The Risorgimento in Italy: A period when the doors open (part 2)

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I. The target culture

A. Revolutionary idealism in a period of upheaval

     Both the French Revolution and the American War of Independence deeply affected the cultural climate of mid-nineteenth century Italy. Events in America -- the New World -- had produced a country where a written constitution guaranteed religious and other freedoms. The French Revolution, which occurred "partly because of the abuses perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church"4, inspired in many Italians a heady idealism which spilled over from civil and political spheres into the arena of religious faith.
     For the Italians, the mid-nineteenth century was a time of "vast moral, political and military upheaval."5 As the Italian political unification movement gained strength and successfully culminated in the 1860's, exiles began returning from Protestant countries where they had drunk deeply of both political and religious idealism. In a climate characterized by change, new religious ideas were easily introduced. It was only natural that many Italians would began to compare the gospel ideal with the reality of what Christianity had become in their country. It was, in fact, a time when "the gospel was rediscovered in all its original pureness." 6 Cavour, one of the shapers of Italian unity, began using the slogan: A free church in a free state..
     Unfortunately, this political and religious idealism was not as widespread among the general populace as it was in America or even in France. Barzini explains it this way:

     The people believing in the Risorgimento, or the rebirth, were the liberal and progressive minorities of the aristocracy and the enlightened bourgeoisie. The great masses as well as a majority of the elite watched the unfolding events with skepticism and even diffidence.7

     The failure of the majority of Italians to embrace political and religious idealism would bring deep disappointment to those Italian Protestants who had believed their country was ripe for a sweeping religious awakening and revival.

B. Anti-clericalism

     In the early 1800's, when Italians began thinking seriously about the political unification of their peninsula, they did so in terms of the "unification of the divided country under the presidency of the Pope."8 One reason it did not happen in that way was that the French Revolution and other events spawned a wave of anti-clericalism that engulfed Italy by the middle of the century. At that point in time, a principal political power controlling parts of Italy was the Papacy. Because it had such political power, the Roman Catholic Church became a target of those wishing to realize the ideals of the Risorgimento. A year after the unification -- with only Rome yet to be captured from the Pope's army -- a "series of markedly anti-clerical proposals was brought before Parliament for its approval."9
     This anti-clericalism strongly flavored the appeals nascent Protestantism was making to the Italian populace. At times it became more than a flavoring. Sadly, notes Maselli, "Many (Italian Protestants of that period) confused evangelism with violent anticlerical polemics."10
     This spirit of anti-clericalism did not go unchallenged by Roman Catholicism. Procacci explains how the battle lines were drawn:

     The neo-Guelfs saw Italy as the nation whose free communes, supported by the Papacy, had been the first to raise the banner of revolt against Imperialism and the chivalric hierarchy of the feudal world. To those who opposed the Church's authority, and the so called neo-Ghibellines, Italy was the land of Arnold of Brescia and the other medieval heretics, and which, in the person of Machiavelli, had pointed an accusing finger at the temporal power of the popes.11

     Occasionally, the tensions that developed when small numbers of Italians began turning to Protestantism escalated into violence. "One remembers the terrible day in Barletta (March 19, 1866) when an angry mob attacked the evangelical church, killing several members."12

Evangelical Awakening in Europe

     The nineteenth century was a time of religious revival in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe. Spreading across Great Britain and northern Europe, this awakening stirred a missionary consciousness. Looking to the south, these awakened churches saw in Italy "an open field, full of promise for Protestant missions."13 Spini, in fact, argues that "Italian evangelicalism was born from the missionary thrust of the Evangelical Awakening and the kairos of the Risorgimento."14
     This Awakening affected the Waldensians as early as 1825 and spiritual revival and renewal broke out in the valleys where they were concentrated up near the French border. [ continue reading ]


4Robert H. Baylis, Europe on Purpose (Berkeley, Calif.: The Pilgrimage Press, 1977), p. 48.

5Luigi Barzini, The Italians (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p. 181.

6Spini, op. cit., p. 9.

7Barzini, op. cit., p. 148.

8Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 1112.

9Giuliano Procacci, History of the Italian People (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 330.

10Maselli, op. cit., p. 32.

11Procacci, op. cit., p. 321.

12Maselli, op. cit.

13Valdo Vinay, Storia del cristianesimo dalla reazione romantica ai nostri giorni (Rome: Facoltà Valdese di Teologia, 1951), p. 75.

14Spini, op. cit., p. 10

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God's men

Next chapterWho were the people involved in planting, watering and tending the seeds of Protestantism in the Italian soil? [ read more ]

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