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Waldenses, the most important sectarian religious movement of the later Middle Ages, descendants of which still exist, known since 1532 as the Waldensian Church of Italy, a Protestant evangelical body, Reformed-Calvinistic in theology and polity. About the earlier history of the Waldenses considerable uncertainty exists because of the lack of adequate sources. Even the name is in doubt, although it was probably given because of Peter Waldo of Lyons, France, the founder of at least the French wing of the movement, a rich merchant who ca. 1177 gave away his property and began a movement for Bible study and preaching, sending out his followers two by two. His followers were called the Poor Men of Lyons, since they took a vow of poverty. A similar movement about the same time in northern Italy, called the Poor Men of Lombardy, was probably a continuation of the Humiliati or followers of Arnold of Brescia. An attempted alliance of the two movements in 1184 was only partially successful. Their disregard of the prohibition of preaching by laymen issued in 1179 by the pope led to their persecution in many places for centuries, but did not result in their formal withdrawal from the Catholic Church. Most of them continued to observe the Mass and baptize their infants in the church. Although they suffered greatly they were never totally wiped out except in certain regions. Numerous martyrdoms were recorded; e.g., in Strasbourg some 80 were burned at the stake in 1211. Religious colloquies held to win them back to the church (e.g., in 1191 and 1206) were futile.

Various accounts have been given of their rapid growth and extensive spread geographically and in numbers, some of which are perhaps exaggerated. They spread early (1231-33) into South Germany, especially in Württemberg and Bavaria. In Austria about the same time the number was reported at 80,000. In South Germany they won many converts among the wool weavers. Nobles were among their patrons and even members. The Saxon nobleman, Johannes Drandorf, was martyred at Worms in 1423. Two of their most prominent martyrs were their bishops Friedrich Reiser (Strasbourg, 1450) and Stephen (Vienna, 1471). The last persecution in Germany was in 1479, ordered by Elector Albrecht Achilles of Prussia.

The Waldenses spread northward down the Rhine and into the Low Countries, as well as eastward into Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Poland. As early as the 13th century they found refuge in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont west of Turin, and it is here that the remnant survived from which the modern Waldensian Church has sprung. Everywhere else they finally died out, largely before the Reformation, though not everywhere by that time. By 1719 the total number of Waldenses was ca. 4,000 including children. Civic rights and a certain amount of religious freedom was granted by the Italian government on 17 February 1848.

Romantic hero worship has often been inclined to make the medieval Waldenses full evangelicals of Protestant character, but this was not the case. They did emphasize the authority of the Bible as the only guide for faith and life, and laid particular stress on the words and example of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. They at first rejected all killing including capital punishment and war, and were nonresistant, although in the 17th century they defended themselves by arms, having dropped nonresistance and other earlier principles, including rejection of the oath and government office, when they became Reformed in 1532. Originally they formed an association of men and women who had rejected the world and had obligated themselves to apostolic poverty and a life of discipleship to Jesus through a formal vow. Some expressed doubts about infant baptism, but it was never rejected by the group. They rejected the hierarchy of priests and insisted upon the right of laymen to preach. Their preaching consisted usually of simple admonition to repentance, faith, and obedience in following the commands of Christ. Though not formally withdrawing from the Catholic Church, they set up at least later their own organization with a threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, with formal ordination. The preacher was called "uncle."

In modern times, about the middle of the 19th century, they experienced a spiritual revival, largely under influence from England, which ultimately turned them into an aggressive evangelistic group. The number of congregations and members in the new congregations in the cities such as Tunis, Milan, Venice, Rome, Bologna, Florence, and Naples has for some time been larger than at the home base congregations in the Piedmont valleys. In 1930 there were some 80 congregations with 22,907 members, including a considerable emigrant colony in Uruguay and a few congregations in the Eastern United States.

Mennonites have had little contact with the Waldenses. Dutch Mennonites gave them some support in the 19th century, and Antje Brons of Emden raised a bicentennial offering for them in 1889, amounting to 880 marks. From the late summer of 1946 to 1949 the Mennonite Central Committee carried on relief work in the Waldensian valleys for the population there which had suffered heavily during the war. Headquarters were maintained in Torre Pellice, the Waldensian capital. This was followed by a student exchange program whereby a number of young Waldenses studied in American Mennonite colleges. A warm feeling of fellowship developed between the Mennonite workers and the Waldensian Church and H. S. Bender served as a fraternal delegate at the Waldensian Synod in 1948 and also lectured at the Waldensian Theological Seminary in that same year. In 1950 Waldensian preachers in Uruguay were helpful in establishing the Mennonite settlement at El Ombu.

The theory of Waldensian origin of the Anabaptists was popular among Dutch and German Mennonites in the 17th-19th centuries, though never proposed by the 16th-century Anabaptists themselves. It was held by such writers as van Braght (Martyrs' Mirror of 1660), who seemingly took it over from the earlier martyr books (e.g., the 1631 Haarlem book), Herman Schijn, and Galenus Abrahamsz, and from them was passed on to others. Apparently the Mennonite writers ultimately derived their authority for the theory from Sebastian Franck (Chronica, p. 483) or from a supposed similarity of teachings. It was also a convenient apologetic weapon to counter those enemies who attributed Anabaptist origins to the Münsterites. It was, however, approved by Carel van Gent (1615), and such writers as Brandt, Meshovius, and Gottfried Arnold. S. B. ten Cate (Geschiedkundig Onderzock) was among the last of the Mennonite historians to hold to the Waldensian origin of the Mennonites, although with grave hesitation. Modern historians all reject the theory, such as Kühler and van der Zijpp in Holland, Crous, Hege, and Neff in Germany, and Horsch and Smith in America. No actual case of a Waldensian becoming an Anabaptist has ever been adduced, and the early leaders in Switzerland, Holland, South Germany, and Austria can all be identified as either Catholic or Protestant in background. No Waldensian congregation was demonstrably in existence in German Switzerland for ca. 100 years before the Anabaptist beginning in 1525. The same is true for Holland and South Germany.

A different situation obtained in Bohemia and Moravia. It is known that the Waldenses had great success in this area in the 14th-15th centuries; over 300 congregations are reported to have been in existence at one time. A. H. Newman held that Waldensian views were communicated to the Bohemian Brethren, and that from both groups members joined the Moravian Anabaptists in the 16th century. This still does not prove a Waldensian or Bohemian Brethren origin for the Moravian Anabaptists, since it is known that Hubmaier, Reublin, and refugees from Tyrol introduced Anabaptism at Nikolsburg in 1526 ff. However, the similarity of teachings of the strict group of the Bohemian Brethren and those of the Anabaptists is sufficient ground for more careful study of the relation of the two groups, and with them of the Waldenses in this area. It is well known that a bishop of the Waldenses ordained the first bishop of the Bohemian Brethren ca. 1460.

The tempting and romantic theory of apostolic succession from the apostles down to the Anabaptists through successive Old Evangelical groups, which has been very popular with those among Mennonites and Baptists who feel the need of such an apostolic succession, always includes the Waldenses as the last link before the Anabaptists. It has, also, no basis in fact.


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Author(s) Christian Neff, Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Harold S. Bender, Christian and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Waldenses." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 1 Dec 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Waldenses&oldid=161251.

APA style

Neff, Harold S. Bender, Christian and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1959). Waldenses. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 December 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Waldenses&oldid=161251.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 874-876, 1148. All rights reserved.

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