Waldenses or Waldensians are members of a Christian movement that originated in the 12th century in France. Modern-time Waldenses can still be found in parts of France and Northern Italy, as well as in South America (mostly Uruguay and Argentina) and the United States, where they are regarded as members of the Protestant Church.
The movement believes in poverty and extreme simplicity. Their faith was based on literal understanding of the Gospel and the Ten Commandments. Together with the Cathars, the Waldensians are considered to be the most numerous and important heretic movements in Christianity.
Originally known as the Poor Men of Lyons, the Waldenses were a group of people led by Peter Waldo. He was a rich merchant of Lyons, who gave away all his property in 1173 and started preaching poverty as the righteous way to perfection. Little is known of his life and there is no record of the time, location and cause of his death, although he is thought to have died in the early 13th century.
Waldo was expelled from Lyons because the Archbishop was opposed to his religious teachings. He took his followers to Rome in 1179, where Pope Alexander III approved their life in poverty. However, the Pope banned Waldo and his followers from preaching because this activity was not authorized by the local clergy and Waldo used a non-Latin version of the Bible. The group disobeyed this order and continued preaching.
In 1184, Pope Lucius III banned the movement as a heresy and this ban was confirmed in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council. After the ban, the Waldenses departed from the Roman Church and rejected the papacy, the notion of purgatory, the indulgence, the Mass, the veneration of saints and prayers for the dead and proclaimed the Bible as the only rule of faith. They put the emphasis on gospel simplicity and moral rigor. Their movement spread through Spain, Flanders, Germany and into parts of Poland and Hungary.
Other sects joined the Waldenses temporarily and influenced the movement. The Waldenses and a group with similar beliefs, called the Humiliati, formed a larger congregation, known as the Poor Lombards. However, the two groups could not come to terms with the differences in their teachings and diverged. In the early 13th century, a part of the movement returned to orthodox Catholicism and Pope Innocent III reconciled them.
The Waldensians had a strict hierarchical structure. At the top there were bishops or maiorales, who administered the two sacraments, the Penance and the Eucharist, also referred to as the Holy Communion. The next level included the priests, who preached and heard confessions. Then came the deacons, who offered material support to the superior members. All ministers were called barbes, or uncles, who were men of little or no formal education. They lived ascetic lives and surreptitiously preached. The ordinary Waldensians had to fast and refrain from doing evil. They were not allowed to swear, lie, kill or slander and had to preach to others.
By the late 15th century, large portions of the population of Dauphine, Piedmont and the Cottian Alps were Waldenses. The Roman Church was angry at the fact that they rapidly grew in number and initiated active persecution and execution. In 1487, Pope Innocent VII ordered an attack on the Dauphine communities. This act eliminated most of the group but the Piedmont Waldenses managed to defend themselves.
In 1532, the French Waldenses were drastically reduced, which resulted in a decision to join the Reformed Church of German and Swiss Protestants. The Waldensians were dubious about the Reformation at first and wanted clarification on the subjects of free will, predestination and the number of sacraments as they only conceded to two, baptism and Holy Communion. When they eventually decided to join the Swiss Protestant church they followed the doctrines of Calvin. The Piedmont communities retained their independence and in 1655 they caused a short revolt. In 1848, they were granted equality to the Catholics in an act of emancipation. In 1860, the Piedmont communities founded a Waldensian university in Florence, which was transferred to Rome in 1920.
In the second half of the 19th century, Waldenses from the Cottian Alps started emigrating to the New World. Some of them settled in Uruguay. Another group moved to the United States in May 1893, founding the town of Valdese, North Carolina. Other predominantly Waldesian communities exist in Missouri, Texas and Utah. The Waldensian Church is included in the Alliance of Reformed Churches of the Presbyterian Order.