“Amid the gloom that settled upon the earth during the long period of papal supremacy, the light of truth could not be wholly extinguished. In every age there were witnesses for God—men who cherished faith in Christ as the only mediator between God and man, who held the Bible as the only rule of life, and who hallowed the true Sabbath. How much the world owes to these men, posterity will never know. They were branded as heretics, their motives impugned, their characters maligned, their writings suppressed, misrepresented, or mutilated. Yet they stood firm, and from age to age maintained their faith in its purity, as a sacred heritage for the generations to come.” The Great Controversy, 61.
God in His wisdom prepared a place in the wilderness for His faithful church. There they were able to maintain the light of truth when the Dark Ages covered Europe. They lived their simple lives raising their children in the truth of God’s Word, which they had in their own language, while that Word was known only by ‘scholars’ throughout the rest of the continent. From their valleys and mountain passes, after years of preparation, missionaries were sent to share the Good News with the nations around them. They were the forerunners of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.
The Roman Catholic church did all in her power to destroy the Waldenses. It tried, during many crusades and persecutions, to annihilate them. Every attempt was made to destroy the writings of their leaders and although books from other authors of that time are still preserved, the books of the people of the valleys were largely destroyed. The Latin Vulgate Bible, with its many errors, was produced to try to replace the Latin Itala Bible of the churches of the Waldenses. False reports and slanders were spread.
Years of persecution failed to wipe out this faithful church so Rome tried to destroy their history through false accounts of their origins and doctrines. The enemies of the Church in the Wilderness have tried to trace their name to Peter Waldo, an opulent merchant of Lyons, France, who began his work about 1160. However, evidence is clear that the name Waldenses comes from the Italian word for “valleys” and as they spread over France they were called Vaudois which means “inhabitants of the valleys.” Waldo was converted in his mid-life and labored to spread evangelical teachings. When he met persecutions he fled to the Waldenses. But evidence is ample that the people of the valleys were an organized body for hundreds of years before he lived among them.
The Ancient Beginnings of the Waldenses
There is abundant evidence that the history of the Waldenses dates back to the time of the apostles. It is their claim that their religion passed to them from the apostles and in fact even the writings of their enemies give credence to this. (Note that the Waldenses were called by several different names: Leonists, Vallenses, Valsenses, Vaudois and others.)
Reinerius Sasso was a well informed Inquisitor of the thirteenth century. He had once been a pastor among the Waldenses but had apostatized and become their persecutor. The book The History of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses by George Faber gives a translation of this testimony on page 272. His testimony described the Leonists (Waldenses) as being the most ‘pernicious’ of the sects of heretics for three reasons. The first reason was because of their longer continuance, for they had lasted from the time of Pope Sylvester or even from the Apostles. Secondly, because there was scarcely a land where they did not exist. And the third reason being because they lived justly before all men and blasphemed only against the Roman church and clergy while maintaining every point concerning the Deity and the articles of faith which made their doctrine appeal to the populous. He also writes that they were simple, modest people who instructed their children first in the Decalogue of the law, the Ten Commandments. (See Truth Triumphant, 254.)
Faber also shares the testimony of Pilichdorf, also of the thirteenth century, who writes that the Valdenses claimed to have existed from the time of Pope Sylvester. Claude Scyssel, the Archbishop of Turin, who lived in the neighborhood of the Waldenses in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tells us that the Valdenses of Piedmont were followers of a person named Leo. In the time of Emperor Constantine, Leo, on account of the avarice of Pope Sylvester and the excesses of the Roman Church, seceded from that communion, and drew after him all those who entertained right sentiments concerning the Christian Religion. (See The History of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses, 276.)
For nearly two hundred years following the death of the apostles, the process of separation went on between those who rejected pagan practices being brought into the church and those who accepted this baptized paganism, until there was open rupture. The Waldenses date their exclusion from communion with the papal party to the year 325 and the Council of Nicaea when Sylvester was given recognition as bishop of Rome and given grand authority by Constantine. “Such believers did not separate from the papacy, for they had never belonged to it. In fact, many times they called the Roman Catholic Church ‘the newcomer.’ ” Truth Triumphant, 220.
Scientific inquiry into the dialect of the Waldenses by M. Raynouard and discussed in his Monuments of the Roman Tongue, reveals that their language is a primitively derived language and leads to the conclusion that the “Latin Vaudois must have retired, from the lowlands of Italy to the valleys of Piedmont, in the very days of primitive Christianity and before the breakup of the Roman Empire by the persevering incursions of the Teutonic Nations.” The History of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses, 285. It is from their language that the Romance languages of French and Italian were derived. They were the first to write modern literature in their vulgar tongue with their religious poems being prized today as the most perfect compositions of that period.
Vigilantius — Leader of the Waldenses
The name of Leo and the term Leonist come from Vigilantius Leo or Vigilantius the Leonist so named after his birthplace of Lyons on the Rhone and credited by Faber as the first supreme director of the Church of the Waldenses. In his book Truth Triumphant, 63, Benjamin Wilkinson says that in the time of Vigilantius (AD 364–408), “the protests against the introduction of pagan practices into primitive Christianity swelled into a revolution. Then it was that the throngs who desired to maintain the faith once delivered to the saints in northern Italy and south-western France were welded into an organized system.”
Vigilantius was a contemporary of Helvidius and Jovinian, who were also from northern Italy. Helvidius was famous for his exposure of Jerome for using corrupted Greek manuscripts in bringing out the Vulgate, the Latin Bible of the papacy. Jovinian taught and wrote against celibacy and asceticism. It is likely that “followers of Jovinianus took refuge in the Alpine valleys, and there kept alive the evangelical teaching that was to reappear with vigor in the twelfth century.” Truth Triumphant, 69, quoting Newman, A Manual of Church History, vol. 1, 376. So it was to these people of the valleys, who adhered to the teachings of scripture, that Vigilantius came to begin his public efforts to stop the pagan ceremonies. He did amighty work with wide influence.
The Church in the Wilderness
Vigilantius was able to build a strong organization among the Waldenses and evidence suggests that these apostolic Christian people had already occupied their valleys for some time. “The splendid city of Milan, in northern Italy, was the connecting link between Celtic Christianity in the West and Syrian Christianity in the East. The missionaries from the early churches in Judea and Syria securely stamped upon the region around Milan the simple apostolic religion.” Ibid., 67. This territory enjoyed a separate recognition from Rome for a thousand years as the bishoprics in northern Italy were called Italic and those of central Italy were named Roman. It is likely the Itala Bible received its name from this region. (See Truth Triumphant, 218, 219.)
“Now this district, on the eastern side of the Cottian Alps, is the precise country of the Vallenses. Hither their ancestors retired, during the persecutions of the second and third and fourth centuries: here, providentially secluded from the world, they retained the precise doctrines and practices of the Primitive Church endeared to them by suffering and exile; while the wealthy inhabitants of cities and fertile plains, corrupted by a now opulent and gorgeous and powerful Clergy, were daily sinking deeper and deeper into that apostasy which has been so graphically foretold by the great Apostle.” Faber, The History of the Ancient Vallenses and Albigenses, 293, 294.
“The faith which for centuries was held and taught by the Waldensian Christians was in marked contrast to the false doctrines put forth from Rome. Their religious belief was founded upon the written word of God, the true system of Christianity. But those humble peasants, in their obscure retreats, shut away from the world, and bound to daily toil among their flocks and their vineyards, had not by themselves arrived at the truth in opposition to the dogmas and heresies of the apostate church. Theirs was not a faith newly received. Their religious belief was their inheritance from their fathers. They contended for the faith of the apostolic church,—‘the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.’ Jude 3. ‘The church in the wilderness,’ and not the proud hierarchy enthroned in the world’s great capital, was the true church of Christ, the guardian of the treasures of truth which God has committed to His people to be given to the world.” The Great Controversy, 64.
“The Waldenses were among the first of the peoples of Europe to obtain a translation of the Holy Scriptures. Hundreds of years before the Reformation they possessed the Bible in manuscript in their native tongue.” Ibid., 65. It is from the city of Brescia, a city with an independent spirit like Milan and Turin, that the Itala, the first translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin, is given to the apostolic Christians. This translation was made “three centuries before Jerome’s Vulgate.” Truth Triumphant, 242. ” They prized their Latin Bible (not the Latin Bible of Jerome), generally called the Itala, ‘because it was read publicly in all the churches of Italy, France, Spain, Africa, and Germany, where Latin was understood; and Vetus, on account of its being more ancient than any of the rest.’ To supplant this noble version, Jerome, at the request of the pope and with money furnished by him, brought out a new Latin Bible.” Truth Triumphant, 70, 71, quoting Gilly, Vigilantius and His Times, 99.
Robert Oliveton, a native of the Waldensian valleys, who translated the Vaudois Bible into French in 1535, wrote in the Preface of that work that this Bible had been a precious treasure received from the apostles and ambassadors of Christ and held by a certain poor people and friends in Christ since that time. “When the fall of the Roman Empire came because of the inrush of the Teutonic peoples, the Romaunt, that beautiful speech which for centuries bridged the transition from Latin to modern Italian, had become the mother tongue of the Waldenses. They multiplied copies of the Holy Scriptures in that language for the people. In those days the Bible was, of course, copied by hand.”
“The Bible formed the basis of their congregational worship, and the children were taught to commit large portions of it to memory. Societies of young people were formed with a view of committing the Bible to memory. Each member of these pious associations was entrusted with the duty of carefully preserving in his recollections a certain number of chapters; and when the assembly gathered round their minister, these young people could together recite all the chapters of the Book assigned by the pastor. It thus can be seen how naturally their pastors, called barbes,’ were a learned class. They were not only proficient in the knowledge of the Bible in Latin and in the vernacular, but they were also well schooled in the original Hebrew and Greek, and they taught the youth to be missionaries in the languages which then were being used by other European peoples.” Ibid., 250, 251.
“The spirit of Christ is a missionary spirit. The very first impulse of the renewed heart is to bring others also to the Savior. Such was the spirit of the Vaudois Christians. They felt that God required more of them than merely to preserve the truth in its purity in their own churches; that a solemn responsibility rested upon them to let their light shine forth to those who were in darkness; by the mighty power of God’s Word they sought to break the bondage which Rome had imposed.” The Great Controversy, 70.
The Vaudois minister was required to receive experience in evangelism gained in a three year mission field assignment. They were sent out with an older pastor two by two. They had to conceal their mission behind a secular disguise, often that of a merchant. They were able thus to spread God’s Word throughout Europe. Often they lost their lives while on these missionary travels.
“Seemingly they took no share in the great struggle which was going on around them in all parts of Europe, but in reality they were exercising a powerful influence upon the world. Their missionaries were everywhere, proclaiming the simple truths of Christianity, and stirring the hearts of men to their very depths. In Hungary, in Bohemia, in France, in England, in Scotland, as well as in Italy, they were working with tremendous, though silent power. Lollard, who paved the way for Wycliffe in England, was a missionary from these Valleys . . . In Germany and Bohemia the Vaudois teachings heralded, if they did not hasten, the Reformation, and Huss and Jerome, Luther and Calvin, did little more than carry on the work begun by the Vaudois missionaries.” Truth Triumphant, 249, quoting McCabe, Cross and Crown, 32.
“There is an abundance of testimony to show the harmonious chain of doctrine extending from the days of the apostles down to the Reformation and later, including the beliefs held by the believers of northern Italy, the Albigenses, the Wycliffites, and the Hussites. Andre Favyn, a well-known Roman Catholic historian, who wrote in French, traces the teachings of Luther back through Vigilantius to Jovinianus, claiming that Vigilantius gave his doctrines to ‘the Albigenses, who otherwise were called the Waldenses,’ and that they in turn passed them on to the Wycliffites and the followers of Huss and Jerome in Bohemia.” Ibid., 263.
Early Waldensian Heroes
The Waldenses were often called by many different names. “Whenever from the midst of the Church in the Wilderness a new standard-bearer appeared, the papacy promptly stigmatized him and his followers as ‘a new sect.’ This produced a twofold result. First, it made these people appear as never having existed before, whereas they really belonged among the many Bible followers who from the days of the early church existed in Europe and Asia. Secondly, it apparently detached the evangelical bodies from one another, whereas they were one in essential doctrines. The different groups taken together constituted the Church in the Wilderness.” Ibid., 224, 225. These names were usually derived from the name of a leader. We have already seen this with Vigilantius Leo and the term Leonists.
Waldensian leaders included Claude of Turin of the ninth century. He battled to restore New Testament faith and practice and denounced image worship and the worship of the cross, stating that many were willing to worship the cross who would not bear it. Transubstantiation was introduced in 839 through a new book. Joannes Scotus Erigena, an Irish scholar and head of the royal school at Paris, who had authored many celebrated works, took up his pen and produced a book which successfully met this falsehood. Two centuries later his book was condemned by a papal council which recognized that it had long stirred the believers of primitive Christianity. There is a tradition which states that Scotus came from one of the schools established by Columba who was a mighty leader among the primitive Celtic Christian church in Scotland.
Berengarius was hated by the papacy and more church councils were held against him than against anyone else. He lived two hundred years after Scotus and had also analyzed the doctrine of transubstantiation and believed it to be the height of seductive errors. Apostasy had strengthened since the days of Vigilantius and Claude, and Berengarius had to oppose all they fought against and more. He was driven into exile. Thousands who rejoiced in the light he brought were called Berengarians but who were really part of the increasing numbers who refused to follow Rome. In the eleventh century those who favored a married clergy retired to a separate place called Patara and were reproachfully called Patarines. Three new names were given to the people of the valleys; namely, Berengarians, Subalpini, and Patarines.
The next century saw three outstanding evangelical heroes. The Petrobusians were the followers of Peter de Bruys who was burned for his faith. He stirred southern France with a message that transformed the characters of the masses influenced by this deep spiritual movement. “He especially emphasized a day of worship that was recognized at the time among the Celtic churches of the British Isles, among the Paulicians, and in the great Church of the East; namely, the seventh day of the fourth commandment, the weekly sacred day of Jehovah.” Ibid., 237.
Henry of Lausanne traveled, labored, prayed, and preached to raise the masses to the truth. Pope Innocent II declared the doctrines of Henry to be heresies and condemned all who held or taught them. His followers were called Henricians. They were credited along with the Petrobrusians as being the spiritual fathers of French Protestantism.
Arnold of Brescia denounced the overgrown empire of ecclesiastical tyranny and also did what the reformers failed to do by attacking the union of church and state. His words were heard in Switzerland, southern Italy, Germany, and France. He preached against transubstantiation, infant baptism, and prayers for the dead. His followers were called Arnoldists. “The Waldenses look up to Arnold as to one of the spiritual founders of their churches; and his religious and political opinions probably fostered the spirit of republican independence which throughout Switzerland and the whole Alpine district was awaiting its time.” Ibid., 243.
“Among the leading causes that had led to the separation of the true church from Rome was the hatred of the latter toward the Bible Sabbath.” The Great Controversy, 65.
“In his (Vigilantius’) day another controversy existed which was to rock the Christian world. Milan, center of northern Italy, as well as all the Eastern churches, was sanctifying the seventh-day Sabbath, while Rome was requiring its followers to fast on that day in an effort to discredit it.” Truth Triumphant, 75.
Bible Sabbath keeping was widespread in Europe. Rome ever sought to persecute the keepers of the fourth commandment. A. C. Flick and other authorities claim that the Celtic Church observed Saturday as their sacred day of rest, and reputable scholarship has asserted that the Welsh sanctified it as such until the twelfth century. The same day was observed by the Petrobrucians and Henricians, and Adeney, with others, attributes to the Paulicians the observance of Saturday. There are reliable historians who say that the Waldenses and the Albigenses fundamentally were Sabbath-keepers.” Ibid., 211.
Socrates and Sozomen, fourth century historians, reveal to us that the Christianity of the Greek Church was a Sabbathkeeping Christianity; and that the Christianity of the West, with the exception of the city of Rome and possibly Alexandria, was also a Sabbathkeeping Christianity. (See Ibid., 256.)
Fortunately, the records of the church council at Elvira, Spain, in 305, still exists and in Canon 26 it reveals that the Church of Spain at that time kept Saturday, the seventh day. This is significant since Spain had the good fortune to escape the influence of Rome for many centuries and many believe that the true original Waldenses were from the Spanish Pyrenees. The original word is the Latin, vallis. From it came “valleys” in English, Valdesi in Italian, Vaudois in French, and Valdenses in Spanish. Near Barcelona is a city named Sabadell, “dell of the Sabbathkeepers.” Another author in Gebbes, Miscellaneous Tracts notes that ancient Spanish Gothic Church and the ancient British Church were the same. (See Ibid., 261.)
Pope Gregory issued a bull against the community of Sabbathkeepers in Rome in 602. It stated, “Further when speaking of that Sabbath which the Jews observe, the last day of the week, which also all peasants observe.” Ibid., 259. In 865–867 the Roman and Greek churches were fighting over the newly converted Bulgarians. The issue of the Bulgarians Sabbath-keeping was raised and is seen in a reply of Pope Nicolas I to the Bulgarian king.
Allix, in his Ancient Churches of Piedmont, says, it was a doctrine of the Waldenses that the Sabbath of the Law of Moses was to be observed. David Benedict says they were called Sabbatarians for keeping the seventh day. (Ibid.) Adeney indicates that a synod of “heretics” was held in Toulouse in 1167 and that the attendants disregarded Sunday and sanctified Saturday. Gilly notes, “It has been affirmed that the orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans were instituted to silence the Waldenses.” Ibid., 260.
In 1194, Alphonso of Aragon declared the Sabbathkeeping Waldenses, Insabbati, as heretic. There is an abundance of references to “heretics” under the name of Sabbatiti, or Insabbatiti, in the records of the Inquisition. These terms refer to keeping the seventh day. Lucas Tudensis, a papal writer, shows that the Insabbatiti in Spain were numerous in 1260.
Mosheim declares that in Bohemis, Moravia, Switzerland, and Germany, prior to Luther, there were groups who believed as the Waldenses, Wycliffites and Hussites. Lamy declares that these groups after the days of Luther were Sabbathkeeping, ” ‘All the counselors and great lords of the court, who were already fallen in with the doctrines of Wittenburg, of Ausburg, Geneva, and Zurich, as Petrowitz, Jasper Cornis, Christopher Famagali, John Gerendo, head of the Sabbatarians, a people who did not keep Sunday, but Saturday, and whose disciples took the name of Genoldist. All these, and others, declared for the opinions of Blandrat.’ ” Ibid., 263.
“There is an abundance of testimony to show the harmonious chain of doctrine extending from the days of the apostles down to the Reformation and later, including the beliefs held by the believers of northern Italy, the Albigenses, the Wycliffites, and the Hussites . . . Erasmus testifies that even as late as about 1500 these Bohemians not only kept the seventh day scrupulously, but also were called Sabbatarians.” Ibid., 264.
The Continuing Reformation
The prophetic twenty-three hundred day period of Daniel came to an end. “The centuries of faithfulness seen in the history of the Church in the Wilderness were succeeded by the period of the Remnant Church who would ‘keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.’ ” Ibid., 267.
“The Waldenses witnessed for God centuries before the birth of Luther. Scattered over many lands, they planted the seeds of the Reformation that began in the time of Wycliffe, grew broad and deep in the days of Luther, and is to be carried forward to the close of time by those who also are willing to suffer all things for ‘the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ Revelation 1:9.” The Great Controversy, 78. ‘the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ Revelation 1:9.” GC, 78.