The Risorgimento in Italy: A period when the doors open (part 4)

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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. [ continue reading ]


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.

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Strategy

Next chapterHow and by whom would Italy be evangelized? [ read more ]

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