The Italian Reformation: Lost Dream or New Opportunity?

The name Italy may suggest images of good food, gorgeous art, and romance more than thoughts of religious reformation. With its large, imposing cathedrals, frequent processions, and well-advertised pilgrimages, that “fair land” still looks like a stronghold of Roman Catholicism. That first impression seems confirmed by statistics. Out of over 60,000,000 Italian citizens, almost 58,500,000 are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Still, long before the XVI century, the desire for a reformation of the church had been especially fervent and vocal in that historical and celebrated peninsula, as a natural reaction to the imposing and all-permeating presence of the papacy.

Before Luther

The importance of Italy in the context of the Protestant Reformation, largely underplayed by the Roman Catholic Church, has been underestimated by scholars until the last century. In reality, voices of protest accompanied even the earliest abuses of power and doctrine. Already in the eighth century, Bishop Claudius of Turin publicly destroyed all images of God, Jesus, and the saints in his city as an act of protest against idolatrous Roman Catholic practices. The Augustinians in general upheld their founder’s doctrine of grace. Other orders, such as the Franciscans and the Capuchins, were established in answer to the clergy’s excesses and abuses.

Especially in Florence, Neo-Platonist philosophers promoted a return to the spiritual, against the weighty apparatus of images, rites, and vestures the church had accumulated throughout time. Humanists everywhere advocated a return to the classics, including the original biblical sources.

The common people, on their part, reacted to the corruption of the church with a mixture of anger, disappointment, amusement, and resignation. A sample of this attitude can be found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s crudely realistic Decameron. Before launching into a series of comical portraits of this corruption, Boccaccio tells the story of a Jew who, appalled by what he sees in Rome, surprisingly converts to Christianity, concluding that, if the Christian faith can keep growing in spite of all the church’s abuses, it must be the true religion.

There was much that papal authorities were willing to tolerate. They even encouraged monastic orders who emphasized poverty and simplicity of life, enforcing their authority only in cases of perceived heresy, such as that of 12th century Waldensians, who coupled their desire for simplicity with a denial of the existence of purgatory and the authority of the Pope. Girolamo Savonarola’s was a case on its own merits, as his preaching in Florence carried along so many civil repercussions on daily life, limiting personal freedom, that the citizens themselves rose up in riots against him.



Reformation and Counter-Reformation

As soon as Luther and other Reformers began to teach and write north of the Alps, books poured into Italy, mostly through Venice, and were received by many with great interest. Finding their doctrines in agreement with orthodox teachers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, several preachers incorporated them into their sermons, carefully wording them in such a way as not to arouse the authorities’ suspicions.

Some believers met in secret to study the new doctrines. In Lucca, Tuscany, Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Augustinian prior, opened a school to promote the study of the original biblical texts and to discuss theological matters. In Ferrara, a small but prestigious duchy between Bologna and Venice, Duchess Renée, daughter of King Louis XII of France, opened her castle to religious refugees.

On the other hand, the church’s reaction to Protestant teachings continued to intensify, especially when they moved from a purely theological level to a political arena. Finally, in 1542, seeing that a last attempt to conciliate Roman Catholicism and Protestantism at the Colloquy of Ratisbon had failed, Pope Paul III established the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, under the oversight of Cardinal Carafa, who had made his life mission the ending of all heresy everywhere.

That year marked a great movement of Protestants from Italy to the rest of Europe, as it was obviously impossible to continue to conceal one’s faith or to express it with caution. Those who decided to stay were eventually killed. Forbidden books were burned everywhere as their list grew week by week.

In spite of this, in 1543 an Italian book was published anonymously, Del Beneficio di Gesù Cristo Crocifisso (On the Benefit of Jesus Christ Crucified), which became an immediate best-seller. The success of the book and the slow reaction of the church to banish it were due in part to the fact that, while teaching a sound doctrine of grace alone, it was not disparaging the Church of Rome.

Most Protestant movements within Italy, however, eventually died down. The Waldensians, who had embraced Calvinistic doctrines, were cruelly massacred in the Southern region of Calabria and forcefully converted by the Jesuits in nearby Puglia. A few pockets still left along the Alps—in the regions of Piedmont and Valtellina—were destroyed the following century. The 17th century genocide of the Waldensians has been mourned by John Milton in his poem, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.

After a strenuous and courageous resistance, backed by several European sympathizers, including Oliver Cromwell, the Waldensian refugees were able to regain their territories in Piedmont, where they were tolerated as sub-citizens until February 17, 1848. That date is still remembered today in Italy as the day Protestants were granted common civil rights.


The years immediately preceding and following that date represented a pivotal time in the history of Italian Protestantism. Historically, it was a time known as Il Risorgimento (“The Resurgence”), a period of civil and intellectual endeavor for the liberation and political unification of Italy. At that time, Italy was still divided into states, some independent and some under the authority of a foreign power.

The struggle, initially directed against the Austrian occupation of Italian territories in the northeast, soon became a fervent and energizing force uniting a large portion of the population (particularly in the north and center of the country) with great hopes of a brighter future. The project of unification of the peninsula seemed daring but well worth any sacrifice, and most Italian Protestants eagerly joined the pursuit. The perceived united nation was going to be, in their eyes, free from the political, social, and religious oppression of the Pope.

Besides the Waldensian communities in Piedmont, there were at that time a few other isolated groups of Protestants here and there. Some states, such as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, had allowed the presence of small Protestant churches for their foreign communities, such as Swiss Reformed, British Presbyterian, and Anglican churches, which were generally tolerated. Occasionally, however, there were times of fierce persecution. In 1849, when the Piedmontese army lost the first war of Independence against the Catholic Austrians, patriots throughout the peninsula were sentenced to death, imprisonment, and exile, together with all those who had dared to abandon the Roman Catholic Church.

Italian religious exiles had a tremendous impact in other Europeans countries, particularly in England, where they rapidly awakened public opinion. After a meeting at Bedford where Lord Russell and other politicians protested publicly against the abuses against Italian religious minorities, the press regularly kept readers informed, and religious support was soon accompanied by political aid. According to Italian historical Giorgio Spini, the sad fate of religious exiles had a greater impact on British public opinion than that of political exiles.

Finally, in 1857, in the presence of British, Prussian, Swiss, and American delegates, the foundation stone for a large Waldensian church was laid in Turin. Soon after, churches of various denominations were established in other cities.

The two major denominations at this time were the Waldensians and the Free Italian Churches, similar to the Plymouth Open-Brethren. The two were very different one from the other. Waldensians’ pastors had studied at Geneva, where they had received a Reformed training, albeit under the influence of the Reveil.1 They considered essential the adherence to a historical confession and the presence of a duly consecrated pastor, operating under a synod with a well-defined ecclesiastical order. Their official language was French, and they were well known and respected in England, Switzerland, and other European countries.

On the other hand, the Free Italian Churches prided themselves in their independent origins as a truly Italian church and shunned every form of clericalism. They didn’t call themselves pastors or ministers, but evangelists. In many ways, they seemed more in line with the political environment of the times, in their pursuit of freedom from all impositions. Inevitably, some friction arose between the two movements.

After the declaration of Vittorio Emanuele as king of Italy in 1861, and particularly after the capture of Rome in 1871, foreign missionaries rushed into Italy to establish churches. Bibles, until then rare and forbidden, started to circulate. So-called colpoltori (from the French comporter, “to peddle”) went door to door, or market to market, selling Bibles and tracts. Many of these were in the service of the British or Foreign Bible Society.

Recent Times

The turn of the nineteenth century saw a particular increment of Protestant conversions. In the first decade of that century, the number of Italian evangelicals doubled. Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, with his declaration of political alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, represented however a new set back. In 1929, an agreement called Patti Lateranensi practically ended the 1871 law on the separation of church and state (Legge delle Guarentigie), a law that the Pope had refused to recognize. The agreement consented to make the Vatican a separate political state, granted the Church’s request to make Roman Catholicism the official religion in Italy (with the consequent institution of Catholic religion as a mandatory subject in all public schools), and gave several civil exemptions to the clergy. Following this agreement, many Protestants in Italy were often seen and treated as subversives.

The problems continued after the end of fascism. During the atmosphere of fear and suspicion generated by the cold war, Protestants in Italy were considered rebels with dangerous socialistic tendencies and were kept at a careful distance by most of the uninformed population. The fact that Protestant churches were opening their doors to many Catholics excommunicated by Pope Pius XII for joining or helping the Communist party didn’t help their image.

It has taken centuries for Italian Protestants to become accepted and officially recognized in their own country. Even now, their message is largely unknown. For some, they are still a dangerous presence. For others, absorbed in the current climate of self-satisfied Western secularism, they are a negligible presence. While Christians in other parts of the world are wondering how to retain their purity of doctrine and their numbers in an increasing hostile historical environment, Italian Protestants are wondering how to begin to establish their presence in their country, find unity with each other, and grow.

This struggle for survival and growth has caused many changes—often problematic—within the denominations. In 1975, through a misled desire for ecumenism (and political acknowledgment) the Waldensians, once the confessional stronghold of Reformed Protestantism in Italy, have joined the Methodist church and consequently the World Council of Churches (WCC) and have for some time openly embraced liberal teachings. Many other churches, desperately seeking numerical growth, have adhered to various forms of doctrinally void evangelicalism. The strongest Protestant presence in Italy at this time is the Italian form of the Assemblies of God (ADI).

What Now?

For many of us here in North America, choosing a Reformed place of worship displaying the marks of a true church is often a matter of preference among several options. Even in traditional mission fields like Africa and in some South American countries the percentage of Reformed churches is now often greater than in the USA. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to find in Italy a Protestant church that is faithfully preaching the gospel and adhering to a historical confession. Just five years ago, however, by a series of providential events, a concerned Italian minister, Rev. Andrea Ferrari, desiring ecclesiastical oversight, sought help from the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).

Rev. Ferrari has been ordained as a URCNA minister earlier this year and has been called and commissioned by the consistory of Christ URC in Santee, CA to the long-term mission work of planting confessional Reformed churches in Italy. Presently, his church (Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia) is the only church in Italy that confesses and adheres to the Three Forms of Unity and the only one that meets the criteria set by the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

Don’t miss the next issue of The Outlook for a detailed explanation of Rev. Ferrari’s work in the gospel-deprived country of Italy, his vision, and the challenges he meets every day.

1. The religious revival or awakening (known under the French name of Reveil) had its start around the year 1810 in French Switzerland, where British dissenters came and preached the gospel. This religious movement spread over France and also reached Belgium and Holland.

Mrs. Simonetta Carr was born in Italy. She has written biographies of Augustine, John Calvin, and John Owen for young readers. She is a member at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, CA.