BYUSQ: The Mormon Church in Italy

The latest issue of BYU Studies Quarterly (51:3) has an article by James A. Toronto and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel that will be of interest both to scholars of European Mormonism and of ritual (“The LDS Church in Italy: The 1966 Rededication by Elder Ezra Taft Benson”). Jim Toronto responded to some of my questions:

BCC: Can you summarise your article?

Since the early years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Italy has attracted the attention of Church leaders as a proselyting field. It is the practice of Church leaders to dedicate a land to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this article briefly describes the 1850 dedication of Italy by Apostle Lorenzo Snow, followed by a report of a second dedication in 1966 by another Apostle, Ezra Taft Benson. Elder Benson, as president of the European Mission, was warmly welcomed in Italy because of his prior work as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, when he helped relieve Italian food shortages. The article includes photos taken at the dedicatory event and excerpts of the dedicatory prayer.

Tell us something about the Waldensians. Did the Mormon missionaries go to northern Italy because it was felt Protestants would make easier converts?

The Waldensians are a Protestant sect who have lived for centuries in the Cottian Alps that straddle the border between southeastern France and northwestern Italy. Historically they have suffered severe persecution at the hands of Catholic political and religious authorities, garnering in the process the support and admiration of Protestants in other European countries. The first Mormon  missionaries, including Lorenzo Snow,  who arrived in Italy in 1850, initially made attempts to proselytize in Catholic country (Genoa) but soon concluded that the spiritual soil for winning converts would be more fertile among the Waldensians, whose history of persecution and valiant resistance were known to Snow and other LDS leaders of the time. For details, see Michael W. Homer, “The Waldensian Valleys: Seeking ‘Primitive Christianity’ in Italy,” Journal of Mormon History, 31:2 (Summer 2005), and James A. Toronto, “‘A Continual War, Not of Arguments, But of Bread and Cheese’: Opening the First LDS Mission in Italy, 1849-67,” Journal of Mormon History, 31:2 (summer 2005)

What is the history on country dedications? Why *re*-dedicate a country?

I am not an expert on the history of country dedications, but from my experience in doing research on LDS history in both Italy and the Middle East, I know that it is quite common for church leaders, over time, to offer multiple dedicatory prayers in one country. For example, the Holy Land (including the city of Jerusalem and the countries of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) has been dedicated eleven times since the mid-19th century. I’m not certain about the reasons for the practice of multiple dedicatory prayers, and I assume that the policies governing the practice have evolved over time. But it seems safe to say that some apostles uttered prayers of a more informal nature as they traveled through various countries, while others dedicated lands on a more formal basis: i.e., by assignment from the First Presidency as in the case of Orson Hyde in Jerusalem in 1841, Lorenzo Snow in Italy in 1850, and Ezra Taft Benson in Italy in 1966. The decision to rededicate Italy might have stemmed from the fact that formal missionary work had been closed in Italy for about a century before Benson reorganized the Italian mission in 1966.

Do you agree with Massimo Introvigne who believes that the LDS Church came too late to Italy?

“Mormons could have been part of the last big wave of conversions right after the war using the American army, but they didn’t do this. They should have planned this back in the late ’40s and ’50s, but they didn’t. The Mormon authorities were too concerned with the reaction of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church produced a few booklets against the Mormons in the late ’60s, but it didn’t react in any major way and not in any legal way. Most of the anti-Mormon stuff is published by Evangelicals who are only 1 percent of the Italian population. They feel more strongly against the Mormons than the Catholics do” ((http://www.cesnur.org/2011/mi-int.html).

In writing the history of the LDS Church in Italy (due for publication in 2013), I interviewed Introvigne about these issues. While it is true that the Church missed “the last big wave of conversions” in post-war Italy, as he says, and thereby has not enjoyed the numerical success that other newer religions (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Assemblies of God) have enjoyed, the reasons for the Church’s late return to Italy are more complex than he implies. I think that concern about reaction from the Catholic Church to renewed Mormon proselytism might have played into the decision, but other factors were more compelling. The relatively meager harvest of converts during the Church’s first experience with evangelism in Italy and lingering negative attitudes among Americans about the Italian culture and people were two factors that probably played a more decisive role in this regard.  For a thorough analysis of reasons for the LDS church’s long absence in Italy, see Eric R. Dursteler, “One-Hundred Years of Solitude: Mormonism in Italy, 1867-1964,” International Journal of Mormon Studies, volume 4 (2011).

 

Comments

  1. I enjoyed the article for two reasons. Firstly, it tells a kind of detective story as Benson et al try to find the hill where Snow had offered the first dedication. Second, for Mormons outside of the US, these places of dedication become sacred marks on the landscape, a local Mormon “church history site.” This has a lot to say about how international Mormons shape their religious geography. Here in England, every place a Mormon apostle has said or done something of even minor import is usually known and “marked” by local Saints.

    Has the United States ever been dedicated? What about individual states?

  2. Thanks, Ronan. I would be interested to explore how the practice of re-dedication fits into narratives around missionary work and in particular the sense of nostalgia that many of the brethren appear to have regarding Europe. In such moments I see a number of dynamics intersecting: personal affection, often engendered through serving a mission in Europe as a young man, historical awareness of massive success in the early years, and racial preferences for those considered to be kin (this also fits the re-dedication of the middle-east and our sense of being literally of Israel). Thus seeking a second harvest becomes enacted through both ritual re-dedication, public sermons, and also pragmatic missionary programmes.

  3. Last Lemming says:

    Why *re*-dedicate a country?

    Italy did not exist in 1850, so technically it couldn’t be rededicated. It may have been felt that the first dedication prayer covered only the country in which it was offered (which I can’t identify without reading the article, which I don’t have time to do). Some of them were pretty small.

  4. I look forward to reading the referenced articles. My ancestors were Waldensian converts (baptized by Snow, actually) who left the “strength of the hills” to gather in the US. I’ve always had a real interest in the Mormon-history of that region.

  5. My father was born in Biella (Piedmont region) and knew a great deal of the Waldensian culture in Italy and how they were more open than other groups due to the persecution laid upon them. When asked to speak in Sacrament meeting he would relate his conversion to that of the Waldensian sect in his homeland. He was active in gathering geneology information for the church while he was alive,( that long hand Italian can be so hard to read). Tip of the hat to brother Holzapfel for his efforts and especially to Jim Toronto who was at the old IONA house in Provo during the LTM days. -Rob Rovere

  6. This was an excellent article and I am looking forward to reading the forthcoming larger work. I am an alumnus of the Italy Milan Mission. Torre Pellice is sacred ground. There is a lot of missionary folklore that is difficult to weed out of the fascinating truth about the events surrounding both the dedication and the re-dedication. It is nice to have a perspective that is the product of diligent research and skilled writing.

  7. Nathan E. Rasmussen says:

    For comparison, Czechoslovakia was dedicated by John Widtsoe in 1927, but the Slovak Republic as a sovereign country received its own dedication from Elder Uchtdorf a couple years ago.

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