The Scripture declares that “not many noble” of earth are called by God (1 Cor. 1:26), yet there are some happy exceptions. The wave of spiritual blessing which passed over England about the middle of the nineteenth century, was remarkable for the way it reached the upper classes. Many of them took on the yoke of the One who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29).
The name Guicciardini is familiar in Italian history, and the family’s palace has been a prominent sight in Florence. Count Pietro Guicciardini was born in that palace on July 21, 1808. As a young person he was educated with the future Grand Duke of Tuscany.
When the Count reached his twenty-fifth year in 1833, the stirrings of the industrial revolution spurred Leopold II to advocate a higher standard of education for young people in Tuscany, and he called his friend Pietro Guicciardini to reorganize the educational system. It was a massive job. The young nobleman soon found that he required a new class of teachers, to give “moral teaching.” Helpful books were scarce. Guicciardini was advised by Lambruschini (a literary expert and brother of a cardinal) to try the New Testament because of its moral stories. The Count examined his valuable library, but found no copy of the Bible in Italian. He had, however, the Latin Vulgate, and he began reading it daily. There he discovered a serious divergence between it and his Church. His educational pursuits became secondary to his spiritual research. While in this frame of mind, he met some evangelicals.
Abele Biginelli tells the story. In the Count’s employ “was a porter who had been a shoemaker and who continued bootmaking in a little room near the entrance of the palace. One day as the Count descended the stairs, he noticed the porter hurriedly hide a book he had been reading. Curious, the Count asked him to produce the book. It was a Bible in Italian. He took the man up to his study with the book and they began daily reading and discussing the Scriptures behind closed doors. Not long afterwards, Guicciardini made contact with a number of distinguished foreigners who were interested in the Scriptures, including George and Arthur de Noe Walker, Captain Pakeman, Carl Meyrney and Professor Theodor Paul.”
The truth of the Gospel dawned in his mind when Guicciardini was saying his creed, and came to the profession of his belief in “the communion of Saints.” He stopped to ask himself: “Who are these Saints in whose communion I believe? They must be Saints on earth.” Soon Count Guicciardini saw the call of the Gospel clearly, and definitely trusted the Lord Jesus Christ. “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).
“These believers,” says Abele Biginelli, “united with Count Guicciardini to worship God according to the Scriptures and to seek other souls, being impelled by the love of Christ. Many were converted and meetings were started for meditation and prayer. They commenced breaking bread together and in a few months they were holding ten to twelve meetings a week. They met in secret at Settignano, a small village near Florence, in the stone caves of Maiano, or in a carriage that passed up and down the Viale dello Cascine, or in a small boat on the Arno, and in other places.”
The Grand Duke was at that time under the influence of the Jesuits, who were determined to suppress any evangelical work in Tuscany. In January, 1851, the services held in Italian in the Swiss Church were forbidden, and one hundred and twenty Italians who had attended them received notice, under the threat of a prison term, to stop attending any evangelical meeting. A special prohibition was forwarded to Count Guicciardini.
The Count protested this tyrannical action, and informed the authorities that if they insisted upon it, he had no alternative but to go into voluntary exile. He made this sacrifice on May 3, 1851. On what he thought was the eve of his departure, he wrote to his Christian brothers and sisters a letter (see page 13), which ranks as one of the noblest documents in the history of Italian Gospel work.
On May 7, Count Guicciardini went to say good-bye at the house of Fedele Betti, a Christian brother. With a handful of other believers, they opened to John 15, and while commenting at each verse, the bell rang and seven gendarmes marched in and arrested all seven disciples of Christ! At half-past eleven that night, they were taken to the old Bargello prison and put in one dank, dirty cell. One encouragement was they were able to continue their meditation on John 15, because Guicciardini had smuggled a small New Testament in his pocket.
The following day they were accused of meeting to promote Protestant propaganda. It was proved that the little meeting was absolutely casual and informal; but the Book was sufficient! Rome proved her case only by its presence, and the seven were condemned to six months’ imprisonment in different parts of Tuscany.
The Count’s arrest filled the palazzo Guicciardini with consternation, and his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, begged him to recant. He replied: “If the church in which we were born had remained the chaste spouse of the Lord, it certainly would be anti-Christian to separate from it. But it is not the true Church of Christ which we are leaving: indeed, we desire that it should return to its primitive purity. We are leaving only the superstitions she added in the darkness of the times, and we are returning to the purest fount of the faith of the Gospel.”
The Countess used her high influence to obtain the liberty of her son, but the Count said it should be conditional: “all my brethren with me, or none of us.” He asked only to be permitted to leave Tuscany, and the sentence of imprisonment was so modified that Guicciardini and three of his fellow-prisoners started for Genoa and Turin. From there he reached England.
In his three years in England he revised the first edition of the Italian Bible. He also came into contact with William Yapp (the Bible publisher), Robert Chapman, George Muller, Lord Congleton, Lord Radstock, W. Bergin, Dr. J. W. McLean and Henry Dyer. Here he found young Teodorico Rossetti, a second cousin to Dante Rossetti, and his sister, the hymnwriter, Christina Rossetti. Teodorico was a political refugee in England. The Count befriended the young zealot, and one day as they walked along the seashore, he witnessed to him. Rossetti shortly thereafter believed.
The two men became ardent co-laborers. In 1854, the Count was able to return to Italy. Joined by Rossetti in 1857, they held Bible studies and broke bread with the converts of their preaching. Bibles and New Testaments were distributed widely and a dozen itinerant evangelists associated with them were sent out to preach through the region. In 25 years, over 200 assemblies were established in Genoa, Turin, Alessandria, Florence and other towns and villages.
The young meetings had their dark days too. Guicciardini strongly repulsed “Exclusivism” when he wrote a tract charging Darby’s followers in Britain of sectarian discipline because they excluded godly believers (1 Thess. 5:12,13; Phil. 2:25-29 were cited).
“In 1871,” writes A. Rendle Short in A Modern Experiment in Apostolic Missions (p. 57), “the first united Love Feast was held at Spinetta. About 600 were present, some having walked from Thursday night to be present at the Sunday morning service. The first number of Echoes of Service (a British missionary magazine) quotes Rossetti’s account of the 1872 united Love Feast: ‘Oh, blessed be the love of the Father, which constrains all and urges all to respond to His invitation, to honour His name and obey His commandment.’ There were nineteen evangelists present.”
The next thirty years they taught believers and encouraged evangelists in every way possible. The day of liberty was dawning; the Count spent his time and means in the spread of the Gospel. He visited his dear Italian brethren in their meetings and homes, and never allowed his social position to form a barrier in Christian fellowship.
“By faith” he made the choice of the faithful, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked unto the recompense of reward.”
Chief Men Among the Brethren, by Hy. Pickering
Heroes of the Faith in Modern Italy, by J. S. Anderson
Forgotten Heroes, by C. J. Casher
Brethren: the Story of a Great Recovery, by David J. Beattie
That the World May Know, Vol. 8, edited by F. A. Tatford
Bright Lights in Dark Times, by Bible Truth Publishers