“And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain. . . . After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. . . . These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9-14).
Seized with a vision of God’s Lamb standing good for them in heaven, those who sought him in mediaeval Europe could do nothing other than fall at his feet and worship him. Every word he spoke, recorded in the Gospels, was for them a word from heaven. They took everything they knew of his earthly walk as their pattern, and lived on his promise of eternal life.
Eager for the words of Christ and the first Christians’ testimony about him, the Poor copied, read, and memorised the New Testament zealously. Paper and ink were scarce, but young believers with keen minds abounded. In the scholae they formed teams for scripture memorisation. By two and threes they learned alternate portions so that whenever they met they were sure to have the entire New Testament, and more, ready for recital on call.
The earliest hand written Scriptures used by the Poor followed Jerome’s Latin text, adjusted to the dialects of Italy and southern France. But as their witness spread north and east, they undertook translations of their own. Flemish, German, and Czech scriptures appeared, followed by others in Hungarian and Baltic languages. Already in the 1300s state authorities discovered a complete New Testament in German, along with a translation of Paul’s letter to the Laodicaeans. Soon afterward Plattdeutsch scriptures came to light in the lower Rhein valley, Lübeck, and Halberstadt. Heinrich Eggestein, a Waldensian believer, printed a German Bible only eleven years after Johann Gutenberg, in 1466.
Most Waldensian translations were imperfect, often incomplete works, the product of teachers writing and studying on the run. But the Spirit brought their words to life and those who sought Christ understood his message clearly. “The rule and discipline we accept is to live in every way according to the teaching of the Gospels and to be diligent in keeping them,” a group of Albigensian leaders had declared in AD 1025. “This teaching is to deny the world, to restrain the flesh and its desires, to work with one’s hands to support oneself, to cause no one harm, to care for the poor, and understanding these rules to put them into practice.”1
Pierre de Valdés, writing one hundred and fifty years later, shared their conviction:
According to the Apostle James, faith without works is dead. For that reason we have renounced this world and have distributed to the poor all that we possessed, according to the will of God, and we have decided that we ourselves should be poor in such a way as not be to be anxious for tomorrow, and as not to accept from anyone gold, silver, or anything else, with the exception of clothing and daily food. We have set befroe ourselves the objective of fulfilling the gospel purposes.
We believe also that anyone in this age who gives alms, does other good works with one’s own possesssions and observes the Lord’s commandments will be saved. Brothers, we make this declaration in order that if anyone should come to you affirming to be one of us, you mayknow for certain that that person is not one of us if that person does not profess the same faith.2
In no area did the Poor identify more clearly with the Lord Christ than in his teaching on economics. Even though they left little in writing on the subject, the testimony of their enemies is unanimous. Etienne de Borbonne, a Dominican from Burgundy wrote in the 1200s:
Among other errors, they condemn every person possessing earthly goods. . . . They are called the Poor of Lyons because they began to profess poverty there. They call themselves Poor of Spirit because our Lord said, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.”
Pierre de Pilichdorff wrote in 1395:
They say that their sect has lasted from the time of Pope Sylvester, namely, when the church began to have possessions of her own. The heretics think that this is not lawful, as the Apsotles of Christ were commanded to live without any possession of their own. “Take with you neither gold nor silver. . .”3
Free of the burden of earthly goods, messengers of the Poor travelled continually. Young brothers, after spending several years in silence and seclusion (an experience considered necessary to become spiritually mature) found their way from village to village, usually in the company of an experienced messenger. Often they carried goods with them for sale, or practised common trades, to camouflage their work. But wherever they went, they brought the fragrance of Christ with them, and a continual stream of new believers asked for baptism at their hands.
Baptism was to the Poor a public declaration of one’s decision to follow Christ. But they did not believe that water baptism, in itself, has saving power. In 1124 an informer told the Inquisitorial court:
Everyone that is to be baptised, must first believe and confess, and not until then be baptised into the death of Christ, and be buried with him by baptism in order to arise. . . . They (the teachers) can visibly administer water baptism, but they cannot give the Holy Spirit, in whom, nevertheless, all the virtue of baptism consists.4
Two years later, Pierre, abbot of Cluny in southern France, wrote in a tract against the Poor:
They deny that infants who have not yet attained the years of understanding can be saved by the baptism of Christ and say that the faith of another cannot help those who cannot use their own faith. According to their view not the faith of another but each one’s own faith saves with baptism, because the Lord says: “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
The same abbot, writing against Henri of Toulouse, declared:
He teaches that children may not be baptised or saved through the faith of another, but they must be baptised and saved through their own faith, for baptism without individual faith saves no one. Children who have not yet reached the years of understanding cannot be saved by the baptism of Christ. Those who have been baptised in infancy must, when they become older, be rebaptised for this, he says, is not rebaptising but much rather, baptising right.
Even though it brought them outward trouble the Poor pursued the blessing of Christ through baptism into spiritual communion around bread and wine. One of them, when questioned about their practice described it like this:
After nine o’clock when the supper has been prepared, it is the leader who washes the feet of his companions and dries them with a towel that he wears like an apron. Having done this, the leader sits at the table with the others. Then taking bread, fish and wine, he blesses them, not as an offering or sacrifice, but as a remembrance of the first supper. While he does this he prays: “May Jesus Christ who blessed the five barley loaves and two fishes in the desert and who turned water into wine, bless, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this bread, this fish, and this wine. . .” After this he eats and drinks, then gives to all his companions, who in turn eat and drink.5
The joy of fellowship in Christ and with one another prepared the Poor to face the host of Christ’s opponents, gathered against them. In a writing called A Treatise on the Antichrist, probably of the late 1100s, one of them wrote:
The Antichrist teaches men that spiritual new birth comes about through the dead outward act of baptism, that is, the baptism of children. . . . He tries to make unity, not through the Holy Spirit but through worldly power. For this reason he hates and persecutes the members of the body of Christ. He hunts them down, robs them and tries to destroy them. This he does, and many other things, to cover up his hypocrisy. But all idolatry comes from his false teaching on grace through the sacraments, from his abuse of authority, and from the idea of praying to saints rather than to God himself. . . . For a long time the Antichrist has already reigned in the church.
Seeing nothing but the Antichrist raging around them, and the Lord Christ smiling on them from above, the Poor came to hold a drastically “detached” outlook on life. What mediaeval Europeans held in high esteem lost, for them, its attraction. Pleasures of time and sense gave way to the higher pleasure of waiting in the presence of Christ. Another writing circulated among them, La Nobla Leyczon, puts this feeling to words:
We should always watch and pray because the world is coming to its end. For the same reason we should strive to do good works. . . . We must desire little, for we are at the very end. We see the signs of the end every day--the increase of evil and the decrease of good. These are the dangers to which the Gospels and the letters of Paul refer. No one can know when the end will be. Therefore we should be the more vigilant, not knowing if death will seize us today or tomorrow.
When Jesus shall come on the day of judgement, all will receive payment in full, those who have done evil and those who have done good. The Scriptures tell us that all will go one of two ways: the good to glory and the wicked to torment. . . .
We must pray without ceasing that God give us strength against our enemies, to overcome them before our end--they are the world, the devil, and the flesh. God give us wisdom, along with goodness, so we may know the way of truth, keeping pure that spirit God has given us. . . .
After the apostles there were certain teachers who taught the way of Christ our Saviour, and who are found even to this day, known to very few, who would show the way of Jesus Christ. They are so persecuted that they are able to do but little. Many are the false Christians blinded with error who persecute and hate those who are good, and let those live quietly who are false deceivers. But by this we may know that they are not good pastors, for they love not the sheep, but only the wool. Scripture says, and we know it be to be true, that if anyone is good, loving Jesus Christ, that person will neither curse, nor swear, nor lie, will neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor steal, nor be avenged over the enemy. . . . One that is thus persecuted for the sake of the Lord takes courage in this, that the kingdom of heaven shall be inherited at death. . . .
All the popes from Sylvester on, the cardinals, bishops, abbots, and the like, have no power to absolve or pardon any creature so much as one mortal sin. It is God alone who pardons, and no other. This is what pastors ought to do: preach to the people and pray with them, and feed them with teaching from on high.
A young man, helper to a Bonne Homme, said in 1451:
There are only two ways open to all and which determine whether one will be saved or condemned. The one who does good will go to paradise, and the one who does evil will go to hell and damnation. Purgatory does not exist. 6
Such clarity, in the presence of God’s Lamb that takes away the sin of the world led the Poor into marvellous unity.
1 From the acts of the synod of Arras, AD 1025.
2 Enchiridion Fontium Valdensium, volume 1, Torre Pellice, 1958, G. Gonnet
3 Petri de Pilichdorf Sacrae Theologiae Professoris contra Haeresium Valdensium Tractatus
4 Rupert Tuiciensis, Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters
5 From the court testimony of Raymond de la Cóte, 1320.
6 Processo di un Valdese nell’ anno 1451, Beiträge zur Sektengeschichte des Mittelalters