Italy, Europe, South America


Founded in the Middle Ages

The Waldensian Church originated with the preaching of the merchant Valdo (Waldo of Lyons, from whom the church’s name originates), 1140-1217. He lived during the same period as Saint Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182–1226). Like Francis, Waldo also believed in the value of the evangelical poverty of the early church and, after a profound spiritual crisis, gave all his assets to the poor in order to freely preach the gospel.

The movement, known as “The Poor of Lyons” in France and “The Poor Lombards” in Italy, continued to spread throughout Europe. But in a short time it was accused of heresy and thereafter participants were repressed and persecuted by the civil and religious authorities. Despite very difficult times and the violence of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, the movement continued to evangelize and succeeded in establishing an important community in the western Alps of the Piedmont, the South of France, Germany, and even in southern Italy (in Calabria). Their itinerant preachers were called “Barba” (a dialectical word for “uncle”, meaning a distinguished person), from which derived “Barbetti” (followers of the Barba), a popular name used until recent times in Piedmont to indicate Waldensians.

The Reformation

The Waldensian movement joined the newly initiated European Reformation in 1532. Local preachers led their worship services and celebrated the sacraments. From that time, the church became Protestant in the Presbyterian and Calvinist tradition.

But the persecution was not over. Particularly tragic were the massacres of 1655, known as the “Piedmont Easter”, which raised indignant protests in Europe and caused Cromwell’s England to take action. The celebrated poet John Milton wrote of it in his ode, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”.

Persecution began anew in 1685. The few Waldensian survivors in Piedmont remained committed to their faith but had to take shelter in Switzerland. Only four years later, in 1689, they were able to re-enter their valleys. It was for them, the “Glorious Return”: a community of people composed also of women, the elderly and children, which crossed the Alps, driven not only by the tie to their own land, but also by their vocation of freedom to witness to their Protestant faith.

Civil Liberties in 1848

For the entire 18th Century the Waldensians were confined to their territory in the Waldensian Valleys, more or less as the Jews were to their ghetto, as objects of discriminatory legislation that treated them as second-class citizens.

They had to wait until the 17th of February 1848 for the Edict of Emancipation, issued by Carlo Alberto, to receive political and civil rights Waldensians in the valleys still celebrate this date yearly with huge bonfires (falĪŒ in Italian).

A Component of Italian Society

In 1948, with the approval of the Democratic and Republican Constitution, a new season of freedom began for the Waldensians. However, the full acknowledgement of the Waldensian Church by the Italian state took place only with the approval of the Intesa (agreement) in 1984.

Another very important step in the history of the Waldensian Church was the Pact of Integration with the Methodist Church in 1979. The Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches became established, governed by a single synod and administered by the same board. The Methodist contribution to the union was very important: the churches of the Wesleyan tradition, had been very active in the process of national unification and had established themselves in various areas of the south of the country, mainly among farmers and laborers. They had opened schools and preschool centers, promoted cooperatives and cultural institutions. The Methodists, moreover, were very active in the campaigns to distribute the Bible.

Today Methodists and Waldensians continue their journey of faith together, committed to cultural programs, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, working for peace and justice, the safeguarding of creation, and hospitality to foreigners.

In eight centuries of history the medieval Waldensian movement has passed through suffering, blessings, persecution and opportunities for witness. However, its vocation has remained the same: with its numerous ministries, the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches strives to be a meaningful Christian community, as an active and responsible minority in contemporary society.

The Waldensians actively committed themselves to defending the principles of religious freedom and Church-State separation, which they were convinced were important to the political and social renewal of the country. They continued to defend themselves from the Risorgimento (the movement for national unity from 1848 to 1870) through the resistance against Fascism and even into the democratic system granted by the Italian Constitution in 1948. In particular, at the end of the Papal State in 1870 and with the unity of Italy, the Waldensian Church was allowed to preach the Gospel in all of Italy. Thereafter, important Waldensian churches and centers were started also in central and southern Italy. Currently the Waldensian Church is spread throughout the nation but still today approximately half of the Waldensians are concentrated in the historical valleys of the Piedmont.


The official symbol of the Waldensian Church is a candle positioned over an open Bible. The historical motto written above the symbol is “Lux Lucet in Tenebris” (A Light Shining in the Darkness).

Also very popular among Italian and South American Waldensians, is the Huguenot cross: the symbol of the French (Huguenot) reformation who endured severe persecution. The most tragic event occurred during the night between the 23rd and 24th of August 1572, known in history as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The Huguenot cross is a Maltese cross whose arms are connected; a dove is hung at the base which expresses faith in the Holy Spirit. According to some traditions, at one point in time, there was a tear shaped crystal in place of the dove, to remember the suffering inflicted upon the Huguenots.


The author of the following explanation of the relationship between the early Waldensian movement and that of the early Hussites was written by Kevin Frederick, a member of the board of the American Waldensian Society and a former pastor at the Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, North Carolina.  

For centuries it has been assumed that the Waldensians directly influenced the Hussite movement and that the Waldensians were forerunners of the followers of Jan Hus. However, in recent decades, source documents from the 13th through the 16th centuries have provided greater clarity about the nature of the relationships between the Waldensians and the Czech Reformers. It is worth noting that there are no source documents written by Czech Waldensians from the 13th and 14th centuries. Scholars have had to draw from other sources of documentation to build an accurate historical picture. These source documents include (1) manuals written by the Catholic Inquisition to instruct inquisitors in their prosecutorial duties; (2) records of specific ecclesial trials written by the inquisitors involved; and (3) other official documents from contemporary governments and kingdoms.

By the early 13th century, parts of Austria and southern Germany had already been widely settled by German-speaking Waldensians. Court records of King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia and Moravia reveal that, beginning in the year 1230, King Wenceslaus enticed German-speaking farmers and artisans to migrate from Austria and Germany in an effort to develop his lands with agriculture and marketable crafts. The immigrants brought their faith traditions and beliefs with them. Many of them were Waldensians. This fact corrects the myth that during Valdes’ lifetime Bohemia and Moravia were originally settled by Valdes and his followers. In fact, the Waldensian migration to Bohemia and Moravia began more than twenty years after Valdes’ death. Over the next several decades, the Waldensians’ influence in the Czech regions became increasingly well established. Discerning the Waldensians’ growing strength as a threat, the Inquisition began its persecution of the Waldensians in this region in 1257. It was only partially successful in that only some of the Waldensian leaders were actually prosecuted. An era of relative tolerance followed in Bohemia and Moravia that lasted one hundred years until, in the latter part of the 14th century, the Pope ordered crusades against all heretics in the region. These pogroms were carried out by Archbishop Martin of Prague and a co-inquisitor, Peter Zwicker.

Between 1335 and 1355, the work of the Bohemian/Moravian Inquisition successfully tried and convicted more than 4400 cases against heretics, the vast majority of whom were believed to have been Waldensians. By 1396, all traces of Waldensian influence had been eliminated in the region. There had been four primary enclaves of Waldensian influence in the region, including southern, eastern, northwestern Bohemia, and southern Moravia.

Although Jan Hus was born in southern Bohemia in 1369, it is doubtful that Hus was influenced by Waldensian beliefs if only because the Waldensians spoke German whereas Hus spoke Czech. In fact, Hus came to his theological beliefs from a different direction. He studied the work of the English theologian, John Wycliff, and later taught theology at the University of Prague, a progressive Central European center of learning. Perhaps, as a result, many of his beliefs paralleled Waldensian doctrine. However, it is worth noting that, during his trial in 1414, he is quoted as having said, “I lean not on Waldensian heresy but on the truth of Jesus Christ.” This proved to be a politically astute statement in light of the persecutions of the Waldensians in his day.

Hus was tried by the Council of Constance and then burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. After his death, a group of Hus’ more radical followers, the Taborites, coalesced in Southern Bohemia. The Taborites advocated the use of violence to resist the Catholic persecutions. For a decade, the Taborites did fierce battle with the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund who hailed from Prague. By 1430, the Taborites gave up the use of violence, but their fierce reputation was so well established that, for the following fifteen years, they were still recognized as the most effective fighting force in Central Europe. By the mid-15th century, the Taborites and the more moderate Utraquists (followers of Hus who sought reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church) had found ways to deal with each other. In 1457, many of the more theologically radical group formed the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of the Brethren, from which the modern-day Moravian Church traces its descent.

As early as the 1420’s, dialogue occurred between the Taborites and German-speaking Waldensians. However, this dialogue was with Waldensians in present day Germany and not with Czech Waldensians. This relationship remained a limited partnership as long as the Taborites advocated the use of violence. But, toward the middle of the 15th century, the Waldensian-Brethren relationship became a unified partnership following the formation of the Unitas Fratrum. It is worth noting that the ordination of Michael of Senftenberg, the first bishop of the newly established Unitas Fratrum, involved an unnamed Waldensian barbe, a former Roman Catholic priest who was most likely from Germany. The Waldensian ordination ritual included a “laying on of hands,” which was an expression of the apostolic succession within this newly formed branch of Christianity.

It is worth noting that in 1532, following the somewhat controversial decision of the Waldensian Synod of Chanforan to join the Swiss Reformation, German-speaking Waldensian pastors (Barbe) were urged to consult with leaders in the Unitas Fratrum in Bohemia and Moravia regarding the merger. As it happened, the Waldensian barbe were encouraged by their Bohemian and Moravian colleagues to trust the merger process.

Waldensians, Moravians, and the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren recognize a fraternal relationship of faith to this day. 

208 Rodoret Street South  |  PO Box 398  |  Valdese, NC 28690
866-825-3373  |  828-874-3500 local  |  828-874-0880 fax  |