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The Emergence of Italian Pentecostalism: Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

Italians came to America seeking what appeared perpetually elusive in southern Europe—a respected place in society. Immigrants stood at the bottom rung of the social ladder. Between 1899 and 1910 nearly 2.5 million Italians entered the US. Of this number 84% were from the economically underprivileged regions of southern Italy. Accustomed to rural, agrarian lifestyle, they left Italy with hopes of escaping oppressive taxation and poor working conditions. Some emigrated for political reasons or to evade military service, yet by far the most common reason was economic. Humbert S. Nelli’s study of the first Italian Pentecostal community indicates that those emigrating from central and northern Italy were driven by economic advancement, originating from humble means and lower class areas.[20]

Italians settled in neighborhoods that “compared unfavorably with the worst circumstances of other immigrant groups.” This reality held especially true for Italians of the first Pentecostal community located on Chicago’s Near North Side. According to Rudolph J. Vecoli immigrants such as contadini from Sicily entered the Near North Side en masse.[21] Discrimination against Sicilians included allegations of social ineptitude and, in extreme cases, Sicilians were blamed for declining property value. Sicilians and Swedes reportedly engaged in “blood battles” using sticks, knives, clubs, and blackjacks. The Near North Side became infamous for the frequency of murders and bombings.[22]

The Italian Pentecostal movement was born in this volatile setting. Through much toil and a renewed faith Italian Pentecostals persevered and made a name for themselves among the urban labor force. By 1910 most found work as general laborers, artisans, or small business proprietors. Yet as historian Grant Wacker suggests, even then Italians occupied only the second social strata. A considerable distance stood between Italians and the upwardly mobile, affluent classes of the third and fourth strata.[23]

Italians struggled with deprivation stemming from religious and ancestral estrangement. They saw the Catholic Church in America accommodating to a society which treated as outsiders. With efforts structured largely around the Irish Church, the American Catholic Church neglected their responsibility to Italian immigrants. They failed to appreciate the customs and traditions of the contadini whose primitive and imaginative faith was more of a folk religion and less the rigid orthodoxy of Catholicism. Contadini earned a reputation for celebrations (festes) held in honor of the Virgin Mary and patron saints. The cultural displacement of the contadini contributed to growing anticlericalism.[24]

Among other ethnic groups, Italian immigrants consisted mainly of fathers and sons who came to the US expecting to return to Italy after a few years. Polish and Slavic Catholics came with their families intact and village priests in tow.[25] Italian immigrants found themselves severed from both faith and family. The result was a deeper psychological deprivation. In a study of Italian Pentecostals in Chicago, Joseph Colletti wrote that the “emotional expressiveness of Pentecostalism” helped “fill the psychic deprivation that many Italian immigrants felt as a result of being in tension with their new environment.”[26] Economic and ethnocultural conditions created an identity-crisis. Among other internal problems, affective displacement was the most detrimental to the self-concept of Italian immigrants. Their newfound faith reassured Italian Pentecostals that a sense of self-worth was possible without ever climbing the social ladder. The Pentecostal community supplied mutual affirmation, not conditioned on economic status, social rank, or respectability, but on the hope of salvation and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Personal and cultural estrangement was alleviated by a new faith community which functioned like a surrogate or extended family.[27]

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Category: Church History

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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