11.76 The Waldenses, Why Believers Complied With Roman Catholic Doctrine, Bans on Reading the Bible, The Inquisition and other Repressive Measures

Waldo (also called Valdez) was a prosperous merchant in Lyons in 1176 AD. At that time, he was affected by the song of a wandering minstrel who was singing about the best way to God. He was affected by this verse:

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  (Mat 19:21 WEB)

This verse struck right at the heart of Waldo. He set up modest funding for his wife and daughters to live on and gave the rest to the poor. He then left his family. He wore poor raiment. He chose to live by whatever people gave him and went away preaching.

Remember that Western Bibles then were written in Latin, of course, while Eastern Bibles were mainly Greek. Waldo was not trained to read these languages, but he got clergymen friends to make translations for him of at least portions. These are what are known as vulgar translations. A vulgar translation is something that is translated into the ordinary, common language of the day which for Waldo was that of southern France around the end of the 12th century.

Waldo procured his vulgar New Testament and proceeded to study it intently as well as spread around copies. Within a year he was joined by both men and women and they all set out to preach repentance, calling themselves “poor in spirit”.

In 1179 they asked the third Lateran Council for permission to preach. The Council didn’t consider them heretical at that point but they did take them as ignorant laymen and Pope Alexander III denied permission.

Let’s compare the response of Pope Alexander III and the council to that of Annas the high priest and the Jewish leaders in the book of Acts:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and had perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled. They recognized that they had been with Jesus…They called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.  (Act 4:13 WEB)

There is a pattern here.  Both the high priest with Jewish leaders and the pope with council leaders elevated the importance of intellect and tradition above following the simplicity that is in the scriptures.  They only respected intelligent, learned people.  Common people without higher education in the field they called ignorant and rejected them.  This was their standard and while they may have been aware that these ignorant people were doing something spiritually significant, they didn’t respect it and dismissed them as ignorant.

And it’s not that Waldo was able to see the way back to everything in the apostles’ tradition. There’s no evidence that Waldo’s followers manifested Holy Spirit, believed in the baptism of the Spirit even, or prophecy. They still kept the rituals of confession and communion as well as Orthodox doctrines like the deity of Christ. But it was a start. They saw some things that they recognized as unbiblical and they sought the change them.  That’s how all reformation and restoration movements are. People’s eyes are opened that something or some things in the current system are not the word of God, and they seek to change to a better practice that is more biblical.

Just as the Roman Catholic Church has incrementally built up a system over many centuries that has moved away from the purity of the word of God people have instituted reform and restoration incrementally. Waldo was just one in a line of men like Jan Hus and John Wycliff that were addressing deviations from Scripture before the major reformers. Their work culminated in men like Martin Luther and John Calvin bringing the process into fruition by redefining for people concepts such as redemption, grace, and faith and starting churches that taught those things.  With the reformers came the desire and drive for the people in the church to return to Scripture as the authority for faith and practice.

It’s awesome what all these men started. But their work was just the start. While Waldo did follow a model of universal priesthood, Luther and Calvin did not abandon the clergy/laity distinctions and a lot of the other unbiblical practices. They did not embrace speaking in tongues and the manifestations of the spirit in their practice, rather crediting those practices just to the original apostles’ time. Luther certainly challenged the role of philosophy in the church but he still accepted philosophy as part of theology. All of these men are part of the start of the return to original Christianity, but the church is still far from it.  Reformation and restoration has been an incremental process, and it is still going on. Waldo was an early leader.

Waldo and his followers considered the pope’s refusal false in the eyes of God and chose to continue preaching their message to the people. Pope Lucius III excommunicated them in 1184.

Waldo’s group came to be called the Waldenses.  They were later lumped into the group of heretical groups by the Church, but they weren’t dualists, believing in multiple gods, or living licentious lives like a number of the other groups. In fact, they would be considered as orthodox as any Protestant church today.

Waldo and his small group were soon growing a considerable following who chose to leave the Roman Catholic Church. Another group called the Humiliati was also interested in living a life that was common and penitent.  They also were excommunicated by the pope and now joined the Waldenses.

Very important to us, the chief tenet of the Waldenses was that the Bible, especially the New Testament, was the sole rule of belief and practice for the church. They sought to follow it to the letter. According to New Testament teaching, they went out two by two, living on the gifts of the hearers. They rejected the mass and prayers for the dead, they denied purgatory. They rejected most sacraments. They defended lay preaching. They ordained bishops, priests, and deacons from their own ministry. They denied the privileges of the priest’s office and proclaimed that any righteous man could perform the duties in alignment with the priesthood of all believers.

The Roman Church’s position at this time was that only Roman Catholic ordained priests could perform the sacraments, and it didn’t matter whether they were worthy or not, the sacraments would still be valid. The Waldenses objected to this doctrine

They had both a large following in public, and a number of secret followers who appeared to remain loyal to the Roman Catholic Church but were supporting the Waldenses.

Conflicts of opinion between the original faction of the Waldenses and the Lombard branch grew and resulted in a split by 1210 A.D. The group was not able to resolve the differences. In 1208 Pope Innocent the third had countered by organizing the pauperes catholici, a new religious order under the strict oversight of the Roman Catholic Church that had some similarities to the Waldenses. This was successful in retrieving some of the previously excommunicated people from the group, but by no means, all.  This new group did not last long though.

The Waldenses was an attempt like others for believers to get back to the word of God.  They didn’t go all the way back to scripture in everything but they were moving in the right direction and the Catholic church continued making moves to stamp it out. Missionary efforts failed, and Innocent III started an actual crusade against them in 1209 A.D. This resulted in 20 years of warfare!

In 1229 a synod was held in Toulouse. That synod went to the extreme step of forbidding the laity to even possess the Scriptures except for a few items used in services. All translations were denounced. While no universal ban was formally issued against Bible reading by the laity this tactic was used in other places and served as a deterrent.

The synod at Toulouse is also significant because it is credited with being the beginning of the Inquisition. The topic of the punishment of heretics had been an ongoing debate in light of the Waldenses as well as other previous groups such as the Cathari and the Manichaeans. While higher-ups in the church didn’t always support killing heretics the death penalty was clearly established for this crime (heresy) by Roman law. In recent times heretics had been killed by fire or at the hands of mobs. Peter I of Aragon had formally ordered the execution by fire of heretics in 1197. Pope Innocent III had declared that heresy, as treason against God was worse than treason against king or government. So, all of those kinds of punishments for heresy were already in play by the time of the synod at Toulouse.

The synod at Toulouse decided to start the systematic investigation and punishment of heresy, the start of the Inquisition. Inquisitors from the Dominican order were drafted. A papal bull by Innocent IV empowered the inquisitors with the power to torture. They were also allowed to confiscate property which was then distributed among lay authorities. Both the Cathari and the Waldenses were greatly repressed in the century following the start of the Inquisition.  However, the Waldenses did survive in pockets, mainly the Alps, until the Reformation when they began to practice more freely.

For the Protestant and Restoration worlds, this lesson explains the difficulty in even attempting to return to the word of God in life and practice and why it has been so hard for so long. Doing something for so long in the culture also makes changing it a hard habit to break. Right or wrong, it becomes ingrained in the fabric of people’s lives. Roman Catholic tradition was beaten into the fabric of Christian culture for most of the life of Christianity. And what were people going to compare Roman Catholicism to? Even reading the bible was a dangerous activity in many of those times.

Yet the Waldenses sprang up.  The Waldenses’ first priority was striving to follow the teachings of the New Testament. They challenged the sacraments, the teachings,  the authority of the Roman Church to decide such matters.  Starting with Roman government involvement in the running of the church the punishment for disagreeing with the established church was life-changing, to say the least, and not in a good way. Besides the death penalty mentioned above, if they did let you live, you could lose your job whether in the church or not. You could lose your possessions. There was the death penalty.  And a group that succeeded in spite of those weapons could see war waged against them.

Forced compliance with Roman Catholic doctrine resulting in various severe punishments started all the way back to Constantine and escalated to the Inquisition where Bishops were charged with rooting out heresy and removing it or they could lose their jobs as well as be punished.  The Inquisition brought a new level of persecution to those who disagreed with Roman Catholic doctrine. Inquisitors who were allowed to remain anonymous started a reign of terror where they tortured people for their disagreement with the supposedly apostolic decisions of the church.  Remember so many of these decisions were called apostolic, even the decision to have these punishments and the Inquisition.   Confiscating heretics property which different parties could get a share of added fuel to the fire.

The Roman Catholic Church used the big carrot of proclaiming themselves the continuation of Jesus’ and his apostles’ ministry in everything they did, but they carried a huge stick for anyone who disagreed with them as seen in the penalties they inflicted on those they proclaimed heretical.

In the Roman Catholic Church, there was no right to free speech even to people that didn’t seem that heretical like the Waldenses.  The Roman Catholic Church policed what people said, what they read, employed extreme measures, including starting crusades against groups proclaimed heretical as well as the Inquisition, in order to maintain its grip on controlling what was taught about anything Christian.

And, as far as the Waldenses, the Roman Catholic Church sent an army after these brave believers who only wanted to get away from the increasingly unbiblical practices of the Catholic Church and return to the simplicity of the Bible. Only a small fraction of them survived until the Reformation.


A History Of The Christian Church, Williston Walker , Scribner, New York, 1958, p. 229-232

HERESIES, Heresy and Orthodoxy In The History Of The Church, Harold O. J. Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass, 2000, p, 262-264

The Story Of Christianity, Justo L. Gonzales, Harper one, New York, 2010, P. 358, 363, 367

Encyclopedia Brittanica, Waldenses religious movement, Waldenses | Description, History, & Beliefs | Britannica

last edited 8/17/2021

(c) 2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 8/16/23
Scroll to Top