Who was Peter Waldo?

In the middle of the 12th century there lived a man by the name of Peter Waldo in the town of Lyons in France. Waldo, whose name has many different variations in historical record keeping, was an extremely wealthy merchant who had made his money by charging obscene amounts of interest from people he lent money to. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of an affluent lifestyle, Waldo had a spiritual epiphany.

Some commentators attribute it to a story he heard in the town square one sunny Sunday morning as he stopped to listen to a jester spinning yarns to a transfixed crowd, others say that during a similar gathering in the town square he happened to see someone drop dead in front of him. Either way, Waldo suddenly realized his spiritual need and immediately went looking for a priest who could help him sort out his spiritual maladies.

The priest quoted Matthew 19:21 to him in which Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor if he would be perfect. Waldo immediately went home and told his wife of his plans to sell everything he had and distribute it to the poor. He then asked her to choose which of his wealth she wanted to keep, the real estate or the personal estate. She ended up keeping the real estate and he ended up taking the cash and, after having set up trust funds for his two little girls, proceeded to distribute his money liberally to the poor until he was nearly destitute and begging for bread. While he was distributing his money Waldo still felt a deep lack in his heart. He longed to be able to read the Bible for himself so he could know, personally, who God was and what He required of him. Now Waldo was wealthy but, as was the case with most of the general population at that time, he was illiterate.

Peter Waldo

 What that means is that he couldn’t read and write Greek or Latin and since the Bible was written in Greek and Latin he was hard-pressed to achieve his dreams of reading it for himself. So he went back to the priests and practically begged them to translate the New Testament into the local language for him so he could read the Bible on his own. The priests surprisingly acquiesced and handed him a translated copy of the gospels.

Waldo read it voraciously and before long he began to preach what he had learned in the Bible among the people of Lyons. The good citizens of Lyons listened spellbound as Waldo preached the gospel to them from the Bible in their own language. It was the beginning of a revolution in the little town that would spread far and wide across Europe.

Little Fires Everywhere

Those who heard Waldo preached began to preach what they had learned to others and soon a small grassroots movement of laity rose up to teach the Bible from door to door, wherever and whenever they could. Suddenly there were little fires everywhere. The Archbishop of Lyon, a circumspect gentleman named John, commanded them to cease and desist immediately to which they quite boldly replied: “we ought to obey God rather than man”. John was aghast at their temerity and also quite at a loss for words.

Castelluzzo Monument
Waldensian Valley

The little fires were now threatening to become raging infernos that would take down many of the strongholds of the Papacy if they weren’t put out immediately. The matter was escalated to the Pope, who at the time was Innocent III, one of the shrewdest and bloodiest men to ever occupy the seat of Peter in Rome. He immediately prevailed upon the political powers of the time to issue warrants for the arrests of every single Vaudois heretic in the land. He then brought the matter before the Lateran Council where the Waldenses were branded as heretics and condemned to death. 

Shape Shifters

The Waldenses had no choice but to leave the cities and town en masse and literally run for 

the hills but that didn’t stop them from carrying forward their mission. They became masters of disguise, learning several different trades so that they could present themselves in different occupations in different towns. 

One of them might be a blacksmith in one town and while offering his blacksmithing services he would then produce portions of Scripture that he carried in concealed pockets in his clothing or with his blacksmithing gear. He would do this until he was caught, at which point he would try his best to escape. If he managed to do so he would pull out a different outfit and a different complement of tools from his bottomless bag of tricks and voila, transform himself into a cobbler and move on to the next village to repeat the entire process again.

They had the Catholic Church tearing out its hair in frustration to such a point that the Church issued several decrees forbidding people to read the Bible, saying it created the worst kind of heresy and spiritual declension. People were instructed to take any Bibles or passages of Scripture they might have to their friendly local Archbishop’s office so that they could be burned thus sparing people the terrors of eternal damnation which would inevitably fall upon them for reading it.

But the quiet revolution was already underway and try as they might burn as many Bibles as they could lay their hands on, the church could do nothing to stop the power of the Word of God. Ellen White poignantly writes “The Bible, with its precious gems of truth, was not written for the scholar alone. On the contrary, it was designed for the common people”. And when the Waldenses placed it in the hands of the common man, in the language of the common man, the Waldensian revolution spread like wildfire across Europe and the world has never been the same again.

 

Citations 

Vedder, Henry. C  “Origin and Early Teachings of the Waldenses, according to Roman Catholic Writers of the Thirteenth Century”, The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 4, No. 3,  pp. 465-489, (Jul. 1900), The University of Chicago Press.

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.