The Waldensians are Christians who belong to the family of churches that followed the sixteenth century Reformation, although the Waldensians have a much older history.
The Waldensians take their name from that of a rich merchant of Lyons, Waldo, who divested himself of his worldly belongings about the year 1170 and chose to live like the apostles, preaching the Gospel. This led to the birth of the Poor of Lyons movement, which promoted pauperism, refuted violence and compromise with power, choosing to obey only the Bible and challenging one of the fundamental authorities of the Church: the bishop. After being excommunicated by the Roman church, the movement broke up and went into clandestinity for over three centuries.
Periods of peace alternated with Savoy repression and the Inquisition in the Waldensian valleys throughout the 1600s. In 1685, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes denied the Huguenots the right to exist. The Savoy family, allies of Louis XIV, forced the Waldensians to choose between abjurement, death or exile. Many Waldensians were imprisoned in Piedmont, while others chose exile. Only three years later, international conditions had changed and about 900 men succeeded in returning to their lands. The episode is known by the name of the Glorious Return.
For 150 years, the Waldensiians would live closed up in their valleys, suffocated by a series of decrees gathered together in an edict of 1730. Only the French Revolution and Napoleon represented a short parenthesis that ended in 1814 when, after the fall of Napoleon, monarchic and catholic reinstatement also returned to Piedmont. The Waldensians had to wait for the edict issued by Carlo Alberto on 17 February 1848 to become free citizens with full civil liberties. After 1848, cultural and social commitment formed the focus of the Waldensian Church. Many institutions that were formed in the 1800s (schools, hospitals, rest homes and cultural centres) have been extended and modernized. Today, throughout Italy, there are cultural, social and charitable institutions with strong roots in the territories where they operate.
Today, approximately 30,000 Italians belong to the Waldensian and Methodist churches; of these, approximately 15,000 reside in Piedmont. The organization is synodical. Each community is directed by a council elected by the assembly of the faithful and the Church, as a whole, is directed by the Synod. The ministry of the church (pastors and deacons) is open to men and women, whether married or not. The Waldensians have always pursued ecumenical dialogue with the other confessions and they are members of domestic and international ecumenical organizations. The Waldensians sustain the separation of the church from the state and reject policies based on a concordat. Relations with the state are regulated by agreements stipulated in 1984, which sanction no privileges for the church. The Waldensians cover their religious expenses with the donations of their members. The 0.8 percent income tax deduction assigned to the Waldensian Churches is allotted exclusively to charitable or cultural projects and to support projects in countries in the southern hemisphere of the world.