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The Emergence of Italian Pentecostalism: Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

Several Italian Pentecostal pioneers followed the same trajectory as Francescon and Ottolini. Peter Menconi, the first pastor of the Grand Avenue Mission proceeded from Catholicism to Presbyterianism.[12] The evangelist Guiseppe Beretta moved from Catholicism to Methodism before joining the Mission.[13] Massimiliano Tosetto, the cofounder of the first Italian Pentecostal denomination, and theologian Guiseppe Petrelli, were prior members at Baptist churches.[14] The progression of Italian Pentecostals thus followed a fourfold pattern: from Catholicism, to mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist), to an independent Holiness phase, and finally to Pentecostalism.

Affectivity and the Social Psychology of Italian Pentecostals

The mobility of early Italian Pentecostals suggests that very few, if any, went directly from Catholicism into the Pentecostal movement.[15] The intervening period was characterized by participation in mainline Protestant and Holiness churches. In each instance the penchant was toward more enthusiastic religious groups. The movement of Italian Pentecostals between churches and finally to Pentecostalism was guided by a common motivation, what Anderson called the “desire for greater commitment to revivalistic holiness.” This desire has reference to an affective, social psychological element, present at each stage of their religious journey.[16]

The desire for a deeper experience of holiness was the guiding motivation for early Pentecostals, where the common trajectory was movement away from “staidly orthodox denominations” to Holiness churches. Even for those moving between mainline denominations, the second denomination was more closely aligned with Holiness doctrines and ideals. The transition from conventional denominations entailed a rupture of the status quo through participation in increasingly radical and revivalistic communities. Given the sectarian nature of these communities, upon completing the transition to Pentecostalism one experienced a measure of social integration. According to Anderson early Pentecostals sought “a resolution of the anxieties stemming from [their] social experience, not by clinging to the faith of [their] fathers but by the intensification of the pietistic, emotional, and world-rejecting elements of that faith.”[17]

The spiritual formation of Italian Pentecostals occurred in the context of economic and cultural deprivation. As an immigrant community, more than other Pentecostals, Italians were subject to severe estrangement, separated from ancestral and religious kin. They overcame estrangement and marginality by expressing their social discontent in religious terms. According to twentieth century social theory, the religious zeal of Italian Pentecostals is attributed to cultural and economic marginalization. Sect-church and social deprivation theories underscore the socioeconomic, moral, and psychological dynamics involved in the progress of religious groups. In 1929 H. Richard Niebuhr argued that dissension of sectarian groups from mainstream denominations followed a cyclical pattern. The sect overcomes economic and social repression by redirecting religious austerity to discipline at work and thrift with finances. As socioeconomic status improves, the sect gains respectability and takes on church-like characteristics.[18] The sect becomes yet another denomination and the process repeats itself. Going beyond the economic emphasis of Niebuhr, Charles Y. Glock suggested “deprivation theory” as a lens for comprehending the ethical, physical, and psychological factors in the progress of religious groups.[19] Underprivileged and detached from ordinary support systems, Italian-Americans underwent a crisis of identity.

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About the Author: Paul J. Palma, PhDc, is a Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University and a Partner Correspondent at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Paul has authored or contributed to several books and has been published in a number of national and international journals. He and his wife, Gabrielle, have three children. For publications by Paul, visit his LinkedIn page. Facebook.

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