CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

The Italian Pentecostal movement: a brief historical background and future prospects

by Alessandro Iovino (University of “Federico II”,  Naples)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


The development of Pentecostal spirituality has taken different paths in the different countries in which the movement spread out. The Italian Pentecostal movement is one of these local variations and so it has its own quite distinct personality for social and cultural reasons.   Any assessment of Italian Pentecostalism must bear in mind the international impact which characterised it due to its evolution as a result of emigration at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  To a large extent, this helped to preserve a sense of national identity in the places it sprang up and it was very much “a phenomenon within a phenomenon” so to speak.  The Italian variation was an extension of the greater movement.   As a matter of fact, there is an Italian brand of Pentecostalism in South America (especially in Brazil and Argentina) which is much larger and more important that the authentic Italian one and there is a smaller one in North America and Northern Europe, less numerous but important in its own right. Like world Pentecostalism, Italian Pentecostalism, distinguishes itself with its autonomous, local expansion. 
The spark for expansion was not initially due to a special mission or specific strategy, but rather, growth occurred as a result of personal initiative which moulded itself to its surroundings and circumstances.  This phenomenon was especially marked in Italy and led to the birth and growth of Pentecostal communities on a regional basis and sometimes interregional basis which were often split on certain issues.   Often the differences were not on doctrinal or theological in a strict sense, but stemmed rather from a difference of opinion on church hierarchy. It should be pointed out, moreover, that Pentecostalism did not come forth from theological or ecclesiastic discord, but sprung from a spiritual experience which united those who experienced it. When the pioneers of the Pentecostal movement were forced to organise the movement and set up a co-ordinated system having been repudiated by the churches they came from, they each modelled themselves on their previous churches’ standard and set-up. This would explain the organisational rifts in Pentecostalism in Italy and the world at large – despite the hundreds of thousands of believers in some Pentecostal denominations. This brings to the point that the Pentecostal movement has the greatest awakening movement in the whole world and in the history of Christianity.  A predominant and common theme in Pentecostalism is the experience of Baptism in the Holy Spirit and this surmounts internal differences. It is a vital spiritual experience which draws strength from God and helps us accomplish our mission of “Gospel witnesses” in the world.  The Pentecostal movement is booming all over the world.  According to its current growth rate and some statistical calculations, we can predict that by 2025 the Pentecostal community will have become 50% of the total number of Christians in the world.  This widely spreading phenomenon is due to the fact that world believers have a greater need for deeper spirituality and wish to form a direct and personal experience and contact with God.  There is an increasing desire to jettison the restrictions of formal religions and move towards the exercise of faith and charismatic practices in the Holy Spirit between believers in the community, actually bringing God’s vows to come about.  The Pentecostal movement perpetuates and revamps the original principles of the Reformation (sola gratia…sola Scriptura,….solus Christus), whilst striving to embody  the perfect teachings of Jesus Christ……”…the Poor have the Gospel preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5).  Another important aspect of the Pentecostal movement is its universal accessibility: in contrast to the liturgical rigidity so typical of the Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches, the Pentecostals acknowledge and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and this is what makes their gatherings spontaneous.  
The above having been said and on the basis of meticulous historical reconstructions, we can take the 15th of September 1907 to be the date on which the Italian Pentecostal Movement started.  Pietro Ottolini described this moment as being “a sacred day in our memories” and Luigi Francescon defined it as being “the unforgettable 15th of September”.  Both were amongst the most prominent founding fathers of the Italian Pentecostal movement and their words are certainly not only  historically reliable, but also a shared treasure of the Italian Pentecostal movement, regardless of the internal splits and tussles of the twentieth century.  The purpose of this paper is not to write a detailed historical account of the Italian Pentecostal movement, but we do want to examine facts, concepts and future prospects of the movement so it could be helpful to familiarise ourselves with the main points.  In April 1907 Luigi Francescon met a pastor called William H. Durham (1873-1912) who had received the Holy Spirit at Los Angeles the previous year.  His heart and his mind opened to the Pentecostal faith and on the 25th of August of the same year, he was baptised in the Holy Spirit.  On the 9th and 10th of September, Pietro Ottolini too received baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The experience of Pentecostal faith also spread to the Italian Presbyterian church of Chicago. On the 15th of September 1907 the Christian Assembly of Chicago become the first Italian Pentecostal Church (at number 1139 W. Grand Avenue).  The rites were conducted by Pietro Ottolini and the homily was given by Luigi Francescon.  Some converted Italian emigrants returned to Italy and set to work evangelising and spreading the Gospel.  Amongst the most famous names of the Italian movement, the following come to mind: Luigi Francescon, Pietro Ottolini, Giacomo Lombardi, Lucia Menna, Umberto Gazzeri and Giuseppe Petrelli.  In November 1908 Giacomo Lombardi, an emigrant with no education, who originally came from Prezza (L’Aquila, Italy), returned to his homeland and evangelised a childhood friend living in Rome.  From this point on, a small group of believers formed and met for about two years in the Roman friend’s private house to praise God.  It did not take long for these Christian Evangelical Pentecostals to become a community.  In 1909, Giacomo Lombardi went back to the United States and with Luigi Francescon started to work with Italians in Argentina and Brazil.  In 1901, Pietro Ottolini moved to Italy and  lived there for almost five years. It was in 1901 that he opened a church in Milan.  By 1910, there were four Pentecostal communities in Italy. In 1920, this number rose to fourteen despite the First World War.  In 1930, there were 148 churches and in 1940, this number swelled to 175.  An important aspect of the Pentecostal movement is one of complete allegiance  to the Sacred Scriptures and in fact there motto would later be “The Gospel is everything.”  In Italy, the first assembly of the Pentecostal churches took place in Rome in 1928 under the chair of Michele Palma, representative of the Italian Churches in North America.  At the time, the theme of the churches’ absolute autonomy is not discussed in so many words.  In 1929, during the Second General Assembly, called the national convention, Luigi Francescon upheld radical congregationalism urging the directors of the Italian communities gathered in Rome not to be tempted to merge into a single organisation. The Pentecostal Movement in Italy was completely isolated during the initial decades of its inception. The new converts came directly from the Catholic faith and knew nothing of the historical inheritance of the Reformation nor were they familiar with the previous evangelical awakenings.  They believed that, through the Gospel, they merged directly with Christianity of the apostolic era.  The only contact they had with Italian evangelism was the relationship they developed with the “Biblical society” for the purchase of the Sacred Scriptures.  They simply called themselves Christians.  In fact, they initially called themselves the Christian Assembly. 
The official name “Christian Pentecostal Congregation” was coined in 1930.  Between 1935 and 1944, the Pentecostals in Italy could not congregate because of the Second World War – they could not even meet with the Italian-American churches where the first witnesses of the Gospel came from.  After liberation and the end of the war, there was an impelling need to pick up collaboration with the Italian churches abroad and especially with the North American ones. Later on, during the early Italian Republic, the Pentecostals were harshly repressed by the political powers and the ruling classes which were affiliated to the majority party of Catholic sympathy.  The Pentecostals were badly harmed by a Ministerial Memorandum (the Buffarini-Guidi of the 9th of April 1935) .  The memorandum was a surviving vestige of the Fascist Regime and was addressed to Prefects all over Italy instructing them to contend and prohibit all that was held to be “religious practices detrimental to social order and damaging to the physical and psychological integrity of the race.” Only when the memorandum was formally invalidated in court on the 16th of April 1955 did discrimination and persecution of the Pentecostals come to a halt.   
Overall, we can sum up the Italian Pentecostal situation like this:  the Evangelical Christian Churches of the “Assemblies of God in Italy” are the most well known denomination and the third largest organised religion in Italy (after the Catholic Church and the Jehovah’s witnesses); they have  more than one thousand one hundred churches and one hundred and forty thousand members in Italy.  In 1988, through representation, they drew up an Agreement with the Italian Government and it became executive law n. 517/88, in compliance with paragraph 8 of the Republican Constitution.  Apart from the Assemblies of God, there is also a group of Free Pentecostal Churches in Italy within which the “Federation of Pentecostal Churches” was set up and they kept up official talks with the Waldesian, Methodist and Baptist churches in Italy.
As far as future prospects go, the Pentecostal movement, despite its internal divisions, has one feature in common: growth in numbers.  There is one sure thing about the Pentecostal situation and that is exponential growth.  As far as other issues are concerned, obviously because there are various Italian Pentecostal denominations, each one has its own independence and it is impossible to predict a common future with any precision.  Some denominations do not intend to stray from the movement’s doctrinal and communitarian roots, whilst others are undergoing a process of transformation and modification as far as the foundations and basic features of Italian Pentecostalism is concerned.  In any case, the largest Italian Pentecostal movement (ADI) felt they needed to set themselves a clear-cut and triple objective: adoration of God in spirit and truth, evangelisation of the world and guidance of its believers.
Conversely, one cause that all Italian Pentecostal churches, hand in hand with other evangelical denominations, will not be divided on is that of freedom of worship. 

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