Hunting Heretics

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

February 2002
Revised March 2006
Revised May 2007


Augustine lived from 354 to 430 A.D. He had a vision of an ideal society, with the Roman Catholic Church at its center, governing all aspects of human life. His ideal society required conformity in belief and practice. Augustine taught that it was right and necessary for the Catholic Church to make this happen, even if it meant coercing people to comply. This laid the theological foundation for persecuting "heretics" and for the Inquisition. [Note 1]

For over a thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church hunted down "heretics" and killed them. Some of these "heretics" were people with strange beliefs. But, as we shall see later, many of them were Bible-believing Christians.

Jesus predicted that true Christians would be persecuted and killed. He told His disciples,

"Yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." (John 16:2)

For the Roman Catholic Church, "heresy" means to "obstinately" doubt or deny any official Catholic doctrine. [Note 2] Doctrines which have often been disputed include the authority of the Pope, purgatory, indulgences, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and transubstantiation (the doctrine that the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ are fully present in every fragment of consecrated bread).

Some Catholic doctrines seem to conflict with the plain meaning of Scripture. As a result, people who read the Bible for themselves are likely to doubt or dispute those doctrines. One way of solving that problem is to prevent laymen from reading the Bible. The Catholic Church took that approach for hundreds of years.

Starting about 1080, there were many incidents where scholars wanted to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, but it was forbidden by the Pope, Church councils, or individual bishops. [Note 3] William Tyndale was burned as a "heretic" because he translated the Bible into English. [Note 4] People were burned as "heretics" for owning or reading his translation. [Note 5]

For centuries, Christians were forbidden to possess the Scriptures in any language, including Latin. Reading the Bible was considered to be proof that someone was a heretic. Men and women were burned at the stake for reading the Bible in Latin. [Note 6]

With the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was translated into English, German, and other languages. With the invention of the printing press, Bibles became so plentiful that they could no longer be suppressed. That is why people like us, who are not Latin scholars, are able to read the Bible today.


Who were the Christian "heretics" who received this kind of treatment?

I would like you to meet the Waldensians. I've chosen them for four reasons.

First, when "heretics" were hunted, their writings were confiscated and burned, so it is often difficult to know what they really taught. [Note 7] However, we do know what the Waldensians taught. Their writings survived.

Second, as we shall see, their views were orthodox. They were Roman Catholics who (like Francis of Assisi) taught the value of poverty and simplicity. The Franciscans and the Waldensians were poor, humble, itinerant preachers, barefoot and wearing humble peasant clothing. [Note 8]

Third, as we shall see, the Pope examined them and found no heresy in them. (But later another Pope declared them to be heretics.)

Fourth, they did not teach inflammatory things against the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church.

Who are these heroic men and women who endured centuries of persecution for their faith?


Peter Waldo (1140-1218) was a rich merchant of Lyons, France. He asked a priest how to live like Jesus Christ. The priest quoted the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21) Waldo made financial provision for his wife, put his daughters in a convent, and gave the rest of his money to the poor. Waldo memorized portions of the Bible, and began preaching to people. As he gained followers, he sent them out in pairs to preach. [Note 9]

Waldo's followers called themselves "the Poor in Spirit". They are also known as the "Poor of Lyons" (the movement started in Lyons, France), the Waldensians (after Waldo), the Wandenses (a variation of Waldensians), and the Vaudois (Vaudes is French for Waldo).

The Waldensians were orthodox in their beliefs, but they were outside of the organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church. They traveled in pairs, preaching the Gospel. They were humble people who believed in "apostolic poverty". They were barefoot, owning nothing, and they shared all things in common. Their teaching was orthodox. However, they were considered to be a threat because they set standards which made many members of the Catholic clergy look bad by comparison. [Note 10]

The humility and voluntary poverty of the Waldensians were a striking contrast to the pride and luxury of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. A prime example of this was Pope Innocent III. He reigned from 1198 to 1216, which was during Waldo's lifetime. Innocent wore clothes covered with gold and jewels. He made kings and cardinals kiss his foot. [Note 11] He said that the Pope is "less than God but more than man". [Note 12] Another example is Pope Boniface VIII, who reigned from 1294 to 1303. He said, "I am Caesar. I am emperor." He wore a crown which was covered with costly jewels, including 48 rubies, 45 emeralds, 72 sapphires, and 66 large pearls. [Note 13]

Waldo's beliefs were founded on the Bible, especially the Gospels. He believed that there was no need to interpret the Bible because it spoke clearly for itself. All that was needed was to make the whole of Scripture available to the people. Waldo was French, so he commissioned two priests to translate the Bible into French, starting with the Gospels. As soon as the first Gospel (Matthew) had been translated, Waldo applied it to his life "to the letter" and began preaching it to the people. [Note 14]

In 1179, Pope Alexander III found no evidence of heresy among the Waldensians. However, because they were laymen, he forbid them to preach unless they were requested to do so by a bishop. The Archbishop of Lyons ordered Waldo to stop preaching. Waldo quoted Acts 5:29 (the Apostles' response when the Sanhedrin told them to stop preaching), "We ought to obey God rather than men." Waldo kept on preaching, and the Archbishop excommunicated him. Then, in 1184, Pope Lucius III excommunicated Waldo and his followers. [Note 15]

In 1211, more than eighty Waldensians were burned for "heresy". This was the beginning of centuries of persecution. [Note 16]

Because they were persecuted, the Waldensians went underground and spread to other countries, especially Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. The magnitude of their persecution is shown by the fact that in one year, in Italy alone, nine thousand Waldensians were killed and another twelve thousand were put into prison, where most of them died. In spite of this, somehow the itinerant Waldensian preachers were able to maintain links throughout Europe. [Note 17]

The Waldensians survived until the sixteenth century. Then they joined the Protestant Reformation. [Note 18]


One of the things which was used to try to suppress the Waldensians and other "heretics" was the Inquisition. It began in 1180, four years before Waldo and the Waldensians were excommunicated by the Pope.

From 1180 to 1230, the Catholic Church enacted legislation against heresy. It created a permanent tribunal, staffed by Dominican friars, which became known as the Inquisition.

The Inquisition used procedures which were banned in regular secular courts. It used anonymous informers. The accused man or woman was not allowed to know who accused them and they were not allowed to have anybody defend them. People were allowed to accuse their personal enemies. The inquisitors were allowed to use torture in order to get accused people to "confess". Once a person was accused, some kind of punishment was inevitable. If secular officials were reluctant to punish the victims, they were likely to become victims themselves. [Note 19]


There was a wide variety of Christian "heretics". On the one hand, there were the Waldensians, who were simple, humble people who were just trying to live according to Biblical principles. But when told not to preach, they continued preaching.

On the other hand, there were people like Wycliffe who said things that made the Pope angry. But did Jesus and his Disciples kill people for saying offensive things? They could have. Elijah called down fire on people. (Luke 9:54-55)

When thinking about the Inquisitors, we need to be careful not to “monsterize” them. These men believed that the Pope spoke for God. They were under a vow of obedience, and they believed that they had to do whatever they were told to do. From their point of view, they were doing their duty, and they were trying to protect the Catholic Church from being harmed by false teaching. Only God knows their hearts. Only God is capable of rightly judging the men who did those things.

During World War II, Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsy were sent to a Nazi death camp because they hid Jews in their home. At first, Corrie hated the Nazis. She saw them as monsters. But Betsy saw them as trapped, tormented men and women. She forgave them and she prayed for them, even when they were cruel to her and whipped her. She told Corrie to forgive them, and eventually Corrie was able to, by the grace of God.

Betsy died in that camp. Corrie was released due to a “clerical error” (i.e., God’s intervention). After the war, Corrie helped establish places for helping prisoners of the death camps. She also helped establish a place to help the Nazis. There was a Dutchman named Jan Vogel who betrayed Corrie’s family and many other Dutch people. He was caught and sentenced to death. When Corrie found out about it, she wrote to him, telling him that she forgave him, and telling him about God’s love and forgiveness. Jan Vogel became a Christian a week before he was executed.

Betsy Ten Boom saw the Nazis from God’s perspective. With God’s grace, we can do the same for other people who do harmful things, whether they be the Inquisitors of long ago, or people today. Jesus told us to love everybody, even our enemies. (Matthew 5:44) And He is able to enable us to do it. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. (Philippians 4:13)


Audisio, Gabriel (translated by Claire Davison), “The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival,” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Chamberlin, Russell, “The Bad Popes,” Phoenix Mill, England: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003.

“Code of Canon Law,” Latin-English edition, New English Translation, Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1999.

De Rosa, Peter, “Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy,” Dublin, Ireland: Poolbeg Press, 1988, 2000. The author used to be a priest. He is still a practicing Catholic. While he was a priest, he did research in the Vatican archives.

Edwards, Brian H., “God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible,” Darlington, England, Evangelical Press, 1976, 1999.

“Fox’s Book of Martyrs: A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Deaths of the Early Christian and Protestant Martyrs,” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1967. This book was originally written by John Fox (also spelled Foxe), who died in 1587. After Fox’s death, other men added accounts of later martyrs. This edition of the book ends with a martydom in 1824. It has the name Miles J. Stanford on the cover, so evidently Stanford wrote some accounts of more recent martyrs. You can read the book online.

Jackson, Bill, “The Noble Army of ‘Heretics’.” The author personally visited the Martyrs Monuments in England and the valleys where the Waldensians lived. He studied original documents in addition to doing research in books. You can read his book online.

Johnson, Paul, “A History of Christianity,” New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1995. The author is a Catholic.

Kelly, J.N.D., “The Oxford Dictionary of Popes,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kung, Hans, “The Catholic Church: A Short History” (translated by John Bowden), New York: Modern Library, 2001, 2003. The author is a Catholic theologian.

McBrien, Richard P., “Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II,” San Francisco, California: Harper, 2000. The author is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Phillips, Jonathan, “The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople,” New York: Viking Press (The Penguin Group), 2004.

Rendina, Claudio, “The Popes: Histories and Secrets,” Santa Ana, California: Seven Locks Press, 2002.

Shelley, Bruce, “Church History in Plain Language,” Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, 1995.



I encourage you to link to this article. You have permission to quote from this article, as long as you do it fairly and accurately. You have permission to make copies of this article for friends and for use in classes.



1. Paul Johnson, “A History of Christianity,” pages 112-119. (The author is Catholic.) Bruce Shelley, “Church History in Plain Language” (updated 2nd edition), page 128.

“Inquisition,” “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” Volume VIII, 1910. This article says that, under the Law of Moses, people in Old Testament times were killed or tortured for heresy. That is not correct. They were stoned to death if they tried to get other people to abandon the God of Israel and worship “foreign gods.” This was not torture; it was the usual method of execution, and it killed people pretty quickly. Worshiping “foreign gods” was not heresy. According to Catholic Canon Law, heresy means having a baptized Christian disagree on a point of doctrine. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church said that it was heresy to believe that people are saved by faith alone (as opposed to faith plus works). Worshiping “foreign gods” was not in any way comparable to heresy. It would be the equivalent of telling people to abandon Christianity and worship Hindu gods. (To read the article online, search for inquisition + “Catholic Encyclopedia”.)

2. “Code of Canon Law,” page 247, Canon 751. According to this law, “heresy” applies to people who have been baptized. However, most Catholics are baptized as infants, when they have no say in the matter. Also, the law does not say that it only applies to baptized Catholics, so it could be interpreted to apply to people who have been baptized as Protestants. During the Protestant Reformation, people who had been born and raised Protestant were killed as “heretics.” For centuries, the Waldensians and other Bible-believing Christians (who were never baptized as Catholics) were persecuted as “heretics.” In Spain, Jews and Muslims (unbaptized people) were persecuted as “heretics.”

3. Paul Johnson, page 273.

4. “Fox’s Book of Martyrs,” pages 176-184. “Tyndale, William,” World Book Encyclopedia 2000 (on CD-Rom).

5. If you want to get a feel for the times, read Brian H. Edwards’ book, “God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible.” There is a website devoted to William Tyndale.

6. Paul Johnson, pages 254-255; 273.

7. Paul Johnson, pages 119-120.

8. Gabriel Audisio, “The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival,” pages 11-12.

9. Bill Jackson, “The Noble Army of ‘Heretics,’” chapter 5, “Waldenses” pages 55-72. Dr. Jackson combines excellent scholarship with touching portraits of heroic people. He personally visited the valleys where the Waldensians lived and he studied their original documents. You can read this chapter online.

10. Paul Johnson, page 251.

11. Peter de Rosa, “Vicars of Christ,” pages 66-69. Claudio Rendina, “The Popes: Histories and Secrets,” pages 309-316. (Page 310 says that Innocent was convinced that he had “total power” over other men.) J.N.D. Kelly, “The Oxford Dictionary of Popes,” pages 186-188. Richard P. McBrien, “Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II,” pages 209-211. Paul Johnson, page 199.

12. Bruce Shelley, page 185.

13. Russell Chamberlin, “The Bad Popes,” pages 87-93. J.N.D. Kelly, page 209. Richard P. McBrien, page 435. Bruce Shelley, page 215.

14. Gabriel Audisio, page 11.

15. Bruce Shelley, pages 206-209.

16. J.A. Wylie, “History of Protestantism,” Volume III, Book 16, pages 1155-1252. “Fox’s Book of Martyrs,” pages 43-45. Bill Jackson, pages 61-72.

17. Gabriel Audisio, summary from the back cover of the book

18. Gabriel Audisio, pages 189-190. Bill Jackson, pages 55-72. You can read this online.

19. Hans Kung, “The Catholic Church: A Short History,” pages 94-97. “Fox’s Book of Martyrs,” pages 60-87. Paul Johnson, pages 253-255. Bruce Shelley, pages 211-212.