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The Waldensians: A North Carolina Connection to the Medieval Period

Not many people know that North Carolina has a small town which originated with a religious group from Italy. The group is the Waldensians, and the town is, well, read on.

Before we talk about the town, though, a short history of the group.

Most groups have a founder; sometimes the group is named after their founder (Lutherans, Martin Luther; Amish, Jacob Ammen). So it is with the Waldensians; they are named after Peter Waldo (died app. 1218) of Lyons, France.

Waldo had some problems with the Catholic Church. And he did something which is common today, but was unheard of in the 1100s: he formed his own group, the Waldensians.

So what were the problems? One, he believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible in their own language. While he did not translate the Bible himself, he hired others to translate the Gospels and other biblical books into French in the late 1100s.

Two, he believed in living a life of poverty and chastity. After he became convinced of this idea (by 1170), he gave his property to his wife (he was wealthy), he put his two daughters in a convent, and he gave his belongs away; he lived as a poor preacher for the rest of his life.

Three, he believed that some of the clergy were not living proper lifestyles. This was a problem that other Catholics recognized and successful reform movements had already begun to correct this. Four, yet he believed that he could preach the correct message. That is what got him into trouble. The Catholic Church did not allow anyone to preach to whom they had not given authority. (This same idea is prevalent among Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant groups today; it is called ordination.) But Waldo would not stop preaching and, subsequently, drawing followers to his ideas.

The Waldensians were condemned at several Church councils, yet they continued to grow and spread to Austria and Italy. They were persecuted and became isolated in high mountain valleys, especially in Italy. Some of the Waldensians merged with the Protestant groups that appeared during and after the 1500s. A remnant of Waldensians in the mountains of northern Italy remained true to their faith and remained separate until 1975, when they joined with the Italian Methodist Evangelical Church.

And the North Carolina connection? A number of Waldensians had migrated to the Italian island of Sardinia and it had become overcrowded by the mid-1800s. A wealthy woman in Europe became concerned about them. Her nephew, the owner of the Morganton Land and Improvement Company in Morganton, North Carolina, offered the Waldensians 10,000 acres. 207 Waldensians came in 1878 to claim the land and named the central town after themselves. No, not Waldensian or Waldo; speaking Italian, they used the Italian for "Waldensian" which is "Valdese." So if you are ever traveling to Asheville or the mountains on highway 40, about an hour before you get to Asheville you will see signs for Valdese.

And if you go into Valdese, you will find a wonderful museum which traces the history of the Waldensians from their beginnings in France to their settlement in the mountains of North Carolina; or visit their website at www.valdese.com/museum.htm.

2005 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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