In 1845, a German Reformed minister from Philadelphia named Joseph Berg published a work entitled The Old Paths; A Sketch of the Order and Discipline of the Reformed Church Before the Reformation. Footnote 1 The book was not meant as an exhaustive historical survey of Reformed Protestantism, but simply argued that Protestants could claim a kind of apostolic succession over and against the Roman Catholic Church. Berg maintained that Protestantism was founded on a lineage of proto-Reformation groups like the Waldenses of the Italian Piedmont, disparate communities of true Christians that had been persecuted by Roman Catholic authorities. In his judgment, the Waldenses were founded in apostolic times, endured through the Middle Ages, and influenced the teaching of the Protestant Reformers. Berg's historical construction was fraught with urgency: if a Protestant tradition or denomination could not trace its origins to the apostles, it was not a true church. Berg challenged the Catholic claim to apostolic succession by encouraging Protestants to find their own in the Waldenses.Footnote 2
Berg's little book and its subject were hardly an oddity in antebellum America. From 1830–1860, the Waldenses were an unusually common topic in the American press. Newspapers across the country detailed the history of the group, especially its persecution by Roman Catholic inquisitors. Reports from foreign correspondents and missionaries living among then present-day Waldenses gave readers a sense of how these original Protestant martyrs continued to live in nineteenth-century Italy.Footnote 3 Interested readers could find reflections on Waldensianism in women's journals,Footnote 4 children's books,Footnote 5 romance novels,Footnote 6 and hymnals.Footnote 7 Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists referenced the suffering of the Waldenses in their criticisms of slaveowners and their calls to end chattel slavery.Footnote 8 Though scholars today chart the beginning of the Waldensian movement to the twelfth century—with Valdes (later Waldo, or Peter Waldo) and the Poor of Lyons—the theory of the group's apostolic origin was widely held and propagated in antebellum America.Footnote 9
This article examines the development of the apostolic Waldensian myth in the United States and specifically its use as a rhetorical weapon in the anti-Catholic press.Footnote 10 Though always present in the American historical imagination, American enthusiasm for apostolic Waldensianism peaked in the wake of rising Catholic immigration in the 1830s and 1840s but waned under historiographical scrutiny in the 1850s and 1860s. The apostolic Waldensian myth confirmed Protestants’ worst fears about the violent, impious, and subversive nature of Catholicism. As apostolic Protestants, the Waldenses had suffered at Catholic hands since the time of Christ. In combatting the forces of the Pope, American Protestants could appeal to this heritage of persecution and suffering. Like their Waldensian brethren, they would stand against the powers of anti-Christ.Footnote 11
Theories of apostolic origin for the Waldenses developed in the context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant and Catholic polemics. Accusations of Protestant novelty and concern over Jesus's promise to never abandon the Church (Matt 28:10) led apologists to search for proto-Protestant “witnesses to the truth” in the patristic and medieval eras.Footnote 12 Though this apologetic impulse remained prominent as Protestants migrated to North America, the nineteenth-century American enthusiasm for proto-Protestantism has gained only scant attention from scholars.Footnote 13 Indeed, many scholars of early American religion have argued that North American Protestantism was marked by a profound indifference to the past, characterized instead by a biblicist evangelicalism.Footnote 14 Exploring the foundational myths of anti-Catholicism demonstrates that a creative historical imagination and a fervent biblicism were not mutually exclusive phenomena in antebellum Protestantism.Footnote 15
In tracing the rise and fall of a particular facet of anti-Catholic historiography, I suggest that historical myths like apostolic Waldensianism held a certain utility to their American proponents. Catholic immigration to eastern cities and to the wide plains of the Midwest caused widespread concern among Protestants over the future of the United States. In Protestant responses to this political and demographic upheaval, the Waldenses legitimized the existence of a purely Protestant country while also revealing the allegedly anti-Christian nature of Catholicism. Most significantly, Waldensianism served as a powerful rhetorical weapon because it allowed American Protestants to embrace the exclusive claims of the Roman Catholic Church for themselves: true apostolic succession, true doctrinal purity, and true moral excellence.
Jenny Franchot judged that the conflict with immigrant Catholicism allowed American Protestants to develop a historiography of progress, contrasting Catholic coercion and power with evangelical freedom: a stagnant, ahistorical authority against a dynamic, living body.Footnote 16 Elizabeth Clark, in her study of early American seminaries, has shown how some American Protestants began appealing to a Hegelian-development paradigm in order to resolve the tension between Protestant theological claims and modern historical scholarship. The pervasiveness of the Waldensian theory in anti-Catholic rhetoric indicates that the historiographies of progress discussed by these scholars were largely minority positions in the antebellum period. The new historiographies of development would gain widespread appeal only after the dissemination of historical scholarship and the debunking of proto-Protestant myths.Footnote 17 Though historical scholarship forced American Protestants to largely abandon their myth, apostolic Waldensianism proved a malleable, powerful, and comforting narrative for those Protestants coping with unprecedented religious tumult.
II. Origins of the Waldensian Myth in America
Questions concerning Waldensian history began stirring in the sixteenth century. Indeed, debates over the relationship between Protestant doctrine and patristic or medieval antecedents occurred often in the beginning years of the Reformation. As early as the indulgence crisis, Martin Luther was accused by his opponents of resurrecting the heresies of John Hus, John Wycliffe, and the Albigensians. Catholic polemicists frequently likened Protestant reformers to heretics of past ages, including arch-heretics like Marcion, Sabellius, Arius, and Mani. These attacks were combined with accusations of novelty: where had Protestantism existed before Luther? Aside from their appeals to Scripture, Protestants responded to these charges of heresy and novelty by mining patristic and medieval writings to support their teachings. These “witnesses” to the truth of Protestant doctrine legitimated dissent from Catholic teaching and authority. Christ had not abandoned his church until the Reformation but had preserved the truth of the gospel throughout the ages.Footnote 18 After centuries of persecution, the dispersed Waldenses began to identify with the Reformed churches of Switzerland and southern Germany. Protestants became fascinated with the group's history and saw in the Waldenses a convenient answer to their Catholic critics. They had found the perfect forerunners to the Reformation, men and women scorned by the Roman church just as papal authority had begun to tighten its tyrannical grip around Europe. From these interactions, Protestant leaders like Genevan theologian Theodore Beza began to speculate about the group's apostolic origins.Footnote 19
Against Catholic critiques of Protestant novelty and Waldensian heresy, Protestant historians construed Waldensianism as a pure, medieval strain of proto-Protestantism. The apostolicity of the Waldenses was fundamental for the Irish Calvinist bishop James Ussher's rendering of church history. In his De Christianarum Ecclesiarum succesione et statu Historica Explicatio (1613), Ussher dismissed the accusations of heresy put forward by Catholic historians against the proto-reformers as biased fabrications. Instead, Ussher established Waldensianism as the pure “paradigm” for interpreting all of the other anti-papal dissent movements, conflating the Albigensians, Berengarians, Lollards, Petrobrussians, Henricans, Cathars, and Hussites as localized instantiations of the same proto-Protestantism.Footnote 20 While skeptical of Ussher's apostolic claims for the Waldenses, Huguenot pastor Jean-Paul Perrin joined the bishop in treating all medieval dissenting groups as a united front. Perrin's history of the Waldenses was translated into English in 1624, urging readers to consider the medieval Waldenses (as well as the Albigensians) as their Protestant forefathers.Footnote 21 This view would be reinforced by Oliver Cromwell's diplomat to Italy, Samuel Morland. Gaining access to Waldensian confessional documents, Morland's history erroneously dated the works as originating previous to Waldo's conversion in 1170, bolstering Protestant claims to an apostolic and pre-Waldo Waldensianism.Footnote 22
The most popular Catholic critique of Protestant novelty came from seventeenth-century divine Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, court preacher to the King of France and the Bishop of Meaux. In his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, Bossuet examined the formulation of the various Protestant confessions, systematically showing their development over time and inconsistencies with one another.Footnote 23 On the Waldenses, Bossuet skewered those who would construe them as proto-Protestants, demonstrating that the group began with Waldo (not the apostles), that they had for many years subscribed to Catholic teachings on the Eucharist and on the papacy (before descending into outright schism), and that many of the proto-Protestant groups like the Albigensians subscribed to a dualistic Manicheism.Footnote 24
English Protestants formed two kinds of responses to the attacks of Bossuet. The first was to double down on the apostolicity of proto-Reformation groups. Peter Allix, an Anglican minister serving among the French Huguenots, directed several apologetic works at Bossuet, further substantiating the arguments of Perrin and Morland. In his History of the Ancient Churches of the Piedmont (1690) and History of the Antient Churches of the Albigenses (1692), Allix judged that the Waldenses and Albigensians were both descended from Northern Italian churches planted by Saint Barnabas, the companion of the Apostle Paul. Taking for granted the misdated confessional documents from Morland, Allix traced the history of these “Vaudois” Christians through Saint Ambrose in the fourth century and Claude of Turin in the ninth century. From here, the Waldenses and the Albigensians then inspired like-minded movements in the Peterbrusians, Lollards, Henricans, and Hussites. Allix's attempts to exonerate the Waldenses from the charges of schism, and the Albigensians from Manicheism rested upon this unbroken chain from the apostles to the Reformation. As the medieval Roman Church attempted to consolidate its power in Italy, these Vaudois communities came under threat of persecution.Footnote 25 The other Protestant response to Bossuet's criticisms was to emphasize the antiquity of English Christianity. As early as 1623, Richard Bernard's Looke Beyond Luther argued that Christianity in England had existed for hundreds of years outside of papal control, and therefore could claim a similar antiquity as the Roman Catholic Church.Footnote 26 Both Simon Brickbek's Protestant Evidence (1657) and Edmund Gibson's influential Preservative Against Popery (1738) briefly mentioned Waldo as a rare call for reform in the Middle Ages, but the majority of their historical arguments came from anti-papal medieval antecedents to British Protestantism.Footnote 27
When defending their Protestantism against the attacks of Catholics, early Americans most often turned to the works of renowned preacher and historian Johann Lorenz von Mosheim. A professor at the University of Göttingen, Mosheim had first published his multi-volume Ecclesiastical History in the 1740s and 1750s.Footnote 28 Written originally in Latin, the entire Ecclesiastical History was translated into English by Archibald Maclaine, minister of an English-speaking congregation in The Hague, and published in London in 1765.Footnote 29 The translation would prove popular in the United States with the first American edition printed in 1798 and many subsequent reprints and epitomes published throughout the nineteenth century.Footnote 30 American readers praised Mosheim's piety and evenhanded treatment of his sources.Footnote 31 The translation would become the standard church history text in early nineteenth-century seminary curricula, establishing Mosheim as the “infallible authority” on Christian history for Americans.Footnote 32 On the proto-Reformation groups, Mosheim exhibited a hearty skepticism toward their apostolicity. He admitted that many of the medieval dissent movements (the Cathars, Bogomils, and Albigenses) had actively taught a Manichean dualism, but reasoned that it was the corruption of the papacy that gave credence to heretical alternatives. For Mosheim, the Waldenses were the most noble and orthodox of these movements, known by all for their “purity” and “simplicity” of life. Their inability to reform the church, however—and their subsequent divisions in the wake of persecution—underscored for Mosheim the need for a more thorough reformation.Footnote 33 In a footnote, he remarked on the opinions of some who attempted to identify the Waldenses with a previously existing group of Piedmont Christians. “But,” he wrote, “these writers have no authority to support this assertion, and, besides this, they are refuted amply by the best historians.”Footnote 34 In severing the Waldenses from an apostolic source, Mosheim also reduced their importance as direct sources for later Protestant theologians. Mosheim's view would be echoed by the well-regarded scientist and Unitarian divine Joseph Priestley in the first survey of Christian history written in America. Refusing to give credit to the Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards, or Hussites, Priestley argued that Luther's Reformation impulses originated entirely from his monasticism.Footnote 35
If Mosheim was skeptical of apostolic Waldensianism, his editor and translator Archibald Maclaine certainly was not. Throughout the Ecclesiastical History, Maclaine interjected his own comments into the footnotes, at times challenging Mosheim's conclusions. On the Waldenses, Maclaine directly refuted Mosheim's dismissal of their apostolicity. Repeating the arguments made by Allix and Morland, Maclaine maintained that the Waldenses had existed well before Waldo in the “Vallies of the Piedmont” as “Voidois” Christians. Responding to the accusations of Bossuet and other Catholics, Maclaine concluded his remarks with a nod to Protestant apologetics: “When the Papists ask us where our religion was before LUTHER? we generally answer, in the Bible; and we answer well. But to gratify their taste for Tradition and human authority, we may add to this answer, and in the Vallies of Piedmont.”Footnote 36
As Mosheim's popularity in America grew in the early nineteenth century, so did the sentiments of his editor. American periodicals began printing excerpts from Waldensian confessional documents, noting the early, pre-Waldo dates of their creation.Footnote 37 Textbooks for schoolchildren on the history of Christianity began conflating (and extolling) the Cathars, Albigenses, and Waldenses as proto-Protestant exemplars, all deriving from an apostolic source. In her Church History (1817), Massachusetts schoolteacher Rebecca Eaton described the entire “history of the Waldenses” to her pupils and readers as little else “than a series of persecution.” Eaton included graphic descriptions of various executions of Waldensian children, their suffering a “repetition of enormities. . . which equally shows the influence of the prince of darkness, and the enmity of the carnal mind against God.”Footnote 38 The proto-Protestants, as a united and apostolic church, stood together against the harassment of Roman Catholic officials.
Perhaps the best barometer for the growing acceptance for apostolic Waldensianism can be found in the religious encyclopedias of Hannah Adams, the first professional female author in America.Footnote 39 In the first edition of her work, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects (1784), Adams included a portion of the Waldensian confessional documents and added a clarification that “Many of the authors of note make the antiquity of this denomination coeval with the apostolic age.” In a footnote to the entry, she explained the evidence behind the apostolic theory, noting Allix's and Perrin's works on the Piedmont Vaudois Christians. Ever the evenhanded scholar, Adams also included the contention of the Catholics, marking “On the other hand, the Papists derive their origin from Peter Waldo.”Footnote 40 In the 1801 edition of the work, she appended the entry with another common contention that supported apostolic Waldensianism, noting that “Many Protestants” believe that Waldo derived his name from the Vaudois, rather than the group from its leader. She also appended the title entry from “Waldenses” to “Waldenses, or Vaudois.”Footnote 41 In the final 1817 edition, Adams only presented the apostolic view, cutting out completely the Catholic (or skeptical Protestant) view that they derived from Waldo, and moving Allix's explanation of their apostolicity from the footnotes to the main entry.Footnote 42
The 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s saw an increased tension between American Catholics and Protestants, a dramatic shift from the relatively irenic decades of the Early Republic.Footnote 43 The Protestant press continued to perpetuate the myth of apostolic Waldensianism with the publication of many new works summarizing the older arguments of Perrin, Allix, and Morland.Footnote 44 American Catholics took their apologetic cues from Bossuet, recycling his arguments in their periodicals and newspapers. As Catholics printed attacks on the Protestant reformers and exposés on Reformation history, many could not help but apply Bossuet's principles of variation to the multitudes of novel American denominations.Footnote 45 A new edition of Bossuet's History of Variations was prepared for the press in 1842, while a new translation of Mosheim began publication in 1832.Footnote 46 Mosheim's new translator and editor—the noted Connecticut linguist James Murdock—was personally ambivalent about proto-Reformation apostolicity, but in his notes he included an overwhelming amount of sources and argumentation from Maclaine and others who saw in the Vaudois an apostolic Protestantism.Footnote 47 Like appeals to Waldensianism, Mosheim was pervasive throughout anti-Catholic literature, particularly in works attempting to give an account of the endurance of Protestant doctrines throughout the church's history.Footnote 48 His work gave American Protestants a historical framework with which to combat their Bossuet-citing Catholic critics (his skepticism on the Vaudois supplemented with references to Maclaine or the other historians noted above). Anti-Catholic articles and books exploring Waldensian history were often paraphrases or direct quotes from these previous histories; indeed, Joseph Berg's 1845 Old Paths could aptly be described as a paraphrase of Jean Paul Perrin's work.Footnote 49
III. Weaponizing the Myth
Once American Protestants had an established body of apologetical literature advocating apostolic Waldensianism, the myth proved to be a versatile weapon in their rhetorical battles with Catholic neighbors. In response to Catholic claims at antiquity, American Protestants could go on the offensive and claim an ancient source for their own religiosity.Footnote 50 Every mark of Protestant doctrine and piety could be drawn out of Waldensian confessional documents, including a commitment to the authority of Scripture,Footnote 51 “liberty of conscience,”Footnote 52 and an anti-clerical church government.Footnote 53 In responding to Catholic critics, it was important to show that the beliefs that distinguished Protestants from Catholics predated the Reformation, and that the proto-Reformation groups were the source of these teachings. Protestants, to the extent that they emulated the Waldenses (and Scripture), marked a return to the apostolic purity of the Church.Footnote 54 The Waldenses were also elevated to the status of moral exemplars for American Christians. One 1842 article used the group to condemn the lack of biblical knowledge among American youth, while another, printed in 1847, appealed to the Waldenses to definitively prove that dancing had demonic origins.Footnote 55
Besides embodying Protestant doctrine and practice, early Waldensianism was portrayed by American authors as inherently anti-Catholic.Footnote 56 Roman Catholicism was understood as fundamentally anti-Christian, its beliefs and practices completely novel to the gospel preached by Christ and the apostles.Footnote 57 W. C. Brownlee, a leader of the anti-Catholic movement in New York City, published a series of letters throughout the 1830s on the nature of true Christianity and the apostasy of Rome.Footnote 58 Throughout the series, he contended that Roman Catholicism was a false church, but that throughout time, true Christians (in the East, Africa, and elsewhere) had kept to the true faith by opposing Rome. Singling out the apostolic Waldenses, he likened them to the seven thousand priests of Yahweh described in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings who maintained true worship while in hiding from the bloodthirsty king Ahab. The Waldenses were also kept hidden from tyrannical leaders, preserving pure worship for hundreds of years.Footnote 59 Another article series describing the history of Waldensian persecutions portrayed the group as a more obedient Israel, wandering in the desert of suffering on their way to the promised land. These articles reasoned that if the Waldenses had indeed been the transmitter of true Christianity, faithfully opposing the false church of Rome, then American Christians had a duty to do so as well.Footnote 60
This argument against Rome depended on the historical constructions of Ussher, Allix, and others, which traced Protestant doctrines from the apostles through every era of the Church. Protestant periodicals rehearsed every aspect of the Waldensian myth: 1) Waldo derived his name, “Valdes,” from a preexisting, apostolic group in the Vaudois region of Italy;Footnote 61 2) Christianity was brought to the Italian Piedmont in either the first or second century, and, persecuted by Roman officials, existed in isolation from the Church of Rome;Footnote 62 3) their anti-Christian Roman Catholic opponents affirmed their claim of apostolic origin;Footnote 63 and 4) various medieval dissenters against papal authority, especially Claude of Turin, proved the existence of an enduring strain of Protestantism, continuing on through the Paulicians, Albigensians, Peter Waldo, the Lollards, and the Hussites to the Reformation.Footnote 64 This re-narration of proto-Protestant history gave the impression that dissent against Rome was a common thread throughout Christian history. All true Christians throughout time had rebelled against the impieties of the Roman church.
Though this construction of Christian history varied among anti-Catholic polemicists, establishing the apostolic origin of Protestantism was a necessity. Joseph Berg captured the sense of urgency in this way: “Christianity is a system of divinely revealed truth, which is perfect, and consequently admits of no improvement. The truth as it is in Jesus, is the same, yesterday, to-day, and for ever. . . it is immutable and eternal.”Footnote 65 Protestant doctrine had either been the teaching of the Church from the beginning, or it was a false gospel. In this vein, American Protestants hoped to justify the existence of their particular churches by claiming an apostolic Waldensian heritage. Baptist,Footnote 66 Presbyterian,Footnote 67 Episcopalian,Footnote 68 Restorationist,Footnote 69 and even UnitarianFootnote 70 publications portrayed their denominations as present-day Waldenses, thereby legitimizing themselves as true—or the truest—Christians.
In the same way that the Waldenses represented the eternal and immutable Protestant gospel, the historical impieties of Rome were understood as equally ubiquitous. Catholicism, like the gospel, never changed; its history was ever marked with the pursuit of power and the persecution of the truly pious.Footnote 71 Anti-Catholic authors went to great lengths to share historical accounts of Catholic despotism and violence with their readers. The descriptions were graphic, and the figures far-fetched.Footnote 72 One periodical reported upwards of 68 million Waldenses and Albigenses—“the purest and best people” of their time—to have been “butchered by the bigoted, blood-thirsty minions of his holiness in Rome.”Footnote 73 The martyrdom of the Waldenses at the hands of the Catholics further legitimized their apostolic purity, and Protestant periodicals claimed that their suffering was the genesis of Protestant notions of religious freedom.Footnote 74
While many of the articles noted above attempted to shock their readers with vivid descriptions of torture and death (a well-worn strategy among Protestant polemicists), editors were also willing to employ more inventive means to malign their Catholic enemies. The creativity of anti-Catholic writers was eminently displayed in a series of 1836 articles entitled “The Trial of Anti-Christ,” which ran in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine. Each week, readers were treated to a dramatic courtroom scene, where various historical figures (including several Waldenses) would take the stand to testify against the evils of Rome.Footnote 75 In a mind-bending twist, toward the end of the trial, the prosecution calls a surprise witness to the stand. Personifying the plain historical record, a “Mr. Historical Truth” deals the deathblow to Catholicism, testifying to its persecution of the saints, corruption of the gospel, and thirst for political power.Footnote 76
These articles reveal the widespread Protestant conviction that history was a potent and unassailable weapon against Roman Catholicism. Appeals to the historical excesses of Catholic violence served to support the argument that brutality and despotism were woven into the very nature of Catholicism. Whereas Early Republic Protestants were willing to distinguish between their Catholic neighbors and the Pope in Rome, anti-Catholic writers in the 1830s and 1840s warned their readers not to be deceived by Catholics who seemed to Americanize and embrace democratic ideals.Footnote 77 Convinced that their nation's civic virtues (religious liberty, limited government, and freedom of conscience) derived from Protestantism, American Protestants re-narrated the history of the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation to make the Waldenses, Luther, and Calvin proto-American heroes for both religious and political freedom. In fighting against the tyranny of Rome, Waldenses laid the ground work for American Independence, free markets, and modern republican forms of government.Footnote 78
The blending of national and theological identities coincided in the 1847 publication of the American edition of Jean Paul Perrin's History of the Antient Christians. Presbyterians Samuel Miller and Robert Baird—the former a professor at Princeton Seminary, the latter an historian and leader of the American Sunday School Union—edited and wrote introductions to the book. While Miller construed the Vaudois Christians as aligning with Presbyterians in polity and sacraments, he noted especially their universal appeal for all American Protestants. He desired “a copy of [Perrin] in every Christian family in America,” so that the Waldenses might be exonerated from the delusions of Catholics and skeptical Protestants. Only then could Americans truly begin to emulate these saints.Footnote 79 In his dedication and introduction, Robert Baird established more clearly the connection he observed between American Protestants and their Waldensian forebears. He traced the influence of the Waldenses through the Huguenots to the settling of North America. All true Protestants around the world—Baird used “Waldensian” and Protestant interchangeably—were united against the corruptions of Rome. The Waldenses and Albigenses had stood like the two witnesses in John's Revelation, testifying to the violence and power of anti-Christ.Footnote 80 Now it was America's turn to stand against the forces of evil:
Hence, the ensuing valuable history will be very acceptable to all American citizens, and especially to every Christian, because, from its authentic documents, it is manifest, that during the protracted continuance of the feudal tyranny and the ecclesiastical despotism throughout the ten kingdoms of the Roman empire, the Christians who resided in the valleys of Piedmont and their immediate vicinity, were the only people who either understood or enjoyed the privileges of civil and religious freedom. In truth, the Waldenses, when divine Providence did not mysteriously permit their ruthless persecutors to ravage their country, exemplified, as the cardinal principles of their social organization in civic affairs, the self-evident truths upon which the primitive Puritans of New England established their commonwealth, and which, in the Declaration of the Fourth day of July, 1776, became the chief corner-stone of the American Federal Republic.Footnote 81
By construing the Waldenses as proto-Americans struggling for religious liberty and self-government, Baird solidified the contemporary import of Waldensian history: anti-Christ was threatening again, and, unless Protestants resisted, they could expect the same fate as the proto-Protestant martyrs.
In the decades of rising Catholic immigration, various plots and conspiracies implicated all Catholics as anti-American insurrectionists.Footnote 82 The details of these plots were wide-ranging and diverse but included the Jesuits fomenting a crusade to kill all Protestants and establishing America as a Catholic kingdom;Footnote 83 the Pope's uniting of Catholic Europe against Protestant America by joining forces with France and Austria;Footnote 84 papal encyclicals encouraging faithful Catholics everywhere to kill their Protestant neighbors;Footnote 85 and Catholic seminaries inculcating violent hatred of Americans through the recitation of Reformation anathemas against Protestants.Footnote 86 Protestants appealed to the Waldenses as evidence for all of these conspiracies. If the present-day brutality of Catholicism was in doubt or seemed far-fetched, the persistent suffering of the Waldenses throughout their history was understood as sufficient evidence, revealing the true, unchanging nature of Rome.Footnote 87
The rhetorical utility of the Waldenses was not simply confined to their past. Beginning in the early 1840s, American publications began running stories about a contemporary group of Waldenses tucked away in northwestern Italy. Foreign correspondents would report back to American readers about the continued injustices that the group faced from the Catholic authorities.Footnote 88 Evangelism outlawed, Bibles and property confiscated, the Protestant press called for donations to be taken up for the Waldensian cause.Footnote 89 A suffering church of martyrs, the Waldenses were viewed by their American brothers and sisters as the gospel's best hope in Catholic Italy. Many stories reported on various conversions of Italian Catholics, especially priests, to Waldensianism.Footnote 90 The American fixation on contemporary Waldensianism reached its zenith in the spring and summer of 1853 when the leader of the Waldensian Synod, J. P. Revel, went on a speaking tour of major East Coast cities to raise money for a Waldensian seminary.Footnote 91 Following his visit, New York City leaders from twelve different denominations called for all Christians to financially support their suffering brethren in Italy.Footnote 92
For these anti-Catholic writers, Waldensian history disclosed for them the true nature of Christianity and Roman Catholicism. The true Church had always been a persecuted Protestantism, crying out against the impieties and corruptions of Rome. This approach to the Christian past gave American Protestants new rhetorical tools to use against an encroaching Catholic population. The apostolic origin of the Waldenses, along with their enduring virtue and faith under perpetual persecution, meant that the idyllic church of the New Testament had endured outside of Rome for hundreds of years, safely tucked away, waiting for the Reformation. In the face of demographic turmoil, it legitimated the increasingly threatened notion of a purely Protestant nation and American Protestants adopting a special role in God's battle with anti-Christ.
IV. Debunking the Waldensian Myth
As the nineteenth century unfolded, the historiographical foundations of anti-Catholicism would be challenged by historical scholarship. Studies, mostly from German historians, began to illuminate the distinctive beliefs of certain anti-papal groups such as the Albigensians, or Cathars, showing that they were far more dualistic and Manichean than orthodox. The first of these studies to be published in the United States was Johann Gieseler's Text-book of Ecclesiastical History in 1836, with five more editions published throughout the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. Gieseler surveyed the evidences of Perrin and Morland, ultimately concluding that the early dating of the Waldensian confessional documents was completely arbitrary and inaccurate. He deemed the evidences drawn from Catholic Inquisitors as obscure and conflicting with early Waldensian accounts of their origins. The Waldensians began with the ministry of Peter Waldo, not before in an isolated group of Vaudois.Footnote 93
The greatest opponent to the Waldensian myth in America was church historian Philip Schaff.Footnote 94 Educated at Tübingen, Halle, and Berlin, he arrived in the United States at the age of twenty-five, having received a call to teach at the German Reformed seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.Footnote 95 His first two publications in the United States targeted various components of anti-Catholic historiography and reflected the growing criticism of apostolic Waldensianism in German scholarship. In his 1845 Principle of Protestantism, Schaff argued that Protestantism emerged from within Catholicism itself.Footnote 96 His contention that the Reformation was the fruit of Catholicism's better impulses simultaneously downplayed the significance of a Waldensian source for Protestant doctrine while also legitimizing Catholicism as the bearer of true Christianity for a thousand years.Footnote 97 Published a year later in 1846, his What is Church History? continued to chip away at the historiographical presuppositions of American anti-Catholics. Schaff cast aside as methodologically suspect the historical authorities of American Protestants, particularly those who advocated an apostolic origin of the Waldenses or conflated them with the Albigensians.Footnote 98 While he gave praise to Mosheim and his methods, Schaff could not understand why American and British Christians remained convinced that his was the final word for Christian history.Footnote 99 Perhaps the most damning criticism of anti-Catholic historiography was found in Schaff's equating of Catholic and American Protestant historical methodology with one another. Like Catholic historians before them,Footnote 100 Schaff reasoned that anti-Catholic thinkers understood the Church as “something complete in its nature from the beginning, not needing nor admitting any proper development.”Footnote 101 For this theory to hold, anti-Catholic historians had to connect their churches to the apostles by bypassing “the whole intermediate history” of the Catholic Middle Ages, making this period “sink in fact into the character of an unmeaning and useless episode.”Footnote 102
The response to Schaff's work was swift, revealing how significant the Waldensian theory had become to American Protestant identity. Various factions within Schaff's denomination moved to accuse him of heresy.Footnote 103 Joseph Berg, anti-Catholic leader in Philadelphia, wrote his Old Paths in response to Schaff's discrediting of the Waldensian theory. Even a decade later, figures within the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian denominations understood Schaff's views as a threat, accusing him of acting as a Catholic agent and encouraging mass conversions to Rome.Footnote 104
Ultimately, Schaff's views would gain support from the publication of other German scholars. The works of Johann Herzog and August Dieckhoff continued to cast doubt on apostolic Waldensianism, as did the researches of the immensely popular August Neander, a mentor of Schaff's at Berlin.Footnote 105 New editions of Gieseler began adding footnotes describing the errors that led to the apostolic myth.Footnote 106 As this research became widespread, periodicals and authors appealing to the history of the Waldenses began softening their language when discussing their origins, saying that their history before Waldo was “clouded in mystery,” or “murky.”Footnote 107 Even Joseph Berg had to modify his accounts of pre-Reformation history. By 1850, his speeches retained the vivid descriptions of Catholic violence but ambiguously elided any discussion of Waldensian beginnings.Footnote 108
Under these growing criticisms, defenders of apostolic Waldensianism received support from Alexis Muston's Israel of the Alps (1852). Muston, a French Protestant minister, sought to write the definitive history of Waldensianism, opposing the German scholars who cast doubt on the group's apostolic origin. Following Allix, Muston traced the Waldenses to the patristic and medieval Vaudois churches, led by anti-Roman bishops.Footnote 109 Bookstores in New York carried the London edition, advertising the work as a “highly interesting account of those sturdy non-conformists.”Footnote 110 A few periodicals positively reviewed Muston's conclusions, asserting that, while steeped in mystery, the early Waldenses were “undoubtedly inheritors of the institutions of the primitive church. . . though at what time the divergence [with Rome] occurred it is impossible to say.”Footnote 111 The Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia produced an 1853 paraphrase of Muston's narrative, and a new unabridged translation appeared in New York in 1857.Footnote 112
On the whole, however, Americans were noticeably cautious in their engagement with Muston's conclusions. A brief notice in the Princeton Review simply stated that the book was “severe, dramatic, and terrible.” The review in the Evening Post offered a more thoughtful engagement, praising Muston's command of the sources and his writing style. They also noted glaring imperfections, particularly, a lack of “judicial impartiality” and a “strong bias against the Roman Catholics.”Footnote 113 By the end of the 1850s, many Waldensian-related publications were refuting outright the claim of pre-Waldo origins.Footnote 114 History books for children still mentioned Waldo and other proto-Reformers, but made clear that the Waldenses were distinct from the more heretical groups like the Albigensians.Footnote 115 By 1859, J. P. Revel, the leader of the Waldensian Synod who visited America in 1853, defended the historic Waldensian church as founded by Waldo by separating them from the Manichean extremism of the other medieval sects.Footnote 116
Though the Waldensian myth still lingered in corners of American Protestantism through the twentieth century (often appealing to Muston's research as the “definitive” word on the subject), the consensus view of a post-Waldo origin was established by 1870.Footnote 117 Emile Comba, a professor of theology at the Waldensian college in Florence, continued to lament the allure that the apostolic myth offered Protestants. The history of the Waldenses, once “disentangled from a confused mass of legends,” was still “grand and venerable” without the presumption of apostolicity.Footnote 118
The rise and fall of apostolic Waldensianism in the Protestant press demonstrates a phenomenon that both Jenny Franchot and Jon Gjerde have perceived in antebellum Catholic-Protestant relations: the contradictory reactions of fascination with, and repulsion of, the “other.” As Philip Schaff discerned, anti-Catholic historiography ironically adopted decidedly Catholic approaches to the church's past. Both sides asserted that Christianity—as founded by Christ and the apostles—never changed or developed. Compare the following quotes from Joseph Berg, ever the quintessential anti-Catholic, and Bossuet:
It is altogether a mistaken idea to suppose that religion and divine truth constitute a science which may be improved. The gospel system has long since developed its principles. Revelation is not a science which is progressive in character. It is complete and perfect. There are no correct views. . . which were not offered by the inspired teachings of God's book to our fathers before us. . . the truth, like its author, is the same yesterday—to-day and forever. Pure and undefiled religion is as unchanging as the holiness of God from whom it emanates.Footnote 119
The Church's doctrine is always the same. . . . The Gospel is never different from what it was before. Hence, if at any time someone says the faith includes something which yesterday was not said to be of the faith, it is always heterodoxy. . . There is no difficulty about recognizing false doctrine: . . .it is recognized at once, whenever it appears, merely because it is new.Footnote 120
Apostolic Waldensianism was the perfect rhetorical weapon against Catholic opponents because it allowed Protestants to take on Catholic claims of historical and doctrinal uniformity, universality, and apostolicity for themselves. The pride of Catholicism became the glory of American Protestants. In the end, the logic of anti-Catholic historiography could not stand up to its own scrutiny. Since the sixteenth century, Protestants had labored to reveal the many innovations Catholic theology had adopted over the centuries. But the historiographical impulse to justify the existence of Protestant churches would cut both ways. Proto-Protestants were just as likely as popes and monks to espouse heresy. As nineteenth-century Catholics came to terms with this historiography in their debates over doctrinal development, a similar tension was building in American Protestantism.
I would like to thank the two anonymous readers and the editors at Church History for their assistance and feedback. An early version of this article was presented at the 2017 Baylor Symposium on the Bible and the Reformation. My thanks to Shannon Seegers, Jacob A. Kilgore, Peter A. Harsch, Jerri von den Bosch, and Patrick Conlin for their helpful comments on the initial draft, and to Patrick Carey, Julian Hills, and David Whitford for their suggestions and encouragement. Joseph Stubenrauch and Thomas Kidd provided incisive feedback to later drafts, as did Benjamin Young, Regina Wenger, and Benjamin Leavitt. I am especially grateful to Cassandra Young for offering her support and wisdom.