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Alessandro Gavazzi

1809-1889. Italian patriot and religious reformer. Born at Bologna of a large and very religious family, he joined the Barnabite* Order and taught in their schools in various Italian cities. Endowed with great oratorical ability, he soon began to preach sermons, mainly political, championing the cause of liberalism and Italian freedom against ecclesiastical authorities and the Jesuits, who tried vainly to silence him. Threatened and enclosed in a convent, he was liberated at the election of Pope Pius IX, who sent him as chaplain with the papal volunteers fighting with Charles Albert against Austria in the first war of independence (1848). Influenced by Vincenzo Gioberti* and deeply disappointed after the pope's volte-face, he took an active part in the Roman republic of 1849, organizing hospital assistance during the siege. After the defeat, pursued by papal police, he fled to Britain, joining the many Italian exiles, some of whom had founded an Italian evangelical church in London.

It is impossible to determine when Gavazzi left Roman Catholicism and whether he was genuinely converted. Soon, however, he became known as an eloquent speaker, and Lord Palmerson suggested hiring a hall in Oxford Street where crowds went to hear him denounce papal abuses and Jesuit politics. During the next ten years (spent in Britain, apart from ten months in North America) he traveled widely in England, Scotland, and Ireland, making many friends. In 1859 he returned to Italy to join Garibaldi in the wars of independence, the expedition of the Thousands, and the various attempts to conquer Rome, his main object now being the destruction of the papacy and the foundation of one great reformed Italian church.

Disagreeing with the organization and policy of the Waldensians, he tried to join the Free Italian Church (see Guicciardini), meeting with Mazzarella* and Desanctis,* preaching in Genoa and Florence, but his political approach and his lack of spirituality made him suspect and led to a division in 1863. Aided by J.R. McDougall, minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Florence, he devoted himself thereafter to the establishment of a new Free Italian Church, which by 1870 comprised twenty-two congregations and a theological school.

Gavazzi's last years were spent in frequent journeys to Britain to collect funds for his church and in repeated attempts to join with the Waldensians, a move much opposed by McDougall. (At the turn of the century the various congregations were absorbed by the Methodists.) Disillusioned and embittered, rejected by all his friends, Gavazzi died in Rome. Author of innumerable and often contradictory pamphlets (some in English) written to propagate his views and attack his enemies, Gavazzi was, in the words of his most objective biographer, “the greatest intruder of Italian evangelism.”

See L. Santini, Alessandro Gavazzi (1955).