by Roger E. Hedlund
In April, 1906, speaking in tongues broke out in the Azusa Street Methodist Mission, Los Angeles. The experiences in Azusa Street blended with similar events in other areas to give birth to the modern Pentecostal movement. Whether or not it is accurate to speak of a “Pentecostal Revival” in 1906 is a debatable point (Orr 1965:240).
In April, 1906, speaking in tongues broke out in the Azusa Street Methodist Mission, Los Angeles. The experiences in Azusa Street blended with similar events in other areas to give birth to the modern Pentecostal movement. Whether or not it is accurate to speak of a "Pentecostal Revival" in 1906 is a debatable point (Orr 1965:240). What matters for this account is that something which took place in Azusa Street spread from there to Chicago and from Chicago to Italy.
Italian immigrants had come to Chicago. When the phenomena of Azusa Street spread to Chicago these Italians got in on it. Then, much as in the first century when the Spirit first came upon the church, these new converts went everywhere bearing witness to what had happened to them.
I have met persons in California who are descendents of the Chicago Italian Pentecostals. Others of the original converts scattered across the oceans to preach the gospel. For instance, one Luigi Francescon of Udine in North Italy, converted in Chicago, went to South America. Among friends and relatives in Argentina he began a Pentecostal Church which today numbers several thousand. In Brazil the denomination which he began is no longer "Italian" but Brazilian and numbers a half million (Read, Monterroso and Johnson 1969).
Here, however, we are more interested in a man named Giacomo Lombardi. He too received a Pentecostal experience in 1906 when Azusa Street came to Chicago. In 1908 he returned to Italy with the message of Pentecost. As he preached churches were formed in Calabria, in Abruzzi, and in Rome. From these centers the message was diffused throughout the land, but especially in the South. The headquarters for what was to be known as the Assemblies of God in Italy was established in Rome in Via Abruzzi, where it remains today.
Other Pentecostal groups in the country are of lesser size. These include the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) with a reported membership of 1500, the Apostolic Church of about 1000 members, and the International Church headquartered in Rome but having several affiliated congregations whose total membership I would guess to number several hundred at least.
What made Pentecostal growth possible in this Roman Catholic land? Many reasons could be suggested. Some common assumptions are not sound. For instance, it is often thought that Latins are emotional and that this element attracts the Italians to Pentecostal churches. But this is superficial. It is not fair to equate Pentecostalism with emotionalism. Still a degree of emotion is important in the drab lives of the poor people of Southern Italy. More than emotion, however, it is the style of meeting that is meaningful. The practice of fervent praying out loud substitutes for the recited prayers of the Mass. Pentecostal worship allows for full participation, the expression of the priesthood of believers.
Pentecostalism is a religion of the Spirit. It is this vitality that gives it growth. The Holy Spirit is acknowledged and received into the believer’s soul. Life begets life. Transformed people share the faith. Thus the Assemblies are essentially lay churches. Growth is not limited to the availability of professional clergy and missionary money. Every Christian is expected to express his faith in aggressive witness. In spontaneous expression the fire spreads. The Pentecostal faith in Italy defeats the enemies of superstition, fear, and the devil. A crisis experience is an important ingredient of the Italian adaptation of the gospel.
Pentecostal success is in sharp contrast to that of the many evangelical missions that have come to Italy since the war. These too believe the gospel. But there has been no demonstration of power. An articulate spokesman for contemporary missionary work in Italy makes this judgment:
Apart from Pentecostal achievement (which is principally a national movement and not missionary inspired), 18 years of postwar missionary effort have produced little that is tangible. Neither missionary nor Italian has much success to report (Peck 1966:20).
What the traditional denominations have largely failed to do, and what the missions have not yet achieved, the Pentecostals have done. They have managed effectively to evangelize among Italians. They have done so during times of stress.
Southern Italy is a disintegrating society where identification with a vital community, such as the Pentecostals, offers hope. Barnett, in his study of innovation as the basis for cultural change, states: "The collapse of controls during periods of social and political upheaval opens the way for innovation" (1953 :71). Pentecostalism is a meaningful option to the people of disrupted Italy. Not a mere novelty, it brings the life of the gospel into drab lives.
We may cite the following features as reasons for Pentecostal success:
1. Recovery of "community"-a sense of caring and sharing. Conversion results in membership in a fellowship of loving concern.
2. A new dignity. In a disintegrating society the convert finds himself "belonging" in a community where he is "somebody," where he is important as a person.
3. A new interest. Life is drab, but now it takes on color. It is exciting to belong to an ongoing, aggressive body.
4. Replacement for Catholicism. Southern Italians are generally anti-clerical, but they still are Catholics for the saving of their souls. The convert, however, finds salvation through another channel. Moreover, he is liberated from many fears and binding beliefs. Rather than merely sweeping these away, however, Pentecostalism replaces many of the old features with functional substitutes. At first glance Pentecostalism appears a complete negation of Catholicism. But it is more-a complete replacement. The disciplined way of life, the many meetings, the drive to witness-all these tend to replace the old system. Local house church services and Bible studies replace the old parish church. Activities in a larger, central "mother" church replace the cathedral functions. The characteristic change of life style brings a dignity and respect (despite persecution)-a replacement of the monastic system of the Catholic Church. The mass is replaced by the fervent Pentecostal worship in which everyone participates together. Catholic sacraments are replaced by crisis experience and by believer’s baptism and the occasional celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A doctrine of bodily healing is substituted for pilgrimages to Catholic healing shrines, and the Holy Spirit takes the place of the emotions of Roman Catholic pomp and ceremony and procession.
Lombardi did not accomplish all this by himself. In his ministry he was joined by numerous others (returned Italian emigrants) who shared the same experience. The work thrived until 1934 when Fascist persecution began (Winehouse 1-1959:112).
During its beginning years of fantastic growth, Pentecostalism in Italy was not without opposition. The spread was so rapid as to alarm one Pope, who apparently overstated the case in speaking of Pentecostals as "that movement (which) has invaded every parish of our blessed country" (Evens 1963:280). The regular bodies of Protestants would certainly not have provoked such a statement, for they were neither that extensive nor as aggressive as the Pentecostals.
Mussolini created difficulties for the Pentecostals. With the signing of the Lateran Pacts, the Vatican was able to appeal to the State to take measures against Protestants. The regime was severe in its dealings with Pentecostals. They were prohibited from meeting. Services were made illegal. Pastors were sent to prisons or to concentration camps. Pentecostal believers resorted to secret meetings held "in caves, cellars, or in private homes behind barred doors" (Winehouse 1959: I 12). Those difficult days have been described to me by some who met in open fields where the grain was high and in other unusual places. A most unusual account was given by a missionary. It is the story of the "Pentecostal" dog that stood guard while believers met secretly for worship. Only persons who knew the password could get past the dog, and since the Pentecostal greeting "Pace" (peace), which was the password, was not generally known to the police, the system worked well (Hedlund 1970:157).
Mussolini’s reign of terror ended in 1944. Under the Allied occupation Pentecostals worshiped freely (Winehouse 1959:11?). Then, from 1949 to 1959, came another period of persecution (Consiglio 1967:72). During this time the Assemblies fought for legal recognition. Finally, in 1959, with the intervention of the Federal Council of Churches, the Assemblies of God were granted the required legal status. The persecution ended.
From its inception the movement had spread so that in a book published in 1938 a Jesuit is able to list 144 Pentecostal stations throughout Italy (52 of which were in Sicily). This number is impressive, but the author admits that his list is incomplete. Nevertheless, he tends to look down on the Pentecostals as insignificant because their groups were tiny. He calculated around 5,000 full members in all of Italy (Crivelli 1938:239). Nichol, who researched original Pentecostal sources, asserts that the work of Lombardi and his associates, Ottolini and Arena, had resulted in 149 Assemblies by 1929 (Nichol 1966:205). Therefore Crivelli’s figure seems low. We may assume that were over 5,000 Pentecostals at the beginning of Fascist repression. In two decades the Pentecostals had attained a size similar to that of the various other denominations (with the exception of the Waldenses).
During the persecution membership fell off. Approximately 29 churches were lost, but 120 were reopened in 1944. Within ten years places of worship increased to 300 (O’Hanlon 1963:634). In 1955 the Assemblies reported 399 groups, "of which 365 were in Southern Italy" (Latourette 1969:372). Another writer from this period reports that the 60,000 members of the "350 Pentecostal Assemblies" make it the largest evangelical community in Italy (Steiner 1957:51). Reports are sometimes contradictory, but several sources seem to show that in 1954 there were 300 churches. It seems likely too that these churches had 50,000 members. This figure is interesting in light of Nichol’s work which indicates 600 churches in 1961 with 100,000 members (Nichol 1966:206). In other words, membership doubled when the number of churches doubled: this took place in only seven years.
By 1970 there were 700 Assembly of God churches in Italy. Very exact membership records are not kept. However, an Assembly missionary at the Rome headquarters, who may be regarded as a reliable source, states, "We are very safe in saying that the total membership of the Italian Assemblies of God is well over 100,000" (Perm 1970).
The Pentecostals are now more than twice the size of all other Protestants combined. This amazing achievement has taken place all within a half century. Pentecostals are the bright spot in Italy in terms of evangelism and church growth. Most Pentecostals are affiliated with the Italian Assemblies of God with headquarters in Rome. This denomination is tied to the sister organization in the United States, but "with the ties of fellowship only" (Winehouse 1959:17). The Italian Assemblies of God form an autonomous denomination in Italy. I would conservatively estimate 120,000 members in their churches, or an average of 166 members per congregation.
How is it that Pentecostals have done so much better than the missionary-oriented groups? This is complex, but perhaps the following may be given:
1. The Pentecostals are Italian rather than foreign, even though they carry many foreign characteristics.
2. They are distinctive. Everyone knows a Pentecostal is a Pentecostal. There is a hard-nosed quality that gives them an identity, that sets them apart. They are not "Protestants" (who are looked down upon), but evangeliste– and there is something exciting about that designation. Mission oriented groups tend to identify with more traditional Protestants or, worse, with British and American Protestantism which, at best, is suspect in Italy.
3. They are aggressive. True to their nickname, these people are evangelists. Witnessing is an obligation. Therefore, the Pentecostals make themselves and their faith known. Mission oriented groups try to stress this obligation too, but by and large have not succeeded to a very great extent-possibly because of the imposition of foreign molds such as door to door calling, American-style evangelistic crusades, tracts with an ABC approach to salvation, etc. Though good in themselves, these are better geared to Americans and do not fit the Italian context so well.
4. Growth among Pentecostals follows family lines. Stress on witnessing compels the convert to share his faith, and his most natural contacts are members of his family. Italian family closeness is reinforced by the utilization of house churches. This is in contrast to the missionary approach, which tends to go after strangers and isolated individuals ("isolated" in the sense that the important cultural setting of the family is overlooked). Instead of the house church, the missionary tends to stress central meeting places and the role of clergy.
5. We must not, however, overlook the fact that bigness is itself conducive to growth. The Pentecostal movement has become large, relatively speaking, and even in Italy it is probably true that success promotes success. The snowball effect is at work: the bigger it gets, the more it attracts. This may well be true now, but it does not explain how the Pentecostals got to the present point. Nor does it account for years, most mission groups would be hard put to account for 200 baptized converts in churches started since World War II (Hedlund 1970:107-1 12).
6. Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit-including the charismatic element-certainly has not been detrimental to numerical increase, even though a lack of balance may sometimes be detrimental to growth in depth. (This is a controversial paint, and it is not my scope to discuss either doctrinal issues or the element of spiritual maturity.) I am not suggesting that rightness or wrongness of doctrine is necessary to success (Jehovah’s Witnesses also are increasing rapidly in Italy), but the dynamic of the Spirit is undoubtedly an element in the case at hand.
It is difficult to isolate any one element as the key to Pentecostal victory. Rather, it is probably a combination of the previous elements plus many more. "The first reason for the growth of Pentecostal churches is that when a forgotten human being comes to one of them, he feels himself loved and understood" (O’Hanlon 1963:634). This statement by a Catholic observer in Latin America seems applicable to Italy as well. The life of the Spirit is communicated in community. O’Hanlon concedes that Pentecostals provide many elements of true Christianity which are forgotten both by Catholics and by other Protestants. Father O’Hanlon further identifies simplicity of belief as an appealing feature. A few essential points are concentrated upon in song and sermon (1963:635). One need not be a theologian to be a Pentecostal. But then one need not be a theologian to be a Christian either.
A simplicity of approach is no doubt one important reason for Pentecostal success. Christianity is not dogma so much as spiritual experience. It is therefore a living reality, and as such brings meaning to life and victory over unseen powers (which is important in spiritistic Southern Italy).
Pentecostalism brings, therefore, newness of life and a new dignity to the individual. It does so within the context of a church. Missions have perhaps failed to establish a relevant church because of an over-emphasis on the individual and personal salvation to the exclusion of concern for the group. Pentecostalism avoids this error by stressing the community of faith. Above all else, Pentecostalism does this within the framework of the Italian family. The result is a relevant church.
Melvin Hodges provides a Pentecostal view of the church. A local church is defined as wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ. This is surely the simplest form of a church spoken of in Scripture; it is simpler than the formulations of most theologians. But Pentecostals recognize the dynamic of this basic, Spirit-called unit. The function of this unit is to become a living cell of the Body of Christ, the agent of God for bringing the message of redemption to its community. Living cells grow by multiplication. The supreme task therefore is church planting and church growth, which is cell multiplication (Hodges 1968:305). The Holy Spirit is himself, the divine dynamic for his formula. That is how the gospel, in Pentecostal dress, came from Azusa Street to Rome.
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Consiglio Federale Delle Chiese Evangelic in Italia, 1967, Cristianesimo Evangelico, 1967-68 Anmario. Torino, Editrice Claudiana.
Crivelli, P. Camillo, 1938, Protestanti in Italia (Specialmente nei secoli XIX e XX), II. Isola dei Liri, Soc. Tip. A. Macioce e Pisasni.
Evans, Robert P., 1963, Let Europe Hear. Chicago, Moody Press.
Hedlund, Roger E, 1970, The Protestant Movement in Italy. South Pasadena, William Carey Library.
Hodges, Melvin L.,1968, "A Pentecostals" View of Mission Strategy." International Review of Missions, LVII, 227:.304-310.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott, 1969, The Twentieth Century in Europe. Vol. IV of Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Grand Rapids, Zondervan.
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O’Hanlon .D.J., 1963, "Pentecostals and Pope John’s New Pentecost," America, 108:634-635.
Orr, J. Edwin, 1965, The Light of the Nations. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.
Peck, Royal L., 1966, "The Myth of Christian Italy," World Vision Magazine 10:5:5-6f.
Perna, Alfred J. Sr., 1970, Personal letter to author, February 10.
Read, William R., Monterroso, Victor., Johnson, Harmon A.,1969, Latin American Church Growth. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.
Steiner, Leonard, 1957, "The Pentecostal Movement," World Dominion, XXXV, 1:51-54f.
Winehouse, Irwin, 1959, The Assemblies of God; A Popular Survey. New York, Vantage Press.
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