During the 500th Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 a huge emphasis was placed on the main Reformation characters of 1517, especially Martin Luther. Those that preceded him were side-lined. Jan Huss was hardly mentioned, although the 600th anniversary of his execution by fire was only two years earlier, in 2015. Valdes of Lyon did not feature at all.
This study shows that this lay person, Valdes, about whom hardly anything is known, had a significant impact on the 16th Century Reformation. This impact is not immediately obvious. The researcher reveals it by looking at the movement that resulted from his conversion in 1174, normally called the Waldenses, but in this study referred to as Poor of Christ, a name that they identified themselves with. The research does not focus on the Romanesque part that later formed the Waldensian Church, but on those living and ministering in the Holy Roman Empire, especially the German region.
Original sources such as papal letters, inquisition reports and reports of eyewitnesses of that time are researched and the information gathered. Through historical contextual analysis and synthesis, the information is brought together to show the impact that the Poor of Christ ultimately had in their own context and beyond.
The researcher shows how the Roman Church, instead of engaging with these lay preachers, tried to silence and eradicate them over a period of 350 years. This action harmed the church itself more than it did the people it was fighting against. The study shows how doctrines and decrees were formulated in reaction to the Poor of Christ, which became major issues in the run-up to the Reformation.
The study shows an important link between the Poor of Christ and the Augustinian Order, that is generally not taken note of, and throws a different light on why the Augustinian Order played such an important role in producing Reformation Theologians.
Further, the research shows how the underground lay movement influenced the thinking in cities and regions in Germany which became the first strongholds of the 16th Century Reformation, and that through their ministry the basics of Solus Christus and sola scriptura where already taught and practised in homes and families for generations prior to 1517.
The researcher argues that Martin Luther and the other prominent Reformers were not the originators of the 16th century Reformation. Unlike Jan Hus a hundred years before, they succeeded because the climate in Europe, and especially Germany, had changed due to the presence and ministry of the Poor of Christ. The real force behind the Reformation were not the theologians, but the lay men and women who for generations shaped Christ- centred values, who, for 350 years prior to 1517 had already been studying and teaching scripture in the local vernacular. This study hopes that the Poor of Christ will become part of main stream Reformation teaching, a place the movement deserves.
The study heightens the historical value of this research by showing how core aspects of the Poor of Christ can help the church today to be resilient and relevant. Their authentic way of living their faith is an example worth following. Church leadership are reminded of the importance of servant leadership, and all theologians are reminded that the real strength of the church lies in the lay people who are not dependent on clergy, but empowered to live and share what they believe.