One thing that is clear is that there were Waldenses before Peter Waldo, thus it cannot be said that he founded the Waldensian movement, or church. Waldenses, Vaudois in French, means “people of the valleys,” referring to the valleys in the Alps which form the border between France and Italy.
Peter Waldo, Pierre de Vaux in French, means “Peter of the valleys”. Research into his background has not turned up any trace that he originated from Lyon. The city of Lyon is near to the Alps and it is possible that he originated from among the Christians in the alpine valleys, then left to seek his fortune in the big city.
He made his fortune, but it appears his heart was not at rest. He heard the call of God to repentance and forsook all he had gained. Beginning around 1170, he held meetings in his home where he distributed both natural and spiritual food to the poor, having had the Word of God translated into their language. Then he went to Rome to seek approval of the Pope to continue this work of evangelism. The Pope refused to authorize what he was doing and at this point Peter Waldo appears to have realized there was no future for evangelical Christianity in the Roman church.
From here on the details get murky. He sought the believers in the alpine valleys, but did not remain there long. Perhaps he rekindled the missionary fervour of the Christians in those valleys. Subsequent history mentions appearances of Peter Waldo in other parts of Europe and of itinerant Waldensian missionaries everywhere. Despite living in an era of persecution, Peter Waldo travelled and preached among the common people without being betrayed. He died a natural death in Bohemia in 1217.
Wonderful as the story of Peter Waldo may be, it does not tell how the Waldensian church began. The excerpt from the article on Antichrist that I posted Saturday dates from at least 50 years before Peter Waldo and reveals a church already well established.
The Antichrist writing dates from the time of Pierre de Bruys; it is possible that he was the writer. Pierre de Bruys was a former Roman Catholic priest who became a very effective evangelist after his conversion. He was active from 1117 to 1131, when he was burned at the stake. There is a section of this writing which gives the “reasons for our separation from Antichrist.”
Another possibility would be Henri, a former Benedictine monk, who preached the same doctrine as Pierre de Bruys from 1116 to 1134. Henri died in prison in 1148. Or the writer may have been someone unknown to history. We mostly know Pierre and Henri to us through the records of their persecutors.
The Antichrist writing says the spirit of iniquity had been active for centuries in the Roman church, but lacked power to suppress all its opponents. It wasn’t until the 11th century that the Roman Catholic church controlled the secular authorities and could use them to eliminate their opponents. Persecution became much more acute, culminating in the Albigensian crusade (1209 to 1229) and the Inquisition in France which began in 1233.
The history of persecution by the Roman Catholic church began long before the year 1,000; it just wasn’t as thorough. The Roman church saw heretics everywhere. Some of them may well have been groups with non-Biblical beliefs and practices. Many of them, though, were genuine evangelical Christians, teaching and living the peaceful doctrine of Jesus Christ. It is from these Christians, in ways lost to history, that the Waldensian church had its origins.
© Bob Goodnough,