As a seminary student, my studies this semester have led me into the world of missions. These studies include the examination of historical figures who have played a primary role in spreading the gospel of Christ throughout the world. One such figure-Peter Waldo-had such an impact. In completing a biography on his contributions to the Christian faith, I found that his role in establishing a spiritual community called the Waldensian church was one of his most significant accomplishments. Below you will find a brief summation of this and other aspects of Waldo’s life and works.
Although there are many believers who have made significant contributions to the world, Peter Waldo has a unique and interesting place in Christian history. While some might be interested to note that Waldo was born in 1140 and died in 1218, the events that transpired during his life are likely more compelling. Historians such as Philip Schaff note that Waldo began as a prosperous merchant in Lyons and, after recognizing his need for salvation, sought counsel from a religious leader who informed him that entry into heaven could best be accomplished by following Christ’s precepts, giving all he had to the poor, and following Jesus. Following his conversion experience, Waldo made many contributions to the world that reveal the integral role he played in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Despite the fact that there are many contributions that Peter Waldo has made to the world, his founding of the Waldensians seems to be central to discourse about him. According to Accardy, the Waldensian church began as a non-conformist movement as a result of Waldo’s assent to the notion that the best way to access heaven was through voluntary poverty. Like him, Waldo’s followers chose to live a life marked by evangelical poverty. In addition to advocating poverty, the Waldensians believed in the importance of scripture memorization, pacifism, and lay preaching. Additionally, they chose to read and study from a vernacular translation of the Bible. As many historians have noted, a big part of Peter Waldo’s contributions to the efforts of the Waldensian church surrounded his belief that the Bible should be clearly understood by its listeners. Yet the Church’s official version of the Word of God, called the ‘Vulgate,’ made this difficult because it was written in Latin. In noting this problem, religious scholar Gabriel Audisio noted that Waldo deemed it necessary to have the Bible translated into the vernacular, an act he accomplished through the help of two clergymen.
As mentioned earlier, one of the primary tenets of the Waldensian church-the importance of preaching-characterized the work of group members. This endeavor engendered opposition from the Archbishop of Lyons, Jean aux Belles-Mains, who viewed their work as presumptuous-ostensibly because many of the individuals preaching were not schooled in the word of God. Because of the Archbishop’s opposition to Waldo and his followers, they were not allowed to preach. Yet they persisted in this enterprise and suffered persecution as a result of it. In his important book The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival, Audisio notes that the presence and workings of another group deemed heretical-the Cathars-precluded the Church from immediately challenging the authority and activities of the Waldensians. Thus despite the Waldensians’ seemingly iconoclastic endeavors-such as permitting women to preach-they were able to accomplish their goal of sharing the gospel of Jesus without extensive challenge for a short period of time.
Although the will and workings of the Waldensians was not immediately challenged, their refusal to stop preaching despite the edicts of the Archbishop entailed their excommunication. After being forced to leave Lyons, the Waldensians pursued preaching in Languedoc, a region where Catharism thrived. They also sought to preach in northern Italy, other French-speaking regions, and Germany. It was Lucius III who pronounced the excommunication of the Waldensians, calling them ‘schismatics.’ In his delineation of these events, Audisio argues that the term functioned to indicate that they had disobeyed church laws but were yet not comparable to people or institutions deemed ‘heretical.’
Despite the fact that the Waldensians persevered in the face of persecution from the Church, their movement was not without internal turmoil. In documenting the reality of tensions that existed within the spiritual community, Audisio notes that Waldo was aware of and dismissed false brethren. According to world views advanced by individuals such as Anabaptists, only those who died in a state of total poverty would attain salvation. Waldo excommunicated individuals who held this view around 1200. Additionally, some individuals-such as the Lombardy Brothers-elected another person as leader. Waldo maintained, however, that Christ was the only rightful leader. After he created these grounds for exclusion, another group-called the ‘Lombardy Poor’-split away from the Poor of Lyons.
Despite Waldo’s death, the Waldensian community continued to have cultural impact. As Audisio notes, many believers continued to listen to these preachers of poverty. Additionally, clergy members continued engaging them in debate and discourse. Moreover, many members of the Poor of Lyons considered themselves a part of both the Waldensian group and the Church of Rome. Thus when one considers the impact the Waldensians had on the religious world, the importance of the work that Peter Waldo did in establishing the group becomes plain. Irrespective of whether one views the religious community as heretical or a historical manifestation of individuals determined to walk in deep relationship with Jesus and subsequently share His love with the lost, Waldo’s impact on the world in which he lived is undeniable.
Accardy, Chris. “Calvin’s Ministry To The Waldensians.” Reformation and Revival. RAR 10:4
(Fall 2001): 46.
Audisio, Gabriel. The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 11.