In southern Europe (mainly Italy today), of course!
The Waldensian Church, today a member of both the Ecumenical Council of Geneva and the World Alliance of Reform Churches, traces its origins to the Waldensian movement founded by Peter Valdo (Pietro Valdo) of Lyon (1140-1217). In 1173 Valdo, having abandoned his life as a merchant and given all of his goods to the poor, dedicated his life to preaching along with his disciples who came to be known as the “Poor Men of Lyon”. In 1177, after being warned several times by Bishop Guichard, he was expelled from the city because of his clearly anticlerical sentiments, yet this banishment had an effect opposite to that intended, and in fact served to disseminate Waldensian doctrines throughout the south of France. After a brief period of dialogue during which the Roman Catholic Church attempted to reabsorb the movement (the Third Lateran Council of 1179), at the Council of Verona in 1184 the movement was officially condemned and its adherents ex-communicated, thus forcing the Waldensians to go into hiding to escape from the Inquisition and from periodic massacres. Despite this persecution, the movement soon spread outside its area of origin, reaching into northern Italy (the Poor Men of Lombardy) and Bohemia, where it was introduced by Valdo himself. An underground network of contacts protected believers, who were able to meet for worship in secret in private homes, and made possible the spiritual assistance provided by itinerant preachers called “barbi” (the source of the term “barbetti” often applied by Roman Cathoics to the Waldensians).
Caught up in the crusade launched by Pope Innocent III against the Albigensians of Provence, the Waldensians of that region paid the price in blood to the forces of religious intolerance and were totally eradicated. The few survivors made their way to Pellice, Chisone and Germanasca valleys in what is now north-west Italy and, to some extent, to the French side of the mountains. Today, they are still to be found in those areas, where they speak a Provencal dialect and profess a Protestant faith.
The Protestant Reformation, which the Waldensians joined without hesitation, made possible a period of reorganization within the movement culminating in the Synod of Chanforan (1532) during which a Confession of Faith of a Protestant stamp was adopted, along with a church structure in line with those of the Reformed Churches of the time. Pastoral ministry was instituted, churches constructed for worship, and a Synodal model of church organization adopted.
With the coming of the Counter-Reformation, persecutions increased again. The Waldensians of Provence were exterminated during the first half of the 16th century, while in the second half of that century, Waldensians who had moved into Calabria and Puglia in southern Italy were massacred or dispersed. Emenuele Filiberto of Piedmont, unable to destroy the communities in the Waldensians valleys because of the tenacious resistance of their inhabitants, was forced to accept the “Treaty of Cavour” which guaranteed freedom of religion within the valleys but blocked any possibility of expansion outside those valleys. The treaty, however, did not stand in the way of further persecutions and in 1655, hundreds of Waldensians were killed during the “Piedmontese Easter”. In 1686 the Piedmontese and French troops of Vittorio Amadeo II and Louis XIV penetrated the valleys where, having exterminated a large part of the population, they incarcerated survivors in Piedmontese prisons. This period, thus, saw the rise of a forced migration of Waldensians into Switzerland and Germany, both predominantly Protestant areas. In the summer of 1686, a small group managed to return to the valleys from Switzerland during the “Glorious Return”. While the movement was completely eradicated in southern France, the Waldensians of the valleys were able to secure a treaty from the Pedmontese government in 1690 and there followed a period of relative peace and security. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era created problems of a doctrinal nature within all religious faiths, but for the Waldensians this was quickly followed by a renewed religious commitment in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. The “Lettere Patenti” issued by the house of Savoy in 1848 finally guaranteed freedom of action and civil rights to Waldensians.
Today, the annual Synod represents the governing entity of the Waldensian Church. The Synod is made up of pastors and lay people who elect a seven person governing board (named Tavola Valdese) under the chairmanship of the Moderator. Each office is elective and all have a limit of 7 years.