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Dennis Barone, Beyond Memory: Italian Protestants in Italy and America

Albany (ny), State University of New York Press, 2016, pp. 194, $75.

As is well-known, the 1929 Lateran Accords declared Catholicism to be «the Religion of the State.» In Italy the 1931 census indicated that more than 99% of the country was, at least nominally, Roman Catholic. Something like one-half of one percent of Italians identified themselves as Protestants; an even smaller fraction declared themselves Jewish. Yet, at that very moment, missionaries from the Waldensians and the Anglo-American «sects» (sette) – neither the church nor the state ever dignified the Protestants with the name chiesa, of which, in their view, there was just one – were fanning out across the peninsula, much to the dismay of the Vatican. Many of these missionaries were americani, that is those who had immigrated to the United States, had been converted, and returned, with evangelical fervor, to Italy. Anti-Protestant sentiment was shared by many in the fascist regime (Mussolini was an exception), and Protestants were harassed and spied upon. In 1935, the Pentecostals were made illegal. Discrimination against them continued into the Christian Democratic era.

In this elegantly-written volume, Dennis Barone, a professor of literature at the University of Saint Joseph, examines the Italian Protestant experience not only in Italy but especially in the United States during the late nineteenth century and the two decades before the fascists came to power in Italy. Basing his study on a rich mix of church archives, manuscripts, and literary sources, Barone argues – with admirable subtlety and, where necessary, qualification – that Protestants (including his great-grandfather, Alfredo Barone, who was a minister to congregations in Italy and New England) navigated the immigrant experience in large part by conversion. Commitment to Protestantism, Barone cogently proves, served to bridge the cultural gap between Italy and America, Europe and the United States, the Old and New Worlds. At the same time, it exposed Italian Protestants to hostile treatment by Italian immigrants, who remained devoutly Catholic, as well as to the often prissy hauteur of what was, in effect if not in law, the established faith of the United States: American Protestantism. 

Following his introduction of these themes, Barone examines the myriad difficulties of being Protestant in Italy, especially the «double binds» and «catch-22’s» (p. 6) that oppressed non-Catholic Christians. On the one hand, for example, Catholic prelates denounced Italian Protestant ministers for being insufficiently pious. By contrast, the liberals who in the nineteenth century had established a new political structure in Italy excoriated them for being too pious.

In his third chapter, the author discusses Italian Protestantism within the framework of the «Protestant question» – that is, the ill treatment of Protestants in Meridional Italy by powers in the provinces north of Rome. Since Protestant missionaries enjoyed such success in the southern provinces, Barone asks, what in Protestantism appealed to Southern Italians? Here Barone supplies a subtle analysis. On the one hand, Italians were drawn in many cases to Protestantism because it appealed to those suffocated by the authoritarian traditions and style of European Catholicism. On the other hand, ironically, the experiences of immigrants in the United States made Protestantism appear as a «conservative vehicle of nationalism and assimilation» (p. 7). 

In the following chapter, Barone considers the variety of responses from Catholics and Protestants to the clash in the late nineteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and the new, liberal Italian state. Considering the intersection of economics, politics, and religion, Barone demonstrates how American Protestants tended to view the defeats of the papal troops and the integration of the Papal States into a newly unified kingdom as a welcome expression of the forces of freedom and democracy. By contrast, unification divided Catholics in Italy. Some supported the pope, now, famously, «a prisoner of the Vatican,» while others backed the State. The Catholic hierarchy in the United States was fiercely hostile to the establishment of the State, and to the subsequent imprisonment of the papacy. Naturally, this hostile view put americani in an uncomfortable spot, caught between their emotions regarding Unification and those expressed by the American Catholic Church. This is a good example of the «catch-22s» that Barone details. Even when, in 1929, the Lateran Accords finally solved «the Roman Question,» the intensity of feelings regarding the fraught period since unification revealed themselves in Italians’ writings.

In the final part of the book, Barone narrows his scope. Having discussed questions that engaged America and Italy, Catholics and Protestants, the author then focuses on how the larger trends he has traced played out in parts of New England and with some of his own family members. Thus in Chapter 5, Barone discusses the missions – in Italy during the 1890s (particularly in and around Calitri), and then in Massachusetts and Connecticut – of Alfredo Barone, an Italian Protestant Minister and, as mentioned, the author’s ancestor. Here Barone discusses how the cultural shifts usually linked with ministry to churches composed of immigrants influenced the experience of an ethnic church – in this case, for immigrant populations that, over time, were not replaced by new emigrés. In the sixth chapter, Barone focuses microscopically on the Congregation Church of Hartfort, Connecticut. Here interesting questions of possible reciprocal influence are raised. For example, did the Italian church influence the traditions of the old Congregationalism in Connecticut? This is especially thought-provoking, as the Congregational Church was once the official church for the state of Connecticut. In this chapter, Barone demonstrates that the macro-patterns earlier discussed apply on the micro-level, too. Using contemporary newspaper accounts deftly, he shows how this local immigrant church passed through the same sequence of experiences as other churches, which established themselves, struggled to survive, then institutionalized themselves, but finally dwindled in numbers because of social and geographical mobility and the fact that these churches were not replenished by new infusions of immigrants. In the final chapter, Barone, a talented literary critic, furnishes a «close reading» of Protestant sermons in Italy and the United States, focusing on the fate of those churches as revealed by sermons given in them. In particular, he addresses the question of whether Italian Protestantism has disappeared. An epilogue contains not only a fascinating story of mamma Barone, who wished to come to America but was ignored by her son, but also interesting reflections on the state of Protestantism in Italy in the present day. 

The result is an important story that contributes to the exiguous literature on Italian Protestantism in the United States and Italy. This is a book that should be on the shelves of all interested in the Italian and Italian-American experience, as well as those in religious and immigration studies. The author is to be congratulated for such a rich and compelling contribution to a field of study that ought to be better known by Italianists.


Kevin Madigan (Harvard University)



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