81: RED CHRISTIANS # 12 the Waldensians (1173 – today)

Here’s one medieval sect that didn’t get snuffed out by the papacy, although they did try. In fact the followers of Peter Waldo number about 30,000 today in Italy and even have their own seminary/university in Rome. I put them in my loosely defined “red Christian” category because like all the others they were rebellious and bolshy. They were for human rights against the stifling oppression of the catholic monopoly throughout the 1000 year long period of catholic domination we call the “dark ages”.

Waldo, also known as Waldes or Valdes, was an extremely wealthy merchant in Lyons, France. He decided the rich life wasn’t for him and gathering like-minded people around him opted for “evangelical poverty” instead. These “Waldensians”  confronted the church with their different lifestyle:

  • they followed the gospel literally especially the bit about “sell all you have”
  • they made their own translation of the bible into the vernacular from latin
  • they all lived by begging and preaching
  • they criticised the church hierarchy for its wealth
  • they claimed that an unworthy priest could not celebrate a valid sacrament
  • so they chose their own clergy instead, including women
  • they denied the doctrine of purgatory
  • they came out publicly against the swearing of oaths, indulgences, wars, capital punishment, saints’ days, churches, chanting, and prayers for the dead – doesn’t it seem appropriate to call them “red”?
  • and they all wore sandals

Obviously things couldn’t go on like this. No way were the catholics going to take such deviant and challenging behaviour lying down. Pope Alexander III had at first welcomed them but his entourage ridiculed their doctrinal ignorance. Waldo didn’t have much wiggle room. He renewed his vow of poverty, only accepting enough alms to cover daily expenses; and he pledged loyalty to catholic doctrines, but all to no avail; they were excommunicated in 1182 on the grounds that they were preaching without a license. Guess what- they carried right on as if nothing had happened!

In the 13th century the Holy Inquisition was turned on them. They survived. In 1487 a whole crusade, lasting 2 years, was sent to slaughter them. They survived that too. Come the reformation, which in some ways they had foreshadowed, the french Waldensians joined Calvin and his followers while most of those in Germany joined Martin Luther.

A rump survived intact in Italy where their main rule of life was “Don’t do evil or harm your neighbour.” They were led by “Barbes” or venerable “Uncles”, uneducated simple itinerants who preached in secret and heard confession. And today, as I said above, they have their own University in Rome.

(i) Collinge, W.J. “Historical Dictionary of Catholicism”  Scarecrow Press (2012)
(ii) Marthaler, B.L. ed. “New Catholic Encyclopaedia” Thomson-Gale (2003)


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