The Risorgimento in Italy: A period when the doors open (part 5)

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IV. Strategy

A. By whom would Italy be evangelized?

     The revival that began in the Waldensian church in 1825 would seem to have prepared it to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Risorgimento. "Although its constituency numbered only about twenty thousand, it adopted as its aim the evangelization of Italy."25 There was strong feeling in Waldensian circles that their church was divinely ordained by God to be the Evangelical Church of Italy. Many Waldensians came to believe that God had preserved their movement through centuries of severe persecution for just such a time as this.26 And, in fact, armed with the royal recognition of 1848 which was extended to the whole peninsula with the unification of 1865, the Waldensians broke out of their northern valley enclaves and began to plant churches all up and down Italy. Sadly, for doctrinal and other reasons which have been noted, their dreams were not to be fully realized.
     There was one thing on which all were in agreement, however, and that was that "the evangelization of Italy (was) principally the task of the Italian churches."27 Indeed, no thought was initially given by Italian Protestants to asking foreign missionaries to come to Italy. Even later, when missionaries finally began arriving from Great Britain and North America, those expatriates were viewed only as temporary catalysts rather than generals arriving to take charge of things. The patriotic climate of the times made it necessary for Italian Protestants to assert in 1859 that their Christianity was indeed "made in Italy" and was "not the product of foreign importation."28 On the other hand, foreign funds were welcomed and played an important role in the task of evangelization long before the arrival of the first missionaries.29

B. Methods

     In 1851, a report by the Waldensian Moderator called for a three-pronged evangelistic effort. "As means," he wrote, "we must a) use evangelists that have the calling for this work, b) distribute religious tracts as widely as possible, and c) distribute the Bible."30 These three areas can serve as an outline to look at what happened.

1. The evangelists

     In 1855 the Waldensians opened a theological school to prepare pastors and evangelists. As other missions arrived, they too began to set up training schools. The preachers churned out by these training schools rented halls to plant churches, using at times a conference format and at others the evangelistic meeting approach. Many of them had a social consciousness and, as a result, they opened day and evening schools, founded orphanages, and were involved in social welfare activities as well as the churches they were starting.
     Several of the prospective Protestant preachers were ex-Roman Catholic priests and there was a strong temptation (yielded to by some, notably some Baptist groups) to thrust such men out into the work with little or no additional training. When this did happen, the results were not always optimal.31

2. The printed page

     Vinay says, "Among the means most used (for evangelism) was the printed page."32 The first Italian protestant periodical began publication on the island of Malta in 1845 under the direction of an ex-priest. Not long afterward, Italian exiles in London began publishing a paper which they called L'Eco di Savanarola (Savanarola's Echo, in honor of the reform-minded priest of the mid-1400s who was tortured to death in Florence).
     Copies of issues of both of these papers as well as other Protestant publications found their way into Italy via secretive channels. When the political unification of the country was completed, Protestant publishing operations were moved to Italy itself and colportage or book-selling became very popular as an outreach or evangelistic ministry. By 1855, the Waldensians had set up a well-equipped printing shop. One of their periodicals very quickly reached a press run of 80,000 copies per issue. This was not all without opposition, of course, and the Protestants had the dubious honor of having several publications placed on the forbidden Roman Catholic "Index."33

3. Bible Distribution

     Comba attributes the revival of 1825 to the widespread usage of Scripture distribution as a means of evangelism.34 And it is interesting to read the report that prior to the unification in the 1860's "the British and Foreign Bible Society . . . printed thousands of Bibles to distribute (in Italy) as soon as it was free from papal control, convinced that in Italy there would be a phenomenon of mass movement compared with that of the sixteenth century Reformation."35 There's also the story, for example, of the two colporters entering Rome with a wagon full of Bibles just hours after the battle at Porta Pia in 1870 in which the city of Rome was taken from the Pope.
     Sadly, the hoped-for mass movement toward Protestant Christianity never materialized. [ continue reading ]

25Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Nineteenth Century in Europe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959, p. 219.

26Valdo Vinay, Luigi Desanctis e il movimento evangelico fra gli italiani durante il Risorgimento (Turin: Claudiana, 1965), p. 249.

27Maselli, op. cit., p. 30.


29 Roger I. Hedlund, The Protestant Movement in Italy ( South Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1970), pp. 80-81.

30Nisbet, op. cit., p. 28.

31Vinay, Storia dei Valdesi, op. cit., p. 125.

32 Vinay, Desanctis, op. cit., p. 247.

33"La stampa periodica . . .", op. cit.

34Ernesto Comba, Storia dei Valdesi (Torre Pellice: Claudiana, 1930), p. 310.

35Maselli, op. cit., p. 23.
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