Methodism in Italy

A little taste of the history

The story of the Italian Methodism begins in the second half of the 1800s. On one side there was the spontaneous action of the Italian emigrants who, having attached themselves to Protestantism while they were abroad, once back home propagated it among their families e friends. On the other side there was the action of the missionary societies from England and the US. At that time the Risorgimento movement for the reunification of the country was in full force, and the anglosaxon Protestantism regarded it with great interest, because it was convinced that along with the Political Revolution that the Italian nation was accomplishing a Religious Revolution could also take place, lining up Italy alongside the other great western protestant civilizations.

The new perspectives opened by the 1859 and 1860 events encouraged Henry J. Piggott to come from England and made him the pioneer of the Methodist mission in this country. Such was the progress of these liberating forces that Piggott and his co-workers were able to enter the Veneto after 1866 and Rome after 1870. The reverberations that went around the word from the Breccia of Porta Pia stimulated another Methodist mission to come to Italy from the US, led by Leroy Vernon in 1871.

In 1859 the British Methodist Missionary Society sent its secretary, William Arthur, to Italy. His visit led him to the conclusion that he expounded in his book, Italy in Transition, published in 1860: the English Methodists should help the Italian reform movement. The next year two young ministers, Richard Green and Henry Piggott, were sent as missionaries, accompanied by Benedetto Lissolo, a former catholic seminarian who had emigrated to England, where he had been converted: for health reasons the first one went back home shortly thereafter, and the second one became the leader of the mission for the next 40 years.

The basic perspective was to give the Italian Risorgimento spiritual support, to help Italians free themselves from Romanism, to facilitate the creation of a genuine Italian renewed church. In a word, there was no intention at all to force into Italy a foreign model of the church. And in fact, as soon as he landed into Italy, Piggott went to Ivrea, the native town of Benedetto Lissolo; he founded there a congregation, and when few months later he decided to move on to Milan, he called the nearest waldensian minister to be in charge of the young protestant church.

From Milan the mission expanded to Cremona, Intra, Parma, Mezzano Inferiore, and other towns and villages of the region of Emilia-Romagna. Among the Piggott’s co-workers (four in the North and three in the South), there were two former friars: Francesco Sciarelli and Antonio Moreno who had participated in the campaigns of Garibaldi. In 1863, an appeal came from Naples, which had already been visited by Richard Green as it was freed by Garibaldi: the rev. Thomas Jones was sent over. From Naples the work spread in a short while to Salerno, S.Maria Capua Vetere, Cosenza, Aquila. In the late 1860’s, Piggott extended the work in the Veneto, the region of Venezia, transferring the headquarters and the school for girls from Milan to Padova, and founding the Wesleyan magazine Il Corriere Evangelico (The Evangelical Courier). The September, 20th, 1870 the Italian soldiers opened a breach in the Roman walls at Porta Pia and Rome was freed. Francesco Sciarelli was one of the first protestant preacher to come in the Eternal City and not long after the headquarters of the Wesleyan Church was transferred there.

On the wave of the fall of the pope’s temporal power many became convinced that his spiritual domain would also collapse soon. Few weeks after the Breccia of Porta Pia, the General Missionary Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church decided to start a mission in Italy to contribute to the spiritual transformation of the country. The rev. Leroy Vernon, an urban, cosmopolitan gentleman and scholar, was named superintendent of the mission by Bishop E.R.Ames. In August, 1871, Vernon landed in Genova with his family. He was convinced, like Piggott, that the goal was to help Italians achieve their own religious reform without imposing on them any foreign model.

He worked for one year in Modena, Bologna and other towns in that area. In October, 1874 he transferred his headquarters from Bologna to Rome. In few years the mission opened churches in almost all the main cities (Modena, Bologna, Genova, Rome, Milan, Torino, Venezia, Napoli, Florence, Terni, Palermo).

An intellectual himself, Vernon had a special talent in recruiting people with considerable cultural gifts as his helpers. It happens with some waldensian ministers who had studied in the prestigious school of L’Eglise Libre of Geneva, like Teofilo Gay, with some former catholic friars and priests, like Enrico Borelli (a school teacher) and Alceste Lanna (a former professor in one of the pontifical colleges in Rome), and with some philosophers, like Enrico Caporali (the founder of the review The New Science) and Pietro Taglialatela (one of the best disciples of Benedetto Croce). Nevertheless, the majority of the church members, like in the Wesleyan Church, were workers, peasants, artisans, small shopkeepers, linked to the democratic radicalism of which Mazzini and Garibaldi were the most famous representatives.

Therefore, both the British and the Americans began their mission not to add in the Italian soil one more protestant denomination but to help the Italians in their effort of Spiritual Awakening. The basic idea that laid down this program was that the Risorgimento would trigger religious reform, but as the political events went on this idea met huge oppositions, depending on the complexity of the situation due to the history of Italy, not only in social and political terms but also in terms of the particular cultural, religious and spiritual influences. The pope Pious IX strongly opposed the Italy’s patriotic aspirations with his anti-modernism policy (the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; the 1864 Syllabus and the condemnation of a possible reconciliation between Catholicism and modern society; the 1870 First Vatican Council and the dogma of the infallibility of the pope). As a result, many liberal Catholics were forced to leave the Roman Church, but they never embraced Protestantism because they considered it alien to the Italian tradition. The pope’s policy benefited only a generic anticlerical secularism.

The big majority of those who made our Risorgimento, from the moderate-conservatives to the democrat-radicals, shared the deep awareness that in order to build up the new Italy it was necessary to start with the renewal of the national consciousness, without which the military victories and the diplomatic negotiations would never be of no help.The noble and high bourgeois moderate-conservatives were those who had understood the Italian religious question in orthodox Christian terms: generally, they had been fascinated by the Swiss or English protestant culture. The democrat-radicals seemed to be more heterodox. Nevertheless, the moderates, in spite of their sympathies for the protestant culture, scarcely engaged with the evangelical movement, and the Methodist missions found their converts among the followers of Garibaldi, the reds of the time, those who were seen as non-Christians, and among those catholic priests that during the Risorgimento had put themselves on the side of the people and for this reason were hit by the revenge of the reactionary catholic hierarchy

It is true, though, that while the priests incited the crowds to violence against the Protestant heretics, the socialists taught that religion is the opiate of the masses, and made no distinction between Catholic priests and Protestant pastors. In such a climate it was evident that Italy was increasingly turning from the original perspective of Risorgimento to which the Methodist missions had attached themselves with their passion for a national reform in Christian terms. Any way, it still was necessary to provide a spiritual refuge for those who did not feel at home in either Catholicism or secularism, and in particular for the poor and marginalized masses. To this task of evangelization, in terms of proclamation as well as of social action, the Italian Methodists applied tireless themselves.

Vernon ended his missionary work in 1888, he went back to the US and became the dean at Syracuse University. A year later, William Burt succeeded Vernon in the leadership of the mission. At that time the Italian Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, besides those already named, had opened new churches in Faenza, Forlì, Dovadola, (Emilia-Romagna), S.Marzano Oliveto (Piedmont), Adria, (Veneto), Pisa, Pontedera, Arezzo (Tuscany), Perugia (Umbria), Melfi, Venosa, (Lucania), Foggia, (Puglia). The Wesleyan Methodist Conference had added new churches in Vico Bellignano, Pavia (Lombardia), Reggio Emilia (Emilia-Romagna) Vicenza (Veneto), La Spezia (Liguria), L’Aquila, Sulmona (Abruzzo), Messina, Catania, Siracusa, Marsala (Sicily).

It was not an extraordinary harvest, but Piggott and Vernon were right to speak of success, in the light of the extremely hostile environment. These efforts were made amid tremendous tribulations. Commonly the launching of a Protestant ministry in towns was welcomed by fanatical crowds who beat up or stoned the early evangelists. Those who dared to take part in the heretics services risked reprisals, often loosing their employment. The police often failed to intervene and protect against the perpetrators of violence. Sometimes, in fact, it was those who had been beaten who were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. Yet, the two missions were able to open their own theological seminaries, weekly magazines and publishing houses, and a number of institutions and social works all over the country.

The two Methodist denominations made a precious contribution to the safeguarding of Italian Protestantism in a time of real difficulty. The Protestant churches in Italy, except for those in the Waldensian Valleys, were founded in the main during the Risorgimento era. There was, therefore, a risk that when the enthusiasm of that era died, they, too, would disappear.The two Methodist missions played a crucial role in preventing Italian Protestantism from becoming discouraged and stagnating. They helped keep the issue of Italy’s spiritual renewal alive. They made the point that the small Italian Protestant churches were not isolated, but represented the Italian branch of a great Protestant family whose role in history was by no means at an end.

This was true in particular for those free churches that were born in Italy during the first half of the 1800s thanks to the French-Swiss Great Revival and to theologians and thinkers such as Alexandre Vinet, whose idea of a mutual independence of church and state had made a great influence on Cavour, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piemonte, first, and of the young Kingdom of Italy, then. The Free Church was an experience of indigenous Protestantism, having no foreign missionaries, even though it received a great financial support from the international Protestantism. Its champion was Alessandro Gavazzi, a former chaplain of Garibaldi.

In 1904/05 this church merged into the two Methodist missions. The Methodist Episcopal Church inherited the churches of Alessandria, Bassignana, Vercelli, Savona, Udine, Venice (along with a boys school for the training of the poor for industrial work), Pistoia, Mottola, and other groups around the country. The Wesleyan Church received the congregations of Ponte S.Angelo, in Rome, S.Jacopo fra i Fossi, in Florence, S.Simeone, in Milan, Carrara, and other smaller groups mostly in Lombardia. It was not accident that the people of the Christian Free Church in Italy chose to join the Methodist experience in Italy: there was, by the way, a very strong affinity of program and spirituality. These people came from the typical anti-Catholic and strongly democratic tradition of Garibaldi’s red shirts, and they brought this heritage into the two Methodist bodies where the tradition was already very much alive.

The atmosphere of the democratic progress of the new century made the two Methodist churches growing in numbers and, in spite of all the external difficulties and their internal limitations, even in terms of relevance in society. While the Wesleyans evangelized the miners who were working on the Sempione tunnel, founding churches in Domodossola, Omegna, Luino, the Methodist Episcopal Church developed a very significant mission among the Italian emigrants in Switzerland and North America. A new church was opened in Trieste. But, first of all, the Methodists preachers were able to reach the internal and mountain areas where even roughest were the drama of the social and economical depression and of the emigration: Palombaro, Perano, Albanella, Rapolla. By the end of War World I the membership of the two churches was about 7.000, with new congregations even in Gorizia and in the Istrian peninsula, former territories of the Austria empire.

But when Fascism not simply knocked at the door of democracy but broke it down, the crisis came, and the Italian Methodists entered a time of such a dark trial that there were legitimate doubts about their ever emerging from it. At first, no specific measures were taken against Protestant churches. Since, however, the destiny of Protestantism in Italy is linked indissolubly to freedom and democracy, the churches at length had to endure the hard times of abolition of civil liberties, muzzling of the press and limitations imposed upon meetings and free association. A specific ruling forbade free discussions on matters of religion. In practice, Protestant activity beyond worship services within the churches walls was subject to heavy control and restriction.

Little by little the tiny Italian Protestant churches realized that they could no longer enjoy the international support they once had.

The red scare (socialism), in fact, had now replaced papism as the main concern of respectable people abroad. Catholicism seemed to be a useful bulwark of social order against subversive doctrines. Mussolini was praised abroad as a champion in the fight against Bolscevism. It is to their great credit that neither British nor American Methodists joined the chorus of praises for the Italian dictator. They gave voice to their opposition to Fascism in their publications and at their Conferences.

When the Concordat between Italy and the Holy See was signed in 1929, the situation became even worse, if it were possible. It was absolutely clear that Mussolini would not allow the Italians spiritual unity in Catholicism to be cracked. The same year 1929 was also the year of the Wall Street crisis. In few years the Methodist Episcopal Church in US cut all its financial aid to the Italian Conference. The new superintendent, the Italian minister Carlo Maria Ferreri, had to act fast to liquidate properties before the fascist government find cause to intervene.

The last January, 1st, 1936 the Board has cut all the administrative relationships with our ministers. We have all remained at our workplace, but the congregations have no possibility to assume totally and immediately their finance responsibility. We have been forced to leave along the way living parts of our church. We had to quit publishing our newspaper L’Evangelista, which is now under the aegis of the Wesleyan Methodist Church; its voice is not extinguished. We had to put on the market other buildings. We withdrew officially from Naples (the Waldensian Church will Keep on working for the Lord in our building) and from Bari. The congregations in Genova and Triste have no longer a minister, and the same thing is going to happen in Palombaro, Perugia, Venosa. The congregation in Terni will very soon loose its rented venue. So far we cannot know what the destiny of the other churches will be because we are waiting for the ministers to make their decision.

The Monte Mario and Crandon junior colleges in Rome and the industrial institute in Venice had to be closed. Church facilities were abandoned in towns where there were other Protestant congregations (Torino, Florence, Pisa, Naples, Palermo). Most of the churches had to manage with ministers who no longer received a salary, or with voluntary lay workers. The Wesleyan Methodists were also hit by the crisis, although they managed to save their social institutions.

Nevertheless, even through the fascist period the two Italian Methodist churches did not quit their action. Two considerable intellectual talents were called to teach in the theological seminary: the first one was Ernesto Bonaiuti, excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (because he was a modernist Catholic) and hounded from his chair at the University of Rome (because he refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Mussolini government), and the second one was Ugo della Seta, a Jew, a republican and former member of the Parliament. Dante Argentieri, a socialist and a former member of the Parliament, became a minister. Jacopo Lombardini, the republican party secretary in Carrara, became a lay preacher; he later joined the Resistance movement as chaplain of the partisans, was captured, tortured and sent to the Mauthausen extermination camp where he was killed in a gas chamber. A layperson, Ferdinando Visco Gilardi, founded in Milan a publishing house which challenged the dictatorship by publishing works by the opponents of Fascism. Ferdinando Geremia, a militant in the underground movement of Justice and Freedom who was jailed for his ideas, became a Methodist.

Countless were the persecutions that ministers and lay leaders had to suffer: because of their opposition to the fascist regime, many of them were beat and jailed. Yet, the church people did not give up their faith convictions. And in spite of all the difficulties, the daily witnessing prosecuted. New churches were opened in Vintebbio (Piemonte) and in Villa San Sebastiano (Abruzzo).

And as the Resistance movement began to be organized in the latter part of 1943, many church members joined it, in some cases becoming partisans themselves. This clear choice of opposition to the regime and of participation into the anti-fascist movement gained to the Italian Methodists the right to be counted among those citizens to look at when the time to start to build up the new Italy came. At the end of World War II the Methodist congregations were still there, bleeding, mutilated in membership, but ready to take up their part of responsibility in a new era. From a human point of view, there was faint hope that this little flock could suffer so many trials without loosing heart, if God had not Kept and strengthened their vocation to be in Italy an instrument in His hands to proclaim the Gospel of the free grace in Christ and to call to a new birth for the liberation of the Italian people.

Right after World War II, in 1946, the two branches of the Italian Methodism joined together, creating the Evangelical Methodist Church in Italy, administratively related to the British Conference. The process of reconstruction made its first step. It was very clear that by no means could it be a mere restoration of what existed before fascism. Italy was engaged with radical changes and new challenges. The task of the church was seen as a reorganization in the light of the new opportunities. The urgent next step was in the fields of leadership renewal: the ranks of pastors needed to be fleshed out, and the lay people, who had played a key role in the survival of the Methodist churches, sought new input. Both, ministers and lay people, needed to catch up with developments in Protestants theology. A fresh contingent of pastors was trained at the Waldensian Theological Seminary and the Centre of Ecumene was created to form a new generation of leaders. In 1962 the Evangelical Methodist Church in Italy became an autonomous Conference. In 1979 the Covenant with the Waldensian Church was reached.

By the end of the ‘60s, Italy went through a big process of changing. Not only the student protest but also the social struggle of the industrial workers took place. In this new atmosphere the church sought to understand what its vocation’s priorities were.

Be our congregations well aware that they cannot simply cultivate a piety inner life, but that they must proclaim the Gospel to the whole country, without any compromises. Refuse the Church to be conformed to a system of life which only wants to conserve itself, and accept the Church to promote the process of liberation of the leasts from the exploitation; be the Church not conditioned by the denominational prestige but by the proclamation of the Gospel.

A new evangelistic impulse came out of these debates. Its central characteristic still was the same concern for a new Italy and new Italians that had inspired the Italian Methodism from the very beginning.

The Conference requests the congregations and the circuits a renewed evangelistic action to be meant as a restitution of the Word of God to the Italian people and at the same time as an appeal to a radical transformation of the human existence that gives rise to Christians that are able to live as salt of the earth into the crisis that our Country is going through.

Today the challenge is how to write a new covenant of coexistence in a time when the bi-polar world is over but the hunger and thirst for justice are still there. Italy, too, is more and more a multicultural and multireligious society. The country that has lived the drama of emigration on the flesh of its families is now confronted with the problem of the integrated society. From the beginning of the immigration flow, the Methodist churches have engaged themselves in living their Christian vocation as welcoming churches, churches that accept to change and remodel themselves in order to be an open house for those who are foreigners and strangers.

In the last 15/20 years, likely every congregation in the North as well as in key cities such as Palermo (Sicily) have been experiencing this new way of being a Christian community, where the enrichment is mutual and God’s blessing is for all together. There are a number of projects going on. In Pordenone (far North East), where never existed a Methodist mission, now there is a church, entirely made of people from Ghana, that has become a Methodist church. This tireless involvement, though, is not just to refresh the internal life of the congregations, it is above all a living witness to the kingdom of God, and as such it is an indication to the Italian people that if the coexistence between different cultures and sensibilities happens within the church, then it can also happen into the society. The struggle for a just society never ends, and a truly embodied Christian faith still teaches everyone not to conform to the existing things but to live in God’s hope.