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    woodcut of peter waldo

    Peter Waldo, the First Protestant?

    Several centuries before Luther, a reformer and his band of itinerant preachers rattled the church.

    By Coretta Thomson

    June 4, 2024

    On the Feast of the Assumption in 1174, a cloth merchant named Peter Waldo stood in the market square of Lyon handing out the last of his money to the poor. “No one can serve two masters, God and mammon!” he cried (Matt. 6:24). “Citizens and friends, I am not mad, as you imagine … I am urged to this for my own good and yours; for myself, that if hereafter anyone should see me with money, he may say that I have gone mad; for you also, that you may learn to put your trust in God and not in riches.”

    Tradition recounts that Waldo had stood there week after week giving out food to famine-ravaged townspeople. Before this, he had provided for his wife and two daughters and commissioned vernacular translations of the New Testament and other texts by Church Fathers. His conversion happened after a companion died of a seizure during a banquet. “If death had taken me, what would now be my destiny?” Waldo realized with a shock. A few weeks later, a passing troubadour sang of Saint Alexis, who had abandoned wealth, status, and family for a life of itinerant poverty. Deeply moved, Waldo invited the minstrel home to hear the story again. The following day he asked a priest which way to heaven was the most perfect. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you posess and give to the poor,” was the reply (Matt. 19:21).

    The real-life conversion of Waldo may not have played out exactly as this legend suggests. In fact, the name “Peter” does not appear in the extant Waldensian writings until 150 years after his death. What is clear from twelfth-century records, however, is that the man now known as Peter Waldo – also called Valdés, or Valdesius in Latin – left his wealth sometime in the early 1170s and began preaching publicly. He exhorted everyone he met to take the scriptures seriously and actually do what Jesus instructed. Everyone, not just clergy and consecrated people, can put Jesus’ teachings into practice in daily life. Some joined him and this loosely associated band of mendicant, itinerant preachers was named “The Poor.” Detractors called them “sandaled ones” or simply referred to them as Waldensians. As a contemporary, Walter Map, observed in 1179, “These people have no settled dwellings, but go around two by two, barefooted and dressed in wool tunics. They own nothing, sharing everything in common, after the manner of the apostles. Naked, they follow a naked Christ.”

    woodcut of peter waldo

    This ninteenth-century woodcut engraving of Peter Waldo is based on a sculpture by Ernst Rietschel (1804–61). Historical Eye Ralf Feltz / Alamy Stock Photo. Used by permission.

    Although sometimes thought of as a “proto-Protestant,” Waldo sought to reform the Catholic Church, not abandon it. An 1180 document believed to have been signed by Waldo declares belief in orthodox Catholic tenets. Private Bible reading in the vernacular was not necessarily forbidden in late medieval France, where literacy was rising in the growing towns. Others before Waldo had left their wealth, and within a few decades, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic would do the same. Rather than start monasteries, the first Waldensians remained itinerant. They refused to perform any work but preaching lest they be tempted to accumulate wealth. Moreover, they took the radical step of publicly reading, preaching, and interpreting scripture as laypeople.

    At first the Waldensians were tolerated for their doctrinal orthodoxy. When Waldo and some companions appeared at the 1179 Third Lateran Council and presented Pope Sylvester with a copy of their Bible, the pontiff embraced Waldo, commended their vow of mendicant poverty, and allowed them to preach so long as they received permission from their local bishop. Relations quickly soured, however. Some Waldensians became anticlerical, and others failed to secure permission to preach. Moreover, women preachers joined the movement in 1180. When Archbishop of Lyon Jean de Bellesmains summoned Waldo and forbade further preaching, he replied, “We shall obey God rather than men.” In 1184, the Waldensians were condemned as schismatic.

    The network grew, with Waldensians appearing in Britain, Germany, and Spain. They adopted beliefs considered heretical at the time. Some rejected taking oaths or supporting the death penalty. A few proposed that it was acceptable to confess to a layperson if the local priest was corrupt. Others organized simple Lord’s Suppers administered by laypeople. The movement grew too radical for even its founder. In Lombardy, a group of Waldensians settled in communities, rebaptized those who wanted to join them, and stated that only those entirely divested of wealth would enter heaven. Waldo expelled them from The Poor in 1205. He died about a year later.

    As external dangers mounted, their preaching went underground. In the 1230s, the Inquisition initiated a full-scale persecution against the Waldensians. Still, they spread throughout continental Europe. When towns became too dangerous in the 1300s, The Poor fled to the countryside. In the 1400s, they drew close to the Hussites in Moravia. Crusaders invading the Alpine valleys slaughtered hundreds, causing some Waldensians to abandon pacifism.

    When Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, the Waldensian movement was already over three hundred years old. There was contact between the two groups as early as 1523, and the Waldensians would eventually adopt beliefs and structures of the Reformed Church. Some Waldensians saw this move as betrayal: a loosely structured, persecuted, and unaligned movement becoming tied to an established church and a systematic theology. Others have maintained that the measure was the only path to survival.

    This year Waldensians in Italy, Uruguay, and Argentina – the countries where significant Waldensian communities still exist – celebrate 850 years of history, most of it spent as persecuted minority congregations. A Waldensian emblem depicts a candle and a book with the motto lux lucet in tenebris (light shines in the darkness). Waldo’s call to let God’s word illuminate our lives, to live according to it, and to share it with others has not been extinguished.

    Contributed By CorettaThomson Coretta Thomson

    Coretta Thomson is an editor for Plough and oversees its Spanish-language publications.

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