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An heretical sect which appeared in the second half of the twelfth century and, in a considerably modified form, has survived to the present day.

Name and origin

The name was derived from Waldes their founder and occurs also in the variations of Valdesii, Vallenses. Numerous other designations were applied to them; to their profession of extreme poverty they owed the named of "the Poor"; from their place of origin, Lyons, they were called "Leonistae"; and frequently the two ideas were combined in the title "Poor Men of Lyons". Their practice of wearing sandals or wooden shoes (sabots) caused them to be named "Sandaliati", "Insabbatati", "Sabbatati", Sabotiers". Anxious to surround their own history and doctrine with the halo of antiquity, some Waldenses claimed for their churches an Apostolic origin. The first Waldensian congregations, it was maintained, were established by St. Paul who, on his journey to Spain, visited the valleys of Piedmont. The history of these foundations was identified with that of primitive Christendom as long as the Church remained lowly and poor. But in the beginning of the fourth century Pope Sylvester was raised by Constantine, whom he had cured of leprosy, to a position of power and wealth, and the Papacy became unfaithful to its mission. Some Christians, however, remained true to the Faith and practice of the early days, and in the twelfth century a certain Peter appeared who, from the valleys of the Alps, was called "Waldes". He was not the founder of a new sect, but a missionary among these faithful observers of the genuine Christian law, and he gained numerous adherents. This account was, indeed, far from being universally accredited among the Waldenses; many of them, however, for a considerable period accepted as founded on fact the assertion that they originated in the time of Constantine. Others among them considered Claudius of Turin (died 840), Berengarius of Tours (died 1088), or other such men who had preceded Waldes, the first representatives of the sect. The claim of its Constantinian origin was for a long time credulously accepted as valid by Protestant historians. In the nineteenth century, however, it became evident to critics that the Waldensian documents had been tampered with. As a result the pretentious claims of the Waldenses to high antiquity were relegated to the realm of fable.

The real founder of the sect was a wealthy merchant of Lyons who in the early documents is called Waldes (Waldo). To this name is added from 1368 the designation of Peter, assumed by him at his "conversion", or more likely, attributed to him by his followers. Few details concerning his personal history are known; there are extant, however, two important accounts of the complete change in his religious life; one written about 1220 by a Premonstratensian monk, usually designated as the "anonymous chronicler of Laon"; the other by a Dominican Friar and Inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon (died about 1262), and dates back to about the middle of the thirteenth century. The former writer assigns a prominent place to the influence exercised on Waldes by the history of St. Alexius, while the latter makes no mention of it but speaks of his acquaintance with the contents of the Bible through translations. The history of Waldes's conversion may perhaps be reconstructed in the following manner. Desirous of acquiring a knowledge of biblical teaching, Waldes requested two priests to translate for him the four Gospels. In a similar manner he subsequently obtained translations of other Biblical books and of some writings of the Fathers. Through the reading of these works he was attracted to the practice of Christian perfection; his fervour increased when one day he heard from an itinerant singer (ioculator) the history of St. Alexius. He now consulted a master of theology on the best and surest way to salvation. In answer the words of Christ to the rich young man were cited to him: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor." (Matthew 19:21). Waldes immediately put into effect the counsel of the Divine Master. He made over part of his wealth to his wife, part to those from whom he had acquired it, left some to the nuns of Fontevrault in whose monastery he placed his two little daughters, and distributed the greatest part to the poor. On the feast of the Assumption, 1176, he disposed of the last of his earthly possessions and shortly after took the vow of poverty. His example created a great stir in Lyons and soon found imitators, particularly among the lower and uneducated classes. A special confraternity was established for the practice of apostolic poverty. Its members almost immediately began to preach in the streets and public places and gained more adherents. Their preaching, however, was not unmixed with doctrinal error and was consequently prohibited, according to Stephen of Bourbon, by the Archbishop of Lyons, according to Walter Map, present at the assembly, by the Third General Lateran Council (1179). The Waldenses, instead of heeding the prohibition, continued to preach on the plea that obedience is due rather to God than to man. Pope Lucius III consequently included them among the heretics against whom he issued a Bull of excommunication at Verona in 1184.


The organization of the Waldenses was a reaction against the great splendour and outward display existing in the medieval Church; it was a practical protest against the worldly lives of some contemporary churchmen. Amid such ecclesiastical conditions the Waldenses made the profession of extreme poverty a prominent feature in their own lives, and emphasized by their practice the need for the much neglected task of preaching. As they were mainly recruited among circles not only devoid of theological training, but also lacking generally in education, it was inevitable that error should mar their teaching, and just as inevitable that, in consequence, ecclesiastical authorities should put a stop to their evangelistic work. Among the doctrinal errors which they propagated was the denial of purgatory, and of indulgences and prayers for the dead. They denounced all lying as a grievous sin, refused to take oaths and considered the shedding of human blood unlawful. They consequently condemned war and the infliction of the death penalty. Some points in this teaching so strikingly resemble the Cathari that the borrowing of the Waldenses from them may be looked upon as a certainty. Both sects also had a similar organization, being divided into two classes, the Perfect (perfecti) and the Friends or Believers (amici or credentes). (See CATHARI and ALBIGENSES.)

Among the Waldenses the perfect, bound by the vow of poverty, wandered about from place to place preaching. Such an itinerant life was ill-suited for the married state, and to the profession of poverty they added the vow of chastity. Married persons who desired to join them were permitted to dissolve their union without the consent of their consort. Orderly government was secured by the additional vow of obedience to superiors. The perfect were not allowed to perform manual labour, but were to depend for their subsistence on the members of the sect known as the friends. These continued to live in the world, married, owned property, and engaged in secular pursuits. Their generosity and alms were to provide for the material needs of the perfect. The friends remained in union with the Catholic Church and continued to receive its sacraments with the exception of penance, for which they sought out, whenever possible, one of their own ministers. The name Waldenses was at first exclusively reserved to the perfect; but in the course of the thirteenth century the friends were also included in the designation. The perfect were divided into the three classes of bishops, priests, and deacons. The bishop, called "major" or "majoralis", preached and administered the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and order. The celebration of the Eucharist, frequent perhaps in the early period, soon took place only on Holy Thursday. The priest preached and enjoyed limited faculties for the hearing of confessions. The deacon, named "junior" or "minor", acted as assistant to the higher orders and by the collection of alms relieved them of all material care. The bishop was elected by a joint meeting of priests and deacons. In his consecration, as well as in the ordination of the other members of the clergy, the laying-on of hands was the principal element; but the recitation of the Our Father, so important in the Waldensian liturgy, was also a prominent feature. The power of jurisdiction seems to have been exercised exclusively by one bishop, known as the "rector", who was the highest executive officer. Supreme legislative power was vested in the general convention or general chapter, which met once or twice a year, and was originally composed of the perfect but at a later date only of the senior members among them. It considered the general situation of the sect, examined the religious condition of the individual districts, admitted to the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate, and pronounced upon the admission of new members and the expulsion of unworthy ones.

The Lombard communities were in several respects more radical than the French. Holding that the validity of the sacraments depends on the worthiness of the minister and viewing the Catholic Church as the community of Satan, they rejected its entire organization in so far as it was not based on the Scriptures. In regard to the reception of the sacraments, their practice was less radical than their theory. Although they looked upon the Catholic priests as unworthy ministers, they not infrequently received communion at their hands and justified this course on the grounds that God nullifies the defect of the minister and directly grants his grace to the worthy recipient. The present Waldensian Church may be regarded as a Protestant sect of the Calvinistic type. It recognizes as its doctrinal standard the confession of faith published in 1655 and based on the Reformed confession of 1559. It admits only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Supreme authority in the body is exercised by an annual synod, and the affairs of the individual congregations are administered by a consistory under the presidency of the pastor.


The Waldenses in France and Spain

The preaching of Waldes and his disciples obtained immediate success not only in France, but also in Italy and Spain. The Italian adherents at a very early date constituted themselves independently. In France the movement gained ground particularly in the South, whence it spread to Northern Spain. The Church sought to avert by persuasion the danger of numerous defections. As early as 1191 a religious conference was held between Catholics and Waldenses at a place which has not been recorded; it was followed by a second held at Pamiers in 1207. The latter meeting brought about a return to the Church of Duran of Huesca and several other Waldenses. With the authorization of Innocent III they organized themselves into the special religious order of the Poor Catholics for the conversion of Waldenses. This purpose was attained only in a very small degree; but force soon checked the heretical movement. In 1192 Bishop Otto of Toul ordered all Waldenses to be put in chains and delivered up to the episcopal tribunal. Two years later King Alphonso II of Aragon banished them from his dominions and forbade anyone to furnish them with shelter or food. These provisions were renewed by Pedro II at the Council of Gerona (1197), and death by burning was decreed against the heretics.

The French authorities seem to have proceeded with less severity for a time. The Albigensian wars, however, also reacted on the policy towards the Waldenses, and in 1214 seven of these suffered the death penalty at Maurillac. But it was only toward the middle of the thirteenth century that the heresy lost ground in Provence and Languedoc. It did not disappear in these provinces until it was merged in the Protestant Reformation movement, while Spain and Lorraine were freed from it in the course of the thirteenth century. The most conspicuous centre of Waldensian activity in France during the later middle ages was Dauphiné and the western slope of the Cottian Alps. The sect seems to have been introduced in to this territory from Lombardy. From Dauphiné and the valleys of the Alps it carried on missionary work in all Southern France to the Atlantic seaboard. In 1403 a determined effort was made to win back the Waldenses of the valleys of Louise, Argentière, and Freissinièeres; but the apostolic labours of even a St. Vincent Ferrer were powerless. The Inquisition was equally unsuccessful, as were also the stern measures of the local civil authorities. The policy of repression was temporarily abandoned under King Louis XI, who, believing them to be orthodox, extended to the Waldenses of the above-mentioned valleys his royal protection in an ordinance of 1478.

This period of peace was followed in 1488 by a crusade summoned by Innocent VIII against the Waldenses. The war did not succeed in stamping them out. But, soon after, the Reformation profoundly modified the sect's history and doctrinal development. A deputation composed of G. Morel and P. Masson was sent in 1530 to Switzerland for information concerning the new religious ideas. On their return journey Masson was arrested at Dijon and executed; Morel alone safely accomplished his mission. The report of this journey led to the assembling of a general convention to which Farel and other Swiss Reformers were invited. The meeting was held at Chanforans in the valley of Angrogne and the Reformed teaching substantially adopted (1532). A minority opposed this course and vainly sought to stem the tide of radicalism by an appeal for assistance to the Bohemian Brethren. A new convention held in the valley of St. Martin in 1533 confirmed the decisions of Chanforans. The open adoption of Protestantism soon led to the persecution in which Waldensianism disappeared from Provence (1545). The history of the communities in other districts became henceforth identified with that of Protestantism in France.

The Waldenses in Italy and other countries

Italy became a more permanent home of Waldensianism and more active in missionary work than France. During the very first years of Waldes's preaching, converts to his views are mentioned in Lombardy. They increased rapidly in number and were joined by some members of the Order of Humiliati. But dissensions soon arose between the Waldensians in France and in Lombardy. The latter organized guilds of craftsmen, desired leaders of their own, and refused admission among the perfect to married persons without the consent of their consort. On Waldes's refusal to sanction these points, his followers in Italy seceded during the first decade of the thirteenth century. After his death a vain attempt at reunion was made at Bergamo in 1218. The Italian branch after some time not only prospered in the valleys of western Piedmont, but also established important colonies in Calabria and Apulia. In the fifteenth century communities hardly less important are mentioned in the Papal States and other parts of Central Italy.

The appearance of the Waldenses in the Diocese of Strasburg is recorded in 1211 and the years 1231-1233 were marked in Germany by resolute efforts to stamp out their errors. But soon, adherents of the sect were found in Bavaria, Austria, and other sections. They spread in the north to the shores of the Baltic Sea, and in the east to Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. With the appearance of new heresies they at times partly lost their distinctive character. In Bohemia they amalgamated with the Hussites and the Bohemian Brethren without losing all their peculiarities.

Protestantism was still more readily accepted. Not only were its teachings universally adopted, but numerous Waldensian communities were merged in the Protestant churches, the Italian congregations alone retaining an independent existence and the original name. Those in the Piedmont valleys enjoyed religious peace from 1536-1559, owing to the political dependence of the districts upon France. A contrary policy was pursued by the Dukes of Savoy; but the Waldenses at the very outset successfully resisted, and in 1561 were granted in certain districts the free exercise of their religion. In 1655 violence was again fruitlessly resorted to. Later in the same century (1686, 1699) some of them, under stress of renewed persecution, emigrated to Switzerland and Germany. In Piedmont, civil equality was granted them in 1799 when the French occupied the country. They enjoyed this peace until the downfall of Napoleon I, but again lost it at the return of the house of Savoy. From 1816 onward, however, gradual concessions were made to the Waldenses, and in 1848 Charles Albert granted them complete and permanent liberty. Renewed activity has since marked their history. They founded in 1855 a school of theology at Torre Pellice and transferred it to Florence in 1860. Through emigration they have spread to several cities of Southern France, and also to North and South America. There are five congregations in Uruguay and two in Argentina. Three colonies have settled in the United States: at Wolfe Ridge, Texas; Valdese, North Carolina; and Monett, Missouri. The communities which in the seventeenth century settled in Germany have since severed their connection with the church and abandoned their original language. In Hesse-Darmstadt they were prohibited the use of French in 1820-21; in Würtemberg they joined the Lutheran State Church in 1823. Later on, they began receiving financial support from the "American Waldensian Aid Society" founded in 1906, and from a similar organization in Great Britain.

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1912). Waldenses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Waldenses." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Anthony A. Killeen. Aeterna non caduca.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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