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The Emergence of Italian Pentecostalism: Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

The significance of severed familial ties cannot be overstated. The immediate family structured life in Italy more than any other influence. This was particularly true for families from southern Italy. Living in rural cities, southern Italians huddled closely together seeking refuge from pillagers and malaria. The demands of the family superseded loyalties to all other social institutions. Even among the extended family there was a degree of loyalty denied to all others. Only through comparaggio (godparenthood) or intermarriage within the village community could one gain access to the level of “trust, intimacy, and interdependence” of the family circle.[28] Edward C. Banfield’s study of a Sicilian-southern Italian society argued that Italian’s were family centered to a fault, noting the incidence of “amoral familism.”[29] Banfield suggested that peasants and the ruling class alike were unable to act “for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family.”[30]

Separation from family amplified other forms of social isolation. Yet the Pentecostal faith gave Italians an extended spiritual family, allowing immigrants to overcome social-psychological estrangement and marginalization. Pentecostalism opened the Italian-American community to a spirit of fraternal love and emotional intimacy according to which they could survive and even prosper in American society.[31] As Enrico C. Cumbo explains, Pentecostalism provided Italians with a “kin network system” of material, financial, and job-related support.[32] As prospects of succeeding in American society improved, pioneers of the movement travelled back to Italy and returned with their families in tow.

Pentecostalism gave Italian Americans the spiritual foundation necessary to overcome isolation and deprivation. From a psychological perspective, the newfound faith of Italian Pentecostals can be located in an “affective disposition, an aesthetic.”[33] The Pentecostal faith contributed to the reconstituting of Italian identity, bringing Italians to a place of continuity with their ancestral belief system and social surroundings. Rather than alienating Italians, Pentecostalism reinforced ethnocultural identity by preserving the affective and pietistic elements of their ancestral faith. The Pentecostal experience was a critical step in repairing the social-psychological deprivation of Italian immigrants, supplying hope amid economic uncertainty and restoration to broken familial bonds.

Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

Italian immigrants readily appropriated the Pentecostal style of worship, characterized by freedom in the Spirit and more personal access to the divine. Worship became the meeting ground for Italian Pentecostal orthopathy and orthopraxis. A new sense of fulfillment in worship, accompanied by an affective disposition and fraternal love was sustained by a unique combination of aesthetic practices. Pentecostalism transformed the religious outlook and fellowship of Italians. This process began in the crisis experience of Spirit baptism and gradually reshaped the Italian immigrant understanding of commitment and community. These changes were expressed in the congregational life, liturgy, gestures, and artistry of Italian Pentecostal worship.

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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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