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The Emergence of Italian Pentecostalism: Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

Editor’s Note: This academic paper by Paul Palma was first presented at the 2013 meeting of the Center for Renewal Studies. Less technical readers may want to start with the more accessible conclusion.



The early Pentecostal movement expanded among those seeking a more dynamic and vital religious experience. For some this entailed transition through one or more pre-Pentecostal traditions. The first Italian Pentecostals were Roman Catholic converts who transitioned through Protestant and independent Holiness stages before arriving to the Pentecostal movement. The guiding motivation for their progress from one denomination to the next was dissatisfaction with conventional orthodoxy and the pursuit of an intuitive, affective spirituality.

Italian Americans found in Pentecostalism a middle ground between the excesses of formalism and sectarianism.

This essay examines the spiritual formation of early Italian Pentecostals. First, I provide an overview of the religious journey of Italian Pentecostals, tracing their progress from Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominational churches, to an independent-holiness context, and finally to the Pentecostal movement. Second, I examine the social psychology undergirding their spiritual transformation. In Vision of the Disinherited, Robert M. Anderson referred to this dimension as the desire for “revivalistic holiness”; the attempt to overcome social and economic deprivation through the intensification of religious piety and affectivity.[1] Third, I address the relationship between affective religious experience (orthopathy) and religious practices (orthopraxis). The crisis experience of Spirit baptism initiated renewal and revitalization, sustained through charismatic fellowship and aesthetic practices. In Fire from Heaven Harvey Cox described Italian Pentecostal theology as being rooted in a primal spirituality including a new appreciation for feminine imagery and participation of women in congregational life. Aesthetic practices were conveyed through hymns, prayers, gestures, and literature characterizing the early Italian Pentecostal movement.

Religious Trajectory of the Italian Pentecostals

The Italian Pentecostal movement formed among a community of immigrants in the first decade of the twentieth century. Italians entered America as nominal and devout Catholics. Growing anticlericalism and distrust for American Catholicism, dominated at that time by the Irish Church, forced many Italians to veer from their ethnoreligious roots. Some ventured to Protestant churches. The first Italian Pentecostals were Presbyterians-turned evangelical Holiness believers. The movement of Italians to increasingly revivalistic churches provides the conceptual framework for understanding the spiritual formation of the first Italian Pentecostals.

The creation of the Italian Evangelical Mission in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century redefined Italian ethnoreligious identity. Beginning as a community of independent Holiness believers, this congregation emerged from the spiritual vacancy created by a neglectful American Catholic Church and the rigid demands of mainline Protestantism. Luigi Francescon and Pietro Ottolini assumed the leadership responsibilities of the Evangelical Mission. Francescon emigrated in 1890 and converted among a group of Waldensians before cofounding the First Italian Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Ottolini emigrated in 1891, converted from Catholicism through an independent evangelist, and later joined the First Italian Presbyterian Church.[2]

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Category: Church History

About the Author: Paul J. Palma, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University. Paul’s research centers on global Pentecostal-charismatic movements. His work has been published in a number of national and international journals. His book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity has recently been published with the Routledge Studies in Religion series. LinkedIn page. Facebook.

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