Who Was Peter Waldo?

Updated on December 10, 2016
Statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany. Born
Statue of Peter Waldo at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany. Born | Source

Anonymous Beginnings

One of the few things scholars know for sure about Peter Waldo is that his real name wasn't Peter Waldo. The acknowledged founder of the Waldensian movement was born in about 1140 in Lyon, France and lived until 1218. His birth name is lost to history, but the story of his rebirth as Peter Waldo outlines the genesis of the Waldensian revolution—a movement that became a forerunner to the Reformation.

Waldo's Epiphany

There are no definitive written records of the life of Peter Waldo. However, sources agree on many points. We know that he was a wealthy merchant who lived in Lyon, France. At some time about 1170, Waldo experienced a religious epiphany that drove him to take a vow of poverty and to preach the gospel. One version of Waldo's life story describes his encounter with a wandering troubadour who was singing about the life of St. Alexius, a fifth century mystic who who abandoned his wealth and became a martyred saint. Waldo was inspired by this story, and by Jesus’ “words to the rich man” recorded in Mark 10:22: “if you wish to be perfect, sell what you have and follow me.” Waldo indeed renounced all his worldly possessions and began his quest for Christian Perfection. He then either commissioned two local priests to translate the Bible from latin into his native French, or perhaps translated it himself with the help of local clergy, to create the first vernacular Bible in Europe. Some versions of his life place these events in different order. Some add the sudden death of a close friend as another factor in his life change. Certainly something happened to make Waldo decide to dedicate his life to the teachings of Christ. His disillusionment with some of the bureaucratic practices of the Catholic Church and his attainment of a direct translation of the new testament gave Waldo a platform and a simple theology to begin his career as a preacher.

Interior reproduction of the interior of the Barbi College where the Waldensians studied to memorize the Bible.
Interior reproduction of the interior of the Barbi College where the Waldensians studied to memorize the Bible. | Source

The Poor Men of Lyon

As Waldo's ministry gained traction, he and his followers came to be known as “the Poor Men of Lyon” They stressed poverty, personal interpretation of the Bible, and a belief in the holy trinity and in a resurrection, while rejecting other church doctrines such as purgatory, and papal supremacy. Friction with the local clergy began not long thereafter, and in an effort to soothe conflict, Waldo traveled to Rome in 1179 for an audience with pope Alexander III to ask permission to preach. The results were non-committal, but not affirmative; Waldo was given permission to preach but only with the approval of the local bishops of France. Somewhat predictably, sanctions from the French clergy were not forthcoming. Waldo and his followers continued their activities anyway, which led to an escalation of tensions.

Claiming that the teachings of Waldo and his followers were prone to error, the Catholic Church condemned their activities at the Third Lateran Council of 1179, and in 1184 Waldo was excommunicated. Waldo and his movement were subsequently deemed heretical. Persecution forced Waldo and his followers to leave Lyon and to seek relative safety in the remote areas of the Western Alps of Italy. It was here that Waldo's movement began to take root and to grow into the fully formed Waldensian Church that survives to this day. It was also here that Waldo died, apparently of natural causes at the age of 78.

Refuge in the Mountains

The Piedmont Alps may also be where the name “Peter Waldo” was given to the preacher from Lyon. Sources disagree, and again the written record is very sparse, but one prevalent idea is that the name “Peter” was given in tribute to the apostle Peter. Historians are also unsure of the originality of the surname Waldo. The etymology of the name “Waldo” or “Valdez,” or even “Vadois” as he is sometimes called, seems to refer simultaneously to the valley that was home to the Waldensians, to their church, as well as to their founder. In other words, there is some argument over who was named for what. One school of thought places the origins of the Waldensian church centuries before the arrival of Waldo, even back to the sermons of the original apostles, thereby explaining the Waldensian's strict adherence to an early, unadorned version of Christianity. Proponents of this view claim that the Poor Men of Lyon were integrated into their religion and that Waldo received his surname from them. The prevalent and accepted version of events, however, describes the people of the Piedmont valleys taking Waldo as the inspiration for the name of their home and their religion. What seems most likely is that there is a grain of truth in the idea that the Waldensians predated Waldo; perhaps the arrival of the Poor Men of Lyon in the region served to galvanize attitudes already present in the Piedmont region of the 12th century. It may be supposed that the support of the people of the Piedmont region served to foster the metamorphosis of Waldo's movement into a church. What is certain is that the region where the Waldensians were forced to take refuge and their identity as a spiritual community are forever intertwined.

Burning of the Waldensians in Toulouse in the 13th century.
Burning of the Waldensians in Toulouse in the 13th century. | Source

Summary

The Waldensians chose to settle in the remote valleys of the Italian Alps to escape persecution from the Catholic Church. Branded as heretics, they were subject to invasions from the Inquisition, and from politically and economically motivated European leaders, for hundreds of years. Campaigns against the Waldensians were often brutal, and at times involved torture and mass killing. They were eventually granted political and civil rights in Italy in 1848, but a full acknowledgement of their church by the Italian government did not occur until 1984. In the 19th century, colonies of Waldensian immigrants settled in Uruguay, Argentina, and in Valdese, North Carolina, and the church survives today in all locations, in association with the Methodist Church. Although little is known of their founder, the existing portrait is of a man of extraordinary faith and determination who possessed an unwillingness to betray his beliefs; traits that are displayed consistently in the long struggle of the Waldensians to survive into the modern world. Whatever his birth name was, the man who inspired such rock solid faith was Peter Waldo, and that is the man's name in the truest sense.

Waldensian church in Valdese, NC.
Waldensian church in Valdese, NC. | Source

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