By the twelfth century, the church in Western Europe was indeed powerful and impressive. In the emerging Gothic architecture, we can see something of the devotion of the people and the wealth of the bishops. In the developing scholastic theology, we can see something of the intellectual dominance and refinement of thinking among academic theologians. In the Crusades against Islam in Jerusalem and heretics at home, we can see something of the coercive strength of the church in cooperation with the state.
This success, however, alienated some in Europe. To them, the church seemed greatly corrupted by its power. To them, the church seemed to have forgotten Christ’s call to otherworldliness, poverty, and humility. In various, often quite divergent movements, a reaction of Christian simplicity was raised against the wealth and power of the church.
The established church managed to contain some of this unrest, particularly through the asceticism of the monastic movements. But even these movements tended over time to be corrupted by wealth and immorality. Francis of Assisi (AD 1181–1226), who embraced poverty in a radical way, stood as a strong witness against most of the church in his time. Yet even the Franciscan movement eventually came to be domesticated within the church.
Some of the unrest moved outside the church and orthodox teaching. The Cathari, also known as the Cathars or Albigensians, adopted a spiritualistic religion that rejected the material so radically that it left no place for the incarnation. This movement attracted many followers, particularly in the south of France, and it was viciously persecuted by church and state.
Another critique against the church was initiated by a merchant from the French city of Lyons named Peter Waldo or Peter Valdez (d. 1218). We do not know a great deal about his life. Like many others, he embraced the value of poverty, giving away his wealth and property in 1170. His followers were sometimes called the poor men of Lyons. But his critique of the church adopted neither the radical love of poverty in itself as Francis had done nor the radical spiritualizing of the Cathars. Instead, they turned to the simple vision of Christianity that they found in the Bible. Waldo saw to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. He and his followers went about preaching a simple understanding of the Bible.
The Waldensians did not seek to leave the church but wanted the church’s approval to preach. Their preaching was basically orthodox but criticized the clergy severely for failing to teach and lead the flock of Christ faithfully. The church feared the ignorance of such preachers and the potential harm they could do. By 1184, the Waldensians were excommunicated and began suffering persecution. They did not desert the church but were driven out of it. They began to reject unbiblical practices such as prayers for the dead and the veneration of relics. They also began criticizing the clergy’s reliance on sacraments as the center of the Christian life, ultimately rejecting the doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation. They called Christians to lives of goodness and love.
For a time, the movement spread widely into parts of Germany and Austria, as well as Northern Italy. Persecution by the church, however, was severe and eventually reduced the movement to a remnant in the valleys of Northern Italy. Efforts to eradicate them through the centuries failed, and only in 1870 did the Waldensians receive full civil rights in Italy.
When the Reformation began in the sixteenth century, contact was established between the Waldensians and the Reformers. Ultimately the Waldensians accepted the true spiritual connection between their movement and Protestantism. Unfortunately, this connection led to even greater persecution of the movement.
Waldo and his followers have sometimes been listed among the forerunners of the Reformation. This is appropriate because the great Reformation of the sixteenth century was not unprecedented in history. The Reformers were not latter-day saints restoring a church that had disappeared from the face of the earth. Like the Waldensians, they wanted to purify and reform the church according to Scripture.
The Waldensians were not only forerunners but also witnesses to the presence of Christ’s Word and Spirit in the church through the centuries. They gave expression to aspects of Apostolic religion that were threatened with extinction in the dominant church. They remind us that in every era, Christ fulfills His promise: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).