850 Years of History

850 Years of Waldensian History

In 1173, during a period of Roman Catholic dominance, a wealthy merchant of Lyon, France known as Valdez, and later as Peter Valdo, became troubled about his own salvation. Valdez sought to read and interpret the Bible for himself and felt led to live out its teaching as it was written. With his new understanding of Matthew 19: 21, “To be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come follow me,” Valdez decided to distribute his worldly goods among the poor and began preaching and evangelizing. Soon, Valdez and his followers became known as the Poor of Lyon and went around spreading the Gospel with the open Bible. Their zealous preachings were met with opposition from the established Roman Catholic Church and led to them being declared heretics. 

Despite facing severe persecution, the Waldenses never strayed from their devout beliefs. Many of them were massacred during the Inquisition in the years following their origin, but those that survived chose to join the Reformation in 1532 because the movement shared many of the same beliefs they had held since the twelfth century. Their belief that scripture should be available to all led them to commission Olivetan, a relative of John Calvin, to translate the Bible into French as their contribution to the Reformed movement. 

Unfortunately, the threat of persecution continued to plague the Waldensians during the Reformation years and beyond. Many of them were systematically killed, tortured, or imprisoned. In 1685, acting on the word of Louis XIV, King of France, the Duke of Savoy set about to eradicate all Waldensian worship and practice. Thousands were sold into slavery, put into prison, or killed in unprovoked attacks designed to systematically remove all evidence of their existence as a people. 

Eventually the Waldenses were given a choice of either renouncing their faith or being exiled. The majority chose exile, and in the winter of 1685, thousands crossed the mountains into Switzerland. While the Waldenses were thankful for the shelter offered in Switzerland, they longed for home, and in 1689 a contingent of men began the journey back toward Italy to fight for the right to their homeland in what is known as The Glorious Return. Over a period of ten days, 900 men faced harsh conditions and battles with French soldiers as they made their way across the 200 miles back to their homeland. Only 600 men made it back to the valleys they called home, but they were able to reclaim their homeland. 

Although the Waldenses had returned to their homes, they would continue to face harsh conditions for centuries to come. On February 17th, 1848, King Charles Albert signed the Edict of Emancipation granting the Waldensians their civil liberties and assuring their freedom.  The Waldenses were now able to live their faith openly and without fear. Ironically, after hundreds of years of persecution, it was prosperity that caused the Waldenses to leave the valleys of Italy for America. In 1893, a small group came to Burke County looking to make a new life and established the small town of Valdese. Their hard work and perseverance created the town that continues to thrive today. 

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