Karl V. Avakian (1936-2010) was born in
Alexandria, Egypt. He is a graduate of Tabor Bible
College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary,
Fresno, California. He has served as Director of Christian
Education at Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church, Fresno,
California, and as pastor of the Armenian Presbyterian Church, Paramus,
New Jersey. He has served as Moderator of the Armenian
Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA), as a board member of the
Armenian Missionary Association of America, and as a member of the
Armenian Evangelical World Council. In 1990 Rev. Avakian began
service as the Minister to the Union of the AEUNA. Serving in
that capacity, in 1996, he shared the below historical overview of the
Armenian Evangelical Church.
The Armenian Evangelical Church 1846-1996
An Historical Overview
Rev. Karl V. Avakian
The Armenian Church though 1846
The Christian Church began on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 1:12-15; 2:1-4), when the followers of Jesus, responded to the call of radical discipleship through the power of the Holy Spirit, including Peter who preached about repentance and the Kingdom of God, and over 3,000 believed. The apostles and disciples responded to the commandment of Christ, to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19-20). According to Armenian Church tradition the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholemew preached the Gospel in Armenia (35-60 A..D.). According to Eusibius, a letter written by Dionysius of Alexandria in 254 A.D. mentions the brethren in Armenia. Therefore, a Christian community was in existence in Armenia before the time of Gregory the Illuminator.
The early Armenian Church under Krikor Lousavoritch and specially under Catholicos Sahak and St. Mesrob was evangelical and a witnessing Church.
King Drtad accepted Christianity, and declared Armenia a Christian nation between 301-303 A.D. This is attributed primarily to the evangelistic efforts of Gregory the Parthian (Krikor Lussavoritch), recognized as the first Catholicos of All Armenians. From 391-414 A.D. the encouragement of King Vramshabouh, and the leadership of Catholicos Sahak and St. Mesrob ushered in a new era. St. Mesrob, evangelized the Armenian territories and the neighboring states of Georgia and Azerbaijan; he preached the Gospel, invented the alphabets, and translated the Scriptures to Armenia, Georgian and Alan (Azerbaijani).
The early Armenian Church responded to the call of discipleship.
Jesus' teaching about discipleship, including martyrdom, was realized in the lives of Gregories, (grandson of Gregory the Illuminator) bishop of the Alans, in the hands of the Mazkats people, Vatche Mamigonian, Vartan Mamigonian, their fellow princes, soldiers and many others.
In the Armenian Church from the Middle Ages to the 19th century the study of Scriptures and education were confined to the monasteries such as Datev, Nareg, Aghtamar, and the Mekhitarist center in Venice. There were also the following individual "shining lights" whose contributions stand out: From the 11th to the 14th centuries, Nerses Lampronatsi, Nerses Shnorhali, Krikor Datevatsi, Movses Datevatsi; in the 18th century, Patriarchs of Istanbul, Galot Hovhannes, who is known for his emphasis on an personal involvement in evangelism; and Hagop Nalian, who also encouraged evangelism, and opened a seminary in Istanbul which was destroyed by fire.
From 1000-1300 A.D. Armenia was constantly over-run by her neighbors because of her strategic location. The invasion of Armenia by the savage Seljuken Turks, the Tartars, and Tamarlene; three hundred years of wars on Armenian soil between the Persians and the Ottoman Empire reduced Armenia to a fragment of the original landscape. Throughout these trying times the Armenian Church was the unifying element- the "defender of the faith and the nation".
THE ARMENIAN EVANGELICAL CHURCH
The Evangelical Movement in the Armenian Apostolic Church existed long before the 19th century. Reform movements in the 19th century Armenian Church were evident in Shushi and Shamakh, cities of Karabagh (1821); in the Jerusalem Monastery of St. James, in 1824 by two priests; in Constantinople (1835-40); and in Vagharshabad (Etchmiadzin) Armenia (1850).
The 19th century spirit of enlightenment, and the pietistic movement within the community of the Patriarchate of Istanbul resulted in requests for spiritual reform. Enlightened leaders-lay and clergy-felt the need for educated clergy. The church was ill prepared to meet the challenge. The establishment of a seminary, headed by Krikor Peshtimaljian was a step in the right direction, but not supported by the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Therefore, the Evangelical Church of Armenia was organized in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 1, 1846. The request by the Armenian Evangelical Church to have official community status was granted by the Turkish government in 1850 as the "Portestant Milleti." This was necessary in order to trade, to marry, to bury the dead, etc. The arrival of American Missionaries in Turkey (1831) to evangelize moslems, resulted in contacts with Armenians interested in Bible study, and the translation of the Bible into the armenian vernacular, thus accelerating this process.
The Armenian Evangelical Church responded to Christ's call to discipleship. The Armenian Evangelical Church reinstated basic spiritual and biblical values-the teaching of repentance, rebirth, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, even unto death. In the early 20th century, from the Armenian Evangelical ranks, 35 pastors, 30 preachers, 20 professors, as well as a host of witnesses, were among the well over one million Armenians martyred, victims of genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government.
An example of radical discipleship: Rev. Nazareth Heghinian was a graduate of the Central Aintab College and the Marash Theological Seminary. He left his wife and two daughters to further his seminary education for three years in Edinborough, Scotland. On his return he was imprisoned by the Turkish government as a spy, condemned to hard labor for five years. When two years later Turkey became a constitutional monarchy he was released. He returned to the Azdere church in Marash, where he had pastored prior to his departure to Scotland. The reunion with his family was short lived. On his way to the 1909 Adana Armenian Evangelical Church Conference, he was martyred with 21 other pastors. His third daughter, born after his death, who moved to New Jersey with her family, turned over the hand-written biography by her mother (a college graduate). In her biography, Mrs. Heghinian overwhelming concern is to return to Turkey and preach the Gospel to the Turks. Her dream would not be realized because of her death at the age of 36.
In the years 1846-1910, the numbers of Armenian Evangelicals grew by leaps and bounds. Reasons for the rapid growth included the belief and practice of the priesthood of all believers; businessmen witnessing on business trips, "Bible women' leading Bible studies. Thus cell groups led to house churches, and ultimately to the establishment of churches.
The Armenian Evangelical Church has been a teaching church. The introduction of Sunday Schools, Bible Studies, the emphasis on biblical and secular education are well known. In the early 20th century there were 47 secondary schools, seven colleges and three seminaries. Today in Lebanon and Syria, there are 13 secondary schools, High schools, and Haigazian College. In the United States the Merdinian School in Sherman Oaks, California, and the St. Sahag & Mesrob Schools in Pasadena, California are two schools under the leadership of Armenian Churches of the evangelical tradition.
The Armenian Evangelical Church has been a caring church. The Armenian Missionary Association of America was organized in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1918, by the Armenian evangelical Union of the Eastern States, and later joined by the Armenian Evangelical Union of California, to help out the victims of the genocide suffering from poverty and despair. Today, the monistry rendered worldwide, in particular to independent Armenia is a remarkable testimony to the commitment of the Armenian Evangelical community worldwide. In recent years the Armenian Missionary Association of Canada has also carried on a caring ministry.
The Contributions of Missionaries to the Armenian nation. When the American missionaries arrived in Turkey in 1831 to evangelize moslems, contacts were established with members of the Armenian community. These were individuals dedicated to the propagation of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. They were highly intelligent, educated and gifted individuals, willing to leave their homes and travel to unknown lands; willing to study Turkish, Arabic and Armenian; to read, speak and write in all three languages; they were even willing to be martyred on the mission field, as some did.
We are as a people indebted to the tremendous contributions of the missionaries. The translation of the bible into the Armenian vernacular; the publication of Christian literature: books, periodicals and tracts was spearheaded by the Bible House. The establishment of schools-elementary, college, and seminary; the establishment of orphanages and the Near East Relief Society, following the genocide of our people cannot be overlooked.
The Contributions of the Armenian Evangelical Church to the Armenian Nation. 1) The reintroduction of basic disciplined spiritual life-repentance, rebirth, the Lordship of Jesus Christ and moral responsibility. 2) The translation of the Bible into the vernacular by missionary Elias Riggs and Armenian linguists, and later Sarkis Hovhanessian and Gostanian; the preparation of a grammar (and syntax) text in the western Armenian; and the use of the Bible among the laity. 3) The publication of Christian literature: books and periodicals and tracts. 4) Education-Kindergarten through college and seminary. 5) Christian Education and nurture. Children and adult programs through the Sunday School and youth groups. 6) Freedom and individuality. The priesthood of all believers. 7) Involvement of the laity in the church. 8) The increased opportunities for women in education and the church. 9) Evangelism through preaching, teaching and distribution of devotional literature.
Armenian Evangelical Unions worldwide today. The Armenian Evangelical Union of France (1924); the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America - AEUNA (1971); the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East-UACNE (1924); Union of Evangelical Churches in Armenia (1995) there was an Armenian Evangelical Union of Ararat in 1914; Armenian Evangelical Union of Eurasia, (Armenia, Bulgaria, Caucasus, Georgia) (1995); Union of Armenian Evangelical Unions in Bulgaria (1995).
Armenian Evangelical Churches and Fellowships worldwide today. Today there are 88 Armenian Evangelical Churches worldwide in the following countries: Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, England, France, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Uruguay, and the United States of America.
The Armenian Evangelical Union of North America. The Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA) was organized at a Constitutional Assembly, October 6-10, 1971, at the Armenian Congregational Church in Southfield, Michigan. This was the merger of the Union of the Eastern States (1901), and the Union of California (1908). The Canadian churches joined starting in 1960. The first Armenian evangelical Fellowship in the United States was established in 1882, in Worcester, Mass., and incorporated as a church in 1892. In 1960, the First Armenian Evangelical Church in Canada was established in Toronto, Ontario.
In 1956, there were twenty-six Armenian Evangelical churches in the United States. In 1996, there are twenty-three churches. Nineteen in the United States, and four in Canada. There are also two fellowships in the United States. Throughout the years socio-economic changes - individuals and families moving in search of better jobs, the availability of better transportation methods, the lack of strong ministerial and/or lay leadership led to mergers and closures of ten churches. In January, 1963, the Gethsemane, Masis, and San Fernando Valley churches, all in Los Angeles County, California, merged to form the United Armenian Congregational Church of Hollywood to better serve the needs of the community. The Methuen and Haverhill (Massachusetts) churches dissolved, and many of the members joined the Ararat Armenian Congregational Church of Salem, new Hampshire. The Bethany Church inn Oakland, Northern California; the Fowler, Parlier, Kingsburg, and Yetem churches in central California, also dissolved. The members of the latter three rural churches, in general, joined the First Armenian Presbyterian, and the Pilgrim Armenian Congregational churches of Fresno. There was one withdrawal. The Bethel Presbyterian Armenian Church in San Francisco withdrew from the fellowship of the Armenian Evangelical Union.
There have been positive trends. Six new churches and two Fellowships have joined the AEUNA: The United Armenian Congregational Church of Hollywood, the Armenian Evangelical Church of Hollywood, the St. Nareg Church of Montebello, the Armenian Evangelical Church of Toronto, the Armenian Evangelical Church of Cambridge; the Armenian Evangelical Church of Montreal, and the First Armenian Evangelical Church of Montreal, Canada; Two fellowships-the Armenian Christian Fellowship of Orange County, and the Armenian Evangelical Fellowship of Glendale. The ACFOC has become self supporting. There are possibilities of starting two new churches. Some churches with strong leadership, possessing vision and commitment, and pursuing an aggressive program, prospered. The re-emergence of ethnic pride, beginning in the l960's; the influx of Armenian immigrants in the l970's and l980's; the vision to establish new churches; renewed emphasis on Bible Study and Evangelism; and effort to have a better informed and educated laity, as well as qualified personnel for the youth and educational programs of the church; new opportunities for mission in Armenia and beyond, will continue to bear fruit.
Ministry to new immigrants. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Hollywood, and the Armenian Evangelical Social Service Center (AESSC) in Hollywood, the New Direction for Armenian youth through the Hollywood Church, and recently an AESSC extension office in Montebello, and other missions were started to meet the needs of the community. The Armenian Evangelical (Merdinian) School in Southern California, and the Armenian Evangelical Camping Program (Camp Arev) in Frazier Park, California, render much needed ministry to out churches, including programs for newcomers.
Several churches ministering to the needs of newcomers have experienced revival and growth. Some churches have very active Saturday Armenian schools, where many children attend from within and outside of the church, and new families are helped spiritually and socially.
In one church there is a special ministry for newcomers. At early Sunday morning services over 100 attend. There are weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings;; finding jobs and housing; providing financing for buying houses are other services rendered. A worker has been hired for this ministry. In another church a new program was started to work with youth at risk in the Los Angeles area. In a West Coast Church, a Family Life Center was financed by a couple, who, touched by the sermon of their pastor on outreach, donated two and a quarter million dollars. The Center is being used for spiritual, physical, as well as recreational outreach, for the Armenian and non-Armenian communities.
The daily ministry in our churches goes on. In one church, a family was struggling with their son. Through the ministry of the church, the AEYF, and the power of the Holy Spirit, there was healing a reconciliation in the family. In another situation, a 72 year old grandma was led to the Lord following a Sunday morning sermon. Her granddaughter accompanied grandma down the aisle for a public testimony and prayers.
Youth projects and city wide ministries. AEYF East Coast youth ministries have included groups of young people refurbishing or repairing churches under the direction of volunteer professionals from one to two week periods, and directing youth and children's ministries; four churches on the West Coast taking youth groups on organized trips to Mexico during Easter vacations the past six years, helping with building projects, as well as ministering to children and youth; volunteers going to Armenia to help for short term projects organized by the AMAA.
THE ARMENIAN EVANGELICAL CHURCH INTO THE 21ST CENTURY. In the introduction of a historical/pictorial booklet on the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the United States, and the Armenian Missionary Association of America, written in 1958, the late Rev. A.A. Bedikian makes the following observations:
"Our churches in this land are few. We are not strong in numbers. And then also we are torn between two loyalties, because of national ties, on the one hand, and denominational ties, on the other. We are at once both part of a small fellowship, bounded by our own churches, and of a much larger fellowship, bounded by the Congregational Christian Churches, now, de facto, the United Church of Christ. The question we must face is: Will the smaller fellowship of our churches be eventually integrated into the larger fellowship? It may… In my judgment it is wrong to underestimate the value of our national heritage and to treat it light-heartedly. In stronger terms, it is a betrayal of our national history of sixteen centuries written in the blood of countless martyrs… Changing conditions are no excuse for erasing the inscriptions above our churches that stands as a vow to keep the Armenian Evangelical Church typically and faithfully Armenian… We are not to grow as just a "church" or any other church, but grow as an Armenian church.
Today, in 1996, there are those who see the need for an Armenian Evangelical denomination, to change the name of our churches to Armenian Evangelical Churches, and the need to disassociate ourselves from the united Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. There are also those who question the biblical validity for an ethnic church; the raison d'etre of the Armenian Evangelical Church; others wonder how long the Armenian Evangelical Church will survive? The general consensus is to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to hold on to our Armenian identity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 100 Armenian Evangelical churches. Today there are 88 Armenian Evangelical churches, large and small, worldwide; with Armenian Evangelical Fellowships in Cyprus, England and the United States of America. Even if we add to this number the brotherhood, brethren, Pentecostal and other churches, growth has been slow.
At a recent three hour seminar on Church and Society, global statistics presented were very discouraging. There was a serious concern of who we are becoming, in contrast to what we should become. The conclusion was that when the future is created by visionary leaders, instead of anxiety, fear, frustration and suspicion, we experience anticipation, hope, imagination, and trust, gain a global identity and consciousness, and reach out beyond ourselves.
The Armenian Missionary Association of America established in 1918, has grown from strength to strength. Today it is involved in a wide range of ministries worldwide: healing, teaching, and caring in nineteen countries. The Armenian Evangelical Community has, through the AMAA gained a global identity, become a source of blessing, and in the process experienced the truism that "it is more blessed to give than to receive."
If we rededicate ourselves to the command of Christ, take up our cross and follow Him, to "go and make disciples of all nations," through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will allow ourselves to be exposed to the heartbreaking conditions of our world, starting in our immediate communities, in Armenia and beyond. Let every church participate in evangelism, social action and social work, reaching out to the spiritual and physical needs of the immediate community…and with the AMAA the needs of those beyond our shores…then the Armenian Evangelical Church will recognize the tremendous challenges as opportunities and continue to become the means of God's grace and wisdom; a witnessing, equipping and a caring Church into the 21st century… and we will be described as "having been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13); that we love one another; that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and speak the word of God with boldness; that we "turned the world upside down" for Christ (Acts 17:6)… And from generation to generation we will recount His praise!