19th Century American Presbyterian Writings About the Waldensians

If one reads the writings of Samuel Miller, one of the most prolific American Presbyterian authors of the 18th-19th centuries, one may notice just how often he references the Waldensians, a stream of proto-Protestant Christianity centered in the Alps of France and Italy, in his many works on church history, church government and baptism.

Often Miller addresses the assertions of those Baptists who claim the Waldensians for their own, while showing that in fact they were paedobaptist in their sacramentology and Presbyterian in their understanding of ecclesiology.

The Waldensians (known as the Vaudois in French) began as a movement of conscience which practiced resistance against Papal authority in Lyon, France under the leadership of Peter Waldo in the 12th century, and they suffered tremendous persecution for centuries. They officially embraced the Protestant Reformation at the Synod of Chanforan in 1532. John Milton famously wrote a sonnet about their sufferings during the Piedmontese Easter of 1655, and in fact, worked on behalf of Oliver Cromwell and with Andrew Marvell to apply diplomatic pressure to assist the Waldensians in their need. Later, as noted by Walter H. Conser, Jr. and Robert J. Cain in Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective (p. 176), a body of Waldensians who had settled in Valdese, North Carolina joined the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1895, taking as their name the Waldensian Presbyterian Church. The Waldensians have long had a special place in the hearts of American Presbyterians because of their courage and faithfulness beginning centuries before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, thus launching the Protestant Reformation.

Miller, who was a professor of ecclesiastical history at Princeton, wrote specifically about the Waldensians in the following works:

  • “The Doctrine and Order of the Waldenses,” The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine (five articles appeared in 1820 and 1821) [these articles are not yet available to read at Log College Press, but it is hoped they will be in the future];

  • Appendix to James Wharey’s Sketches of Church History, Concerning the History and Doctrine of the Waldensians (1838, 1840); and

  • Recommendatory Letter to History of the Ancient Christians Inhabiting the Valleys of the Alps [an English translation of Jean Paul Perrin’s history of the Waldensians] (1845, 1847).

But Miller was not alone among the American Presbyterian writers of his day in taking note of the story and situation of the Waldensians.

Robert Baird spent time among the Waldensians of Italy in 1837 and 1851. His sons, Charles and Henry, who became noted Huguenot historians, both imbided his appreciation for the cause of Protestants in Europe, including the Waldensians. Henry’s biography of his father makes mention of the contacts Robert made with them, as well as his deep love for the people. And Henry would go on to speak of the Waldensians in more depth in his History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France, Vol. 1. Charles argued in his History of the Huguenot Emigration to America that a number of Waldensians settled in the Huguenot community of Manakintowne, Virginia (near Richmond). Both Robert and Charles introduced or translated the writings of Jean Henri-Merle D’Aubigné, whose histories of the Reformation and essays often highlighted the Waldensians. Robert wrote:

  • Sketches of Protestantism in Italy, Past and Present, Including a Notice of the Origin, History, and Present State of the Waldenses (1845); and

  • “The Modern Vaudois” (1847), an essay appended to the aforementioned History of the Ancient Christians Inhabiting the Valleys of the Alps.

William Craig Brownlee also wrote Saint Patrick and the Western Apostolic Churches: or, The Religion of the Ancient Britains and Irish, not Roman Catholic: and The Antiquity, Tenents and Sufferings of the Albigenses and Waldenses (1857).

Thomas Smyth wrote “The Waldenses—Were They Pedobaptists?” (Works, Vol. 6).

William Maxwell Blackburn has a great to say about the Waldensians in his History of the Christian Church From Its Origin to the Present Time (1879).

Robert Pollock Kerr has a chapter on the Waldenses in The People’s History of Presbyterianism in All Ages (1888).

Richard Clark Reed makes mention of the Waldensians in his History of the Presbyterian Churches of the World (1912).

Madison Monroe Smith wrote An Epitome of the Doctrines and Practice of the Old Waldenses and Albigenses (1866).

Joel Tyler Headley wrote History of the Persecutions and Battles of the Waldenses (1853).

These are really just to name a few of the works that are available here. Many more American Presbyterian works have been written about the Waldensians, and we at Log College Press continue to assemble them. Their memory is sacred, and they continue to inspire us; we do well even in the 21st century to learn all we can about them.