Waldenses, Or Vaudois, a Christian denomination in Italy. The name is commonly derived from Petrus Waldus, Peter Waldo, or Pierre de Vaux, an opulent citizen of Lyons (about 1170), who is regarded as their founder. Some, however, derive it from the Latin vallis, valley, so that it would denote "inhabitants of the valleys." Probably an opposition to the Roman Catholic church, not unlike the Waldensian or the kindred Albigensian movement, existed in some of the Alpine valleys long prior to the date just named. Petrus Waldus, by reading the Bible and the early church writers, conceived an ardent desire to bring back the church, which in her external appearance seemed to him utterly corrupt, to primitive and apostolical purity. He gave all his possessions to the poor, began preaching, and collected a body of associates, who were commonly called the " Poor of Lyons," Leonistae (from the name of that city), Sabatati (from their wearing wooden shoes or sandals), or Humiliati (from their humility). The earlier Waldenses probably had no design of seceding from the general church; but when the archbishop of Lyons commanded them to be silent, and Pope Alexander III., disregarding their appeal, likewise forbade their meetings (1179), Waldus continued to preach, teaching that they must obey God rather than man; and in 1184 he and his followers were formally excommunicated by Pope Lucius III. His views spread in France, Italy, and Bohemia, and his adherents became especially numerous in Provence and in the valleys of Piedmont. In 1242 they were again Condemned by the synod of Tarragona, and large numbers of them were put to death.
Those living in the valleys suffered especially from persecution, and under Sixtus IV. a crusade was preached against them. In Bohemia they united mostly with the Hussites, especially the Taborites, and with the Bohemian Brethren. The persecution of the Waldenses of Piedmont continued with but rare interruptions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1686 they were attacked by a French and Italian army, the former under Catinat, sent by Louis XIV., who had just expelled the Protestants of France; 3,000 were killed, 10,000 imprisoned, and 3,000 of their children distributed in Catholic towns and villages. Indeed, till the present century, their history is mainly comprised in sufferings and death for conscience' sake. Several thousand loft the valleys for Switzerland, Holland, Brandenburg, Hesse, and Würtemberg. In the last named country full freedom of religious worship was guaranteed to them, and they still exist in considerable numbers, forming part of the state church, but retaining their own rites. In 1690 the duke of Savoy invited the fugitives to return, but in 1730 they suffered from a new persecution.
Napoleon gave to their clergy for their support landed property, of which they were again stripped after his fall; but the king of Sardinia, at the instance of the Prussian government, gave to each of their ministers a small fixed salary. About 1826 the Prussian government began to interest itself more actively in their behalf, and to aid them in the erection of churches and schools. Still they continued to be excluded from all civil and military offices till 1848, when Sardinia granted them full religious and ecclesiastical liberty and equality of civil and political rights with the Roman Catholics. Until 1848 they were confined to three retired valleys of the Cottian Alps, Lucerna, Perosa, and San Martino; but they have since organized new congregations in all parts of Italy. In 1848 Turin became the centre of many of their operations; but when all Italy was opened to them by the subsequent revolutions, they fixed upon Florence as the centre of their denomination, and consequently the theological seminary was removed thither in 1860, and the printing press with the publication of their peculiar organ in 1862. They have been especially active in the publication of religious books, and in 1861, in order to extend this field of their labor, an Italian evangelical publication society was formed.
In 1873 they had seven professors in the theological seminaries of Florence and colleges of La Tour and Pomaret; a hospital at each of the last two places; a superior school for young men, a normal school, a grammar school at Pomaret, and 19 theological students at Florence. Four journals were published, three in Italian and one in French. In the beginning of 1876, according to a recent report, the Waldensian church in Italy, besides 16 parishes in the valleys, had 40 settled congregations, 10 missionary stations with 50 outposts occasionally visited, 20 ordained ministers, 10 licentiates, 14 schoolmaster-evangelists, 53 other teachers, 5 colporteurs, and 2,140 communicants. In Rome the Waldenses have an organization and a church edifice, and Sabbath and other schools. There is a Waldensian colony at Rosario in the Argentine Republic. - In doctrine and church constitution, the Waldenses approach nearest to the Reformed church of France. They recognize the Bible as their only rule of faith, and believe their " Confession of Faith" published in 1655 to be the most correct expression of Biblical theology. With regard to the Lord's supper they agree with the Calvinists, but they have not adopted the doctrine of absolute predestination.
In their public services they use the Bible, and especially the Psalms. Their synod consists of all the ministers and twice their number of lay delegates, who however cast only an equal number of votes with the clergy. The meetings are annual. Each of their congregations has a consistory composed of the minister, an elder, and a deacon. Above these local consistories is a supreme consistory, called "the Table," and composed of three clergymen and two laymen. - On the history of the Waldenses, see Monastier, Histoire de Veglise vaudoise (2 vols., Geneva, 1847); Baird, "The Waldenses, Albigenses, and Vaudois" (Philadelphia, 1848); Dieckhoff, Die Waldenser im Mittelalter (Gottingen, 1851); Muston, L'Israel des Alpes (4 vols., Paris, 1851), republished (1851) as Histoire des Vaudois des vallees du Piemont et de leurs colonies depuis leur origine jusqu'd nos jours (English translation by William Hazlitt, London, 1852, and by John Montgomery, 2 vols., Glasgow, 1857; German translation by Dr. J. F. Schroder, Duisburg, 1874); Herzog, Die romanischen Waldenser (Halle, 1853); and "Sketches of the Evangelical Christians of the Valleys of Piedmont" (anonymous, 12mo, Philadelphia, 1853).