Anyone reading Church histories, especially those covering the Middle Ages, will doubtless meet the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Anabaptists. But who were they?
In 1160, Peter Waldo (?-1217), a wealthy young banker, was stunned by the death of a guest at one of his banquets. Peter had also been impressed by the message of a troubadour who related the legend of Saint Alexius, the penitent scion of a noble family who refused a bride and went into self-imposed exile and poverty. Alexius returned to his home years later, destitute and unknown.
Waldo consulted the local theological minds about this story and was directed to the saying of the Lord Jesus, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me” (Mt. 19:21). In 1173, he sold his property, gave away all the proceeds except what he needed to care for his wife, and sent his two daughters to a monastery. Thereafter, in class-conscious feudal Europe, he stepped down and began to preach to the common people.
At some point in those early years, while he still had the income to do so, he obtained a copy of the Scriptures and employed two clerks to translate it into the Romance dialect. Portions of these handwritten translations, called the Romaunt or Gallic Version, are still preserved.
As a leader and organizer, Peter banded his co-workers together. They were styled “the poor in spirit,” or “the poor of Lyons.” Their initial intent was not to become a protest movement. They really had two desires: freedom to preach as laymen, and permission to produce Bible translations in the vernacular of the common people.
In 1179, they crossed the mountains in order to present their cause in Rome at the Third Lateran Council. Pope Alexander III allowed the “Poor of Lyons” to maintain vows of poverty, but they were denied permission to preach as laymen unless they were expressly invited to preach by the local clergyman.
At first they thought they could live with this arrangement, but soon realized that dissolute clergymen made poor supervisors. So they went preaching with or without an invitation. In 1184, Pope Lucius III had them excommunicated for insubordination.
By this time, Waldo had contacted believers from the Alpine valleys on the boundary between France and Italy. On the west side of the range the believers on French soil were called Albigenses, probably because of their proximity to the city of Albi.
Within Italy, their accusers called them Waldenses. It is popularly assumed that they are named after Peter Waldo. Both groups were known as Vaudois by the French, and the Valdes by the Italians. One of them described his fellowship as “the little flock of Christians referred to falsely and with false names as p.o.v.o.b.” The initials probably stood for “Picards or Valdes or Beghards,” all such titles were so inflammatory that it was unsafe to write them out in full.
Where were the Waldensians doctrinally? We cannot assume that everyone burned at the stake or hurled off a cliff by the magistrates of the Middle Ages was a Bible-believing Christian. But in the case of the Waldensians, we believe they were the most strictly biblical group of believers of the Middle Ages. The Inquisition itself affirmed their soundness on the basic doctrines of Scripture. The complaint against them was not their doctrines but their stubborn resistance to papal authority.
The Waldenses were evangelical in the best sense of the word, sending out young men in pairs on missionary trips. The fact that these men were usually unmarried has lead to the slander that the Waldensians forbad marriage.
John Darby noted that many of their beliefs were in reaction to errors of the State Church. “The infamy of the clergy, degraded by species of vice which none can call in question, had roused the conscience of many, and more as to practice and the acts by which they made money than as to dogma. But purgatory, consecration to the priesthood, indulgences, confession to priests, and prayers for the dead, were all rejected.”
This lines up with the accusation of the inquisitor Sacconi, “They preach much from the Gospels and say among other things that a man should do no evil, nor lie, nor swear. When they preach from the Gospels and Epistles they corrupt them with their explanations, as masters of error who know not to sit at the feet of truth, teaching and expounding the Scriptures being wholly forbidden to layfolk. They say that their church is the true church and that the Roman church is not a true Church but is the Church of malignants. They reprobate Church wealth and ecclesiastical ‘regalia’ or the high feudal privileges of bishops and abbots. They seek to abolish all ecclesiastical privilege and they maintain no one should be compelled to the faith…They condemn the Church’s sacraments and say that a priest who lives in mortal sin cannot make the body of Christ; that transubstantiation takes place not in the hands of the priest…but in the mind of him who received it worthily.” And all of this from Rainier Sacconi, who was formerly among the “heretics,” but in the time of persecution left them and became a Dominican and an Inquisitor.
The Waldenses saw evident success in gospel work. By the sixteenth century, there were functioning congregations in Bavaria, Bohemia, England, France, Italy, Poland, Swabia, and Switzerland. One claimed there were as many as 13,000 Waldenses believers in Austria.
The term “Lollard” eventually became a general name for those deemed heretical to the Roman Church, but it was not so from the beginning. One opinion is that the name comes from the Middle Dutch, lollaert, meaning to mumble or mutter. Another traces the word to the Low German lollen or lullen, meaning to sing in a low tone, from the subdued and plaintive dirges used while accompanying the dead to the grave. If this is so, it corresponds to the contemporary scorn for hymn singing, which worldly-minded people speak of as “funeral dirges.”
Much of what we learn of the Lollards has been gleaned, not from their writings, but from their accusers. In Broadbent’s Pilgrim Church, we read, “One chronicle relates that in 1322 a certain Walther came to Cologne from Mainz. He was ‘a leader of the Brethren and a dangerous heresiarch, who for many years had remained hidden and had involved many in his dangerous errors. He was seized near Cologne and by court of justice given over to the fire and burnt. He was a man full of the Devil, more able than any other, constant in his error, clever in his answers, corrupt in faith, and no promises, no threats, not even the most terrible tortures could bring him to betray his fellow culprits, of whom there were many. This Lollard, Walther, of Netherland origin, had little knowledge of the Latin language, and wrote the numerous works of his false faith in the German tongue, as he could not do it in the Roman speech, and distributed them very secretly to those whom he had deceived and led astray. As he refused all repentance and recantation, and defended his error most steadfastly, not to say obstinately, he was thrown into the fire and left nothing but his ashes behind.'” How remarkable that the writer felt entirely justified, thinking he was doing God service, by assenting to such monstrous cruelty.
When Wycliff began his work, men were employed to preach everywhere across England, and these also became known as Lollards. How many of them were burned at the stake in England is hard to know. But the flame they lit swept across Europe with gospel light.
The brethren of Reformation times called “Anabaptists” claimed that their congregations existed from earliest times. They affirmed that the havoc and political unrest of the Reformation created a window of opportunity to these long persecuted brethren. Taking advantage of the social upheaval, the underground church of the Dark Ages went public. Missionaries traversed central Europe, holding meetings among brethren who previously had been secretive. Converted Catholic priests and monks held conferences, and performed public baptisms. Around 1524, in Germany, many gatherings declared their independence from the State Church by receiving believer’s baptism. It was then that the name “Second Baptizers” or “Anabaptists” was born. Hitherto, almost everyone within a region, whether Catholic or Protestant, had been baptized as an infant. In those days to have an infant baptized was comparable to parents applying for a social security number for a newborn.
The state viewed your baptism papers as they would citizenship papers. To be baptized a second time was to renounce your first baptism, and in their case to appear to renounce your citizenship. This may explain why the Anabaptists were besieged and harried. They had committed treason. With few places to hide, they lived without government protection during the times of the Reformation in northern Europe. But being neither Lutheran nor Catholic, they were unrecognized and unincorporated under the laws of the land. Illegal preachers who raised illegal lights into that inky night soon met the executioner. One edict said, “Out of the ashes of Waldo many new shoots arise and it is necessary to impose a severe and heavy punishment as an example.”
Conrad Grebel was imprisoned for three months in the tower at Zurich. He escaped in 1526, but he did not live out the year. A fugitive, he narrowly missed martyrdom by dying of the plague. Felix Manz was repeatedly arrested and finally drowned in the Limmat River by order of the Zurich Council in 1527. His execution was the first of a long line of Anabaptist martyrs. Michael Sattler was burned at the stake in Rottenburg in 1527. His faithful wife followed him, being drowned in the Neckar River eight days later. In that same year, a conference of Anabaptists was held in Augsburg which became known as “The Martyrs’ Synod” because so many of those in attendance lost their lives for the name of Christ. Hans Denck took a leading part in that conference. Before the year was out, the weary fugitive would die of the plague. George Blurock was captured at Tyrol and burned at Innsbruck in 1529. All of these gifted servants of Christ were in their mid-thirties, except Balthaser Hubmaier, who endured a lengthy interrogation before he was burned in Vienna in 1528; he was about 48 years old. Three days after his martyrdom, his wife was drowned in the Danube River.
Exiled, tortured, drowned and burnt, the death toll mounted to the thousands in Austria, Germany, and Holland. Followers of this fledgling movement had barely poked their heads out of the caves and dens in which they were hiding when they were stripped of their most promising Bible teachers and evangelists. And these tremors reached across Europe.
Martin Luther collided with the Anabaptists over the purity of the Church. The Anabaptists strove for a believing church, comprised only of true Christians, while Luther could not bring himself to renounce the State Church idea (necessarily a mixed multitude of saved and lost). It would mean sacrificing the political support of the princes. At this Luther drew back, defending an inclusive church where sinners belonged.
Luther felt that the Anabaptists did not understand “the pure doctrine nor did they seek it.” “The pure doctrine” was Luther’s formula of sola fide (“by faith alone”). He meant that man cannot earn his salvation, neither in whole nor in part. As such it is quite biblical. But Luther’s view of salvation had a lopsided emphasis on salvation as a judicial clearing of guilt–“justification” at the expense of a practical life change–“regeneration.” This worried the underground church. They read Luther to mean sola fide as “faith standing alone” or “faith unaccompanied” which they could not accept. They had paid too dearly to recover the lifestyle of authentic Christianity to accept a theology which undermined a distinctive way of life. They appreciated the book of James, and it shocked them to hear Luther call it a “right strawy epistle.” Lucas of Prague chided Luther for neglecting “fruits worthy of repentance.”
Our hearts rejoice to know that there have always been, since the days of the apostles, believers who have gone “forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13).
For further reading:
Wycliffe the Morning Star, by George S. Innis
The Lollards, the Witnesses for the Truth in Great Britain,
published by the Religious Tract Society
Medieval Heresy, Malcolm Lambert, Blackwell
Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of Piedmont
and of the Albigenses, Peter Allix
Anatomy of a Hybrid, Leonard Verduin, Eerdman
Martyrs’ Mirror, Herald Press
The Vaudois, J. N. Darby, Collected Writings, Vol. 20