In the summer of AD 1160, a group of the leading citizens of Lyon was together at a feast when one of them suddenly fell over and died in front of the others. This caused Peter Waldo, another of the guests or perhaps even the host, to reflect on his own life and destiny. He resolved to repent and amend his life.
He began to distribute his money to the poor and to translate the Bible into the common tongue of the people. He distributed portions of the Scriptures and held open meetings in his home where he read and expounded the Scriptures. In 1173 he made over his property to his wife and distributed what remained of his fortune to the poor.
The bishop of Lyon commanded him to stop preaching and distributing the Bible, under threat of excommunication. Peter Waldo travelled to Rome to seek permission of the Pope to continue. He met with a refusal, yet his conscience would not permit him to refuse the Word of life to the hungry people.
He and his followers were excommunicated and driven out of Lyon. They found refuge in the Piedmont valleys among the people of the Waldensian faith. The Waldensian faith does not owe its origin to Peter Waldo, as some would maintain. In the French language the Waldensians were known as Vaudois, after the valleys where they lived. Peter Waldo’s name in French was Pierre de Vaux, suggesting that he himself may have originated from those valleys and gone to Lyon to seek his fortune.
Peter Waldo did not long remain in the secluded alpine valleys, but became the driving force behind a renewed evangelistic thrust all over Europe by the Waldensian church. Tracing the course of his life from that point on is difficult, but there are mentions of Peter Waldo appearing in various parts of Europe and of itinerant Waldensian missionaries practically everywhere. These were the days of the Inquisition, yet Peter Waldo travelled and preached among the common people without being betrayed. He died a natural death in Bohemia in 1217.
The conversion of Francis of Assisi took place in 1209. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and like Peter Waldo, forsook his life of ease to dwell among the poor. He had a burden for the conversion of the heathen and the Muslims. He received permission from the Pope to form a new religious order, and sent men out to preach. The Franciscans pledged to be reconciled to their enemies, restore ill-gotten gains, use no bad language, take no oaths, nor bear arms. The order soon grew beyond the ability of Francis to maintain it in his original concept of purity. Other men, with different ideas, became the principal authorities in the order. After the death of Francis in 1226 there was often strife between the strict and the lax friars.
E. H. Broadbent, in his book The Pilgrim Church, makes the following comments about the Peter Waldo and Francis of Assisi:
“Francis of Assisi and Peter Waldo were both laid hold of by the same teaching of the Lord, and yielded themselves to Him with uttermost devotion. In each case the example set and the teaching given gained the hearts of large numbers and affected their whole manner of life. The likeness turned to contrast when the one was accepted and the other rejected by the organized religion of Rome. The inward relation to the Lord may have remained the same, but the working out of the two lives differed widely. The Franciscans being absorbed into the Roman system, helped to bind men to it, while Waldo and his band of preachers directed multitudes of souls to the Scriptures, where they learned to draw for themselves fresh and inexhaustible supplies from the ‘wells of salvation.’”