Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the shadowy forerunner of the Reformation: Peter Waldo.

It is the 16th of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


As I have been reading the history of Christian Creeds for a class I’m teaching (and a future weekend edition), I was struck again by the lack of mention of the earliest creeds of the Bible. This might be surprising, but councils were also then debating what books would be recognized as canon and what would not be. We have records of some of these debates. But it makes sense that the doctrine of Scripture would be best handled by those trained to read them, and the authority of the Church would stand in for the authority of the Bible.

Of course, the Reformation will be a challenge to the authority of the church and the Scriptures, but even before that 16th-century movement, we see those who would challenge the church for acting contrary to Scripture, the Scripture they were supposed to validate with their authority.

We might know some of these names- the Wycliffe’s and Jan Hus’ of the late Medieval period. But there is one who predates them all, a character cloaked in the shadows of history and later texts, which perhaps took liberty with some of the stories. But we can be fairly certain that this man, sometimes known as Peter Waldo, existed as his followers; the Waldensians would predate the Reformation and, in some cases, remain their own church body down to the present.

So who was this mysterious Peter Waldo? Well, we don’t even know if that was his name. He also is referred to as Valdez. He was likely born around 1140 near Lyon in Southern France, but that year might be little too convenient because that would coincide with what we know about the beginning of his ministry in 1170, making him 30 years old at the beginning of his public ministry.

He was a wealthy merchant who, around 1170, had two things happen to him, according to later histories. One is that while at a party, a friend, who may have blasphemed as a joke, suddenly died. He hadn’t had his last rites, and Waldo was concerned about his place in the afterlife. There is also a story about a traveling minstrel show that sang a song about the early church saint Alexius. Alexius had given away everything to the poor and was blessed on account of this. So, Waldo gives his wife the estate, sells everything else, and begins his attempt to live a godly life by pursuing only the things of God. While he was not a learned man, he would collect whatever bible passages he could to compile a kind of treasury of known scripture. From these texts (and later a text translated into French), he came to believe that the Church had abused its authority in recently promulgating the doctrine of Transubstantiation (that is, the elements in communion take on the actual substance of body and blood) and the threat of excommunication (and thus likely, execution) to anyone who denied it.

He began preaching as an itinerant beggar, a simplified Gospel wherein authority was not put in the church but in the scriptures themselves. Men began to travel with him and these Waldensians would meet together to contemplate whatever Scripture they had and then would go out, two by two, to teach and preach.

They would be excommunicated for preaching without the proper license, and Waldo himself would go to Rome, where he would be accused of heresy and apostasy. Perhaps emboldened by this, his follower's teaching would be increasingly critical of the Church at Rome. These Waldensians, also known as the “Poor of Lyon,” would have to flee to Northern Italy and be on the lookout for the then Crusading church, which had turned its sights away from the Near East and instead to heretics at home. Waldo wrote a confession of faith around 1180. It attacked the customs of the church and extra-biblical practices, which were later attacked by the Reformers, who saw Waldo as one of their own.

We do not know what happened to Waldo; traditionally, he is said to have died on the 16th of April in 1205. His followers were evangelized in the 16th century by the Swiss William Farel, and many joined the Reformation out of Geneva. Others would remain, many would eventually flee to Uruguay and Argentina, and some made their way to the United States, some to the town of Valdees in North Carolina named for the man, and there one could worship at the Waldensian Presbyterian Church. All named for a man we know little about outside legend, but his footprints are seen in the movement he left behind, according to tradition, on this day in 1205 at the age of 65.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary- from Hosea 6:

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces

    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.

After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,

    that we may live in his presence.

Let us acknowledge the Lord;

    let us press on to acknowledge him.

As surely as the sun rises,

    he will appear;

he will come to us like the winter rains,

    like the spring rains that water the earth.”


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who wonders if the church, searching to eradicate today’s character, asked themselves, “Where’s… never mind?”- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man letting you know that Where’s Waldo is actually Where’s Wally, and for some reason, the American publishers changed it… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.

More From 1517