Remembered by Their Enemies

“Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before all men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” 
Matthew 5:1516

Most of what we know about the early Waldensians comes from the reports of those who wanted to accuse and eliminate them. These reports have become for us testimonies to a group of Christians who risked all for their beliefs in teaching the Bible, and in living a Christian life. Though persecution became fierce, their opponents did not prevail. The Waldensians have carried their light now for almost 800 years.

A 13th-century “police report” by an inquisitor. Taken from Church archives found in Carcassone, France.

THE POOR OF LYONS HAD THEIR ORIGINS around the year 1170, founded by a certain Lyonese citizen by the name of Vadensius or Valdenses, after whom his followers took their name. The person in question was a rich man but, abandoning all his wealth, he determined to observe a life of poverty and evangelical perfection, as the Apostles. He arranged for the Gospels and some other books of the Bible to be translated in common speech; also some texts of Saints Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory, arranged under titles which he called “sentences,” and which he read very often, though without understanding their import. Infatuated with himself, he usurped the prerogatives of the Apostles by presuming to preach the Gospel in the streets, where he made many disciples, and involving them, both men and women, in a like presumption by sending them out, in turn, to preach.

These people, ignorant and illiterate, went about through the towns, entering houses and even churches, spreading many errors round about. They were summoned by the Archbishop of Lyons and forbidden such presumption. But they wished by no means to obey him, cloaking their madness by saying that they must obey God rather than men, since God had commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel to every creature.

And thus they ended by despising prelates and the clergy, accusing them for being rich and for living a life of ease; whereas they applied to themselves what was said of the Apostles (whose imitators and successors they boldly declared themselves to be) by a false profession of poverty and feigned image of sanctity.

Because of this disobedience and of this presumptuous appropriation of a task which did not pertain to them, they were excommunicated and expelled from their country.

A Report from the Year 1179 by the English Monk Walter Map

WE HAVE SEEN THE WALDENSIANS at the Council of Pope Alexander III, simple and unlearned men, who take their name from that of their leader, one Valdes, a citizen of Lyons . . . . They insistently asked that they be granted authorization to preach, regarding themselves as fully capable of such a task, whereas they are hardly qualified by half . . . . As the last of many interrogators, I was mocking their request and their doubtful qualifications, limiting myself to some elemental questions . . . “Do you believe in God the Father?” They answered, “We believe.” “And in God the Son?” To which they answered, “We believe.” “And in God the Holy Ghost?” They answered, “We believe.” “And in the Mother of Christ?” They answered, “We believe.” [A trap, for in scholastic theology belief could only be applied to the Trinity.] After this last response there went up a roar of ridicule, and they withdrew, covered with disgrace.

These people have no dwelling place, but go around two by two, barefoot and dressed in coarse tunics. They own nothing, sharing everything in common, after the manner of the Apostles. Naked, they follow a naked Christ. Their beginnings are humble in the extreme, for they have not yet much of a following, but if we should leave them to their devices they will end by turning all of us out.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #22 in 1989]

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