Small Groups During the Pre-Reformation

Church Leadership


by Joel Comiskey

This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”

In the twelfth century, canon law governed the people. Everyone was required to obey a complicated set of rules that laid out religious rights, duties, and laws. This canon law became more and more complex as individual popes and bishops would add rules to it, which were then incorporated as part of the official rules for church life. Joseph Lynch writes,

Already in the sixth century, the accumulation of diverse texts made the canon law complex and even contradictory. Here and there scholars attempted to bring order to the canon law by selecting texts and arranging them systematically under topic headings. Such a canonical collection, which might be a single thick volume, was used by a bishop to manage his church.1

One of the religious rules forbade people to preach the gospel unless they received explicit approval from the Roman Church authorities. Some preachers didn’t obey this rule and paid dearly for it.

Peter Waldo, for example, a prosperous merchant of Lyon, France, felt compelled by God to preach the gospel when he witnessed the sudden death of a well-known citizen and then heard a musician’s ballad about the shortness of life. God spoke to him that all that mattered was preparation for heaven, and he became a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ, committed to preaching the gospel everywhere and to everyone.

He had one major problem, though. He lacked permission. The authorities in Lyon told him to stop until he received the official blessing from Rome. Waldo’s zeal led him to go to Rome to get that permission.

He and one other follower appeared at the Third Lateran Council of 1179 to request permission from the pope. The special papal committee asked them whether they believed in the persons of the Trinity and they answered, “Yes.” And “in the Mother of Christ?” To which they also replied “Yes.” The committee burst out laughing at their ignorance, for it was not proper to believe in, but to believe on, Mary. The committee rejected them as unlearned and ignorant men and forbade them to preach. Waldo and his followers continued to preach the gospel, believing they had authority from heaven.

Yearning for Change

Other unauthorized preachers began to preach God’s Word based on Scripture. Some were lay people; others were priests. Although they differed in their approach, the common thread was a desire to return to primitive Christianity and the commitment to live a simple life based on God’s Word alone. Some lived barefoot or sandaled and preached to all who would listen. Their preaching was disruptive to the established order. Three similar preaching movements appeared within proximity of each other and all emphasized the importance of small groups, preaching the gospel, obedience to Scripture, and commitment to lay involvement. They were:

  • The Waldensians: a Christian movement started by Peter Waldo in Lyon, France in the late 1170s. By 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to persecution.
  • The Lollards: A religious movement that existed in the mid-fourteenth century. The term Lollard refers to the followers of John Wycliffe, a prominent theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the church. The Lollards’ demands were primarily for the reform of Christianity.
  • The Hussites: A Christian movement that followed the teachings of Czech reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415), who became one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. After Hus was put to death for alleged heresy on July 6, 1415, the Hussites continued to promote church reformation.

The following list gives an overview of the teaching of these movements:2


  • Conformity to the New Testament
  • Commitment to the vernacular
  • The church of Rome was corrupt
  • The pope was not the head of the church
  • Masses and prayers for the dead were without warrant
  • Women could minister
  • Sacraments administered by unworthy priests were invalid
  • Laymen could administer the Eucharist
  • Developed their own training of lay clergy


  • Popes can err and a worldly pope is a heretic
  • The true church is made up of those elected by God; No visible church can control entrance or exclude membership
  • Popes nor bishops can know who the members of the true church are
  • Salvation does not depend upon connection with the church
  • Every elected person is a priest
  • Condemned the cult of the saints, relics, pilgrimages
  • Attacked transubstantiation
  • Layman might officiate in the Eucharist
  • Repudiated indulgences
  • Repudiated masses for the dead
  • Translated the Bible from the Vulgate into the vernacular


  • Denounced evils of the church
  • Christ and not Peter was the foundation of the church
  • Many popes were heretics and could err
  • Desired moral reform rather than ecclesiastical revolution
  • Laity could partake in the cup of communion
  • The Bible was the ultimate authority

These three movements led to the Protestant Reformation, which embodied the commitment and obedience to God’s Word alone. Although the Catholic Church was somewhat successful in quelling the voices of these pre-reformation prophets, they planted the ideological seeds that motivated and inspired those who followed.


We already met Peter Waldo in the introduction. Waldo persuaded a sympathetic priest to translate large sections of the New Testament from Latin into the regional language, which fueled his preaching. He soon had the Gospels memorized. He then wandered throughout Lyon, France, preaching the message of Christ to anyone who would listen. A number of young men, impressed by his intelligence and sincerity, followed him in giving away their possessions and finding a new joy and freedom in simple living.

Even though he never received official permission to preach the gospel, he organized a band of followers in the city of Lyon, who became known as “the poor men of Lyon.” Like Waldo, they were devoted to God’s Word, poverty, and preaching the gospel. Waldo and his followers scrutinized the Bible, finding their authority to preach in God’s Word, but they also discovered how the Bible contradicted the papacy in many other aspects. They realized that the Catholic Church was mistaken, not only in claiming the right to restrict their preaching, but also in the role of priests as mediators between God and human beings, noting Matthew 23:8, “All of you are brethren.”

They also questioned the justification and extent of papal authority, and the interpretation of a number of biblical passages. Giorgio Tour writes, “Their calling was to be present in the churches, public squares and homes where their message could be heard. They were and wished to remain citizens of Lyon, one of the great cities of western Europe.”3

By the early 1180s Waldo and his followers were ex-communicated and forced out of Lyon.4 Their rejection by the Catholic Church radicalized the movement. They became anti-Catholic, rejecting the authority of the clergy, declaring any oath to be a sin, claiming anyone could preach, that the Bible alone was all that was needed for salvation, and rejecting the concept of purgatory, along with the adoration of relics and icons. Soon the movement primarily moved from house-to-house. Their house-based movement strengthened their followers and furthered their message.5 Rad Zdero writes,

They expanded their work all over Europe, so much so that it was believed by the canon of Notre Dame that a third of all Christendom had attended the Waldensian meetings. Their gatherings usually occurred outdoors after nightfall under the direction of an itinerant brother. After an opening prayer and sermon, they went back into their homes for supper meetings to pray, discuss, and eat the Lord’s Supper.6

Giorgio Tour writes, “The terror of the Inquisition made public preaching, such as the earliest Waldensians had engaged in, impossible.”7 Even though they could no longer preach in the open-air, they continued to minister from house-to-house.

Waldo and his followers developed a system whereby they would go into a town and meet secretly with small groups of Waldensians. They ministered to one another in the home groups, provided hospitality to the traveling preachers, and made plans for the house-to-house ministry to continue. They would often meet in poor outlying areas, which they called scholas or schools. One inquisitor wrote down the confession of a Waldensian he was about to torture, who said, “In our home, women teach as well as men, and one who has been a student for a week teaches another.”8

In these house meetings, they would gather together for a meal, pray together, and then participate in the Lord’s Supper. After the meal, all would stand, join hands and lift their eyes as the leader repeated the verse from Revelation chapter seven, “Blessings, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and might be unto our God forever and ever.”9 They worshipped as a community and read Scripture together. Describing a Waldensian home meeting, Alan Kreider writes:

These Waldensian cells, meeting generally at night, in houses and barns, were marked by intense activity. Those present were laypeople, often “persons of basest occupations” such as tailors, shoemakers and smiths. Women were there in disproportionate strength. Largely excluded from using their gifts in the church, they were finding among the “heretics” liberty to teach and preach. Everyone participated: “Old and young, men and women, by day and by night, they do not stop their learning and teaching others.” Illiterates were learning to read: “Learn but one word a day,” they admonished each other, “and after a year you will know three hundred, and then you will progress.” The Bible was memorized and recited. In Austria one critic found an “unlearned rustic who could recite the Book of Job word for word, and many others who know the entire New Testament perfectly.” After recitations, the Bible would be commented upon and applied.10

In 1211 more than eighty were burned as heretics at Strasbourg and centuries of severe persecution followed.11

Many look at the Waldensians as early Protestants because they proclaimed the Bible as the sole rule of life and faith. They rejected papal authority, indulgences, purgatory, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. Tour writes, “The problem that the Poor [Waldensians] created for the Church did not lie in their practice of the Christian life but in their commitment to preaching and to authentic Christian community.”12

J. A. Wylie, who wrote a book on the Waldensians, says,

The church of the Reformation was in the loins of the Waldensian Church ages before the birth of Luther . . . the Waldensians sowed the seeds of that great spiritual revival which, beginning in the days of Wycliffe, and advancing in the times of Luther and Calvin, awaits its full consummation in the ages to come.13

About four centuries later, the surviving Waldensians eventually accepted the Reformation doctrines. They agreed with the teachings and doctrine of John Calvin, who established systematic theology in Geneva, which was about seventy miles away from Lyon. While many Waldensian groups were absorbed into other Protestant Christian denominations, active congregations remain in Europe, South America, and North America under the label of the Waldensian Evangelical Church. Organizations such as the American Waldensian Society exist to maintain the history of this movement.


The exact origin of the term Lollard remains uncertain, but it is believed by many etymologists to have come from the Dutch word lollaerd, meaning mumbler. By the mid-1400s, the word had essentially become synonymous with heretic.

The origins of Lollardy can be traced to the writings of John Wycliffe who was a churchman, writer, and theologian, who was born sometime in the 1320s and died in 1384. Many consider Wycliffe to be the father of the English Reformation. His ideas provided a platform upon which the later reformers built. But those who followed the teaching of Wycliffe often paid a high price.

William Sawtrey was the first Lollard to face the ultimate sacrifice. On February 12, 1401 Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William Sawtrey to appear at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London to give an account of his teachings. Sawtrey was an English priest who withdrew from the priesthood believing that the Bible, not church dogma, was the primary authority.

Arundel questioned William closely. Sawtrey stood firm in his conviction that it was more important to adore Christ crucified than the cross itself. Sawtrey also declared that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite religious prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He said that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread. Roman teaching affirmed that the bread literally became Christ’s flesh.

Arundel questioned him for three hours and tried to convince William to change his mind, but he refused and on February 26, 1401 William was condemned and handed over to the secular authorities to die. After his appeal was denied, he was burned to death at Smithfield in front of a crowd of spectators. He was the first “Lollard” martyr in England.

The Lollards have been called “England’s first heresy.” It was never an organized movement in the sense of a modern religious or secular organization. There was no “Head Lollard” or organizational hierarchy of the Lollards. Rather, the Lollards were simply people tied together by a set of beliefs. Those beliefs varied in focus and intensity from one person to the next, but some of the more common beliefs were:

  • The pope had no part to play in politics
  • The church was too worldly
  • Monasticism had drifted from its spiritual foundation
  • The Bible should be available to everyone in their own language
  • True power is God’s, and attempts to use power for individual gain is therefore wrong

Wycliffe taught that the church had drifted away from its spiritual foundations. He criticized papal influence in secular life and tried to make biblical teaching accessible to everyone. He thought that the Bible should be available in the language of the common people, so that everyone could read and understand it, not just those elite members of the church who were educated in Latin.

Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, which was an act of extreme courage, and one which brought him into direct conflict with the church in Rome. At the time, there were already portions of the Bible available in English, but no complete translation. “Wycliffe’s Bible” as it was called, was widely distributed throughout England, and had a huge influence at the time. Predictably, it was denounced by the church as an unauthorized and inaccurate translation.

The Lollards believed the Catholic Church had been corrupted and that its claim to be the true church was not justified by Scripture or its heredity. They felt it was unbiblical for the church to say prayers for the dead and to permit chantries.14 They believed in a lay priesthood and challenged the church’s authority to invest or deny the divine authority to make a man a priest. They believed that confession to a priest was unnecessary since the priests did not have the ability to forgive sins. They challenged the practice of clerical celibacy and believed priests should not hold government positions, which intermingled them in temporal matters.

Their belief in the priesthood of all believers stirred them to mutual accountability in home meetings—just like the early house churches. Yet their underground house meetings were also necessary because of the fierce persecution they experienced. Shannon McSheffrey examined the court evidence against the Lollards to determine their home group structure. She noticed that the Lollards tended to congregate according to homogeneous groups. She writes,

These loose groups can be discerned from the court book evidence: groups of men, groups of married couples, and groups of women. While these categories were by no means hard and fast, it is natural that the general tendencies of social interactions in medieval society would be duplicated within Lollard communities.15

Robert Lutton noticed the Lollards’ interconnected family relations and how the small groups were connected via the extended family. Most of those convicted of heresy were connected through a network of extended family groups. These web relationships were reminiscent of early church evangelism that spread through oikos or extended family evangelism. Lutton says, “Everyday or occasional relationships helped to hold the geographically disparate Kentish Lollard groups together into the more closed circles of the conventicle or household meetings.”16 Lutton illustrates how Lollard teachings spread through a carpenter working on someone’s house and sharing his belief system.

The spread of the movement relied upon house-to-house visitation, pub evangelism, preaching in fairs and markets, conversing over meals in homes, passing out tracts, and invitations to reading circles. Lollard leaders moved from place to place in order to supervise existing groups and establish new ones. Alan Kreider writes,

The central activity of these cells was reading the English Bible. One group in Buckinghamshire asked a boy whom they were not sure they could trust to leave them “that he should not hear and tell.” Then the leader “did recite certain passages to them out of the Epistles of St Paul, and of the Gospels.” These Scriptures were of course available only in manuscript, and so expensive to buy; like other English books, they were also dangerous to possess. So, although some people had good collections (“book of Luke and one of Paul. and a gloss of the Apocalypse”), many others could possess the Bible only by memorizing it. Groups of believers stayed up all night to do this. Some of them took private instruction to commit the Beatitudes to heart.17

The Lollard cells did not, so far as we know, administer the sacraments. They would attend their parish churches for the sacraments, even though they didn’t believe that the bread actually became the body of Jesus Christ. The cells didn’t include membership rolls because they didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves and only met in trustworthy homes or out of the way places, like barns.18


John Hus’s final sentence came on July 6, 1415. He was placed on a high stool in the middle of the church and sentenced to death. The chronicler of the event noted that they placed a hood over his head, with pictures of the devil and the word heresiarch (a leader of heretics), then committed his soul to the devil. Hus responded, “And I commit myself to the most gracious Lord Jesus.”

In a letter written the night before his sentencing, Hus prayed that if his death would contribute anything to God’s glory, then he desired to face it without fear. Hands bound behind his back, Hus was chained to the stake. Wood and hay were piled up to his chin. Rosin was sprinkled on it. He was given one last chance to recant and be set free. Bravely, he refused and said, “I shall die with joy today in the faith of the gospel which I have preached.” As they lit the flames around him he sang out twice, “Christ thou Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me.” He died singing and praying Hus was born in Husinec, Bohemia, in 1369. To escape poverty, Hus trained for the priesthood. He writes, “I had thought to become a priest quickly in order to secure a good livelihood and dress and to be held in esteem by men.”19 He eventually earned a doctorate degree, was ordained, and became the preacher at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, which held some three thousand people. This well-known church was very influential, being located in one of Europe’s most reform-minded cities.

During these years, Hus underwent a change when he discovered the Bible. Many Czech students, in fact, studied at Oxford, and carried Wycliffe’s ideas back to Prague. Hus, who became Rector of the University of Prague, read Wycliffe’s teachings, accepted them, and taught many of his ideas. Hus’s preaching attracted a huge following, including Bohemian rulers.

He tried to reform the church by attacking moral failings of clergy, bishops, and even the papacy from his pulpit. Hus was disillusioned with the state of the church, particularly the spectacle of two, and then three rival popes at once. The archbishop of Prague tolerated Hus and even appointed him as preacher to the clergy’s synod. Some of the rulers joined his cause because they were embroiled in the fight for equality with the Catholic powers of the Holy Roman Empire. The University of Prague was already split between Czechs and Germans, and Wycliffe’s teachings only divided them more.

Hus began to increasingly trust the Scriptures only, “desiring to hold, believe, and assert whatever is contained in them as long as I have breath in me.” A political struggle ensued, with the Germans labeling Hus and his followers as heretics. With the support of the king of Bohemia, the Czechs gained the upper hand, and the Germans were forced to flee to other universities. In 1405 Pope Innocent VII demanded that the archbishop counter Hus’s heretical teachings, and the archbishop complied.

Although John Hus didn’t establish a system of small groups, he forged the path through biblical preaching to what some have called the “Hussite Reformation” or “Czech Reformation.”20 These Hussites formed the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren) in 1457, and the church grew primarily through house-to-house ministry in its homelands of Bohemia and Moravia to a membership of two hundred thousand.21 They created the first truly voluntary church in western history. Craig Atwood writes,

They [Unity of Brethren] associated the state church with the emperor Constantine, who they believed brought the oppression and violence of the Roman Empire into the church. . . . The Brethren also taught that there is no true Christianity without a visible community of love. Their understanding of Christian community was inspired by the example of the early church of the apostles.22

The Hussites were forced to meet in underground house churches, especially during the fierce persecution of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). These Hussites clung to their passionate desire to return to primitive Christianity. They rejected everything that had no basis in the Bible, such as the veneration of saints, images, fasts, superfluous holidays, the oath, intercession for the dead, auricular confession, and indulgences.

Hussite cell groups continued to meet until being relocated approximately two hundred years later to Count Zinzendorf’s estate—who we will meet in a later chapter. Zinzendorf started the modern missionary movement and the Hussites, who later adopted the name Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), comprised the core group that made the modern missionary movement possible.23

Lessons Learned

  • Pre-reformation movements, like the Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites, believed in God’s Word as the basis for their authority, resisted Catholic dogma, and emphasized a simple lifestyle.
  • These movements emphasized the priesthood of all believers and a return to primitive Christianity, as opposed to the hierarchical leadership common in the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Home groups were the natural habitat of these pre-reformation movements.
  • These movements were persecuted severely by the Roman Catholic Church, who saw them as divisive and disruptive of the status quo.
  • These pre-reformation movements pointed out church abuses that were not based on God’s Word. They paved the way for Luther’s reformation


  1. Lynch, p. 68.
  2. Latourette, pp. 451–453; 662–669.
  3. Giorgio Tour, You are My Witnesses: The Waldensians across 800 Years (Torino, Italy: Claudiana, 1989), p. 16.
  4. Ibid., p. 16. Waldensians were declared schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and heretics in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council.
  5. Latourette, p. 453.
  6. Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2004), p. 63.
  7. Tour, p. 41.
  8. Tour, p. 41.
  9. Ibid., p. 41
  10. Alan Kreider, “Protest And Renewal: Reformers before the Reformation” Christian History Institute, Vol. 9, Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1986), p. 1.
  11. Martyrs’ Mirror Book 1, page 339: Burning of about 80 Waldensians, Strasbourg, 1215 (Eeghen 700).
  12. Tour, p. 15.
  13. J. A. Wylie (2011-05-25) The History of the Waldenses (pp. 19–20). Kindle Edition.
  14. A chantry was an endowment to cover expenses for the saying of masses and prayers, usually for the soul of the founder of the endowment.
  15. Shannon McSheffrey, Lollards of Coventry, 1486–1522 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 37.
  16. Robert Lutton, Lollardy and Orthodox Religion in Pre-Reformation England: Reconstructing Piety (Suffolk, England: Boydell & Brewer, 2006), p. 182.
  17. Kreider, p. 1.
  18. Stuart Murray Williams, The Lollards, Accessed on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.
  19. John Hus, Christian History,,, p. 1. Accessed in April 2014.
  20. Craig D. Atwood, The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2009), p. 5.
  21. Tarunjit Singh Butalia, Dianne P. Small, Religion in Ohio: Profiles of Faith Communities (Athens, OH : Ohio University Press, 2004), p. 193.
  22. Atwood, p. 5.
  23. Accessed at on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.
  24. Albert Hyma, The Brethren of the Common Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 7.
  25. Ibid., p. 73.