ASSEMBLIES OF GOD (ITALY) TIMELINE
1891-1901: The Italian great migration to United States of America took place.
1891-1905: The future pioneers of Pentecostal revival in Italy arrived in New York in 1891 and Chicago in 1901.
1890-1895: Births to Evangelical Church members who were Italian immigrants occurred.
1890: A Waldensian missionary in Chicago, Michele Nardi (1850-1914), founded the Presbyterian Italian Church (IPC) and the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA).
1891: Luigi Francescon became a member of the YMCA.
1894: Giacomo Lombardi joined the Italian Presbyterian Church (IPC).
1903: Within the Italian Presbyterian Church a split took place between two groups of members.
1906: William H. Durham founded the North Avenue Mission in Chicago.
1907 (September 15): Francescon joined the North Avenue Community and received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
1907: Francescon with other Italian immigrants founded the Christian Assembly (CA), the first Italian Pentecostal congregation.
1907 (December 15): Giacomo Lombardi joined the Christian Assembly.
1908: Francescon and Lombardi went on a mission to St. Louis and later to Los Angeles.
1908: Giacomo Lombardi leave as missionaries for Italy, where he found the first Pentecostal community in Rome.
1909: Luigi Francescon went as missionary to Philadelphia and Buenos Aires, where he founded a Pentecostal congregation among Italian immigrants.
1910: Luigi Francescon moved from Buenos Aires to Brazil (Parana State).
1912: Giacomo Lombardi and Luigi Francescon together with Luigi Terragnoli went to Italy on a mission.
1928: The first general convention of the Italian Pentecostal communities took place.
1929: The second general convention chaired by Luigi Francescon took place; the movement took the name of Pentecostal Christian Congregation.
1935-1943: Persecution by the Fascist regime took place.
1947 (August): The convention of Pentecostal communities held in Naples assumed the name of Assemblee di Dio in Italia (ADI) and adhered governing principles of the Assemblies of God USA.
1959: The ADI obtained the legal recognition as charitable organization and therefore was able to exercise private and public worship.
1988: Agreement (Intesa) was reached between the Italian State and the ADI.
2011: The right of the ADI to collect annually the tax devoted by the Italians taxpayers in their favor was recognized by the state.
2018: There were 1,151 congregations spread across the national territory.
The Pioneers of the Pentecostal revival in Italy were Pietro Ottolini, Luigi Francescon, [Image at right] Giacomo Lombardi, Giuseppe Beretta, Pietro Menconi, and Giuseppe Petrelli. Among this group, the most dynamic protagonists in missionary activity were Francescon and Lombardi. In some moments each was on their own, in others they worked together.
Luigi Francescon born in Cavasso Nuovo, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (North East of Italy) in 1866. The region of Friuli Venezia Giulia was, together with Veneto and Piedmont, the geographical area that experienced the great migration of Italians between 1876 and 1900. At that time, the area, populated mainly by peasants, was very poor. At twenty-four years-old, Francescon immigrated to the U.S., arriving in Chicago in 1890. He found work as a mosaicist. In Chicago, he met Michele Nardi, the founder of the Waldensian mission Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
Nardi was a former garibaldino, a militant in the insurrectional groups of the Italian Risorgimento, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Two Waldensian Italian families invited him to preach in a hall within the Railway station of Northern Chicago, where he alternated his missionary activity with teaching English to recent Italian immigrants. Luigi Francescon was one of the first to attend to Sunday worship and frequent the English course.
Nardi with another Waldensian pastor, Filippo Grill, founded the first Italian Presbyterian Church (IPC). Three deacons composed the first pastoral council. One of these was Francescon. In 1903, he became elder of this church, soon torn by an internal conflict over who should have the right to speak during the worship service. One group argued that anyone wishing to speak during the worship should formally join the church. The other was inclined to give the right to speech to anyone. This second group, known as the Tuscans because they primarily came from Tuscany, left the Church. Francescon among them. He accepted the practice of adult baptism by immersion, and he was baptized in the Michigan Lake in September 1903. In 1907, Francescon met William Howard Durham, [Image at right] who came back to Chicago from a journey as “pilgrim” to Azusa Street Community in Los Angeles and founded the North Avenue Chicago Mission. Durham began preaching the Pentecostal message, particularly among Italian immigrants. After receiving the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Francescon and other Italian immigrants rented a venue on Chicago’s West Grand Avenue. [Image at right] Together with former members of the IPC, Nicola Moles and Pietro Menconi, Francescon called this new community the Christian Assembly.
In December 1907, Giacomo Lombardi joined the Christian Assembly, and one year later he went on a mission with Francescon to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The success of their mission among the Italians of Los Angeles convinced them that the times were ripe for a new ambitious mission: Italy. The decision to travel to Italy was not easy. We can infer this from what Francescon writes in a note of his diary:
In March 1908, the Lord lets me and my brother G. Lombardi know to leave the material job and to be at His disposal. We were in bad financial situation with six small children each, but not to fear that the Lord would to take care of our families. The revelation was confirmed to us through the gift of the interpretation of the languages [in Italian in the text: probably means glossolalia], so we were aware of surrendering to the will of Our Lord.”
In 1909, Francescon with Lombardi founded the first Italian Pentecostal church in Los Angeles. After visiting Philadelphia in April 1909, he also went once again to Argentina accompanied by Giacomo Lombardi and Lucia Menna, meeting in Buenos Aires with her relatives to evangelize them. In March 1910, they moved to São Paulo, Brazil (Correa 2013:41) and then reached Paraná, leaving a significant number of converts to the Pentecostal experience. They subsequently gave rise to the Congregação Cristã no Brasil (Christian Congregation in Brazil). Francescon visited ten times Brazil until 1947.
In 1911, he returned to Italy visiting the first four Pentecostal communities of Rome, La Spezia, Gissi and Milan. The sinking of the Titanic interrupted his second mission to Italy in 1912. Embarked together with Giacomo Lombardi and Luigi Terragnoli on the ocean liner Carpathia, they participated in the rescue efforts by donating some of their clothing. They were then obliged to come to New York with survivors before they were able to resume their journey to Italy.
Francescon’s last visit to Italy took place in 1929 where he chaired the second national convention of the Pentecostal movement on December 24 and 25 in Rome. On this occasion, he suggested to the congress participants that they change the name of the association. The new name was Pentecostal Christian Congregation. Francescon’s Congregationalist theological approach was decisive. This was his last visit, and he left Italy on April 26, 1930. His Congregationalist conception led him to contest the doctrinal position of Giuseppe Petrelli, who was more favorable to Presbyterian model. In 1925, there was a split within the Chicago Church. Francescon left the Chicago Church and founded the Christian Congregation. On April-May 1, 1927, he organized a meeting in Niagara Falls gathering those who shared the Congregationalist ideas (the manifesto of twelve articles). On this occasion, he edited the first official songbook in Italian, which includes 328 hymns. Between 1947 and 1948, he visited Brazil again with his wife. He died as a senior elder of the Christian Congregation in Chicago on September 7, 1964 at the age of ninety-eight.
Lombardi [Image at right] was originally from the province of L’Aquila, in Abruzzo (South of Italy). Due to economic difficulties in 1892, at thirty, he emigrated to the United States in search of work and ended his journey in Chicago. In 1894, he became member of the city’s Italian Presbyterian Church. In September 1907, Pentecostal preaching began to spread in Chicago and he soon joined the group, where he met Luigi Francescon. Lombardi fell ill in December of 1907 year and experienced what he regarded as a miraculous healing. He later also experienced baptism in the Holy Spirit. In July 1908, he went with Francescon on a mission to St.Louis, Missouri and then to Los Angeles.
Giacomo Lombardi was actually one of the founders of Italian Pentecostalism. In fact, in the autumn of 1908 he left Chicago for Rome where he tried, in vain, to preach the Pentecostal message in the various evangelical churches. However, a little group formed in Rome. One of the first who converted was the lawyer Mauro Paretti (1844-1926) and his wife. The seat of community was the lawyer’s office in Rome. [Image at right] Lombardi then moved to La Spezia (Liguria, North West of Italy). He finally returned to Chicago in time to leave, with Francescon and Lucia Menna, for Argentina.
Between 1909 and 1910, other missionaries arrived in Italy following Lombardi’s first campaign. The result was the foundation of many other small communities: Gissi (Abruzzo), Casalcermelli (Piedmont), Milano, Luserna San Giovanni (Piedmont), Messina (Sicily), Palagianello (Puglia), Ginosa (Puglia). Matera (Basilicata).
The Pentecostal movement in Italy spread mainly in rural areas, among the poor laborers and peasants. In the small villages where they lived, the conversions immediately appeared to the Catholic clergy as a disturbing sign of apostasy. They stigmatized the converts as “pentecostisti” (an Italian deformation of the English Pentecostal, with a pejorative accent).
Lombardi again traveled to Italy five times between 1912 and 1923 visiting the churches that had already established themselves. On one of his visits to Rome in 1919, he encouraged the group of believers to open the first public place of worship in the city. He returned to Chicago in 1925 carrying out the mission in which he believed deeply, despite the increasingly precarious health conditions. He died on July 24, 1934.
With the Administrative Circular on April 9, 1935 (called Buffarini Guidi after the name of the Under-Secretary of the Minister of Interior Affairs, lawyer, major and leader of the Fascist party in Pisa), the Fascist Regime inaugurated a campaign of persecution against the Pentecostals (Rochat 1990; Spini 2007; Gagliano 2015; Zanini 2017).
Many members of various communities were imprisoned, others sent to confinement; others were sent in 1943-1944 to concentration camps in Germany; others saw their houses seized. However, the resistance of the communities was remarkable; according to official data reported by the ADI (Assemblies of God in Italy) indicates that in 1940 201 congregations were still active.
The Buffarini circular was abolished in 1955 (ten years after the collapse of the Fascist regime and the new Democratic Constitution). Until that time, the negative attitude by the Italian government toward the Pentecostal communities persisted. The main arguments used by the government for not legally recognizing the Pentecostal communities network were that they were not affiliated to any historical Reformation Churches and that they did not have a unitary representative to be the government’s legitimate counterpart.
After the collapse of the Fascism, with the end of the Second World War, the new democratic governments (led by the party of the Christian Democrats, a Catholic-inspired party) did not immediately cancel the Buffarini circular. The negative attitude by the Catholic politicians towards the Pentecostals remained at least until 1955, and the recognition of the ADI proceeded slowly and prudently. Before this turning point, the Italian Pentecostal congregations decided in the 1947 congress in Naples to assume the name of Assemblee di Dio in Italia (ADI) and to apply for membership in the Assemblies of God of USA. With this decision, the Pentecostal congregations tried to create for themselves an institutional structure that would be recognized internationally. The group believed that the risk of not being recognized by the government authorities as a community of believers and remaining in a dangerous situation of marginalization could be countered in this way. The result was that ADI was no longer persecuted as openly as during Fascism, but it was kept on the margins of the public religious sphere. Not all communities joined in this arrangement, however. Those that broke away founded another network called Pentecostal Christian Congregations (Naso 2013).
The doctrinal articles of faith, approved in the XXVII General Assembly of 1979 with the clarifications ratified by the XXXVIII General Assembly of 1999, essentially reproduce those accepted in the first National Convention, held in Rome in 1928, which was actually the Constituent Assembly of the Assemblies of God in Italy. The Italian churches share the fundamental doctrine of the AoG, with only a few differences.
A fundamental doctrinal principle is the recognition of the centrality of the entire Bible as a Word of God, which means the canonical books (thirty-nine) of the Old Testament and the New Testament books (twenty-seven). They only accepted version of the Bible is the one edited by Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649) a Geneva-born Italian who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek after his conversion to Calvinism. They consider other translations of the Bible that use methods other than the literal one dangerous as they very often weaken and therefore misrepresent the meaning of certain terms and entire biblical passages. The Italian church shares with larger tradition a belief in a God who manifested himself as the self-existent, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Redeemer of humanity who has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also believe in the Life of Jesus Christ without sin, in His miracles, resurrection and ascension. Only repentance and faith in the blood of Christ are indispensable for the purification from sin of anyone who accepts Him as a personal savior.
The Italian church believes in the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. It is an experience following that of the new birth, as the initial sign of speaking in other languages and, practically, with a life of progressive sanctification, in obedience to all the truth of the sacred scriptures.
The church affirms that the ministries of the Lord are the authoritative instruments of guidance, teaching, edification and service in the Christian community. Therefore, the church avoids any hierarchical forms.
Church members believe in divine healing as an integral part of the Gospel message. It consists in the liberation from illness, provided through the grace that Christ has created on the cross. Belief in divine healing does not mean opposition to medical science, however. The church simply proclaims that, when a person can no longer do anything, God can still do everything. Members therefore pray for the sick and are willing to believe in healing by faith in the name of Christ Jesus.
The church accepts the three fundamental charisms: those relating to supernatural knowledge (knowledge and discernment of spirits); those relating to supernatural actions (miracles and healing gifts); those relating to the supernatural word (prophecy, languages and interpretation of languages).
Because of the congregational nature of the Assemblies of God, there is no one typical Sunday service. There is no formal liturgy. However, most Sunday services follow a pattern that includes hymns at the beginning and then intense moment of prayer led by the elder. As with most evangelical churches, the preaching of the Word (the sermon by the elder of each congregation) plays a central role of the ceremony. It lasts at least thirty minutes. After the sermon, the communion follows. There is also a Wednesday evening services devoted to Bible studies.
There are a few differences between the format of ADI and most evangelical churches (Stretti 1998; Pace and Butticci 2010; Naso 2013). One difference is that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated a few times a year, without a fixed program, based on the pastoral purpose of the local community. The church regards transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine would change substance) in contrast with the whole teaching of Sacred Scripture.
There also are some differences among ADI congregations. Particularly in the South, churches emphasize choral singing. They sing the Hymns of Praise (a collection of international songs with text adapted to the Italian language or hymns of Italian authors) or other collections composed by local communities.
Overall, the Italian ADI have gradually attenuated the more intense emotional forms of worship that characterized their earlier history and transitioned to more contained forms of charismatic effervescence (Poloma and Green 2010). Likewise, the practices of men and women sitting in separate sections during the religious service and women covering their heads with a veil during the service have declined.
ADI churches, in general, do not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost, but these times are very often celebrated privately by individual believers or by individual local churches. Since there is no veneration for the Saints (a fundamental feature of the popular Catholicism, particularly in the South), ADI does not celebrate the name days or those related to the cult of the dead. The church does practice the Baptism in water by immersion.
The Assemblies of God in Italy grew out of the convention of Pentecostal communities in 1947, which held its first general convention in 1928, in 1947. There are other Pentecostal communities in Italy as well, most notably the Federation of the Pentecostal Churches (FCP), which was established in 2000. The FCP is a network of more than 400 communities, with a membership exceeding 50,000 (Napolitano and Mauriello 2016).
The Assemblies of God in Italy began operating with a congregational model but moved toward a denominational model in 1944 at the meeting of the elders of Sicilian communities held in Raffadali, Agrigento. The first ADI president, Was Umberto Gorietti, [Image at right] proposed that all communities recognize themselves as a single institution called Pentecostal Evangelical Church in 1945. This was the first step in the 1947 name change to Assemblies of God in Italy in 1947 that created a common title with the U.S. denomination.
The process of creating a single institution with a single name was significantly produced by the persecution of the Italian Pentecostals during the period of fascist, which had already highlighted the weakness of the highly fragmented Pentecostal communities. Faced with the mobilization of a powerful ecclesiastical organization such as the Catholic Church, the individual Pentecostal communities were defenseless, unable to call on alliances with other Protestant Churches. Furthermore, after the fall of the fascist regime, the Italian Pentecostals soon understood that their legal recognition by the state, a necessary condition for guaranteeing the full exercise of freedom of worship, could be best obtained if the various local communities had a single voice and an institutional representation capable of negotiating the agreement with the Italian State. The current three-level organizational structure emerged gradually over time (Womack amd Toppi 1989; Traettino 2002, 2019; Criscenti 2018).
The present organization model works at several levels: local congregation/church council, territorial net of congregations, district committee general assembly, and general council of churches. This system, according to the ADI Statute, has only an organizational function and the positions do not represent ecclesiastical or even hierarchical Offices.
It is the Church Council that is responsible for the spiritual and administrative organization of the local community. The pastor is appointed by the District Committee or by the General Council of Churches on the recommendation of the local community. It is important to note that the Assemblies of God affirm that the biblical terms elder, pastor and bishop in the New Testament do not appear to be titles, but qualifications of the same ministry of responsibility or spiritual guide of the local community. Already in the church of the first century these titles expressed the concepts of caring of souls, preaching and spiritual surveillance of believers, respectively. Therefore, the Assemblies of God assert that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is completely at odds with the biblical concept of the universal priesthood of believers. Therefore, a council of elders manages each local community.
The Church Council, of which the pastor is president, is elected, traditionally by a show of hands every four years.The Church Councils and local pastors report to the District Committee, which is elected by secret ballot every four years by the pastors of that territory. The elections are ratified by the General Assembly. All members of the Ministerial General Role are members of the General Assembly. The General Council of Churches is the administration branch of the ADI. There are 522 ministers formally enrolled and recognized by the Italian State in the Ministerial General Role Register.
The church’s mission of evangelization is carried out by individual believers in the community also through television with the program “Cristiani Oggi,” broadcast by twenty-one broadcasters (including one on satellite), 38 “Radioevangelo” and the Internet, throughout the country. Education and information dissemination is carried out through Sunday school and the monthly “Cristiani Oggi” and “Risveglio Pentecostale.”
There have been several challenges to the Assemblies of God in Italy through its history: controversy over its organizational model, the church’s relationship with other Pentecostal and the Reformation churches in Italy, interdenominational and ecumenical dialogue, and Italian “peculiarity.”
Controversy over the church’s organizational model produced a schism in 1948. At the Naples congress in 1947, the majority of the participants made the decision to assume the name of Assemblies of God in Italy and to affiliate with the Assemblies of God in the U.S. A minority of pastors asserted that affiliation would have gradually compromised the original congregationalist model. They then founded the Pentecostal Christian Congregations.
A second schism was initiated by pastor Roberto Bracco (1915-1983). [Image at right] He had held the position of Secretary General of the Assemblies of God in Italy since 1947. He founded and directed the Italian Biblical Institute (IBI) and the journal Risveglio Pentecostale (Pentecostal Revival). He left his executive positions in ADI in 1960, shortly after founding the Christian Evangelical Assembly. He returned to the General Council of the ADI Churches in 1977. In 1982, he published The truth will make you free (Bracco 2012) in which he denounced what he termed the top-down and hierarchical attitude of the ADI organization in Italy. The publication of the book led to his immediate expulsion from the movement (Nicandro 2015).
In his book, Bracco stated that the organization of the Assemblies of God in Italy had assumed an increasingly centralist and top-down role, giving the General Council of Churches and the District Committees a power that they did not have at its origins. According to Bracco, the very origins of Pentecostalism and, even the very constitution of the ADI by modifying its ecclesiology from a congregationalist model had become increasingly a more presbyterian type. A small group of members left the ADI in that schism.
A third schism took place in 2007 that involved some churches and pastors of Puglia (Southern Italy). Originating in Puglia, it expanded into Campania and resulted in the formation of the Evangelical Christian Church Assemblies of God. The goal was a greater openness towards other Pentecostal churches and a more congregationalist ecclesiology by giving back to the local churches the autonomy present in the origins of Pentecostalism. The congregation subsequently changed its name to the Evangelical Christian Church Assemblies of God of Awakening and to the Italian Evangelical Christian Church (CCEI).
Another set of challenges involved the appropriate relationship between the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal churches, the Reformation churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Assemblies of God followed with curiosity the charismatic renewal in non-pentecostal Protestant churches and of the Catholic Church. An internal ADI report published in 1972 outlined “the wind of the Spirit is blowing freely outside the normally recognized Pentecostal organizations:”
The Assemblies of God cannot approve what is evidently unscriptural in doctrine and conduct, but neither do they categorically condemn everything that does not totally conform to our parameters. It is important to find our way on the scriptural path, avoiding the two extremes of an ecumenism that compromises the principles of Scripture and an exclusivism that is not faithful to true Christianity.
In 1976, the ADI signed agreements of understanding and spiritual affiliation with the Christian Church of North America and with the Italian Christian Churches of Northern Europe, thus underlining the non-unique character of the relationship with the American Assemblies of God. In 1983, the Gipsy Evangelical Mission, which has about 700 Sinti and Roma evangelicals, was welcomed into the ADI.
These events suggest a gradual movement toward opening a dialogue and collaboration with other Pentecostal groups. Such a movement would be in harmony with the interdenominational dialogue policies that are already acceptable in the American Assemblies of God. The agreement between the ADI and the “Elim” churches is evidence of this continuing movement.
Finally, the Assemblies of God in Italy have created a particular and unique religious form. ADI history shows deeply the ADI has interacted with Italian culture through its history. The church is not the product of a “foreign” mission but rather the product of a fruitful meeting between Italian immigration and Pentecostal awakening in the U.S. Both the first pioneers and then the first members of the communities in Italy were born “Catholics.” Historically, Italian Catholicism has not only been a religion with a parochial structure and a hierarchical and pyramidal organization. It has also created an organic solidarity system that has operated as monopoly without other religious competition, and that has brought together religion, society and politics. In the long breath of history, the fact that two Italian immigrants planted the seed of Pentecostalism in Italy is a significant fact for at least two reasons. It has created the grafting of a different way of being Christian in a country with Catholic hegemony, it has attempted to experiment with a way of being a church that is a clear alternative to Roman Catholicism (Berzano and Introvigne 1994; Introvigne and Zoccatelli 2013).
Image #1: Luigi Francescon.
Image #2: William Howard Durham.
Image #3: The Assembly of God venue on Chicago’s West Grand Avenue.
Image #4: Giacomo Lombardi.
Image #5: The seat of the Assembly of God community in the lawyer’s office in Rome.
Image #6: The service in a congregation in Rho (Milan).
Image #7: Roberto Bracco.
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Bracco, Roberto. 2012. La verità vi farà liberi. Roma: GK Edizioni.
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12 October 2020