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About the Waldenses and Huguenots

The Waldensians, or Waldenses, emerged as a religious movement within the Roman Vaudes Catholic Church in medieval France. Their founder, a merchant in Lyon by the name of Vaudès (often referred to today in English as Peter Waldo) underwent a spiritual crisis about the year 1170, gave up his wealth, and started preaching from the Bible. He gathered a number of followers who, like Vaudès, began preaching in the local language, asking for alms for sustenance. Other religious brotherhoods appeared in Europe at the same time. Some, including that of Vaudès's contemporary, Francis of Assisi, were absorbed within the Church. However Vaudès refused the bishop's orders to stop preaching, and was summoned to Rome to explain himself. Still rejecting the authority of the bishops, Vaudès and his followers were excommunicated. Vaudès's movement spread throughout Europe, from France east and north as far as central Europe. Itinerarant Waldensian ministers, known in the French patois as barbe for "uncle," to distinguish them from the Catholic "fathers," went about in twos, gathering sympathetic listeners in shops and houses, yet always subject to prosecution by the Inquisition. When they were discovered, the barbe were brought before the church tribunals and were forced to abjure their faith, or, as happened on many occasions, were murdered on the stake. The Collegio dei Barbi in the Angrogna Valley, in Piedmont, preserves one dwelling used by the barbe for religious training and as a refuge in the late Middle Ages.

Coulege dei Barbi

Waldenses shared their faith clandestinely until the 1500s. The Inquisition reduced Waldensian followers to scattered enclaves, in particular to the rocky ridges of the western Alps. William Farel, the French-Swiss reformer, traveled to the Cottian Alps in 1532 to convince the Waldenses to leave behind their centuries of hidden faith, and to join the Reformation that was taking root in the nearby city of Geneva. Waldensian delegates listened to Farel and hi s colleagues on the fields at Chanforan, and decided there to join the new Protestant movement, by sending their ministers to Geneva for formal religious training, and by constructing churches, "temples," as an outward statement of their convictions. The barbe also voted to commission Pierre Robert Olivétan, a French schoolteacher and cousin of Jean Calvin, to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek. The "Olivétan Bible" is considered the first translation of the Bible into French.


Angrogna tempio

The Waldenses' greater visibility led to further persecution. The mountains did not always provide protection. Several hundred Waldensian families were forcibly resettled from the Alps to the Luberon region of southern France in the 1520s to repopulate an area devastated by the Hundred Years' War. Within a generation, church and civil authorities began to eliminate them there, too, massacring the entire population at Mérindol, perhaps 3000 people, in 1545. In 1655, some 40,000 Savoyard troops sent from the royal court at Torino unleashed a massacre upon the Waldenses in the Pellice, Queyras and Germanasca valleys, an event that aroused the protests of England and the Protestant states of northern Europe. In 1685, under pressure from King Louis XIV of France, Duke Victor Amadeus II imprisoned his Waldensian subjects who refused to convert to Catholicism, permitting the survivors to leave for exile the following year for Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and England. Shortly afterwards, the Duke switched his political allegiances, and his new Protestant allies from north Europe forced him to accept the Waldenses who made their way back in the Glorious Return of 1689. Nevertheless the royal authorities constrained the Waldenses within a limited area of the Alps. Duke Charles Albert finally gave the Waldenses their basic civil rights on February 17, 1848. The date is celebrated each year with nighttime bonfires across the mountains of the Pellice, Chisone and Germanasca valleys.

Pramollo Maisun Nova

In the 1800s, better public health and longer lifespans increased pressure on the Alps' limited farmland. Waldenses took their subsistence farms higher up the mountainsides, and families sent their adolescent boys to work in nearby talc and graphite mines, their girls to serve as maids in Torino or in France, and children of both sexes to work in new textile mills in the Chisone Valley. Hundreds, then thousands of Waldenses left Italy to seek a better living elsewhere starting in the 1850s, as servants in French and English households, and most importantly as farmers in new agricultural colonies on the plains of Uruguay and Argentina, in South America. A group of ten families, led by their minister Jean Pierre Michelin Salomon, left the original colony in Uruguay in 1875 and made their way to Barry County, Missouri in the United States, where they established the first Waldensian church in North America. One of the Waldensian immigrants from South America became the first mayor of the town of Monett, in 1887. Other Waldenses settled in New York City, some were converted by Mormon missionaries in Italy and joined the first wagon trains to the Mormon settlements in Utah, while others founded the Waldensian community in North Carolina, taking the Italian word for Waldensian to name their town Valdese.


Torre Pellice culto

Today, the Waldensian Church in Italy unites churches in the historic Valleys region of western Piedmont and in cities throughout the Italian peninsula to Calabria and Sicily. The Methodist Church in Italy merged with the Waldenses in 1979. The Waldenses' sister church in South America, the Iglesia Evangélica Valdense, represents churches from historic settlements in rural parts of Argentina and Uruguay with churches in the capitals of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Waldensian churches in Italy and South America are actively engaged in worldwide organizations representing the Reformed and Protestant traditions. There are approximately 30,000 Waldensians in Italy today, and 15,000 in the sister church in Argentina and Uruguay.



The Huguenots were French men and women who converted to the Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500s. Huguenots shared the same religious beliefs and the Occitans and French languages with the Waldenses in Piedmont. They lived in close proximity, and were subject to the same violence by dukes, monarchs and zealous Catholic religious orders who attempted to eliminate "heresy." Huguenots and Waldenses intermingled, traveling back and forth across the Alps for religious training and for security, forging family ties in the process.

St Bartholomews Day

The origin of the word "Huguenot" is unclear, but by 1520 the ideas of Martin Luther arrived in France, drawing converts among merchants, artisans, lawyers, and others from the professional class in towns and cities. Martin Luther's Reformation offered local princes and dukes a chance to break from dominance of the king. Soon the Reform had the support of noble families throughout the kingdom. The sudden death of France's King Henry II in 1559 weakened central authority and the realm started to disintegrate. Henry's heirs, at the time children and adolescents, were unable to assert royal power over such a large territory. France fractured along religious and political line. The ensuring Wars of Religion, eight civil conflicts between 1562 and 1598, became a proxy war for other powers, with England and Spain throwing their support to competing sides. For three days beginning on August 24, 1572, St. Bartholomew's Day, ultra-Catholic residents of Paris set upon their Protestant neighbors in the most infamous of these battles, killing roughly 3000 of them. Overall, roughly three million French men and women died in the Wars of Religion. Another 200,000 to 300,000 French Huguenots fled into exile. The Protestants who remained in France were limited in their places to live and practice their religion, and were subject to continuing harrassament from church and civil authorities.

Aigues-Mortes Monument aux galeres After four decades of civil war, King Henry IV tried to reassert the power of the monarchy and to establish peace, by signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The Edict offered the Huguenots the right to practice their religion and the right to military protection within a limited number of French towns and cities. Nevertheless, Henry's grandson, Louis XIV, reversed this policy. He pressured the Huguenots to renounce Protestantism beginning in the 1660s by quartering royal troops in the homes of Protestants, before finally revoking his grandfather's edict in 1685 and once again outlawing the Protestant faith. Huguenots were again forced into exile. Perhaps as many as 300,000 Protestants left France, many of them businesspeople and artisans whose skills were sorely needed in their home country. Most of those who emigrated left for neighboring Protestant areas in Switzerland and Germany, while others left for the Netherlands and England, and on the ships these two countries sent to outposts in North America and South Africa. Huguenots who remained in France had to practice their faith in secret, since if found they faced imprisonment, or, in the case of Huguenot men, were sent to Marseille to row on the royal galley ships. The Huguenots called this period, from the 1660s to the 1730s, their "desert," evoking the period of wandering undertaken by ancient Jews upon their release from captivity in Egypt. Not until the eve of the French Revolution in 1787 did the French king reinstate Protestants' civil rights, and then only in the face of widespread revolt against the monarchy.

France's oldest Protestant Church, the Reformed Church of France, the Eglise Réformée de Aigues Mortes Tour de Constance France, was born in the midst of this strife. During the Wars of Religion, Huguenots gathered into churches that in turn sent representatives to periodic meetings known as synodes. Alternatively persecuted and sent into exile, then tolerated but restricted to certain towns and cities, Huguenot churches organized themselves with lay people participating in the governance of the churches, as envisioned by John Calvin. With the return of persecution, the synodes ceased in 1659. Napoleon Bonaparte allowed the Protestants to assemble again beginning in 1802. Regional differences in France and disagreements over theology led to the formation of several French Reformed churches when tolerance returned. In 1938, the separate churches merged to form the Reformed Church of France. This church in turn joined with the Lutheran Church of France in 2013 to form the United Protestant Church of France (Église Protestante Unie de France).

Lyon Grand Temple Today, lay members and clergy participate equally in the governance of the church in official church administrative assemblies, in regional meetings and in national synods. The United Protestant Church of France participates in world ecumenical organizations such as the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches. The church counts approximately 400,000 members.

Le Grand Temple, Lyon, photo courtesy Olivierrd.


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