Waldenses

The key dates in Waldensian history are 1210-the Albigensian-Waldensian Crusade; 1532-the synod of Chanforans; and 1848-the Albertine Statute of Emancipation. Before 1210 much is legendary prehistory, but under the phrase the “first Reformation,” the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries are currently studied by V. Vinay and the Czech A. Molnar for the mutual interplay of Waldensian, Hussite, Wycliffite, and Bohemian Brethren* ideas. The “second” (sixteenth-century) Reformation turned the Waldensians from a movement into a church, the Synod of Chanforans being the focal point. For 300 years before 1848 their history illustrates the tragic side of Cuius regio, eius religio, in an unbroken sequence of persecution, guerrilla war, exile, and return. Since 1848, it is a story of the cultural and evangelical penetration of the Italian nation and its overseas dependencies.

Notions of Waldensian origins have varied with the propaganda slant of the historian. The vestigial community in the Cottian Alps provided the early Protestants in their mainly theological or ecclesiological debates with a splendid riposte to the question, “Where was your Church before Luther?” just as in the earlier reformation, with its sociopolitical radicalism, did legends of fourth-century bishops who rejected the Constantinian church-state establishment, and of the ninth-century bishop Claudius who rejected Charlemagne's restatement of it. Radical Waldensians today prefer to derive their name from Peter Waldo and the Poor Men of Lyons in the eleventh century, recognizing a debt too, to Arnold of Brescia,* Peter de Bruys,* and Henry of Cluny.

The marks of the medieval Waldensians were: evangelical obedience to the Gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount; a rigorist asceticism; a “donatist”* aversion to recognizing the ministry of unworthy-living priests; belief in visions, prophecies, spirit-possession, and Millenarianism; and a concern for social renewal. Though anti-Constantinian, anti-imagery, and anti-hierarchy, they tended to reject only Catholic practices that were clearly contra-Scripture. At times they attended Mass, being content that their own meetings were private ones after the style of religious societies. Their clergy (Barbes) itinerated. During the “first” (Hussite) Reformation, Waldensian influence spread all over Europe. We hear of communities with episcopal as well as presbyterian ministries. Possibly, however, “Waldensian”-especially on the pen of Catholic writers, and these are practically all the sources we have-was a portmanteau word for all varieties of un-Roman activity. This first Reformation was, of course, almost completely suppressed north of the Alps, and south of them survived only in such inaccessible parts as the Waldensian valleys and Calabria.

In the “second” Reformation Geneva and the Waldensians made early contact, and 1532 saw the latter accepting the pattern of a Reformed church and ministry that they have since retained. Their worship was now to be open and ordered, with no Mass, and they were to have regular Genevan Confession of Faith (a little light, perhaps, on anti-Constantinianism, but accepted). As Savoyards they were French-speaking (their Scriptures being Olivetan's* version), and under the Catholic House of Savoy they were to face 300 years of persecution, at first physical and violent (cf. Milton's 1655 sonnet), later civil and economic. These sufferings made them see themselves not just as a Reformation Church, but as an elect people with a God-given destiny—“the Israel of the Alps.”

Their modern epoch began with the Statute of Emancipation of 1848 (celebrated on 17 February each year). Admired, assisted, and advised by Anglo-Saxon evangelicals (notably General Beckwith, who said to them, “Evangelize or perish”), they exploited fully Cavour's policy of “A Free Church in a Free State,” and abandoning their French patois, they exchanged their ghetto image for that of an Israel in diaspora-a cultural and religious leaven at work all over Italy. By founding a theological college in 1855, first in Florence and later in Rome, they have come to terms with the highest values in Italian culture. From it Luzzi gave Italy an Italian Bible, and Giovanni Miegge a distinctive Barthian theology that supported intellectual, spiritual, and physical resistance to Fascism. Latterly, the Facoltà Valdese in Rome played a vital role in ecumenical contact with Roman Catholic theology, and V. Subilia is perhaps the acutest Protestant assessor of Vatican II. A daughter college in Buenos Aires (shared with Methodism) serves South American Protestantism.

The supreme court of the church, a synod meeting annually in Torre Pellice, elects a moderator (for seven-year terms) and an executive board (Tavola). Though only 20,000 communicant members strong, the church has schools, orphanages, homes for the aged, hospitals, and a publishing house (Claudiana). It supports missions in Africa as well as Servizio Cristiano in Riesi and Palermo, Sicily. In this last work, Tullio Vinay pioneers the sociopolitical involvement of radical Christianity.

All Italian Protestantism has been strongly influenced by the Waldensian ethos. No church union has taken place, but with the Italian Methodist Church, cooperation has reached the stage of mutual recognition of ministry and membership, and the regular holding of joint meetings of the two synods.

J.A. Wylie, History of the Waldenses (1880); G.B. Watt, The Waldenses in the New World (1941) and The Waldenses of Valdese (1965); E. Comba, Storia dei Valdesi (4th ed., 1950); F. Junker, Die Waldesner (1970).