Reformed Before Calvin - an Overview of the Waldenses

Also known as the Waldensians and, confused by some writers with the medieval Albigenses (more on them elsewhere), the Waldenses have traditionally claimed to owe their origins to an unbroken line of apostolic Christianity without coming under the influence of Roman Catholicism. Members and churches survived in the remote Alpine regions of Switzerland and northern Italy throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period.

Acknowledging the influence of leaders such as Peter Waldo and Arnold of Bresci, core values of these groups included an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, the necessity of Christ-like character in church leaders and a broadly evangelical doctrine of salvation/justification. In this sense, they were "reformed" before the Reformers, though as stated, their view was that their churches were not in need of doctrinal reform as they had not deviated from the apostolic tradition over the centuries. Having said that, they did make contact with the Reformed Church in Geneva in the C16 and adopted the Geneva Confession of faith in 1532.

With largely itinerant leaders, the Waldenses exerted an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Rejecting Catholic practices that they could not see clearly in the Bible, the groups were anti-hierarchal and rejected the use of images of the saints and the veneration of Mary.

Suffering repeated waves of persecution - the earliest recorded being the Crusade of 1210 - Waldenses regularly moved around within the countries to the south and east of the Alps, often retreating into more inaccessible valleys at times of intense persecution.

As an aside, a friend currently planting a church on the French-Italian boarder relates the local history of Waldensians fleeing persecution on the French side of the Alps (around current day Briancon) and coming up the valley where he now lives to what is now the resort and boarder town of Montgenevre. From there, they descended to the valley on the Italian side where they exercised an evangelistic ministry in the surrounding areas.

Only granted legal recognition in Italy in 1848, the Waldenses began the process of spreading into mainstream Italian culture where they remain one of the larger Protestant groupings. Waldensians were responsible for translating the Bible into modern Italian and provided moral and theological resistance to Mussolini's fascist government during the 1930s and 40s. Waves of Italian migration to Argentina in the early C20 included numbers of Waldensians. A theological college in that country is one evidence of their continued presence, as well as several schools, hospitals and orphanages in Italy, where the Waldensian Church maintains close links with the Italian Methodist movement.

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