It is the 16th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1218.
Back on the 23rd of March, we told you the story of the Waldensians. You may remember that I likened them to the Cleveland Browns football team. And this not because they fumbled away their chance at a Super Bowl in 1987, but rather because the name “Waldensian” became a kind of zombie appellation not necessarily tied to the historic Peter Waldo. And so today, we will look at Peter Waldo, who he was and why he mattered.
The 16th-century Reformers rallied to the cry “Semper Reformanda,” that is, “always reforming.” This was on account of their desire to keep themselves from ossifying but also a call to remembrance. That is, the church has always been reforming. It is never a static status quo institution. It is as alive as its living head.
The fact that “the Reformation” is attached to that 16th-century movement is a bit like calling all photocopies “xeroxes” or all soda’s “coke.” The 16th century Reformation was a big deal, but reform, they would tell you, is part of the nature of the church herself.
I would submit to you Peter Waldo and other Medieval reformers were not “Proto-Reformers” as that would indicate that the Reform movement was singular. Waldo’s theology would have parallels to the 16th century Protestants but comparative dogmatics across centuries tends to show more coincidences than influence.
So, what makes Peter Waldo so hard to pin down. First, it was noted that he would wear a red and white striped sweater, and despite that, he could blend into a crowd making him difficult to find.
In reality, we don’t even know if his name was Peter Waldo. It is suggested that he may have been called “Valdez,” which was Latinized as “Waldo.” As far as the first name “Peter” goes, it’s the tradition, but we don’t have any texts confirming that this was his name. And perhaps none of this should surprise you as it isn’t uncommon for people to take the name of someone, become the “-ists” or “Arians” or some such, and then rewrite the theology of their supposed founder.
You might remember Waldensians as part of that group of troublemakers in the South of France. Along with the Cathari and Albigensians, the Waldensians fled persecution into the wilderness or onto mountaintops where they developed outside the watching eye of the public record.
And part of what made them “troublemakers” was adherence to at least a few of Waldo’s central doctrines. The first we might call a kind of “Priesthood of all believers,” that is, there is nothing a priest can do that a lay Christian could not do.
So Peter was anti-clerical. He was also convinced that voluntary poverty was a part of the imitation of Christ. Like his contemporary St. Francis, he saw the building of cathedrals not as majestic but as signs of avarice and decadence.
Peter was wealthy before he became a convert and gave away his earthy goods. Peter is also said to have hired scholars to translate the Bible into the vernacular for him to read it. He is said to have rejected transubstantiation but never wanted to leave the Catholic Church.
He went to Rome, where Pope Alexander III received him in 1179. Alexander didn’t affirm Waldo but did not condemn him either, likely leading to the number of his followers growing. However, the following Pope, Lucius III, condemned Waldo and those who would take his name. The Waldensians would become their group with their history (see our previous show!) But the legend of the mysterious Peter Waldo is its story that deserves our recognition on this the suggested date of his death, the 16th of April in 1218 (or 1215 or 1205.)
The reading for today comes from one of my favorite poets we’ve heard from over the past two years. This is Alexander Pope and his “The Dying Christian to His Soul”
Vital spark of heav’nly flame!
Quit, O quit this mortal frame:
Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying,
O the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.
Hark! they whisper; angels say,
Sister Spirit, come away!
What is this absorbs me quite?
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
Tell me, my soul, can this be death?
The world recedes; it disappears!
Heav’n opens on my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring!
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who probably calls coke something like “pop” Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by a man who dressed up as Waldo for Halloween sometime in the 1980s, 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.