Pastor's Blog

Where’s Waldo?: Peter Waldo the unsung pre-reformer

Posted under: Reformation — by Leroy Demarest

Peter Waldo, or Valdes or Valdez or Waldes or Pierre Vaudes or de Vaux, was a French merchant from Lyon who died in 1218. There isn’t a lot know about his life but his followers have a storied history of evangelism, service and persecution.

Peter Waldo, was the son of a rich merchant in Lyons, France. There is no clear date for his birth and little from his life. Even with so many holes, his teachings and ‘disciples’ are an important stopping point in church history. Peter inherited his fortune from his father and was not wholly comfortable with his wealth. Some of it appears to have been collected via usury, or high interest lending, and this bothered Peter morally.

Meanwhile, worldliness had entered into the ‘church’, many were seeing corruption, accumulation of power, and greed was spreading throughout the church. This corruption lead to a number of movements during this time; these included a general asceticism, a heretical group known as the Albigensians, and the Franciscan movement. The Franciscan movement, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, included monasticism with an extreme vow of poverty.

Peter also saw the depravity in the church and the increasing greed in both society and the church and committed to change. He likewise, committed to poverty, but not in the monastic sense as the Franciscans did. Not only did he give away his wealth but taught it to those who would be known as the Waldensians, during their time in the Lyons, they were known as the Poor men of Lyon.

Aside from poverty, the Waldensians taught a simplistic Christianity, emphasizing fruit, like love and goodness. They also taught against the veneration of relics, transubstantiation, purgatory and de-emphasized the importance of the sacraments. Another key teaching of Peter Waldo was that the people should have the bible in their native tongue and as such he worked to translate the bible into French.

As the Waldensians grew, they petitioned the Rome for the right to be a separate group within the Catholic Church and to form a preaching fraternity. But, both the Pope at the time, Alexander III and a church council in 1179 rejected their request. Furthermore, as their beliefs became more evangelical and, in some ways, reformed. Pressure from the church began. Soon this pressure would begin to turn to persecution and the persecution became intense.

Men, women and children went through ‘inquisition’. Children were branded to force them to turn in their parents, women were burned at the stake, and at one point a larger group was suffocated in the back of a cave when the church ‘police’ started a fire and forced smoke into the back of the cave.

The poet John Milton, in the poem On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, immortalized this persecution.

Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant [the pope]: that from these may grow
A hunder’d-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

The Waldensians spread throughout Europe, with groups in Germany, Austria and Italy. However, persecution would diminish the Waldensians to just a small group in Northern Italy, many of whom joined the Calvin Reformation centuries later. Sadly, they were not permitted full civil rights until 1870 (nearly 600 years later) from Italy.

Their commitment to salvation by God and giving scripture to the people, in their tongue, places them in the pre-reformer timeline.

To read more on the topic: