who had been driven out of the Piedmont in the earlier purges, returned from Holland. On April 18 he made a stirring appeal before an assembly at Roccapiatta, winning over the majority in favor of armed resistance. When the truce expired on April 20, the Waldensians were prepared for battle.
They put up a brave fight over the next six weeks. But when the Duke retired to Turin on June 8, the war seemed decided: 2,000 Waldensians had been killed; another 2,000 had "accepted" the Catholic theology of the Council of Trent. Another 8,000 had been imprisoned, of which more than half would die of starvation, deliberately imposed, or of sickness within six months.
But about two or three hundred Vaudois fled to the hills and began carrying out a guerilla war over the next year against the Catholic settlers that arrived to take over the Vaudois lands. These "Invincibles" continued their assaults until the Duke finally relented and agreed to negotiate. The "Invincibles" won the right for the imprisoned Vaudois to be released from prison and be provided safe passage to Geneva. But the Duke, granting that permission on 3 January 1687, required that the Vaudois leave immediately or convert to Roman Catholicism. This edict led to some 2,800 Vaudois leaving the Piedmont for Geneva, of which only 2,490 would survive the journey.
From Geneva, Arnaud sought help from William of Orange , who with other European leaders had become fed up with the militarism of French King Louis XIV and formed the League of Augsburg in 1686 to counter the French King's territorial ambitions. William was receptive to his entreaties and decided to include the Waldensian exiles in his war campaign. In the midst of the wars between the League of Augsburg and France in August 1689, Arnaud led 1,000 Swiss exiles, armed with modern weaponry provided by the Dutch, back to the Piedmont. Over 30% of the force perished during the 130-mile trek. They successfully re-established their presence in the Piedmont and drove out the Catholic settlers. But they continued to be besieged by French and Piedmontese troops.
By 2 May 1689, with only 300 Waldensian troops remaining and cornered on a high peak, called the Balsiglia , by 4,000 French troops with cannons, the final assault was delayed by storm and then by cloud cover. The French commander was so confident of completing his job the next morning that he sent a message to Paris that the Waldensian force had already been destroyed. But when the French awoke the next morning, they discovered that the Waldensians, guided by one of their number familiar with the Balsiglia , had already descended from the peak during the night and were now miles away.
The French pursued, but only a few days later, a sudden change of political alliance by the Duke from France to the League of Augsburg ended the French pursuit of the Waldensians. The Duke agreed to defend the Waldensians and called for all other Vaudois exiles to return home to help protect the Piedmont borders against the French, in what came to be known as the "Glorious Return".
Written by Carl Rashong at http://oldwaldensianpaths.blogspot.com/


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