Francis and the Waldensians

WAS FRANCIS OF ASSISI secretly a Waldensian? Catholic writers vigorously reject the idea that a “heretic” such as Peter Waldo could have had any direct influence on the saint from Assisi. However, a cross-fertilization of ideas, with Peter Waldo directly or indirectly influencing Francis of Assisi is definitely possible.

Considered a major forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, Peter Waldo lived at the same time as Francis, in the twelfth century. He was a French merchant who was converted in 1170 and promptly gave up his substantial wealth. He formed a band known as the Poor People of Lyons. They went about preaching, translating the Bible into the language of the common people, and ministering to the poor, though they were committed to poverty themselves.

Confronted with a Christianity that was primarily theoretical, and with a priesthood saddled with corruption and inertia, Waldo insisted that the teaching of the gospel be put into practice. His Rule of Faith was therefore a call to action, summoning Christians to apply God’s commands in their everyday lives.

The Waldensian group was one of several springing up about that time as an intuitive answer to the specific needs for reform in the church. The Cistercians and the Albigensians in France pre-dated both the Franciscans in Italy and the Dominicans in Spain. They were spawned several years after Waldo and his Poor People of Lyons began to impact French society as the “Jesus People” of the twelfth century.

There is no recorded meeting between Francis and Peter Waldo, but the writings of a contemporary, Thomas of Celano, the biographer of Francis, lead us to some speculations. First, he says the mother of Francis was French. Second, she was sympathetic to the Waldensian movement. Third, Francis’s father traveled frequently to France and must have visited Lyons often at the time when the movement of the Poor People was gaining momentum.

We also find curious similarities between the teaching of Francis and that of Waldo:

(1) Both had a literal view of the Bible;

(2) Their common mandate of a practical Christianity of good works had its biblical basis in the Epistle of James, whereas the sixteenth-century reformers concentrated more on Paul’s letters;

(3) To reinforce their teaching on the vow of poverty, they chose the same four Scripture passages from Matthew’s Gospel, out of a possible fourteen texts on the subject;

(4) Their interpretation of one of these texts, Matthew 10:10, is identical.

Historian Giorgio Tourn writes, “The similarities between Francis and Waldo (the latter was older by a mere thirty years) are so many and obvious. Alike city dwellers, whose mercantile families became at odds with their societies, both were gripped totally by the gospel and both were propelled thereby to a life of poverty. Each was also a missionary on the frontier of the church, concerned for a balance between obedience and liberty.

“No less evident and substantial, however, were the differences which made of the one a heretic who would be relegated to the footnotes of history and of the other the very embodiment of sainthood.”

While Francis was hailed as the pinnacle of spirituality, Waldo was excommunicated. Yet his preaching had an influence. Fifty years after he started preaching in Lyons, the Waldensians had become a well-defined movement, offering their call to true faith and their model of Christian community. To escape persecution, they scattered throughout Europe, settling especially in the mountain valleys of the Cottian Alps and establishing churches that today are Protestant.

The above observations were based on Giorgio Tourn, “The Waldensians, The First Eight Hundred Years” and Herbert L. Stein—Schneider’s article “La ‘Confessio Evangelico’ du Catharisme Occitan,” Etuds Theologiques et Religieuses (Montpellier, France 1986, Vol. 3)

By Joyce Renick

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #14 in 1987]

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