No … but I imagine that answer lacks sufficient explanation.
This article is my opinion based on my education and recent research, yet it’s far from scholarly. I do, however, want to explain my conclusion as one who has thoroughly enjoyed studying about the Waldensians: a historic, dissenting branch of Christianity predating the Protestant Reformation by at least 400 years. They are also the subject of my novel, Heretics of Piedmont, the first part in a series I have titled Witnesses of the Light.
To begin, let me say that I understand the novelty of imagining Waldensians as direct descendants of modern-day Baptists. It was a popular idea in the 19th century amongst some Baptist theologians. These men were highly intelligent and devout; their volumes were a tremendous help to me while writing. Yet I personally find it mystical to draw direct connections from Waldensians to Baptists. Let me explain.
There are varying degrees of Baptist successionism (sometimes named Landmarkism, Baptist perpetuity, or even Apostolic succession). Some believe there exists a direct line of true churches from today all the way back to Christ. Others are more moderate, believing Baptist churches have existed without pause since the apostles. Still others think that biblical dissension against the Catholic Church has existed in perpetuity since Rome’s first movements toward apostasy. I find myself agreeing most with the last-mentioned school-of-thought, but I would not define myself as a Baptist successionist, Landmarkist, or the like.
What of the Waldensians? How do they fit in? Disagreement exists regarding their origins, but let us assume they have been around since at least 1100 A.D. So, they were around during the Crusades to the Holy Land (11th-14th centuries), the Black Death (14th century), the Spanish Inquisition (15th-16th centuries), and eventually: the Protestant Reformation (16th-17th centuries).
The first real use of the name “Baptist” was about 1609 (by the English), but before that, anabaptists flourished in continental Europe (especially Germanic areas). Some will draw the line at 1609 and say that’s when Baptist churches began. Others will say there’s a succession from continental anabaptists to English Baptists.
Many argue that English Baptists generally despised the continental anabaptists based on quotes from English pastors, thus concluding that there was no connection. But I find that argument weak; just because a few disagreements were vocalized doesn’t mean they were completely independent of one another.
Some continental anabaptists were almost indistinguishable from their English brethren, while others were absolutely crazy. Yet, a lot of cross-pollination happened, especially in Holland. So, I guess I’m in the “anabaptist-influenced Baptists” camp.
Now, for the Waldensians. I tend to believe that the Waldensians cross-pollinated a lot with continental anabaptists, as well as the Protestants. Waldensian missionaries preached throughout most of Europe from at least 1100 A.D. That gives them 400 or more years to spread their message. They helped start churches in Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, France, Poland, etc. They were small groups, yes, and heavily suppressed by the Catholic Church. Over time, these small congregations likely forgot how they came to exist. By the time Martin Luther distributed his Ninety-five Theses, biblical ideas had already taken root in hearts throughout German lands. Though much of the Reformation’s mantra was biblical, most of those Protestants would only go so far in rejecting Roman doctrine.
As for the Waldensian doctrine and practice, I have spent many months surrounded by writings both old and new. Due to their dissension from the Catholics, much of what is said about them comes from their enemies. However, we do have some record of their doctrine and practice that can be compared with Baptist distinctives.
For what are considered the “fundamentals,” they align entirely. Waldensians were trinitarian, believed in biblical authority and inerrancy, denied purgatory, and believed in the priesthood of believers. I could go on. Much of this can be found in an old Waldensian tract known as the Noble Lesson.
However, you can find instances of Waldensians who believed differently—to the point of being unscriptural. For example, some seem to have practiced paedobaptism. Yet, don’t we have the same today? There are many Baptists today with whom I don’t align. Just as I don’t align with all Baptists doesn’t mean I’m not a Baptist. The same goes with Waldensians.
Modern Waldensians—the few that there are—are basically what we would today call mainline Protestants. You would find little difference between them and the Presbyterian Church USA, a progressive American denomination who long ago forsook their conservative roots. Yes, it’s sad, but isn’t that the story of church history? Movements compromise. They become shadows of their former selves. But does that mean they were always that way?
Let me declare that religious movements transcend their names. They are built by God-fearing people who were often persecuted for their beliefs. For many years, Waldensians preached the truth, just as many Baptists preach the gospel today. New Testament heritage prevailed, despite many old denominations’ turn toward modernism.
To summarize everything, let me illustrate plainly what I believe. Waldensians expressed many Baptist-like beliefs. They held the spiritual torch for many generations and spread their doctrine throughout Europe, all for the better. They influenced German anabaptists, who in turn influenced English Baptists, and many of those emigrated to America and founded new Baptist churches there.
So, though I find much in common with medieval Waldensians, I cannot confidently call them Baptists. Yes, there were some indirect influences, but not a succession. Would I have been a part of a Waldensian church had I lived in the Middle Ages? Probably. But that doesn’t mean I have to call them Baptists. Let us appreciate them for who they were rather than trying to wedge them into our modern definitions.