Romani Pentecostalism

Gypsies and Charismatic Christianity

by David Thurfjell (Volume editor) Adrian Marsh (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 268 Pages


A charismatic Christian revival is sweeping through the Romani communities of Europe. Since the early 1950s, Romani peoples across Europe have organized themselves in charismatic congregations and today, although there are many exceptions, Pentecostalism could be said to be one of the foremost religious orientations amongst Roma in Europe and beyond. Despite this, there are few academic publications dealing with this remarkable development in a comparative and cohesive way. With the ambition of changing this, this anthology brings together scholars that have all studied local variants of Romani Pentecostalism in different parts of Europe. In sixteen chapters it sheds light on the multifaceted and complex phenomenon that Romani Pentecostalism has become today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: The History and Impact of Romani Pentecostalism
  • New Religious Movements among Roma, Gypsies and Travellers: Placing Romani Pentecostalism in an Historical and Social Context
  • On the Genesis of Gypsy Pentecostalism in Brittany
  • The Gypsy Religious Revival Movement: “New Churches” in the Territories of the Former Soviet Union
  • Part 2: Identity and Social Status
  • “Prestige” and Identity Construction amongst Pentecostal Gypsies in Bulgaria
  • Stigma and Ethno-genesis amongst Pentecostal Gitanos in Spain
  • Questioning the Theory of Deprivation: Pentecostal Roma in Slovakia
  • “One Scattered Race Like Stars in the Sight of God”: The International Gypsy Evangelical Church
  • The Cultural Dynamics of Romani/Gypsy Ethnicity and Pentecostal Christianity
  • Part 3: The Religious Life
  • The Gospel Songs of the Finnish Kaale: Religious Music and Identity in Finland
  • Testimonies of Change: Individual Pentecostalism amongst the Kaale
  • The Synchronisation of Traditions in Lovari, Kelderash and Kalo Pentecostalism
  • The Rise and Fall of Romani Pentecostal Revivals in Eastern Slovakia
  • Part 4: Romani Revivals Outside Christian Europe
  • Romani Communities and Churches in South America
  • “Lo, it is God who Splits the Date and the Date-stone!” Rom, Dom and Lom Religiosity in Turkey
  • Romanés (Romani) Bible Translations and Some Remarks on Translating Biblical Texts
  • References
  • Biographies


Adrian R. Marsh & David Thurfjell

A charismatic Christian revival is sweeping through the Romani communities of Europe. Roma have been among the adherents of Pentecostalism since its appearance in the first years of the twentieth century. Since the early 1950s, Roma across Europe began to organize in specifically Romani Pentecostal congregations and today, although there are many exceptions, Pentecostalism could be said to be one of the foremost religious orientations amongst Roma in Europe and beyond.1 In almost all European nations, there are congregations that are either exclusively Romani or dominated by Roma. There are a number of influential international organisations for Romani Pentecostals and, in many parts of the continent, the movement continues to grow steadily. Despite this, there are few academic publications that deal with this remarkable development in a comparative and cohesive way. With the ambition of changing this, the present anthology brings together scholars from ten different countries that have all studied local variants of Romani Pentecostalism in different parts of Europe. It is our hope that this volume may shed light on the multifaceted and complex phenomenon that Romani Pentecostalism has become and is today and that in doing so it may inspire further academic interest and research in this under-developed field. The anthology itself springs from papers presented at a symposium organised at Södertörn University in Stockholm on the 5th and 6th of November, 2009.

Who do we mean by “Romani”?

Any anthology on the subject of Romani studies almost inevitably confronts the contested question of definitions. Who are we describing when we use the term Romani? Who are the people engaged in the religious movement we seek to discuss here – the Roma, Sinti, Gypsies, Travellers and others? Even more complex than ← 7 | 8 → questions regarding definitions are the notions of identity and ethnicity presented in the chapters that follow. The notion of a new religious and ethnic identity is frequently raised in these contributions, usually in the context of discussing the impact of Pentecostal conversion upon Romani communities. Many of the authors implicitly suggest that, prior to the conversion to Pentecostal beliefs, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers “lacked” such an identity or were without a recognisably defined series of characteristics that amounted to a notion of the ethnos in the context of the majority society. Others point to a reconfiguration of components from previous identities in the emergence of a changed awareness of self and community while in the process of adopting Pentecostal beliefs and practises.

Some of the authors whose work appears here use the terms “Gypsy” and “Gypsies” in referring to the groups engaged with this particular religious phenomenon. Others would hesitate to apply those term to others (even less so to themselves), preferring to use the terms “Roma” and “Romani” instead. There is little in the way of consistency here in this volume in terms of the various differing ethnonyms applied to the groups that are being described, perhaps bewilderingly so for the reader expecting a clear and uncomplicated picture of a particular religious movement amongst an ethnic community.2

In this collection, the term “Romani” generally indicates the broadest possible community that may be understood to share common notions of origins, a broad conception of a shared history,3 aspects of a common culture, a series of cultural reference points that include cleanliness taboos and a dichotomy around ideas of purity and impurity, and a knowledge or awareness of a series of linked dialects based in a common lexicon for many terms that come under the broad definition of Romani-chib or Romanës (Romani language).

Not all of these indicators or criteria will be agreed upon in detail or even be present in every group that might define itself as “Romani”, but, on the other hand, not every indicator of Swedish, French or English identity will be present in every community or individual either – in this sense, Romani people are not necessarily more or less diversified than any other ethno-linguistic community. However, Romani people (Rromane dzene) are members of an ethnic group, whilst Gypsies may be Romani or part of one of the related ethnic groups that includes Gypsies, Roma, Travellers, Gitano, Yenische, Dom, Lom and others. In ← 8 | 9 → the various chapters of this volume, the groups spoken of will be referred to by their self-definitions. Hence we will have chapters dealing with Gitanos, Kaale, Kalderash, Manoush, Romanichal, etc., but also, in the cases where a trans-national Romani identity is prevalent, with Roma in general.

What do we mean by “Pentecostalism”?

Pentecostalism, to move on to the next major category of this anthology, is not an easily defined religious tradition. While some would argue that Pentecostalism constitutes a denomination of Protestantism that has its historical roots in American Methodism and Baptism and its starting point in the charismatic revivals in Topeka and Los Angeles, and which from there spread throughout the world. Others, however, would opt for a much broader definition of Pentecostalism. Influential scholars such as Alan Anderson and Harvey Cox would rather speak of Pentecostalism as a global family of churches and movements that emphasise the so-called workings of the Spirit, including glossolalia and healing. Such a definition would include also a number of independent churches around the globe in this family. The total number of Pentecostal Christians, if such a definition is followed, would be over half a billion people.4

This volume deals with Pentecostalism in the broadest possible sense. The chapters in the book deal with Charismatic groups who lay strong emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit. However, because of the historical and religious differences between the groups and the nations that are described there is no consistent terminology. In parts of Europe where Protestant Christianity has no deep historical roots, such as the Orthodox and Catholic East, the need for precise terminology is less prevalent. Here, denominations that in North America or Northwestern Europe would be known by their specific denominational epithets – Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal or Faith movement – are referred to by one uniting term such as “Protestant”, “Evangelical” or “New churches”. These terms all say something about the cultural context in which both the discussed churches and the scholars who here write about them are located. As the editors of this volume, we have found it important to clarify and articulate the multiple interpretational stances from which we as scholars approach this complex field and for this reason have not sought to smooth over these terminological differences. ← 9 | 10 →

The politics of scholarship

Texts about humans are never written in a political vacuum. No texts are, not even the sober academic descriptions and strict analyses of the social sciences, and especially not texts about Roma. This book comes at a time when the situation, security and legal rights of European Roma is worse than ever before in their post-World War history. Pentecostalism plays a vital part in the ever-ongoing negotiations with the increasingly hostile majority societies. The Pentecostal churches often work as bridges between Roma and non-Roma communities; they often provide a certain trust capital to their adherents which help integration into the labour and housing markets. But Pentecostalism also often constitutes yet another challenge in the interactions between Romani groups and non-Romani society. Especially in Eastern and Southern European contexts, where Orthodox or Catholic national churches play a vital role in the processes of nation building, Pentecostal and other “new churches” pose a threat to the view of a unified nation. The Romas’ inclination to turn to these churches is here easily construed as a statement against their nations. In other regions and layers of Europe, a strong support for Romani human rights may be expressed by non-Romani officials, journalists and intellectuals. But, since these non-Roma often have a strongly secularist view of what human rights should be, the presence of Pentecostalism in Romani human rights activism becomes provocative.

In these different ways, then, Romani Pentecostalism, as with so much else concerning Romani people, challenges established categories. In this anthology, we have sought to acknowledge the complexity of the experiences and relationships we discuss and to avoid overly simplistic reduction to reified models. In fact, that is the point. The complexity and diversity of the various experiences and relationships are here presented in a way that illustrates an approximation of the reality for Romani Pentecostals themselves rather than attempting to impose a consistency upon these and develop the kind of schema so beloved of political scientists and policy-makers. In that sense, this anthology attempts to defy such constraints quite deliberately in order to address the questions regarding that which may be real rather than abstracted in order to impose another, non-Romani layer of meanings upon Romani experiences and use that as the basis for drawing up responses, strategies and programmes that will affect or sometimes determine the future of Romani individuals or groups.

History and historiography of Romani Pentecostalism

Both the religion of Pentecostalism and the community of groups referred to as Romani are scattered and diverse phenomena. Nevertheless, there exists in ← 10 | 11 → these groups, as indeed in all human communities, a number of historiographies, i.e. narratives which present the history and development of the community and, in doing so, contribute to the creation and maintenance of a certain self-understanding in the group. It is hardly surprising that these historiographies often place the contemporary community at the frontline of a development towards goodness and prosperity. The dominant historiographies of most Christian churches, and certainly that of Pentecostalism, place the emergence and spreading of their own traditions within the framework of a cosmic drama with the imminent realisation of the Kingdom of God as its final destination. The worldly histories of church organisations will often be told with more or less explicit connections to this greater narrative. This means, for instance, that progress and growth are likely to be overly emphasised while setbacks and periods of decline may be toned down.

Romani Pentecostalism is no exception to this. Also, this community has its own rationales and narratives of its own history. Although many of the adherents are probably rather uninterested in these matters, it is interesting to note the presence of a grand narrative of Romani Pentecostalism in the literature that has come out of the movement itself as well as in that which has been written about it. Of major significance here is the story of Clément Le Cossec, the Breton minister who started evangelising amongst the Manouche Roma in the Paris of the 1950s and who later founded an organisation called Vie et Lumière (Life and Light) for Romani Pentecostals worldwide. Although Le Cossec was no doubt immensely important in creating organisational networks, inspiration and a sense of unity among Romani Pentecostals, it is worth noting that the narrative of Romani Pentecostalism beginning with him and developing primarily through the work of Vie et Lumière also, to a certain extent, reflects not only the self-understanding of this particular organisation but also the cultural categories and expectations into which a thing such as a Romani church can be placed. Hence, it is a story which speaks of the Roma as one united but geographically scattered ethnic community (as opposed to speaking of them as a complex set of communities that challenge the hegemony of categorising people into ethnicities); it is a story which brings forward a singular starting point of this movement (rather than seeing it as the organisational end semantic unification of a number of different revivals); it is also a story that emphasises the non-Romani origin and initial leadership of this revival (instead of focusing on it as an expression of Romani empowerment from its very beginning). One of our ambitions with this volume is to challenge unifying narratives of Romani Pentecostalism by shedding light on the diverse and sometimes contradictory perspectives through which we may approach this phenomenon. ← 11 | 12 →

Previous literature on Romani Pentecostalism

This is not the place to present a comprehensive survey of scholarship dealing with Pentecostal churches and their organisation or of the field of Romani Studies in general. These are two vast fields of scholarship that cannot be summarised in a brief manner. It is, however, important to refer to previous publications about Romani Pentecostalism in particular. Here, the publications can be divided into two major groups: (1) personal confessional testimonies and literature from the group itself and (2) scholarly works.

When it comes to the first category, the foremost English-language classic of the field would be the autobiography of the famous Romani evangelist Rodney “Gipsy” Smith (1860–1947).5 Although he was a Methodist and member of the Salvation Army and hence not a Pentecostal in the strictest sense, his work was also well received in denominations other than his own and is therefore important to mention in this context. More important for the actual focus of this volume, however, is Clément Le Cossec’s own book about his work amongst the Sinti, Manouche and Roma, Mon adventure chez les Tsiganes.6 It has been translated into a number of languages and is widely read even by many Romani Pentecostals as a source to the history of their movement. The works of Joe Ridholls and Sue Locke are also worth mentioning here.7

In addition to these books, there are a number of smaller publications produced by members of Pentecostal congregations and individuals associated with the Pentecostal movement in various countries. Amongst these, the most important are the Pentecostal magazines and periodicals that constitute an invaluable source of information about Romani Pentecostalism, primarily through the eyes of the members of the Vie et Lumière organisation. Of special importance here is Clément Le Cossec’s own magazine, Lumière du monde,8 later renamed Vie et Lumière.9 With several issues per year, this periodical follows the development and work of the Vie et Lumière across Europe over three decades. During his lifetime, Clément Le Cossec also produced other periodicals of a similar character. La Déliverance was published in six issues in 1958, and Le chemin qui mène à la vie appeared with similar frequency during 1959 and 1960. From the late 1960s onwards, Vie et Lumière was also published in English as Gypsy Work or Gypsies for Christ, in German as Stimme der Zigeuner and in Finnish as Elämä ja Valo.10 ← 12 | 13 →

Within academic research and scholarship, there is a dearth of studies regarding Romani Pentecostalism within the wider discipline of religious studies. Despite the breadth of this revival over the past fifty years, Romani groups are more or less “invisible” in most research related to the growth of global Pentecostalism. In the field of Romani studies, studies of Romani Pentecostalism are growing in number, but, as we have already stated, relatively little has been written that explicitly deals with this phenomenon on a general and comparative level. What has been the primary focus are local studies of Romani Pentecostal communities in different parts of the world and most specifically within a range of European countries – the UK, France, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Russian Confederation. Almost nothing in the way of research exists in regard to the Pentecostal Romani communities in Germany, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Austria, Italy and Albania, for example. It might be suggested that the phenomena are studied in ways that relate strongly to notions of national or majority identities. Within the context of studies about the impact of conversion upon differing groups, the suggestion is frequently made that, for certain groups, the process of conversion itself fundamentally addresses ethnic identity and cultural attributes that are described as belonging to such and their alteration as a consequence of a shift in confessional beliefs and practices. Yet, the study of the processes of conversion amongst national or majority populations rarely assumes this to be the case – Swedes remain essentially Swedish (however this may be defined) despite the shift in beliefs in a way that is not true (or asserted as not the case) amongst the Romani groups. A number of chapters in this volume also adopt such a perspective as their starting point.

There is a strong emphasis in certain studies upon the lack of an ethnic-national narrative in order to articulate an over-arching “imagined community”11 and the fragmentation of Roma communities. Implicit here is the notion of a “gold standard” of ethno-national ideology that forms the basis for any “imagined community” that Roma must be measured against and by default are found wanting. An approach that may be more closely concerned with the multiplicity and diversity of Romani identities and communities and what may be learned by non-Roma regarding their own notions of “belonging” – the idea that a recognisable narrative of ethnic-national homogeneity inadequately reflects the situation in multi-ethnic, multi-confessional European nation-states of the present – is clearly lacking in these studies, strongly reinforcing the suggestion that the study of Romani Pentecostalism is itself a product of the concerns around such narratives and their construction in nation-states that experience the process of “reinvention of traditions” and identities.12 ← 13 | 14 →

The French Romani author, intellectual and minister Matéo Maximoff (1917–1999) was probably the first to write about the movement of which he was himself a part, in a scholarly journal. In 1965, he published an article on “The Evangelical Gypsies in France” in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society,13 which marks the beginning of scholarly interest in this movement. However, it was not until the mid 1980s that signs of more substantial academic interest in the field began to show. In 1984, the French scholar Patrick Williams wrote an article on the movement for Études Tsiganes.14 Sometime later, he continued the discussion initiated in this article through publications in Archives de sciences sociales des religions and other journals. Arguing that Pentecostalism activates processes of tradition perpetuation, Williams provided the first attempt to analyse the Pentecostalism of, in his case, the French Manouche from an anthropological and sociological perspective.15 Studies of Romani Pentecostals in different countries with a similar theoretical approach have followed Williams’s work; many of these studies have been written by scholars who have contributed to the present volume.

There are, however, some that were unfortunately unable to contribute to this present publication but whose work should be mentioned here. It is interesting to note that the ritual aspect of Romani Pentecostalism has gained much attention amongst academics; German cultural studies scholar Michaela Chorinsky’s study of ritual performance among Romani Pentecostals in southern France16 and Spanish anthropologist László Foszto’s study of ritual revitalisation amongst Transylvanian Roma17 are particular examples. Barbara Rose Lange’s study of music amongst Hungarian Pentecostal Roma18 and Spanish anthropologist Ruy Llera Blanes’ study of music amongst Gitanos in Spain and Portugal both provide fascinating insights into the role of music in the performative aspects of the Romani Pentecostal churches. Miroslav Atanasov’s research amongst Bulgarian Romani Pentecostals provides significant historical and theological perspectives on the movement.19

Much has been written about Romani cultures and the profound impact that Pentecostalism appears, in many cases, to have had upon them. There are several other scholars who have produced monographs or studies that relate to this ← 14 | 15 → field.20 Suffice it to say that the contributors to this volume – Åberg, Acton, Bernal, Cantón Delgado, Gay y Blasco, Hrustic, Kwiek, Laurent, Marushiakova, Marsh, Podolinská, Popov, Reis, Slavkova, Strand, Thurfjell – together with those authors mentioned above, represent to the best of our knowledge, some of the principal scholars working within this field today.

Upon which aspects of Romani Pentecostalism have these scholars chosen to focus? Arguably, three distinctive tendencies can be distinguished over the course of this volume. Firstly, the focus on ritual and musical practice might be said to emerge in a number of the chapters. The study of Romani religiosity from the anthropological perspective has principally maintained its focus upon unarticulated notions and ritual practices surrounding birth, marriage and funerals. These studies have little to do with any underlying notions of theology or dogma that may or may not exist amongst the members of the community in question. The study of Romani Pentecostalism seems to continue this somewhat overly anthropological trend in many cases. It hence produces little analysis of the structures of beliefs or cosmogonies or of differences in interpretations and understandings of basic texts.21

Secondly, the social constructivist perspective seems to be prominent in much of the work that has been done. Given the fact that many of the scholars belong to the fields of the anthropology or sociology of religion, that is hardly surprising. Furthermore, it seems as if functionalist understandings of Romani Pentecostalism are common, especially those that could be labelled deprivation theories. In the study of religion, such theories have been influential since the 1960s when the American sociologists of religion Charles Glock and Rodney Stark presented a theory of how different forms of human deprivation give rise to different types of religious groups. In their classification system, to take but one example, economic deprivation results in sect formation, i.e. religious groups that define themselves against the surrounding society, whereas social deprivation gives rise to more society-friendly, church-like groups. All in all, they list five types of deprivations and types of religious communities.22 Although Glock and Stark’s typology has been criticised, it appears as if the general notion that organised religiosity springs from a lack of something and hence serves the function of a substitute of some sort remains influential. Needless to say, such an understanding, originally based in a Marxist conception of religion,23 is strongly ← 15 | 16 → connected to a secularist evaluation of religion as something that is ultimately superfluous.

A third trend that can be traced in the work that has been done on Romani Pentecostalism is a focus on identity and empowerment. Many scholars have chosen to highlight the political aspect of the movement, its connection to the social organisation of Roma in the local communities as well as internationally and its contribution to the construction of a united Romani identity or even ethnicity.

The present volume

This volume, being a collection of texts written by scholars who are presently active in the field, reflects these three trends. If the points of focus of this book were to be summarised, it could be said that the predominant perspectives are sociological functionalist on the one hand and deconstructionist with a proclivity towards postmodernist standpoint theory on the other. There is a certain tilt towards focusing on behaviours, relations and gender roles. Leadership structures and authority are also recurrent themes in the texts, as are discussions about and critique of deprivation theory.

The organisational story of the movement, and then especially of Vie et Lumière, is also frequently referred to in the texts.

Despite its common traits, however, the present volume also reflects the diversity of the scholarly disciplines from which the various authors come. The contributors to this book are historians, sociologists, anthropologists and religious studies scholars, and the disciplinary styles of these scholarly communities will become apparent for the reader. There are also visible differences in theoretical and epistemological outlooks. Where some scholars are positioned in a postmodernist tradition in which self-reflection and self-positioning in the text are considered scholarly virtues, others come from academic traditions where such things are viewed as unwanted subjective distortions. In addition to these differences in academic cultures, there are differences in religious and cultural belonging. The authors’ own personal feelings towards religion in general and Pentecostalism in particular may show in the texts. Some authors are Pentecostal adherents themselves, others are practicing Christians within other denominations, and some are atheists who do not sympathise with the Pentecostal or any other church and who are personally critical of religion in general. Similarly, some of the authors are Roma themselves while others are not. As editors, we view this diversity of interpretational, disciplinary and personal stances as strengths, and we have not sought to smooth them over by imposing terminological, stylistic or theoretical coherence throughout the volume. ← 16 | 17 →

The workshop at which the production of this anthology started was founded by Riksbankens jubileumsfond which is a foundation within the Bank of Sweden that funds academic research in the humanities and social sciences.24 Invited to the workshop were all scholars that had published scholarly work on the topic of Romani Pentecostalism. In addition to these, a number of learned persons who are knowledgeable in the field because of their own life experiences were invited. In order to find participants, all those who were invited were asked to suggest other learned people that could be invited as well. In the interests of increasing the diversity of interpretations, there was an explicit ambition to involve Romani scholars and researchers in the discussions that led up to this publication. Although not all those who were invited could attend the workshop, and although not all those who did have contributed to the actual publication, we feel that the ambition to allow for interpretational diversity has paid off fruitfully in the text.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
Pfingstbewegung (theol.) Portestantismus Ethnogenese soziale Mobilisierung Menschenrechte Erweckungsbewegung (theol.)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 268 pp.

Biographical notes

David Thurfjell (Volume editor) Adrian Marsh (Volume editor)

David Thurfjell is Associate Professor in the study of religions at Södertörn University in Stockholm. He has published mainly within the fields of Islamic and Romani studies, amongst others on faith and revivalism among the Kaale Roma in Sweden and Finland. Adrian Marsh has been working amongst Gypsy communities in Turkey, taught Romani Studies and carried out research across Europe and the Balkans. He was consultant for the British Council in Turkey, for the EC Promoting Roma Rights in Turkey project and the Save the Children Sweden’s Europe programme. He continues working in Istanbul and is a Romany-Traveller.


Title: Romani Pentecostalism
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