Italian American Pentecostalism And The Struggle For Religious Identity, By Paul J. Palma

Italian American Pentecostalism And The Struggle For Religious Identity, By Paul J. Palma

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Book Reviews


Paul J. Palma,Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity

(New York,NY: Routledge, 2020). 254 pp. $124.00 hardback.

Paul J. Palma is to be commended for his volume Italian American Pentecostal- ism and the Struggle for Religious Identity, unprecedented in both its scope and its clarity. The focus of the work is the Italian Pentecostal Movement (abbrevi- atedIPM). So comprehensive is Palma’s research that he traces the roots of the IPMfromtheCatholic andWaldensianspiritualtiesof the late-medievalperiod, to the present-day movement established in all areas of the Italian Diaspora and beyond.

Palma’s description of the IPM’s journey is spiritual as well as geographic, as he masterfully demonstrates how waves of Italian migration arrived in the United States, where they negotiated their place amidst a rapidly industrial- izing and urbanizing population. From 1870 to 1920, over 4 million Italians entered the United States. From 1908 to 1923, 1,624,353 Italians migrated to the United States’ industrial and urban centers, outnumbering any other European nationality. Many were formerly rural labourers (termed contadini by Palma) from Southern Italy.

En route to Pentecostalism many first converted to a form of mainline Protestantism before joining Holiness networks, thus forming a sort of halfway- house between Catholicism and Pentecostalism. Palma’s references to Italian spirituality predating Azusa lend support to his argument for the polygenesis of Italian American Pentecostalism. Palma argues that Italian Americans sub- scribed to Pentecostalism partially because such was an act of resistance to the “Irish hegemony of American Catholicism,” and pressure from Anglo-American Protestants (58). Further, he suggests Pentecostalism required less adjustment in the migrants’ traditional worldview than did other religious options. It was also a draw because early twentieth century revivals were inviting and welcom- ing, reaching “across dividing lines … Notwithstanding discrimination due to interlacing influences of class, nationality, and race, Italians could be found … at the early hubs of Pentecostal revival” (55). The North Avenue Mission of Chicago became instrumental in the birth of Italian American Pentecostal- ism, as in 1907 it intersected an independent Holiness mission attended by Italian Americans. The outgrowth of this revival was the establishment of Chicago’s Assemblea Cristiana, the earliest recorded Italian American Pente- costal church, and an epicenter for theIPM.

An early internal struggle materialized in the form of the blood issue where adherents contested the morality of eating food products containing blood, such as blood sausage. At issue was the tension between Italian food culture and a literal interpretation of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. This debate cre-


© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2020 | doi:10.1163/15700747-04202012



Book Reviews

ated a divide between the astinenza (who did not eat blood sausage) and the libertà (who did). Entire networks of churches formed and separated on this issue.

The predominant denomination among Italian American Pentecostals was the Italian Christian Church of North America (CCNA, founded in 1927). The Assemblies of God USA also formed an Italian District (IDAG), thus expanding the IPM’s influence and significance. From as early as 1908, mission became and remained a hallmark of the movement, with Italian American Pentecostal missionaries (many from Chicago) traveling to Italy or to outposts of the Italian Diaspora. Through an impressively energetic and extensive missionary enter- prise, the Italian American Pentecostal folds were mirrored in Italy through the Aseemblee di Dio in Italia (Pentecostals in Italy endured persecution and marginalization for decades, not receiving full religious freedom and recog- nition until 1959), the Italian Pentecostal Church of Canada (now termed the Canadian Assemblies of God), and sizeable Pentecostal denominations among Italian expatriates and their contemporaries in Argentina, Brazil, and Tunisia.

Through the century, Italian American Pentecostals continued to negoti- ate for place, working their way inward from the margins of American society. This was no easy feat, and it was this brokering for belonging which character- izes the struggle described in this volume’s title. Italian American Pentecostals were characterized as a “double minority.” They were marginalized as outsiders from their Catholic Italian American counterparts and from the broader Euro- American majority as immigrants with different customs. During the Second World War, the IPM’s denominations dropped the Italian appellate in a show of solidarity withUSmilitary campaigns in the African and European theaters. Further, in 1944, many churches that had separated over the blood issue were reintegrated into theCCNA.

During the years following the war, the IPM diversified both in the United States and internationally. As the American cultural and ethnic landscape shifted, so too did the denominations of the IPM expand their enrolment to accommodate non-Italian membership. Likewise, the missionary efforts of the IPMincreasingly became directed toward non-Italian centers. By 1963 theCCNA deployed missionaries to forty countries. Indeed, the mid-to-late 20th century was a period of impressive organization and adaptation on the part of theIPM.

Palmadisplaysgreatprowessthroughthisvolume.Inthefirstplace,thebook covers a vast timeframe, processing and disseminating an impressive amount of information. His work is impeccably researched. Second, Palma possesses an enviable ability to bridge disciplines, providing a history of a movement, while at the same time expounding on its hymnody and theological underpinnings, drawing from a herculean effort in ethnography. Still, Palma does so naturally

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Book Reviews


and elegantly, even including an impressive “photo essay” that helpfully illus- trates the development of this vibrant movement.Third, Palma’s work provides excellent analysis of the internal distinctions, divisions, and directional cur- rents within theIPM.

I do hold some reservations on a few points. The first is nomenclature. On several occasions, Palma refers to the “Great Migration” (5, 23, 53–55, 59, 62, 134, 162, 204), referencing the first wave (1870–1920) of the Italian Diaspora. Palma does a remarkable job underlining the basis for the first wave of the Ital- ian Diaspora. However, the “Great Migration” typically is a phrase reserved for other historical mass movements of peoples. Further, the phrase Italian Pente- costal Movement is somewhat problematic. Its usage is indistinct and impre- cise, sometimes referring to Italian American Pentecostalism, sometimes to the movement within Italy, sometimes to the movement outside of the United States and Italy, and still at other times referring to all of the above cumula- tively. In a book titled Italian American Pentecostalism, Palma employs “IPM” to refer to the global trajectory of Italian Pentecostalism, sometimes working hard to relate it back to the United States context.

My second reservation has to do with Palma articulating a distinct doc- trinal position of the IPM within Classical Pentecostalism. To be sure, there were divisions within theIPMvis-à-vis the blood issue and some soteriological minutia. Further, the writer does well to expound on how the IPM interpreted Romans 1:16 as the basis for its monoethnic composition and evolving world mission. Yet I struggled to appreciate the theological uniqueness of the IPM as argued. Certainly, there were cultural distinctives which Palma identifies well, such as the parallels between the spirituality of classical Pentecostalism and the pre-existent folk-Catholicism of the contadini. Further, the IPM has con- tributed exemplary theologians and scholars such as Anthony D. Palma and Frank D. Macchia. But I found the arguments pointed not to doctrinal distinc- tiveness, but rather to the sort of cultural variation one expects from a move- ment as diverse as Classical Pentecostalism.

Finally, the book does not adequately address the trend of numerical stag- nation of the IPM in the United States. Palma’s analysis describes a crescendo of growth and development internationally (300,000 in Italy, and 2.5 million in Brazil). However, he does not explore the afterglow of those denominations whose figures are not as positive domestically. For instance, Palma cites that in 1936, the CCNA and IDAG comprised 120 churches with a membership of 11,114. By 1966 the CCNA claimed 151 churches with a membership approach- ing 20,000. In 1977, the CCNA boasted 414 credential holders. Yet today the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies (formerly CCNA) maintains 96 congregations comprising 7,200 adherents. While Palma addresses how the

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Book Reviews

IPM in North America integrated non-Italians after waves of Italian immigra- tion had reduced to a trickle, he has not described how the movement has responded to a decrease in waves of revival at home. There can be no doubt that Palma’s work leaves the door open (likely he opened the door in the first place) for future research into this important field.

In the final analysis, Palma’s volume provides the highest calibre of scholarly research and writing on the IPM. This book provides insight into a heretofore understudied, but influential group in the United States and beyond. Palma concludes beautifully: “The experience of Italian Pentecostals was enigmatic and unique, that of a people renewed by a force not of themselves. Such was the testimony of John the Beloved, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (205). Palma is to be commended for his top-tier treatment on the history, development, and struggle for religious identity of the IPM. This monograph is a must have for all historians of Pente- costalism and an invaluable contribution to the field of Pentecostal Theology.

Aaron A.M. Ross

Masters College and Seminary, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Pneuma 42 (2020) 263–323


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