was the former pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Chicago,
Illinois, and the former pastor of the First Armenian Evangelical
Church of Glendale, California. He is the former editor of
the official monthly
publication of the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the
Near East, and the past editor of the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America's quarterly publication, The Forum.
versed in the history and literature of both the Armenian
Apostolic as well as Evangelical Churches. This
is the text of the lecture Rev. Darakjian presented at the conference
on "Evangelism" that took palce in conjunction with the 76th Annual
Meeting of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). It
was published in two parts in the AMAA News (November/December 1995 and
March/April 1996) as part of a series of articles dealing with the
Armenian Evangelical Church which were presented on the occasion of the
150th Anniversary of the church which was celebrated in 1996.
Evangelism in The Early Armenian Evangelical Church
Rev. Barkev Darakjian
Evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. The central theme in evangelism should be Christ Jesus, the Son of God, his person and his redemptive work for sinners. Without Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of salvation, and the message of love and unity in Christ, evangelism will soon deteriorate into propaganda for certain religious doctrines, and will end up in proselytism. A person may change his/her religious views, and even become a convert to another faith or denomination under the influence of some religious propagators, and yet not be truly evangelized. Evangelism should not be understood as proselytism, because true evangelism does not recognize denominational boundaries. True evangelism must begin with Jesus Christ, and end up with the sinner’s ultimate surrender to the Savior.
Such a definition and characterization of evangelism will help us understand the nature and the objectives of the evangelism that was undertaken by the pioneers of the Armenian Evangelical Movement during the first half of the 19th century. In this paper we will first present a bird’s-eye view of the evangelistic work done by the Armenian Church, and then we will dwell on evangelistic ventures of the Armenian Evangelical Church until the year 1915, when they were curtailed by the Genocide.
EVANGELISM IN THE ARMENIAN CHURCH
Christianity was an underground movement during its first 300 years in Armenia. Its early converts used to get together to learn more about the new faith and also to hold worship services. It is not known if Gregory the Bartev, who later came to be known as St. Gregory the Illuminator, knew anything about these secret and small communities. However, when the Armenian King, Tiridates, was converted to Christianity through the testimony and efforts made by St. Gregory early in the 4th century, the latter became the first evangelist, the illuminator, and the Catholicos of Armenia. Gregory indeed became an evangelist in the image of the Apostle Paul. He traveled from one town to another, and even to the remote villages in Armenia, and preached the gospel, founded churches, and taught the Bible to the Princes and the courtiers of the King. St. Gregory and the King had one obsession, and that was to win the people of Armenia to Christianity. Gregory the Illuminator carried his missionary torch over to the lands of the Georgians and Albanians (present-day Azerbeijan). King Tiridates played an important role in these evangelistic ventures. Soon Grigorious, a grandson of the Illuminator, was consecrated as a Bishop at the age of 20, and was assigned to become the Primate of the Albanians. Following the example of his grandfather, Grigorious engaged in the evangelistic undertakings, traveling in the neighboring territories in order to win their pagan and unruly peoples over to Christianity. After listening to Grigorious’ gospel of peace and love, the chieftains were completely aghast. “What is this?” they exclaimed. “The Armenian King is plotting against us to occupy our lands! If we should not cheat, kill, and plunder, how are we going to survive?” Then they caused the young Bishop to be dragged to his death tied to a wild horse’s tail.
The next luminary in Armenian church history is St. Mesrop Mashtotz, who became one of the foremost evangelists and the cultural liberator of the Armenian people. With the encouragement and help he received from St. Sahak Partev, the Catholicos, he first invented the Armenian alphabet, and then together with St. Sahak and their disciples, translated the Bible into Armenian, using the Syriac and Greek translations. The translation of the Bible was completed by 433 A.D. The moving power behind this great venture was Mesrop's spiritual vision for his people, that they be able to read the Holy Bible in their own language and become better Christians. This also contributed to the preservation of the Armenian identity in the multicultural (Syriac, Persian, and Greek) and divided Armenian lands. Thus the evangelism that Sahak and Mesrop carried out in both the Persian and Greek sectors, contributed to the religious and national education of the Armenian people. They received Christ’s gospel of salvation in the language they spoke.
It is unfortunate that, in the published stories of the Armenian church to this day, the evangelistic perspective is lacking. We don’t find any reference to the Church’s evangelistic functions. In the three extensive volumes authored by the Patriarch Ormanian of Istanbul, Askabadoum, you find names of the rising and falling Patriarchs and Catholicoi, about their infighting, and their quarrels with the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches on faith issues. However, you do not find any evangelistic or missionary concerns there. This observation, however, should not undermine the value of this otherwise useful publication. Right or wrong, our impression from this work is that the Armenian Church has either failed in its evangelistic calling, or church historians have not considered the issue of evangelism important enough to be recorded. One can argue that the loss of Armenia’s political independence, the ongoing bloody battles waged against foreign invaders, the consequent massacres, and demographic changes had made the Church incapable of doing any evangelistic work. Furthermore, the ongoing ambitions of alien churches, governments, and cults over the Armenian Church have put the Church in a defensive position, struggling for survival. With all due respect to these arguments and the attempts at self-justification, we must not hesitate to admit that there have been no efforts made by the church hierarchy to revive the evangelistic legacy of St. Sahak and St. Mesrob among the Armenian people. Even if there were evangelistic activities in some remote areas, it is most probable that they were not recorded, or, if recorded, they have not been available to the public. It is a greater miracle that Armenian Christianity has survived to this day. Credit should be given to the monasteries and “universities” that were founded and functioned in remote areas where a new generation of religious scholars and pious monks did a wonderful job keeping the Christian faith and passing it on to the next generation. Indeed, we have had many theologians, mystics, writers, historians, teachers, and men of prayer. We should thank God for Nerces the Graceful (Shenorhali), Nerces of Lamprone, Gregory of Nareg, Movses Datevatzi, John Golod, Gregory of the Chain (Sheghtayagir), and others who became like shining stars in the otherwise darkened skies of Armenian church history. Among these the last three churchmen of the 17th and 18th centuries may be counted as evangelists in the tradition of Gregory the Illuminator and Mesrop Mashtotz. All three of them were deeply religious persons with true Christian convictions. They traveled extensively, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they went. However, as we mentioned above, evangelism has hardly been a priority among the concerns of the Armenian Church.
THE REVIVAL OF THE EVANGELISTIC SPIRIT AND THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF ARMENIA
The 19th century has been known as the Great Century of Worldwide Missionary Movement. We must keep this in mind when we think about or discuss the presence of foreign missions in the Middle East, and especially among Armenians. Many of you may have heard those stereotype statements, made by non-Evangelical writers and priests, that “The Armenian missionaries came to Turkey in order to divide the Armenian Church and community by converting the people to Protestantism.” In the first place, the missionaries did not specifically choose the Armenians in Turkey as a target for their missionary enterprise. Second, the missionaries did not belong to a monolithic and hierarchical church body (like the Roman Catholic Church) and were not assigned to overthrow the Armenian Catholicosate and occupy the Armenian churches. In fact, the missionaries belonged to different American church denominations, and their mission was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Third, there was already a revival of the evangelistic spirit among Armenian priests and seminarians when the American missionaries set foot on Turkish soil at the turn of the century. The Armenian Evangelical Church is the product of a religious revival in the early 19th century. This revival brought together a group of people to form the Society of the Pious. Their objective was to raise the Church from its spiritual apathy to implement some reforms through which the Church would be more effective in its spiritual mission. The appearance and activities of the Bible Societies and missionaries was a welcomed coincidence for the members of the newly-formed Pietist movement. These foreign agencies provided them with the necessary tools: Bibles, religious tracts and other publications, and methods of learning, teaching, and doing evangelistic work. The Armenian Church could have contained this new quest and surge of religious reform within the premises of the Armenian Patriarchate. However, its timing was bad in the first place. The Patriarchs in those times, the amiras, and the faithful of the Armenian Church were engaged in a fierce struggle against the incursions of the agents of the Vatican and their Armenian Catholic followers and sympathizers. It began in the year 1700, and lasted until 1831, the year the first American missionary arrived in Istanbul. The Turkish government used these fratricidal struggles to its own advantage, siding at times with the Apostolicals and persecuting the Catholics, and then reversing its policy and persecuting the Apostolicals. Tens of thousands of Armenians from both sides were sent to exile, where many of them perished. All this infighting within the Armenian population came to an end in the year 1831, when the Armenians of Catholic persuasion were given the status of a millet, or “community”, separate from the Armenian Patriarchate. We can understand now the fears of the religious and secular leaders of the Armenian community when some seminarians and a few priests began to attend the prayer meetings and Bible studies led by Protestant missionaries. Apparently the Armenian leaders were unable to distinguish between the Catholic and Protestant objectives and church polities. They feared another division within the Armenian community. Such a division would never have occurred had the Patriarch and the amiras shown more understanding and wisdom, and a spirit of acceptance. Instead, they persecuted the members of the Society of the Pious, and disowned them. Under the Ottoman civil laws, these reformists had no option other than to ask the government to give them a millet status, which the government did. Thus, on July 1, 1846, the Evangelical Church of Armenia was founded with 40 members, 37 men and 3 women. As a church, the Evangelicals continued to evangelize the Armenian people more fervently. As stated above, this new church was the product of evangelism, and it was very natural that it should continue to be an evangelizing church.
THE BIBLE, EVANGELISM AND THE FOUNDING OF THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF ARMENIA
The church reform movement among Armenians began with Bible studies. The place where some young seminarians and priests began to study the Bible was the office of Gregory Peshtimaljian, Principal of the Armenian Seminary for Religious Studies. This school was founded in 1828, under the patronage of the Patriarch, to prepare young men for priesthood and to serve the Armenian Church. Peshtimaljian was considered to be a renowned Biblical scholar of his time who opened the minds and souls of his students to Biblical truths to the extent that they discovered the value of the Bible for their priestly vocation. From then on, the Bible became their point of reference when they tacked religious issues. Nevertheless, these Bible studies became a stumbling block for those who saw the danger in these intensive studies. When the Seminary was closed down, some of the more serious students began to attend the weekly Bible studies held by the newly-arrived missionaries. These former seminarians began to carry Bibles or New Testaments in their pockets, making the Patriarch and other church dignitaries more suspicious. Some of the high-ranking priests began to criticize these new Bible-oriented evangelists. Even their former Principal, Peshtimaljian, advised them to be more prudent. But a few of them would not give up. It was at this time, in 1836, that the Society of the Pious was founded in great secrecy. They were afraid of possible retaliation by the Patriarch and his traditionalist colleagues and amiras. At times, these young evangelists were challenged by the agents of the Patriarch. Debates were organized, held in different homes. They went there fearlessly, holding open Bibles in their hands. Their traditionalist adversaries were silenced when the evangelists brought testimony from the Scriptures to defend their points. They let the word of God speak for them.
The evangelistic campaign of the Society of the Pious gained momentum from the publication of Bibles in classical Armenian, in Turkish with Armenian characters, and in the Armenian vernacular (Ashkharhapar). The newly-organized Russian, British, and American Bible Societies were instrumental in providing Bibles, New Testaments, and selections from the Bible for distribution. The evangelists thus enhanced their activities by disseminating Biblical literature among Armenians all over Turkey and neighboring countries where Armenians lived. The people were hungry for the word of God, and they were nourished by it, especially when it came to them in their own language. We should thank God for our 19th century translators of the Bible along with our Holy Translators of the 5th century, and should pay tribute to their saintly memory for the wonderful work they did in order to save our people from Biblical illiteracy. Missionary William Goodell worked on the Turkish Bible with Armenian characters; Missionary Elias Riggs became the chief translator and editor of the Bible in modern Armenian; The Revs. Mardiros and Stepan Shmavonian, Bedros Amirkhanian, Der Ghazarian, and Kauvme Ablahatian became the translators of Armeno-Kurdish and Kurdish Bibles. Missionary A.H. Dietrich and Deacon Movses translated the new Testament into Eastern (Araratian) Armenian, while Rev. Apraham Amirkhaniantz was the translator of the whole Bible into Eastern Armenian, Azerbeijani Turkish and into many other Caucasian languages. It is interesting to know that Amirkhaniantz translated the Islamic Koran from Arabic into Caucasian Turkish, then had it printed side by side with the New Testament translation, so that a Moslem Turk reader would be able to compare the Christian Gospel to the Koran.
The translation of the Bible into the vernacular was welcomed by the Armenian communities living in Turkey, Persia, Armenia, and in the Caucasus. These Bibles were sought everywhere and there was a new interest in religion and morality. Where there were not enough Bibles, the people would borrow from each other, and would spend days and nights finishing them before they were returned to the owners. It reminded us of the olden times when St. Mesrop and St. Sahak had translated the Bible into Armenian and the Princes and Princesses carried some portions with them and read them during their hunting expeditions. There was great rejoicing over the rediscovery of the Bible along with its reviving messages. The more they studied the Bible the more they were convinced that the church which was in the making should be named the Evangelical Church --the Evangelical Church of Armenia. It is most significant that the Society of the Pious chose this name when they were asked by the missionaries of Congregational and Presbyterian backgrounds during the inauguration service. The name Evangelical emphasized the Bibliocentric nature and character of the new church. It also provided a perspective for its future direction. It is very important for us to keep this in mind. Our evangelical forefathers were not satisfied with a characterization of the church’s polity. Perhaps there were some concerns over the new church’s Armenian identity and therefore an inclination to reject any foreign denominational name. However, it is more plausible that the Founders wanted to emphasize the Biblical foundation of their church. It is not strange that their Manifesto begins with these words, “We, Evangelical Christians of the Armenian nation, believing hat the true foundation and perfect rule of Christian faith is the Holy Scripture alone, have cast away from us those human traditions and ceremonies which are opposed to the rules of the Bible…” I would appeal, therefore, to our churches that on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, we remember this beautiful legacy from our forefathers, and retain the name Evangelical for our churches.
THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF ARMENIA IN ITS EVANGELISTIC ROLE
Having been born of Bible study and evangelism, it was natural that the Armenian Evangelical church would continue to propagate Bible reading and evangelism among Armenians. According to one report, in the 1870’s, 30,000 Bibles were sold to Armenians, and 300,000 Bibles were used daily. Along with the Bibles, religious tracts, brochures, magazines, and books became available in the vernacular. These publications were very popular, and there were instances when a New Testament, a portion of the Bible, or a religious tract would prepare the way for further evangelism, resulting in the founding of a new church. It is beyond the limits of this paper to write about the extension of evangelism, and about church growth among the Armenians in the Middle East. However, according to some sources, in 1914 there were about 150 churches with over 100,000 adherents. The founding Fathers realized that their reform movement could be justified only as a bibliocentric community, and by manifesting the saving power of the gospel in their lives. They testified to their reformed lives by living according to the spiritual and moral teachings of the Bible. Besides the Bible, the following ancillary activities contributed to the growth of evangelistic mission, and consequently, to the spreading of the Evangelical Movement.
The history of Evangelism in and through the Armenian Evangelical Church has not yet been written. This presentation may serve as an introduction to such a work and an incentive to a future historian. I will present here only a sketch of those Armenian evangelists whose evangelistic vision, steadfast faith, and courageous actions have been a source of inspiration to me. Again, I have to limit myself to the formative years of the Evangelical Movement, and only to a few representative figures.
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Movement and the founding of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, let us thank God for all foreign missionaries who shared their evangelistic vision, faith, and means to further the kingdom of God among our people. May God continue to bless us in our evangelistic ventures through the Armenian Missionary Association of America, the missionary arm of the Armenian Evangelical Churches all over the world. May His spirit prepare us to re-dedicate our lives to the commission that Jesus Christ entrusted to us, to go and preach, teach, and baptize people for his glory. Amen.