Who Were the Waldenses? Early Evangelicals?
Some Fundamentalists and Evangelicals like to claim there were many "Bible only" Christians who existed throughout the history of the Church who did not belong to the visible "institutional" Roman Catholic (or Orthodox) Church and in fact repudiated her sacraments and denied her established doctrines. Depending on who is making this claim, these non-Catholic Christians are supposed to be early Evangelicals, Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, or "King James Only" believers before the sixteenth-century Protestants, and some go on to claim they can even be traced back to the apostles themselves through a succession of groups who held doctrines consistent with Baptist distinctives, such as Sola Scriptura and believer's baptism. This claim is commonly known as the "baptist successionism" thesis.
Some of our more naive anti-Catholic Fundamentalists believe these non-Catholic Christians were the same ones "slaughtered" in the "millions" by the Roman Catholic Church during the "Inquisition."
But are these claims true? Is there any evidence for such claims? What are the real historical facts?
James Edward McGoldrick, professor of history for Cedarville College in Ohio, a Baptist himself and expert especially in Protestant Reformation history, wrote a book refuting the "baptist successionism" thesis, held fully or believed implicitly by many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals today, most of whom have never checked any of the primary source documents but rely strictly on secondary sources and books by other anti-Catholic Fundamentalists.
For example, Dave Hunt, a Fundamentalist Dispensationalist who believes the Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon" of Revelation, in a very popular book among virulent anti-Catholics, A Woman Rides the Beast (Harvest House, 1994) writes:
"The truth is that Roman Catholicism did not represent Christ and was not His Church. For at least a thousand years before the Reformation the true church was composed of multitudes of simple Christians who were not part of the Roman system. That such believers existed, refused to be called 'Catholics,' and worshiped independently of the Roman hierarchy is history. It is a fact that they were pursued to imprisonment and death since at least the end of the fourth century....[emphasis in original]
"These non-Catholic Christians had, out of conscience before God and in obedience to His Word, separated themselves from what they sincerely called even in that day 'the whore of Babylon'....E.H. Broadbent calls these Bible-believing Christians The Pilgrim Church in his book of that name...." [Hunt quotes from Broadbent, a Plymouth Brethren author, who refers to the Waldenses/Vaudois, Albigenses/Cathari, Bogomils, etc as the true "Bible-believing" Christians]
"These simple believers were burned at the stake or slain with the sword (and most of their records were destroyed) when their towns and villages were razed by papal armies. Catholic apologists falsely accuse them of heresies and abominable practices which they denied. The accounts we have of their trials reveal that they held beliefs similar to evangelicals of today." (page 254-255, emphasis mine)
"We have already noted that for centuries before the Reformation simple Christian fellowships existed outside the Catholic Church. These believers abhorred the heresies and hypocrisy of
"Eventually you would confess to anything to end the torment, but no matter what you confess it never fits the secret accusation, so the torture continues until at last you expire from the unbearable trauma. Such was the fate of millions." (page 250, emphasis in original)
Ellen G. White, founder of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in the 19th century, in a more fanciful account, claims to have found early seventh-day "Sabbath keepers" in the Waldenses :
"In lands beyond the jurisdiction of
Even Eric Svendsen, a former Catholic turned Evangelical, who is usually more scholarly and careful in his comments, shows that Church history is not his strong point in his critique of Roman Catholic apologetics, Evangelical Answers (1997) :
"If it can be confirmed by history that the people of God ceased to exist within the Catholic church, then we must look elsewhere for those people of God. The fact is, there have always existed alongside of the institutional form of the Catholic church many splinter groups that opposed her abuses of power and morality. Indeed, there have often been reform movements within the Catholic church itself! This is where the true church is to be found during all those years of corruption prior to the Reformation." (Svendsen, page 73, emphasis mine)
While not denying the existence of "moral corruption" among members of the Catholic Church, I am wondering which "splinter groups" he has in mind that "always existed alongside of the institutional form of the Catholic church" (which I suppose he must mean Evangelical groups who held Protestant distinctives). Where is the documentation for such groups before the sixteenth century?
The book by the Baptist historian McGoldrick that demolishes the above statements is titled Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History (The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, 1994). McGoldrick examines many groups claimed as "early Baptists" (or early Evangelicals who are "baptistic") such as the Montanists, Novatians, Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigenses, Waldenses and other groups and individuals. None of these groups were in fact "early Evangelicals" but were either explicitly Catholic in doctrine or grossly heretical (such as the later Albigenses who denied the Incarnation). Baptists originate in the early 17th century in
"Although no reputable Church historians have ever affirmed the belief that Baptists can trace their lineage through medieval and ancient sects ultimately to the New Testament, that point of view enjoys a large following nevertheless. It appears that scholars aware of this claim have deemed it unworthy of their attention, which may account for the persistence and popularity of Baptist successionism as a doctrine as well as an interpretation of church history. Aside from occasional articles and booklets that reject this teaching, no one has published a refutation in a systematic, documented format. The present work is an effort to supply this need so that Baptists may have a thorough analysis of successionism, together with a reliable account of their origins as a Protestant religious body." (McGoldrick, preface page iv)
"It is the purpose of this book to show that, although free church groups in ancient and medieval times sometimes promoted doctrines and practices agreeable to modern Baptists, when judged by standards now acknowledged as baptistic, not one of them merits recognition as a Baptist church. Baptists arose in the seventeenth century in
The following is adapted from McGoldrick's chapter on the Waldenses of the 12th and 13th centuries which examines their origins and founder Peter Waldo, their explicit Catholic doctrines and beliefs, a short account of their history, and where they are today (hint: they did later become a Protestant sect, but were never "baptistic" in belief).
The comments of Phil Porvaznik are followed by PP. Endnotes are numbered in brackets [ ].
WHAT ABOUT THE WALDENSES?
The same period of Medieval history that saw the rise and suppression of the Cathars witnessed the emergence of a very different religious movement known as the Waldenses. In contrast to the Cathars, whose dualistic world- and life-view placed them in radical opposition to historic Christianity, the Waldenses began as a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church and never imbibed Manichaean teachings.
PETER WALDO : Founder of the Waldenses
The sect owed its origin to Peter Waldo (d. 1216), known in
The sources indicate that Waldo became impressed with his need to follow Christ when he heard a minstrel relate the legend of St. Alexis, who had renounced riches and separated from his wife to undertake a pilgrimage to the
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)
His personal appropriation of the Lord's teaching to the rich young man mentioned in the Gospel reflects Waldo's habit of accepting biblical injunctions literally, and it shows his great desire to conform his life to the teachings of Christ. Waldo developed a sense of urgency to become learned in the scriptures, and to that end he paid two scholars to translate the Gospels and other portions of the Bible into his vernacular tongue.
While the behavior Waldo exhibited was unusual, it was not unprecedented, and his actions to this point did not violate the canons of the Roman Catholic Church. Vows of poverty and the study of scripture had been regular features of monastic living for centuries and enjoyed the approval of the Church. Waldo, however, was neither a monk nor a priest, but a devout layman who sought to practice "evangelical perfection" without entering a monastery. To those who ridiculed him for this, Waldo explained,
"Citizens and friends, I am not out of my mind, as you seem to think, but I am avenging myself on those who are oppressing me in making me a lover of money more than God. This act I do for myself and for you: for me, so that if from now on I possess anything you may call me a fool; for you, in order that you, too, may be led to put your hope in God and not in riches." 
WALDENSES UNAUTHORIZED PREACHING
Recruits to Waldo's "Poor of Lyons" came from all levels of society. A few were priests, but most were laymen. Durand of Huesca (
The movement did not seek to alter Catholic dogma and was not intended to be a separatist church. The bishops at first would have found nothing about which to object had not the Waldenses assumed the right to preach. It was unauthorized preaching in public places that aroused suspicion and led the Archbishop of Lyons to attempt to stop them.
Waldo and his disciples were ordered to submit to the bishops. To render unqualified submission would, however, have meant the end of their preaching, so the Waldenses disobeyed and brought upon themselves a barrage of clerical criticism. As of yet the Waldenses had issued no pronouncements which could have been rightly construed as heresy, and in 1180 Waldo signed a statement of faith dictated by a papal legate in which the popular exponent of apostolic living subscribed to all of the major tenets of traditional Catholicism. 
While Waldo and his followers had no doctrinal quarrel with
In 1207 Durand of Huesca abandoned the Waldenses and returned to the Catholic Church. He asked Pope Innocent III to authorize an order of "Catholic Poor," a move that would be completely submissive to the hierarchy. St. Dominic Guzman had assisted Durand in recruiting small bands of Waldenses who agreed to return to
Exclusion from the Church caused the Waldenses to re-examine dogma, with the consequence that they eventually came to espouse teachings that were heretical when judged by standards of medieval Catholic orthodoxy. The drift away from Catholic dogmas was relatively slow and uneven, and some segments of the sect became more radical than others. Waldense churches began to appear in
WALDENSES BEFORE WALDO : Do They Exist?
Although there is unanimous agreement among reputable scholars that the Waldenses originated with the work of Waldo, and despite the fact that modern Waldense historians themselves concur with this opinion, successionists of various affiliations have inducted them into the line of "true" churches which have maintained Gospel purity since New Testament times. As one might expect, the Waldenses have been claimed as Baptists (and Plymouth Brethren by E.H. Broadbent, and Seventh-day Adventists by Ellen G. White, and others).
Those who attempt to establish a pedigree for the Waldenses anterior to Waldo himself often refer to the work of Sir Samuel Morland, a 17th-century English author and diplomat who claimed to have found evidence that verifies the great antiquity of the sect.  Morland reproduced documents supposedly from the year 1120, which, he said, show that the Waldenses (French, -Vaudois-) had the scriptures for about forty years prior to the translation that Waldo obtained.
The documents in question, however, show the Bible divided into chapters, and such divisions did not appear before about 1250 or later.  The confession of faith produced by Morland makes it appear that the Waldenses held to a strongly Protestant-evangelical theology centuries before Luther. It is now known that this document originated in the 16th century. It contains teachings of Martin Bucer, reformer of
Despite their usual aversion to Roman Catholic sources, successionists have not hesitated to cite a remark by Reinerius Saccho that the Waldenses movement is ancient,
"for some SAY that it has existed from the time of Sylvester, some from the time of the apostles."
It is clear, however, that Reinerius intended only to report a belief held mistakenly by some people. The inquisitor did not accept the legend of Waldense antiquity himself. 
No evidence has been found which reveals a
A fitting commentary on the pursuit of pedigree has been provided by Harold S. Bender, a leading Mennonite scholar of the 20th century:
"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 the 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...no basis in fact." 
As in the case of other medieval sects, the primary documents for a study of the Waldenses come mainly from Roman Catholic sources.
[ PP : These include the work of Stephen de Bourbon, a Dominican who was well acquainted with the Waldenses; Reinerius Saccho and his -Summa- is an important source; an anonymous author from Passau also contributed material to Saccho's original work; David of Augsburg, a Franciscan, wrote -Tractatus de Inquisitione Haereticorum- (1270); and Walter Map, an English monk involved in the Third Lateran Council who examined the Waldenses in Rome (1179). ]
All of these sources as well as those of a later date agree in identifying Waldo as founder of the church which now carries his name, and the confession of Waldo himself contains no suggestions that the sect antedated his ministry. 
The evidence is conclusive. Waldo was the founder, and "traditions of an earlier origin, stretching back even to the days of the apostles, are fables." 
[ PP : At this point I wanted to quote something from Hunt's A Woman Rides the Beast (Harvest House, 1994) since McGoldrick answered these claims of Samuel Morland above on the Waldenses. Hunt repeatedly mixes up the views of the Albigenses (who were Manichees, also called the "Cathari") and the Waldenses (Vaudois or Valdenses). They were completely separate sects. The "Vaudois" was simply the French name for the Waldenses.
"In 1838 George Stanley Faber wrote An Inquiry into the History and Theology of the Ancient Valdenses and Albigenses. Nearly 200 years earlier, in 1648, Samuel Morland had published his History of the Evangelical Churches of Piedmont (an area in
Furthermore, Mick James, an anti-Catholic Baptist of FidoNet, wrote to me via the Internet on 2/21/97 :
"Another book I just got done reading is called The Waldenses Were Independent Baptists. This book quotes a lot from 2 books by ANGLICAN HISTORIANS from the 17th century who wrote extensively on these groups from the Valleys of Piedmont. Both of these works prove that groups like the Waldenses were baptistic in their doctrine."
Now let's get the facts on the table concerning the Waldenses that answer these wild speculations of Hunt and others.]
WHAT DID WALDO AND THE WALDENSES REALLY BELIEVE?
It is clear that the Waldenses were far less heretical than the Cathars and agreed, at least in the early years of their history, with the Roman Catholic Church on most points of doctrine. This is to be expected, since Waldo hoped to gain papal approval for his movement.
On theology proper that is, the doctrine of God, Waldo and his disciples upheld the orthodox Catholic belief in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. The Waldenses did not imbibe Cathar dualism. The pope, in fact, commended Waldo for opposing the Cathars. Because Waldo's confession of faith is quite specific in its affirmation of loyalty to traditional Catholicism, it bears quoting at length:
WALDO ("Valdesius") CONFESSION OF FAITH : Catholic to the Core
"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and of the Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary. Be it noted by all the faithful that I, Valdesius, and all my brethren, standing before the Holy Gospels, do declare that we believe with all our hearts, having been grasped by faith, that we profess openly that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons, one God....
"We firmly believe and explicitly declare that the incarnation of the Divinity did not take place in the Father and the Holy Spirit, but solely in the Son, so that he who was the divine Son of God the Father was also true man from his Mother.
"We believe one Church, Catholic, Holy, Apostolic and Immaculate, apart from which no one can be saved, and in the sacraments therein administered through the invisible and incomprehensible power of the Holy Spirit, sacraments which may be rightly administered by a sinful priest....
"We firmly believe in the judgment to come and in the fact that each man will receive reward or punishment according to what he has done in this flesh. We do not doubt the fact that alms, sacrifice, and other charitable acts are able to be of assistance to those who die.
"And since, according to the Apostle James, faith without works is dead, we have renounced this world and have distributed to the poor all that we possess, according to the will of God, and we have decided that we ourselves should be poor in such a way as not to be careful for the morrow, and to accept from no one gold, silver, or anything else, with the exception of raiment and daily food. We have set before ourselves the objective of fulfilling the Gospel counsels as precepts.
"We believe that anyone in this age who keeps to a proper life, giving alms and doing other good works from his own possessions and observing the precepts from the Lord, can be saved.
"We make this declaration in order that if anyone should come to you affirming that he is one of us, you may know for certain that he is not one of us if he does not profess this same faith." 
In a statement of faith submitted to the bishop of
"Waldo and his early followers had more in common with...Roman Catholicism than with any evangelical party. His views of life and doctrine were scarcely in advance of many earnest Catholics of the time." 
TWO WINGS OF WALDENSES : French (Lyons) and Italians (
About the same time that the earliest Waldenses were presenting their requests to Pope Alexander III, a comparable movement was forming in
The groups amalgamated to a degree under Waldo's leadership and dispatched missionaries to spread their teachings to various countries. Those who were unable to preach formed communities for the practice of an ascetic life and manual labor in a generally monastic fashion.
The union of the Poor of Lyons with the Poor of Lombardy was a rather brief duration because of serious disputes over doctrine and practice.
The Italian Waldenses appear to have been more radical in their views in that they were known to recruit nuns, to separate husbands and wives, and to claim that their church alone could offer salvation. The split became irreparable by about 1205, and the Italians elected Giovanni di Ronco as their leader.
A letter from the Poor of Lombardy to the Poor of Lyons (1218) is extant, and it contains valuable information about the theological issues which contributed to the division. The letter, which is in the form of a report on the proceeding at
WALDENSES BELIEF IN TRANSUBSTANTIATION AND INFANT BAPTISM
"To the question they [the Poor of Lyons] raised concerning baptism, we replied as follows : We affirm that no one can be saved who refuses the material water of baptism and that unbaptized infants are not saved. This we called on them to believe and profess....
"One point of difference between us and the companions of Valdes...concerned the breaking or SACRIFICE [emphasis author] of the bread. As we have verified, their judgment differs from ours...
"In the first place, some of the companions of Valdes maintain that the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the Word of God, adding that the power comes not from men but from God.
"To this we objected, saying that, if the bread and wine are transubstantiated...by the mere mention of the Word of God, it follows that any person, Jew or pagan, could pronounce the Word of God on the bread and wine, and, according to this opinion, it would be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
"This is absolutely impious and cannot be sustained by any valid authority and is unreasonable....They have acknowledged that the sacrament cannot be performed by women or laymen, but only by the PRIEST. They also said that no one, good or bad, but only He who is God and man, that is, CHRIST, can transubstantiate the bread and wine into the body and blood." 
Despite the differences between the two wings of the Waldenses, it is clear that BOTH the French and the Italians believed in transubstantiation and a ministerial priesthood to consecrate the bread and wine. The letter states explicitly that the Lombardy Waldenses considered infant baptism essential for salvation, and the same document seems to imply that the French practiced pedobaptism but that they did not regard it as necessary for one to be saved.
Although later Waldenses became Protestants and embraced the Reformed view of salvation by faith alone, the early generations of the sect maintained the essentially Catholic view that salvation comes by faith plus works of charity.
As Emilio Comba, late professor in the
"we shall...seek in vain in the creed of the early Waldenses for those tenets which characterize Protestantism." 
The Waldenses, who later moved away from the orthodox Catholic view on soteriology, in the early phase of their history retained a priest-centered, sacramental view of salvation. They accepted all seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, including infant baptism, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and priestly absolution from sin. In fact, a Waldense confession of faith composed at the relatively late date of 1508 espoused all of these tenets. 
Another document of Waldense origin is a poem entitled the -Noble Lesson- and comes to us from the 15th century. It contains a clear affirmation of the Catholic teaching on the sacrament of Penance.
"To make our confession sincerely, without any defect: and to do penance during the present life: to fast, to give alms, and to pray with a fervent heart; indeed, through these things the soul finds salvation." 
THE MODERN WALDENSE CHURCH : Protestants but never Baptists
During the period of coexistence with the Roman Catholic Church, the Waldenses did not deny the power of the Catholic priesthood and the validity of the sacraments it dispensed. Only after the rupture became irreparable, however, did they denounce the papacy as anti-Christ and claimed that the
In the matter of baptism, the Waldenses became divided among themselves. The early Waldenses maintained the view that baptism is essential for salvation, and they administered it to infants. David of Augsburg and the anonymous author from
It is evident that many Waldenses retained the traditional practice of pedobaptism, while a minority faction discarded that in favor of believer's baptism. The latter were, however, the innovaters who altered the original practice of the sect. The modern
By the early 16th century the theological character of the Waldenses had developed to the point where it contrasted rather sharply with that of the movement as founded by Peter Waldo. Moving ever more away from traditional Catholic teachings, it assumed features that correspond somewhat to the Protestant beliefs that would be proclaimed by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.
Neither Waldo nor his early disciples could have subscribed to any historic Baptist confession of faith, and those doctrines that are peculiarly baptistic would have been unacceptable to Waldenses in any period of their history. Although successionists have hailed them as Baptists, medieval Waldenses were quite similar to the Catholic Franciscans, those of the Reformation were akin to Presbyterians, and those of today have become Methodists.
ENDNOTES from McGoldrick Baptist Successionism on the Waldenses
 Quoted by Giorgio Tourn, The Waldensians : The First 800 Years tr. C.P. Merlino (Torino, Italy: Claudiana Editrice, 1980), 6.
 Waldo's confession appears in Ibid, 13-14.
 J.B. Pierron, "Poor Catholics," Catholic Encyclopedia, XII, 249-51.
 Samuel Morland, The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont (London: Henry Hills, 1658); cf. JM Holliday, Baptist Heritage, 29-32, where a Waldense confession of faith, purported to be from the year 1120, has been reproduced.
 Facts and Documents Illustrative of the History, Doctrine, and Rites of the Ancient Albigenses and Waldenses (FD), 132.
 Walter F. Adeney, "Waldenses," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, XII, 665. The confession does not affirm believer's baptism.
 Reinerius Saccho, "Summa," in FD 406. A scholarly examination of the question about Waldense origins appears in Pius Melia, The Origin, Persecutions, and Doctrines of the Waldenses (NY: AMS Press, 1978 reprint of 1870 edition). Melia was a Italian Waldense himself. Current Waldense scholars concur with Melia's findings. See Tourn, 3-13.
 See Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, 7th ed. tr. ed. James Murdock (London: William Tegg, 1848), 428-29.
 Christian Neff and H.S. Bender, "Waldenses," Mennonite Encyclopedia, IV, 874-76.
 "Valdes' Profession of Faith," in Edward Peters, Heresy and Authority, 147-49; "Waldo's Confession of Faith," in Tourn, 13-14.
 Henry C. Vedder, "Origin and Early Teachings of the Waldenses," American Journal of Theology, IV (1900), 475.
 The document appears in Tourn, 13-14.
 See the discussion in Rosalind B. Brooke, The Coming of the Friars (NY: Barnes and Noble, 1975), 72-73.
 A.H. Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism from the Rise of Pedobaptism to A.D. 1609 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1897), 41.
 "Letter from the Poor Lombards to the Poor of Lyons who are in
 Emilio Comba, History of the Waldenses of Italy, tr. Teofilo Comba (NY: AMS Press, 1978 reprint of 1889 edition), 246. This book is especially valuable because the author was a Waldense himself.
 Ibid, 96.
 Quoted by Melia, 98. This book, and FD, show that attempts by Morland and others to date Waldense writings earlier than Waldo have failed.
 Gordon Leff, "The Making of the Myth of a