By Julia Chapman
Peter Waldo (circa. 1140-1205) was a rich merchant of Lyon, France who had a conversion experience around the time that a friend died suddenly while at an evening meal together. Waldo became voluntarily poor, distributing his worldly goods to the benefit of the poor. His change of lifestyle led him to strongly condemn papal excesses.
He committed to following the Bible above any teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that disagreed with Scripture. This led Waldo to
- reject transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper actually were transformed, at the words of the priest during mass, into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ),
- deny the existence of purgatory, and
- denounce the papacy as the harlot of the book of Revelation.
Waldo is credited with the first translation of the Bible into a modern language. Each copy was handwritten, as the printing press had not yet been invented. His followers often spread God’s Word while disguised as traveling peddlers. In 1184 Pope Lucius III excommunicated Waldo and his followers, and ordered the archbishop to stop them from preaching and giving Bibles to the people.
The Waldensians (circa 1st Century AD) Although some sources say that Peter Waldo founded the Waldensians, it is more likely that the apostles are to be credited for the kind of pure Christianity that the Waldensians were known for. were cited in history long before Peter Waldo, as the “Valdensis” condemned by Pope Lucius II in 1144. Much of what we know about this people, called the “little flock”, has been provided by the group that was condemning them as heretics.
Some of their basic beliefs were that:
- the atoning death and justifying righteousness of Christ alone was sufficient for salvation;
- when Adam sinned, sin infected the whole human race; and
- Jesus Christ was the incarnation, or physical human presence, of God.
They rejected the idea of purgatory as the “invention of the Antichrist” (Samuel Moreland, History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valley of the Piedmonts; 1658). Waldensians also rejected the teachings regarding relics, pilgrimages, and transubstantiation. They believed the Roman Catholic Church to be the harlot of Revelation, and held that the pope was the Antichrist.
Persecution forced these Bible-believing Christians to live in the mountains and valleys of Italy where they continued to preach and live according to the Word of God as they had come to understand it. These were not a people content to live out their faith privately; they were active in sharing the truth of God’s word and traveled to tell others of their faith in Jesus.
In the 17th century they were nearly wiped out through the attacks of Carlo Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, but Oliver Cromwell, a British military and political leader, intervened for them, which led to about twenty years of relative peace. In 2015 Pope Francis stood in a Waldensian church and apologized for the church’s “un-Christian and even inhumane positions and actions.”
John Wycliffe (1320-1384) was a professor at the University of Oxford in England. He worked to call the minds of people to the Word of God. In doing this work he challenged the authority of the church, which was through the pope, in favor of the authority of God through His word.
Wycliffe is probably best known for having the Bible translated into the language of the people. His was the first translation into the English language. Until that time, the Bible was only available in Latin, which only church officials and academics could read.
Wycliffe also defended the rights of England to refuse paying tribute to the Papacy. He stood before Parliament asking for reform concerning the abuses of the church. He wrote tracts against the Roman Catholic clergy, from friars to cardinals, and the pope, contrasting their extravagant lifestyles with the humility and meekness of Christ.
John Huss (1369-1415) was a professor at Charles University in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. He came to see the Savior as the only remedy for sin. Huss encouraged congregational singing during worship services, something that wasn’t done until that time. He taught and preached the universal priesthood of all believers, a teaching that comes from the Bible.. His Bible study led him to preach and write against the errors he saw in the church.
The bishops in his area wrote to the pope accusing him of heresy, but Queen Anne of Bohemia protected him for a time. In 1409 the Archbishop, under the direction of the pope, gave order forbidding Huss from preaching, and destroyed his books in a great bonfire. The following year Huss was excommunicated, but John Huss continued to attack Papal practices such as the sale of indulgences.
The Council of Constance, in 1414, called Huss to trial. He received the promise of safe-conduct from the German Emperor, but the pope put him in a dungeon, saying to himself, “it is no sin to break a promise to a heretic.” Eventually Huss was burned at the stake, but he sang praises to God while he burned.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) had become a priest, but did not know God as a God of love. Luther had a transformative experience while on his 1510 trip to Rome. He came face to face with the extravagance and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. He came to understand that the solution to man’s sin problem is found only by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and not by any penance or indulgence, or other work-based method.
According to Romans 1:17 Luther’s motto became: Salvation through faith in Christ alone. Besides his work of Bible translation, and many other writings, Luther published the first German hymnbook in 1524. He wrote over 125 hymns including “Away in a Manger” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) saw the importance of Scripture over the traditions held by the Roman Catholic Church. He saw that the church had not held true to Biblical truth over the years. Zwingli held the Word of God as the only supreme truth. He memorized most of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament.
Zwingli taught that Christ is our sacrifice and we need no other sacrifice for sin. His beliefs were similar to Luther’s in many ways, although they differed regarding the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli was instrumental in bringing about the Swiss Reformation.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) studied the Bible secretly, because during his time men studying to become priests needed permission from the Bishop to read or translate any part of the Bible. As he studied, he was impressed with the need of people having the Bible in their own language, and so to see truth for themselves directly from the Word of God. By his time the translation written by Wycliffe used many forms of English words that were archaic and out of use. There was a need for an updated translation and Tyndale, with his expertise in Greek and Hebrew, set to work.
He translated the New Testament of the Bible into English and had completed a large portion of the Old Testament as well, before his death. He also wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible, describing the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. His Bibles were printed outside of England and smuggled into the country.
He also wrote Obedience of a Christian Man which was owned by Anne Boleyn and read by her husband, King Henry VIII. Tyndale was betrayed by a fellow countryman, Henry Phillips, and died by strangulation just prior to being burned at the stake in 1536.
The Great Bible, published in 1539, was largely composed of Tyndale’s translation work, and was placed in every church in England, so that all the people could read it and hear it read, according to the permission given by King Henry VIII.
John Knox (1513-1572) taught that all preaching and teaching must be subjected to the test of Scripture. He disagreed with the idea of purgatory, and called mass “idolatry” as it involved the worship of images. Many times he appeared before his queen, Mary Stuart, and was tried for treason for speaking to her disrespectfully, but he was set free as innocent because everyone knew him to be an honest man, despite speaking harsh truths at times. Knox established the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.
John Calvin (1509-1564) felt no peace regarding his salvation despite absolutions, penances, and the various intercessions of the church. He studied and found that the pope invented doctrines that were not in agreement with the Word of God.
He wrote extensively and made a systematic theology of the evangelical reformed faith in his work Institutes of the Christian Religion. He also wrote Ecclesiastical Ordinances about the duties of the various offices of the church. Calvin worked to convince the city of Geneva to run the city on the basis of Christ’s teachings, and deny the error of the Roman Catholic Church. His work led to the city adopting many new laws.
Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a mild, and peaceable priest who began to doubt the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the Lord’s supper, but this was only the beginning. He urged people to be simple in their choices of food, choices of attire, and in choices regarding their material possessions.
Like other Anabaptists, Simons believed baptism of infants to be against Biblical teachings. He believed that prior to baptism there is to be a conversion, a repentance and rejection of the former life. Simons held baptism to be a pledge of obedience to God that can only come after a confession of faith. Infants cannot do that. For his belief in this, Simons and others like him were persecuted both by the Roman Catholic Church and by other Protestant believers.