THE origin of the Waldenses is traced back with sufficient certainty to the third quarter of the twelfth century. The founder was Peter Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons. Being directed to serious thought by the sudden death of an acquaintance, he concluded to apply to himself the advice which Christ gave to the rich young man. Accordingly, he distributed his wealth to the poor. At the same time, the little knowledge of Scripture which he had gained from the services of the Church excited his desire for a more thorough introduction to the Bible. To gratify his ambition in this direction be employed the labors of two men, who made translations for him into the vernacular. What he learned in this way he felt impelled to impart to others, many of whom in their turn became teachers. So an association of Bible readers and expounders was formed, which through an ever widening circle endeavored to instruct the common people in the truths of Holy Writ.
In the above we have the substance of several mediæval accounts respecting the rise of the Waldenses. One of these is from Reinerus, or rather from the hand of a later writer, who added to the treatise which the Dominican inquisitor had written near the middle of the thirteenth century. "Observe," says the writer, "that the sect of the Poor Men of Lyons, who are also called Leonists, arose in the following manner. Once, when the principal citizens were assembled in Lyons, it happened that one of them died suddenly in the presence of the company; whereby one of them was so much alarmed that he immediately distributed a large property to the poor. And from this cause a great multitude flocked to him, whom he instructed to be imitators of Christ and the apostles.1 Contra Waldenses, cap. v., Max. Bib. Vet. Patrum, tom, xxv. See also the same and other documents in R. S. Maitland's volume on the Albigenses and Waldenses. Only chapter vi. in the "Contra Waldenses" is legitimately attributed to Reinerus. (Döllinger, Sektengeschichte, i. 117.) Stephanus de Borbone, a Dominican of the thirteenth century, gives a similar account of the beginning of the sect, stating that they were called either Valdenses from the first author of their heresy, who was named Valdensis, or Poor Men of Lyons, because they first began in that city the profession of poverty. He says he had his information from many persons who had seen the earlier members of the sect, and more especially from the priests who served Peter Waldo in the work of translation. On this last point his narrative is as follows: "A certain rich man of the said city called Valdensis, hearing the Gospels, and not having much learning, yet being desirous to know what they contained, made an agreement with the said priests, that the one should translate into the vulgar tongue, and that the other should write what he dictated; and this they did. In like manner [they translated] many books of the Bible, and authorities of the fathers which they called Sentences." He adds: "This sect began about the year of our Lord 1170, under John, surnamed Bolesmanis, Archbishop of Lyons." 1 Quoted by Maitland. The account which is improperly attributed to Petrus de Pilichdorf, though differing in some items, points to the same general conclusion respecting the origin of the Waldenses.
It appears from the accounts ascribed to Reinerus and Pilichdorf, that a rumor was current at a quite early date embodying the notion that the Waldensian type of sectaries had been in the Church ever since the time of Constantine and Pope Sylvester. 2 The writing attributed to Pilichdorf belongs to the year 1395 (Édouard Montet, Histoire Littéraire dee Vaudoie dn Piémont, p.150.) The former of the two accounts seems to give a certain credit to the rumor, inasmuch as if makes the sect of Leonists older than the other sects mentioned. But in the very next chapter we have the language quoted above, according to the plain import of which the rich merchant of Lyons, who lived in the twelfth century, was the founder of the Leonists or Waldenses. It must be supposed, therefore, that in the reference to the antiquity of the sect the writer was not thinking of a definite party occupying a distinct territory, but only of the supposition that views very similar to those of the new sectaries had long since found adherents; otherwise, he stands in glaring contradiction with himself, that is, if it be supposed that the same person wrote both chapters.
As for Pilichdorf (so called) he utterly discredits the rumor, declaring the claim to a remote antiquity an invention for deceiving the simple. "They lie when they say that their sect has existed from the time of Pope Sylvester." 1 Contra Sectam Waldensium, cap. i., Max. Bib. Vet. Patrum, tom. xxv. His testimony indicates that among the Waldenses themselves the tradition of a remote origin early found place, and it is understood that they continued through the following centuries to cherish the same tradition. This leaves the association which gathered about the merchant of Lyons to be explained either as an offshoot from a more ancient association, or as an independent growth, which soon coalesced with a more ancient organization. Where is that more ancient association supposed to have had its seat ? In the Cottian Alps, the rugged country of Piedmont, the home of the Vaudois, lying between Turin on the east and Grenoble on the west. There, says the tradition, dwelt a people who were preserved from the corruptions which riches brought into the Church directly after its alliance with the State, -- a people who kept the faith in its purity. Some modern writers have raised this tradition to the rank of indubitable fact. What could be more positive in tone than the following, which appears in the preface of quite an elaborate treatise? "From the apostolic age itself down to the present, that venerable Church has been seated in the valleys of the Cottian Alps. There it has never ceased to profess one and the same unvarying theological system, thus faithfully reflecting the sincere unadulterated gospel of primitive Christianity; and there, both ecclesiastically and morally, the practice of its members has happily corresponded with their religious profession." 1 G. S. Faber, An Inquiry into the History and Theology of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses.
Such a miracle, if it is well authenticated, certainly deserves to be recognized, for nowhere else can a proper parallel be found. The Cottian Alps alone have been witness to a body of Christians who for eighteen centuries have professed one and the same unvarying theological system.
A church of this description is simply a church on paper. Very likely some of the tenets which entered into the ultimate system of the Waldensian faith claimed the sympathies of individual minds all through the centuries. Very possibly the region of Piedmont had its full share of such minds. One can easily imagine that the bold strictures which Claudius of Turin had passed upon the worship of images and saints left their trace in the sentiments of the people on the neighboring heights. But the theory that the complete Waldensian system had been in force in this region from the early centuries is a baseless fancy. The tradition is easily enough accounted for. The declaration that this or that opinion was no novelty, that it had been entertained long ago, could easily serve as a basis for a popular conviction that the earlier generations in that region had in general anticipated the faith of the later. Indeed, if the Waldenses had anything like the desire to strengthen their position by the sanctions of antiquity which has animated some recent parties, such a development could have been prevented only by special care. The tradition, then, as being one that might easily find place, is more than offset by the enormous improbability that for a period of many centuries the searching inspection of Rome should not, have discovered a distinctively anti-Romish sect, and that her writers should have recorded nothing which clearly supposes its existence. 1 It may be noted that Martin, in his "Histoire de France," refers to a chronicle, written in the first half of the twelfth century, which speaks of the inhabitants of the upper Alpine valleys as soiled with an inveterate heresy. But this is no statement that they eschewed Romanism in in toto, or cherished the complete Waldensian belief. The few uncritical references to a remote antiquity which are found with Roman Catholic writers in the fourteenth century or later have but little weight; and the evidence for the early date of the sect which the Vaudois writings have been supposed to contain has not been able to endure a critical investigation. 2 For this side of the subject see Montet, Histoire Littéraire des Vandois du Piémont. It is the conclusion of Montet, that some of the Vaudois writers have allowed their seal for the legend of the apostolic doctrine and origin of their sect to get the better of their honesty: "Malheureusement on ne se borna point à enregistrer la légende; plusieurs écrivains vaudois, peu scrupuleux, ne craignirent point, dans le bnt de l'étayer, de falsifier les textes vaudois antérieurs à la Réformation, et même, fait inouï, plusieurs documents contemporains de la Réforme protestante."
At the beginning of their career the Waldenses had no idea of antagonizing the Romish Church. Their movement was practical rather than doctrinal. They considered themselves as laboring within the Church in behalf of an earnest and self-denying piety. The only innovation which they indulged lay in the stress which they placed upon familiarity with the Scriptures and the privilege of laymen to act as teachers and preachers. They had no intention to set aside the regular priesthood, but to afford a much needed supplement to the priestly ministrations. How far they were from designing a schism is evident from the fact, that, when they were commanded by the Archbishop of Lyons to cease from preaching, they appealed to Rome, and asked Alexander III., in 1179, to confirm their association, that they might continue their work as a recognized instrumentality of the Church.
This request was denied. But so strong was the conviction of the Waldenses respecting their providential vocation, that they persisted in their labors. The papal condemnation followed, and the violence of persecution was soon felt. The bonds with Rome being thus in large part sundered, the Waldenses were free to reap the natural result of their diligent study of the Scriptures. Various peculiarities of the Romish system were renounced. The development in this direction was not uniform. It is difficult, therefore, to give a statement of belief which will apply to the whole sect in the earlier stages of its history. According to the pseudo Reinerus, they maintained that a teaching which cannot be proved by the text of Scripture is without authority; that the Church had repeated the offence of the Pharisees by imposing the yoke of its traditions; that certain ceremonies ordinarily connected with baptism should be abolished; that a priest in mortal sin could not celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist, and that transubstantiation does not take place in the hand of such a priest, but rather in the mouth of him who worthily receives; that indulgences are to be rejected; that a bad priest cannot absolve, while a good layman has the power of absolving; that every good layman is a priest; that confirmation, extreme unction, and orders are not to be counted sacraments; that the marriage of the clergy ought not to be prohibited; that the worship of saints and their relics, as also of images and pictures, is illegitimate; that Purgatory is a fiction; that many of the rites and observances of the Church are unprofitable and idle; that a Christian should not take an oath. 1 The pseudo Reinerus gives the Waldenses a relatively good character. "While all other sects," he says, "induce horror in the listener by their monstrous blasphemies against God, this of the Leonists has a great appearance of piety, in that they live justly before men, entertain a worthy belief respecting God, and hold all the articles contained in the symbol." (Cap. iv.)
It may be doubted whether the Waldenses generally went so far in their deviation from the Romish system as some of these specifications would indicate, until a comparatively late date. Various of their opponents are found to have credited them with a belief in the seven sacraments, and with holding the major part of the Catholic faith. 2 Döllinger, Sektengeschichte, ii. 93. Among the earliest of their doctrinal innovations were the limitations which they placed upon the sovereignty of the hierarchy; also their denial of purgatory, together with the associated tenets respecting masses, prayers, and alms for the dead.
Even after their doctrinal divergence had become quite pronounced, the Waldenses did not, at least universally, renounce all connection with the Romish Church. We read that in various places they attended the services of the Romish priests, and allowed their children to be baptized by them. Those in Lombardy advanced soonest to an independent position.
The Waldenses seem to have spread with considerable rapidity in the earlier part of their history. Before the end of the twelfth century they were found in Spain and Northern Italy. In the first half of the next century they had touched various points in Germany. By the opening of the fourteenth century so many had settled in the Cottian Alps, as a refuge from persecution, that the advisability of sending out colonies was discussed, and parties were dispatched to Calabria and other districts of Italy. In the fifteenth century some of the persecuted accepted the invitation of the Bohemian Brethren and settled in their country. This led to interchange of communications between the Brethren and the Vaudois, or the Waldenses in Piedmont; in consequence of which the latter were confirmed and encouraged in their views, or carried forward to a more distinctly anti-Romish position. 1 see the valuable article of Herzog in his Encyclopædia.
Comparative immunity was enjoyed by the Waldenses, for a considerable interval, in the mountain retreat which served as the head-quarters of their communion. But in the latter part of the fifteenth century they began to share in the fiery trial which was appointed to those who raised a protest against Rome. In answer to a summons sent forth in 1487 by Innocent VIII., a powerful army crossed their borders both on the Italian and the French side. In the first encounters the ill prepared inhabitants suffered defeat, and their lands were subjected to grievous devastation. But the comparative ignorance of the invaders respecting the rugged country finally told greatly in favor of the invaded. Few of those who came to slaughter the Vaudois ever retraced their steps.