Often the Waldensians are only remembered for their valleys in the Cottian Alps on the French-Italian frontier. Actually they were scattered all over Europe in many locales and certain regions were also known for having large populations. They weren't dominant, but these large populations kept the Inquisitors busy.
Another one of their centers was located in the region stretching from Passau to Vienna all along the Danube valley. They were numerous here but there are reports of even much larger numbers located just to the north in The Forest. The Waldensians supposedly settled here in the 13th century.
When we say the 13th century, this would indicate when they were discovered and began to be persecuted. When they originally came into being in that region, we cannot say. Critics often peg the dates of origin to the dates of discovery, but this argument from silence is defeated by the facts. Time and time again, Inquisitors moving through different parts of Germany, Austria and other lands were surprised not only to discover the groups but then through interrogation learn they were already multi-generational…with parents and grandparents participating in these underground cells. We too can argue from silence, but it would seem we could do
Around the year 1380, a man named Petr Chelcicky was born in the region known as South Bohemia.
The Western edges of South Bohemia are also part of the Sumava region, or the Bohmerwald as the Germans would say it. This Bohemian Forest is also continuous with the Bayerischer Wald or Bavarian Forest. In the old days, this whole region was simply known as The Forest.
Reference to this also appears in the naming of the land known by many names…Ardeal to the Romanians, Erdely to the Magyars, Siebenburgen to the Saxons, and to the rest of us…Transylvania, the land beyond The Forest….. Modern lines on the map break up some of the old cultural perceptions.
There are reports of tens of thousands of Waldensians in the South Bohemia region and The Forest would have been a prime place for them to live. There they would have been in many places free from not only the feudal order of the day but from persecution.
Many Waldensians were German, and the Germans lived on the Northern, Western, and Southern peripheries of the land we today call the Czech Republic. For centuries they lived in the forests and mountains employed in woodcutting and mining. Sadly, their presence largely ended at the conclusion of the 2nd World War. Hitler had called this The Sudetenland, after the Sudetes Mountains….and when the war was over, the Czechs and Poles were understandably not feeling very favourable to the Germans and expelled them, in a very brutal episode of ethnic cleansing, ending a presence that dated back to at least the 12th century. It was in the time after the Mongol Invasions that the rulers of what is today the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Transylvanian area of Romania (historically Hungary), invited Germans to settle and repopulate the land. They were known for their industry and order.
1415 saw the rise of the Hussite movement, and sadly there were some tensions between the mostly Czech Hussites and the German population. However, some believe this has been overemphasized. The Taborites under Zizka were certainly nationalistic and militant, but there were many Waldensians and some Czechs who did not go along with the Taborites.
But even with Taborite excesses they nevertheless curbed and almost eliminated Roman Catholic power within their domain. Bohemia and Moravia, the two kingdoms that are the nucleus of today's Czech Republic became a refuge for Waldensians and other dissidents. They moved there in droves in the 15th century and later joined with the Reformation. Their descendants were either wiped out by the Seligmacher during the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War or they emigrated. Over three-quarters of the population was destroyed during the first half of the 17th century. It is both sad and strange that a land once filled with so many Christians is today one of the most socially atheistic states in Europe. The crimes of the Roman Catholic Habsburgs is another story….
Chelcicky apparently came from a minor yeoman family near Vodnany. This would indicate they were small landowners, neither peasant, nor of the gentleman class. Petr received some education and apparently had read the writings of Wycliffe and had some contact with Waldensian ideas.
Richard II of England had married Anne of Bohemia and was king of England from 1377-99 during the time of Wycliffe and The Peasant's Revolt. Because of Anne there was considerable contact and interchange between England and Bohemia in those days. University students came to study at Prague, the new Prague of the Luxembourg Charles IV who died in 1378, and succeeded by his son Wenceslas.
Despite his mostly rural seclusion Chelcicky apparently knew Hus and some of the other Hussite leaders and was in Prague from time to time. Initially identifying with the Taborites, he would later heavily criticize them. No party man, he was also 'respectfully critical' of Hus and Wycliffe.
He came to understand the Bible as the final authority for the Christian. Though he did not neglect the Old Testament, he considered the New to be the binding guide for the Christian and paid special attention to the ethics and kingdom ideals present in the Sermon on the Mount.
Rican refers to his views as an 'uncompromising Biblicism.,' acknowledging 'no other norm or source of truth.'
With Chelcicky you find not only the righteousness obtained by faith, but, 'an emphasis on living a life consistent with the appropriate consequences of that faith.' This is no mere intellectual assent, no hyper-solafideism…but at the same time it would not be fair to charge him with teaching a works salvation. It's a question over the definition of saving faith, a debate still very much alive within Conservative Protestantism.
Further Chelcicky taught the 'claim of God's dominion,' over the individual, society, and the world. It sounds rather Dominionist or Kuyperian. But here's a good example of how Two Kingdom theology can affirm the Lordship of Christ and yet remain faithful to the ethic and vision of The Kingdom.
I will quote Rican on Chelcicky's teaching:
"The church must follow after its Lord in hope, devoted to his leadership and protection without cowardly efforts to get security and protection by currying favor with the powers of the world. The church's way was to follow in the steps of the Crucified One- that is, the way of the cross. Yet this way was also the way of the Resurrected One- the way of victory. One is obliged to follow the Savior with all the devotion of faith, obedient love, and hope. Therefore its precepts cannot join hands with the precepts of the world in denial of Christ. There was no court of appeal equal to, much less superior to, the Word of God which could impose the believer any laws, regulations or goals."
We must 'reject all which does not agree with Christ's Word.' This applies 'both to matters of belief and to customs of the church. This was Petr at his nearest to the Taborites. Like them he rejected the pretensions of popes, bishops, church fathers, scholastics, and decretalists to have binding authority in the church, in the fellowship of the elect. He rejected the cult of the saints and purgatory, opposed the adoration of images, prayers for the dead and payments for such prayers, as well as luxury and outward show in ceremonies. He wanted to have nothing to do with monasteries, indulgences, and saint's days. He rejected the taking of oaths. He did have respect for the priestly state…" meaning celibacy, "but demanded that priests have proper faith, right intentions in serving communion, and an exemplary life."
This does show a slight Donatist tendency, but it also says something of the state of the church. The Waldensians showed great variety in their beliefs…some moving more in the direction of 16th century Anabaptism, some a little closer to Roman Orthodoxy. Many wrestled with the validity of the Catholic Priesthood and Sacraments in a way the Taborite-Hussite movement did not. The Waldensians produced miniature books they could conceal. Among them were found writings of Augustine, the Church Fathers, and of course the Bible. The Taborites took up the sword….some of the Waldensians did after extreme persecution, but most tended toward the pacifism Chelcicky taught.
The Sacraments were beneficial to the faithful, and he rightly rejected Confirmation, Extreme Unction and the sacramental status of Marriage. 'Baptism given to children obliged them to future faith and obedience to God's commandments.' Thus Chelcicky was no credo-baptist, but his paedo-baptism was not tied to Sacralism.
Concerning the Lord's Supper he rejected transubstantiation but also rejected 'blasphemous Pickartism' which made the Supper a mere memorial, or as I continually put it, a non-concrete abstraction. He rejected the necessity of auricular confession and thus differed from the Waldenses on that point. They were in the practice of confessing to their own pastors, not to the Roman priests.
Chelcicky believed love was the fulfillment of the law and was horrified at Zizka's Taborites, leaving Prague in protest against their glorification of war. He is sometimes called a Christian Anarchist, but I'm not sure that's accurate. Though extremely pessimistic regarding the state, he acknowledged its necessity. He warned against the State's lust for power, the antithesis to Christian love…and thus had real difficulties with those who sought to promote the State in the name of Christ.
In The Net of Faith, he thoroughly critiques the whole notion of Christendom and the feudal order of his day, as contrary to a Christian concept of the Kingdom. He asserted this Power-natured Sacralized kingdom actually destroyed The True Net of the Kingdom.
He also seemed to understand that if society were to become Christian, which he did not expect, it would not need more laws…but less. Force and Power were out of bounds for the Christian church and we should not appeal to the State for protection.
He did not believe the Church could transform society, that wasn't its mission and repeatedly he equates Sacralism as spiritual whoredom and antichrist. He was critical of Wycliffe's defense of the Feudal Sacralist system. The Lollards had to learn some hard lessons before they abandoned these notions in the early 15th century.
Overall Chelcicky represents a Christianity that is neither quite Protestant nor Roman. He shows unbelievable depth and wisdom especially considering his context. He greatly influenced the early Unitas Fratrum….Unity of the Brotherhood, sometimes referred to as the Jednota Bratrska as they are known in Czech. Later, Lucas of Prague led the Unitas in a different direction and undid much of Chelcicky's work. Chelcicky's spirit was that of the Waldenses and to me represents one of the pinnacles of the medieval underground.
If you had to label him…he was sort of an Augustinian-Anabaptist. He believed in a balanced Divine Grace, a rightly understood Sacramentalism which included children of believers and yet was staunchly anti-Constantinian, and anti-chiliast.
His writings greatly inspired Leo Tolstoy who abandoned his aristocratic heritage and took up with the peasants. Chelcicky's writings concerning ethics and pacifism also influenced Tolstoy who in turn inspired Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was obviously not a Christian, but shamed the Sacralist British Empire, by behaving like one.
We could use a few more Chelcicky's today. I think he would be persecuted by the Protestant Establishment. Sacralism fears nothing more than a Two Kingdoms theology. It is the great threat to their system…the Theological alternative that can spell their doom. The Anabaptists represent this view and caused the Reformers to tremble and then lash out at them.
The Pilgrims were more or less of this stamp, but in 1630 the Puritans arrived and started the Massachusetts Bay Colony… and a couple of generations later, the Plymouth vision had been subsumed.
William Penn was attacked in his day by the Sacralists, and though he was unorthodox, he understood something of the nature of the Kingdom. Pennsylvania became a promised land and the Moravians, the descendants of the Unitas Fratrum settled there in abundance. One of their number Zeisberger, was a successful missionary to the Shawnee and Delaware refugees west of the Appalachians. Something of that Kingdom vision was retained in the gospel of peace he brought to them. He did not try and turn them into white men…like a Sacralist would. Later, these Indians moved into Ohio and were massacred in a famous event related to the long Indian Wars. They had been innocent, victims of revenge, suffering at the hands of white Christians who supposedly had left Sacralism behind, but acted like everything should belong to them. Being white and thus Christian, the world was theirs to take.
Men like Chelcicky don't make a big splash in the history books, but this man was a giant in the 15th century and his ideas directly or indirectly played out over a long span of time and over a large part of the world.
Most of history is not the story of villains and heroes, rather it is the tale of fallen humanity. But occasionally we find someone truly worthy of admiration, a testimony to Divine Grace at work in the world. Petr Chelcicky was such a man.
For a good history of the Unitas with extensive mention of Chelcicky, you can read,
The History of the Unity of Brethren: A Protestant Hussite church in Bohemia and Moravia by Rudolf Rican.