Reformation City Torre Pellice
The world capital of the Waldensians
Torre Pellice is a town and commune in the Piedmont region of Italy. It formed the focal point of three historically Waldensian valleys in the Cottian Alps to the west of Turin. The Waldensian synod has convened in the “Casa Valdese” in Torre Pellice every year since 1889. The town’s Waldensian Cultural Centre Foundation cultivates and keeps interest alive in their history.
The Waldensians date back to the 12th century, when followers of the wealthy citizen Peter Waldo of Lyon (who died around 1205/18) started to gather in public. Nowadays, very little is known for sure about Waldo. But this much is clear: This rich man from Lyon appears to have been inspired to convert and lead his life according to the Apostles by a vernacular translation of their works. After covering his wife’s and two daughters’ needs, he distributed his wealth amongst the poor and started preaching in the city’s streets and squares about finding value in life from renouncing property and violence. He is said to have sought an official preaching licence at the Third Lateran Council in Lyon in 1179, but to no avail. Despite this, Waldo quickly gained followers and founded a piety movement that was quickly swelled by ranks of itinerant preachers. These “Poor of Lyon” were excommunicated in 1184 as a result of conflict with the Church. Waldo had been expelled from Lyon three years earlier. It is not known where he went, nor when he died.
The new movement, which lacked central coordination, took inspiration from other organisations. As a result, various unaffiliated groups and streams emerged in southern France and northern Italy. In addition, the establishment of the Inquisition in 1231 forced many Waldensians to flee, or drove them underground and out of public sight. Travelling preachers, who observed the commands of poverty and celibacy, delivered their message in clandestine congregations. Followers of the Waldensians started to gather in Spain and Austria during the 13th century, in central Germany, the Margraviate of Brandenburg and Bohemia at the start of the 14th century, and at various locations throughout southern Germany and Switzerland during the 14th century.
From the end of the 13th century, Lombardy Waldensians began retreating into the valleys in the Cottian Alps, where they suffered bloody persecution at the end of the 14th century and then fell victim once again to a crusade another hundred years later. Some of them fled to the region around Avignon, others to Calabria in southern Italy.
At the start of the 16th century, larger Waldensian communities were still to be found in Provence, Calabria and, above all, the East of the inhabited valleys of the Cottian Alps. The new Reformation ideas reached them here at the start of the 1520s. A few years later, a delegation of Waldensians was sent to Switzerland to gather information about the Reformation. In 1532, a meeting took place in Chanforan in the valley of Angrogna in the presence of the Swiss Reformer William Farel. At this “Synod of Chanforan”, the decision was taken to develop a church from the hitherto scarcely organised movement, albeit relinquishing former principles such as poverty and celibacy for the preachers, rejecting the oath and participating in secular rule. During the years that followed, the Waldensians in the three Alpine valleys converged with the Swiss Reformation and eventually forged close ties with the Genevan Reformation. They completed a French translation of the Bible, adopted the Genevan Church Order, constructed their first church building and brought in trained pastors from Geneva.
In 1561, the Waldensians successfully stood up to the Duke of Savoy and extricated limited toleration. The valley communities in the Piedmont were subjected to further persecution, repression and expulsion during the 17th century. The Duke of Savoy also enforced sanctions. The Waldensians found refuge at that time in Switzerland, the Hessian states, Baden and Württemberg. Their bloody persecution had meanwhile prompted protests and declarations of solidarity across Europe. Financial assistance flowed in from the Netherlands and England, in particular. State repression and expulsion only came to an end in 1848 with the accordance of citizens’ rights.
Donations were used to build a university in Torre Pellice, which was eventually relocated to Rome in 1922. Congregations sprang up throughout Italy as social welfare and schools were established. Here, the Reformed, synodal-presbyterial structured “Chiesa Evangelica Valdese” forms a united church with the Methodists, which enjoys a very strong public image thanks to its ecumenical and social endeavours.