by Michael Wilson
The Protestant Reformation was not a sudden phenomenon that resulted from Martin Luther's brazen courage. There are many other names that deserve our attention, including the "pre-reformers" who set the stage for Protestantism. One such man is Peter Waldo.
Peter Waldo’s impact on church history is incredibly hard to measure. Actually, there is a small amount known about his life, and there is a good deal of uncertainty in regard to his actual role in the development of a group called the Waldensians; however, we do know that he was very influential in their advancement. These individuals lived lives that were entirely devoted to the Word of God. An important element of that lifestyle was a commitment to apostolic poverty.
But one thing can be known with certainty: the Waldensians shaped the European religious landscape for centuries. The Waldensians (also known as Waldenses or Vallenses) derived their name from the Alpine valleys of Europe. Historians often consider them to be forerunners of the Reformation.
It was not just a radical love of poverty that Waldo taught, but a simple understanding of the Bible and salvation.
Peter Waldo, born sometime around 1140, was a very wealthy merchant and banker from Lyon, France – where he made most of his money from interest. After a guest died suddenly at a feast Peter was hosting, he became concerned about the state of his soul.
Touched by hearing the story of St. Alexis’ selflessness and Matthew 19:21, Waldo decided to take literally Jesus’ command, to sell all that he had and give to the poor. So, he gave his wife all his landed property and sold all his movable property. With that money, he began making restitution by paying back the interest.
In addition, Peter Waldo gave most of his money to the poor. So much in fact, that he began begging for food, which troubled his wife because he never asked her for food. Upon appeal to the archbishop, the Archbishop of Lyon ordered Peter to only seek food from his wife.
Developing a greater interest in the Scripture, Peter Waldo funded the translation of the New Testament into the common language so he could read it for himself and see what the Bible actually taught. After spending some time studying the Scriptures, Peter Waldo began traveling and preaching a message of apostolic poverty.
Peter’s message struck a chord within many hearts – many of whom were wealthy. Those individuals also abandoned their possessions, and the group began referring to themselves as the Poor Men of Lyon. It was not just a radical love of poverty that Waldo taught, but a simple understanding of the Bible and salvation.
From this point in time, Peter Waldo appears to have continued to travel and preach. He eventually reached Bohemia where he died in 1217 or 1218. Peter Waldo’s involvement in the Waldensian movement was very important and ended up having an impact that is very difficult to fully measure.
As a movement, the Waldensians never wished to remove themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. When representatives of the movement went to Rome to seek approval from the pope, their lifestyle was commended; but they were told not to preach without the permission of local clerics. The clergy within the Roman Catholic Church saw the Waldensian lifestyle as an offense to their affluent lifestyle, and permission to preach was denied.
The Waldensians did not listen, and persecution began. Eventually, most of the ones who were not killed would flee to various portions of the Alps. Persecution failed to contain the message the Waldensians shared, as well as their influence.
The Reformation began hundreds of years before Luther's 95 Theses with people committed to follow the Word of God.
So, why should you care about Peter Waldo or the Waldensians?
The Waldensians and Peter Waldo demonstrate that the Reformation was not the result of a miraculous moment when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, it began hundreds of years earlier with people committed to follow the Word of God.
Peter Waldo and the Waldensians also kept alive the presence of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit in the church for centuries, even when such action was not being done within the established church.
As a result of Peter Waldo and the Waldensians, the message of the Gospel reached Bohemia where several hundred years later a man named John Hus would be responsible for one of the next large steps in Reformation history.
Broadbent, Edmund Hamer. (1931). The Pilgrim Church: Tracing the Pathway of the Forgotten Saints from Pentecost to the Twentieth Century. London: Pickering & Inglis.
Cameron, Euan. (2000). Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Moynahan, Brian. (2002). The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Image Books.
Stark, Rodney. (2011). The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. New York: HarperOne.
Wylie, J. A. (1858). The History of the Waldenses. London: James Nisbet.
Godfrey, Robert W. (2012). "Peter Waldo and the Waldenesians." Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/peter-waldo-and-the-waldensians/