The Risorgimento in Italy: The doors opened for evangelicals


It's common to think of Italy as a nation whose history extends back to before the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Certainly, the rich and colorful recorded history of the people living on this Mediterranean peninsula does go back a long ways. However, following the breakup of the Roman Empire, Italy became a patchwork of small nation-states. Many of those states wound up being ruled by a succession of various occupying armies. Some were governed by the Pope while other areas were controlled by powerful noble families. It would not be until the latter part of the nineteenth century that the Savoy family would reunite the area we know today as Italy under a single government.

The period in the middle 1800s that culminated in the reunification of Italy is called the Risorgimento. The Risorgimento, an Italian word which is usually translated re-birth, literally means "rising again." This rising again time -- the Risorgimento -- inaugurated a new chapter in the history of Christianity in Italy. In fact, Italian historian Domenico Maselli has called the 1800s "the foundation century in the story of the evangelical presence in Italy."1 For until this point in time, the only significant non-Roman Catholic Christian presence on the Italian peninsula consisted only of the 20,000 French-speaking Waldensians in northwestern Italy.

With the flowering of the Risorgimento, the door opened for what one writer has called the "second evangelization" of Italy2 -- the first having taken place, of course, during the first three centuries of Christianity. In this second evangelization, it wasn't just that someone had gotten a door of this Roman Catholic area cracked open wide enough for evangelical Christianity to squeeze in before it slammed shut. It was more than that. For the churches being formed and for those denominations which entered Italy in that period, the Risorgimento was, says Spini, the "easy years."3

The purpose of this essay is:

  1. To see in what ways the Risorgimento fostered the planting of Protestantism on this peninsula
  2. To take a look at the Italian Risorgimento, those years from about 1815 to 1890, to try to discern some outlines of Protestant strategy
  3. To look at some of the personalities involved and their theological outlooks.

Several sources in Italian have been used in the research. All the quotes from these my own (Howard Culbertson) original translations.

1Domenico Maselli, Breve Storia dell'Altra Chiesa in Italia (Naples: Edizioni Centro Biblico, 1971), p. 22. Note: In terms of Maselli's use of the word "evangelical," he is referring to the entire Protestant movement and not simply a section of it.

2 Luigi Santini, Un'impresa difficile: l'unione degli evangelici italiani (Torre Pellice: Società di Studi Valdese, 1964), p. 23.

3Giorgio Spini, I protestanti in Italia (Marchirolo: Edizioni Uomini Nuovi, 1965), p. 8.

I. The cultural context

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

The tensions developed when small numbers of Italians began turning to Protestantism. Ocassionaly, things 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.

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

II. God's men

The personalities involved in initiating Protestantism to Italy during the Risorgimento period came in successive waves from three different groups. The first wave was made up of expatriate Protestants who had moved to Italy for commercial, cultural, diplomatic or even health reasons. When these English, Swiss and German Christians couldn't find Protestant churches in Italy, they would start churches for themselves. Initially, the worship services of those churches were held in the native tongues of the founders. Soon, some of those foreign evangelicals -- particularly the Swiss -- were not content with keeping their Protestant brand of Christianity to themselves. They began to look for ways to evangelize the Italians.15 Their outreach efforts meant that even with cultural and language differences, "these foreign churches began to be secretly frequented by Italians."16

The second wave of those involved in the Protestant evangelization of Italy during the Risorgimento were Italians. These were Italian Protestants both within and outside of the centuries-old Waldensian church. One key figure of this group was Count Pietro Guicciardini of Florence. Exiled for a time for his religious beliefs, Guicciardini returned to become instrumental in founding what is today the Brethren Church in Italy.

In becoming a leader in the Italian Protestant movement, Pietro Guicciardini was not breaking with his family's tradition. One of his ancestors in the previous century was historian Francesco Guicciardini of whom it has been written:

As a good Christian, [Francesco Guicciardini] despised the temporal power of the Popes, which had transformed the Vicar of Christ into a worldly prince playing dirty Renaissance politics. He denounced in his secret notebook the corruption which power, wealth and ambition inevitably furthered among priests. . . "My position under several Popes has compelled me to desire their aggrandizement for the sake of my own profit. Otherwise, I should have loved Martin Luther like myself."17

Other important figures in the wave of Italian Protestant pioneers were ex-Roman Catholic priests like Pietro Taglialatela and Luigi De Sanctis. Both of these, as well as Pietrocola Rossetti, Bonaventura Mazzarella, and Alessandro Gavazzi, were active in the movement which developed into the Brethren Church. Mazzarella was originally Waldensian but left that church while Luigi De Sanctis finally wound up in the Waldensian church where he taught for years in their theological training school.

The Waldensian school where De Sanctis taught had been founded in 1855 in the Waldensian enclaves of the mountain valleys near the French border. Five years after that school began, it moved south to Florence. That college-level school produced some top quality leaders for the Waldensians. In addition to De Sanctis, there was Giovanni Revel, Paolo Geymonat, Alberto Revel, and Emilio Comba.

The third group of people important in the evangelization of Italy began arriving in 1861. They were the foreign missionaries. Prior to this time, there had been some prior outside involvement as churches outside Italy contributed funds to indigenous Italian Protestant ministries. Then, in 1861, the English Methodists sent their first missionary to Italy: Enrico Pigott.18

In 1864 a Polish ex-priest named Czeehowski arrived. He came to Italy via the U.S. where he had become a part of the Adventist movement. In two years of work Czeehowski was able to start what became the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Italy.19

In 1866 the English Baptists began sending missionaries. Some went to Italy under the Baptist Missionary Society. Others were sent by a mission board founded exclusively for the purpose of evangelizing Italy: The La Spezia Mission for Italy. In 1870, the U.S.A. entered the Italian scene when American Baptist missionaries arrived. Three years later, the American Methodist Board of Foreign Missions began sending missionaries to Italy. By the late 1880's the Salvation Army was sending personnel to Italy to start ministry centers.20

None of these mission boards, however, sent in large numbers of personnel. Generally, the missionary staffs of mission agencies working in Italy never numbered more than two or three couples.

15Vinay, op. cit., p. 324.

16"La stampa periodica protestante in Italia -- 1845-1880," Confronto, Vol. 3, n. 13/14 (bimonthly publication of the Centro Sociale Evangelico of Florence, Italy), p. 7.

17Barzini, op. cit.

18Vinay, op. cit., p. 334.

19Giuseppe De Meo Granel di sale (Turin: Claudiana, 1980), p. 53.

20Vinay, op. cit., pp. 334-337

III. The polemics

Theologically, the Risorgimento period and the time immediately following was dominated by polemics. Attacks were aimed at both the Roman Catholic and other Protestant groups.

The debate-style rhetoric had its roots in the anticlericalism of the times, and as has been noted, many Protestants confused doing evangelism with anti-clerical polemics. To be sure, much of the writing and speaking against Roman Catholic errors was "with the hope of provoking a religious revolution."21 While that widespread revolution never came, that was what was hoped for during this period. De Sanctis was particularly active in anti-Roman Catholic polemics. Because of his quite productive pen, he is credited as being the leader of this polemical theological thrust of Italian Protestantism during the Risorgimento period.22

The Protestants had no trouble finding things to write and speak against. Various abuses and errors had crept into the Western Church through the centuries. In addition, the nineteenth century had produced some new Roman Catholic dogmas which Protestants found distasteful. Among those troublesome new Roman Catholic dogmas was the one concerning the infallibility of the Pope.

Sadly, even the relationships between the various Protestant groups were polemical. As the Risorgimento began, many Waldensians dreamed of their church becoming the "Evangelical Church of Italy."23 They saw that dream being shattered as they entered a period characterized by schisms even within their own ranks. By 1850, several groups had broken off from the Waldensians and were coalescing into what would become the Brethren Church. Inspired by a spiritual renewal movement begun in Dublin, Ireland in 1827, this group held that "the position of the clergy in the established church is unscriptural."24 For them, the "established church" included not only the spiritual, political and economic power headquartered in the Vatican but Waldensians, Lutherans and most other historic Protestant groups.

Adding fuel to this fire were the traditions which the Waldensians had accumulated over centuries. They had a church constitution and many other trappings that some of the new idealistic Italian Protestants found encumbering and even unscriptural. Among the results, for instance, from those in the "Free church" -- as it was called for a period of time -- came a book titled Parallels Between the Jesuits and the Waldensian Pastors. In another tract, those ex-Roman Catholics joining the new Waldensian churches springing up all over Italy were soundly scolded with the words: "You have left Babylon only to enter into the tower itself of Babylon."25

As the Baptists and other foreign missions groups began entering Italy, those in the Free Church camp started heaping as much criticism on them as they had on the Roman Catholics and upon the Waldensians. Some Free Church writings accused these newly-arrived foreign missionaries of buying converts in Italy.

Sadly, to a casual observer in this period it might have seemed that the primary goal of Italian Protestants was the destruction of each other as well as of Roman Catholicism rather than the fulfillment of their biblical call to the evangelization of the people of Italy.

21Robert Nisbet, et. al. Cento anni di stampa evangelica (Torre Pellice: Libreria Editrice Claudiana, 1956), p. 85.

22Ibid., p. 86.

23Note: In terms of its Greek roots, "evangelical" means gospel or good news. During the Reformation, Martin Luther referred to the movement which came to be known elsewhere as Protestantism as the evangelische kirke (evangelical church). Later, throughout much of Europe, the word "Evangelical" became a synonym for "Protestant." That is not true in North America, where "evangelical" most often refers to a conservative system of beliefs and practices of one distinct sector of Protestantism.

24Baylis, op. cit., p. 50.

25 Valdo Vinay, Storia dei Valdesi, Vol. III (Turin: Claudiana, 1980), p. 114.

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

n 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 started 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 colporteurs entering Rome with a wagon full of Bibles just hours after the battle at the Porta Pia city gate in 1870 in which the city of Rome was taken from the Pope.

Sadly, the hoped-for mass movement toward Protestant Christianity never materialized.

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.

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

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

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


The second war of independence certainly did not remove all of the difficulties for evangelicals, but it did coincide with the beginning of the evangelism en masse of Italy . . . Getting the message out was relatively simple: the exiles coming back home brought with them what they had learned while the Waldensians sent numerous pastors and missionaries came supported by foreign mission boards.36

The available statistical data does suggest that seeds of Protestantism did take root in Italian soil during the Risorgimento. In 1840 the only Protestants to be found in Italy were the twenty thousand Waldensians whose roots date back to the 1200s. By 1861, the Protestant population had climbed to 32,975 and ten years later the number had almost tripled to 58,651. However, the growth then flattened out and after another thirty years, (by the turn of the century) that total had only inched up to 65,595.37

Although it has been said that "today the Italian evangelicals represent the ideals of the Risorgimentogimento,"38 the growth of the Protestant movement in this period was far less than what had dreamed would happen. By 1900, delusions had set in among many Italian Protestants. Their disappointment in how the ideals of the Risorgimento had been realized in Italy was also shared by many in the populace as a whole.

With the end of the old century and the beginning of the new, after the smoke of the battle had cleared, Italians began discovering that they were more or less the same as they had always been, that those who had really believed in the Risorgimento had been a small minority. Ancient traits began to reassert themselves, the old outlook began to reappear in print.39

In spite of the failure to realize heady dreams fostered by the ideals of the Risorgimento, the doors for Protestant work in Italy had opened and could not be shut though the Fascists tried to do that. The evangelical evangelization of Italy had begun and would continue to grow until today is reaching towards half a million including various pentecostal groups who entered the country at the beginning of the 20th century and who together would comprise about 70% of the total number of evangelicals.

36 Ibid., p. 30.

37"Vinay, Cristianesimo, op. cit., p. 338.

38Spini, op. cit., p. 9.

39Barzini, op. cit., p. 181.


Barzini, Luigi. The Italians. New York: Bantam Books, 1965.

Baylis, Robert H. Europe on Purpose. Berkeley, Ca.: The Pilgrimage Press, 1977.

Comba Ernesto. Storia dei Valdesi. Torre Pellice: Claudiana, 1930.

Hedlund, Roger E. The Protestant Movement in Italy: Its Progress, Problems, and Prospects. South Pasadena, Ca.: William Carey Library, 1970.

"La stampa periodica protestante in Italia (1845-1880)," Confronto (Vol. 3, n. 13/14, p. 7), bimonthly publication of the Centro Sociale Evangelico of Florence, Italy.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity, rev. ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

________. The Nineteenth Century in Europe, Vol. II of Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.

Maselli, Domenico. Breve storia dell'altra chiesa in Italia. Naples: Edizioni Centro Biblico, 1971.

Nisbet, Robert, et. al. Cento anni di stampa evangelica. Torre Pellice: Libreria Editrice Claudiana, 1956.

Procacci, Giuliano. History of the Italian People, trans. from French by Anthony Paul. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Santini, Luigi. Un'impresa difficile: l'unione degli evangelici italiani (1859-1963). Torre Pellice: Società di Studi Valdese, 1964.

Spini, Giorgio. L'evangelo ed il berretto frigio. Turin: Claudiana, 1971.

________. I protestanti in Italia . Marchirolo: Edizioni Uomini Nuovi, 1965.

Vinay, Valdo. Desanctis e il movimento evangelico fra gli italiani durante il Risorgimento. Turin: Claudiana, 1965.

________. Storia dei Valdesi, Vol. III. Turin: Claudiana, 1980.

________. Storia del Cristianesimo dalla reazioni romantica ai nostri giorni. Rome: Facolta Valdese di Teologia, 1951.

Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church, rev. ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959.

    -- Howard Culbertson

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