|Dr. Mihran Agbabian is Professor
Emeritus and former Chairman of the Department of Civil Engineering at
the University of Southern California. He is also the founding
President and President Emeritus of the American University of Armenia.
Dr. Agbabian received his first Ph.D. degree in engineering from the
University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Agbabian has dedicated
himself to the rebuilding of Armenia, which he has visited over 30
times since the devastating earthquake of 1988. He is the son of Rev.
Siragan Agbabian, who served as minister of Armenian Evangelical
churches in Marash, Cyprus, Aleppo, and California. Dr. Agbabian and
his wife Elizabeth are members of the United Armenian Congregational
Church of Los Angeles. The speech below was delivered at the Annual
Banquet of the Calvary Armenian Congregational Church, March 24, 2001,
on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Church.
The Evangelical Dimension in the Armenian Church
Dr. Mihran S. Agbabian
We are here this evening to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Calvary Armenian Congregational Church. The year of the anniversary of your church coincides with the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of Armenia accepting Christianity in the year 301. We all know about this event in the history of the Armenian people. After he was converted by Saint Gregory the Illuminator, King Dertad ordered that Christianity should be the state religion of Armenia. As the people accepted the Christian religion, they built churches where they would congregate for worship.
Christianity is both personal and collective. The church gives us a communal strength, and we receive this strength by congregating in our churches. It is, therefore, an occasion of celebration for the Armenian nation that we have churches throughout the world where the faithful receive their spiritual strength as Christian communities, and they create social relationships that keep alive the Armenian family, the Armenian school, and the Armenian culture.
The role of the Church in Armenian History has been not only the leading of the people to God but also the preserving of the Armenian nation from annihilation. When there was no government or when Armenia was subjugated by other nations, and when Armenian kings and princes were fighting among themselves, the Church kept the nation from extinction. When Armenia was struggling to survive, squeezed between the Roman and Persian Empires, and when the destruction of its Christian foundation was imminent, it was the Armenian Church that protected the people from assimilation.
The author of a book published in 1957, entitled “Highlights of Armenian History and Civilization” has stated his view of who the ten most important persons were in Armenian history. And these are the persons he has selected:
You may decide that your choice of the ten most important personalities of Armenian history are not exactly these same people. But let us agree that the ten persons we have listed are indeed very important personalities in Armenian history. We have to note here that among these ten most important leaders of the Armenians, four of them are religious leaders: Saint Gregory the Illuminator, Nerses the Great Catholicos, Saint Mesrob Mashtotz, and Abbot Mekhitar.
We don’t find many nations who have such a large percentage of religious personalities among their outstanding leaders. Armenia’s survival without its Christian faith and its religious leaders would have been doubtful. The assimilation of the Armenians would have been complete during the Ottoman period or in the Diaspora following the Genocide if it wasn’t for the fact that our Christian faith kept us against all adversities.
Of course, during these difficult years there were many misunderstandings, quarrels, and divisions, and even internal persecutions, but we can say that the people bounced back and found their refuge in the Church. Celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia is also a celebration of the survival of the Armenians as a nation.
The Armenian Evangelical Movement was born from within the Armenian Apostolic Church, and it is a link in the chain that binds us to Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who came to Armenia as Christ’s missionaries, to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, to Catholicos Nerses the Great, to Saints Sahag and Mesrob, to Saint Krikor Naregatsi, and to Saint Nerses Shnorhali. We are not outcasts, because through the more than 150 years of existence we have served the Armenian nation in its spiritual, cultural, educational, and ecclesiastical domains. We have made up for our small numbers by an increased dedication and involvement for the welfare of the Armenian nation.
I mentioned the Abbot Mekhitar who is an example of the leadership displayed by the Armenian Catholic Church. In the Armenian Evangelical Movement the leadership was collective. In 1834 a group within the Armenian Apostolic Church formed a society and called it the “The Society of the Faithful”. Their purpose was spiritual renewal in the Church. The group grew to include 500 supporters from the outer regions as well as from Constantinople. The opposition was strong, and public debates were held where there were accusations and condemnations. The Patriarch, Stepanos the Dove ( “aghavni”, because of his peace loving personality) was in favor of spiritual renewal, but he did not exercise his authority for fear of backlash from fanatical elements in the Church who called the members of the Society of the Faithful heretics. These progressive people, on the other hand, did not hesitate to call the conservative and fanatical persons pagan for not accepting the vision of spiritual renewal that they were offering.
Patriarch Stepanos the Dove was succeeded by Archbishop Hagopos Seropian who went along with the conservatives and harassed the members of the Society of the Faithful, making their existence in the Apostolic Church very difficult.
In 1844, the Church had a new Patriarch in the person of Mattheos Choohajian. Patriarch Mattheos took drastic action to crush the Evangelical movement. He started by expelling priests who were sympathetic to the cause of the Society of the Faithful and he published an encyclical on June 21, 1846 accusing them as heretics. He also exhorted his priests that every year on the same day, June 21, the encyclical should be read from the church altars as a reminder that his parishes should not adhere to this evangelical movement.
Thirty seven men and three women got together for a meeting on July 1, 1846 and declared that they were forming the Armenian Evangelical Church (“Hayasdaniatz Avedaranagan Yegeghetsi”). In 1850, in accordance with the laws of the Ottoman government, the Sultan gave this group the status of a separate ‘millet’ or community with the right to designate an Azkabed, a head person, as their representative. The first person to have this title was Stepan Seropian who happened to be the brother of Archbishop Hagopos Seropian, the predecessor of Patriarch Mattheos who had gone along with the conservatives and had tried to crush the Society of the Faithful.
I find it proof that the Armenian Evangelical movement emerged from within the Armenian Apostolic Church when, by conviction for the need of spiritual renewal, one brother, Stepan Seropian, took the leadership of the movement while the other brother, Patriarch Hagopos Seropian, led the opposition. From our perspective, I would like to add the collective forty Evangelicals as one of the links in the chain of events of Armenian Christianity.
Last September, Elizabeth and I were in Istanbul, together with her sister Grace and her husband Louis Kurkjian. We knew that there were two active Armenian Evangelical churches in Istanbul. On Sunday, we went to the Gedik Pasha church (founded in 1850) where there was a combined service with the Pera Church (founded in 1846). We were amazed to see many young people participating in the worship service. We were told that following the main service in the Turkish language, there was an Armenian service for those who had come from Armenia as refugees. After that service, the church allowed the sanctuary to be used by Moldavian Turks who had also come to Istanbul after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there was also a group of Turkish Christians who conducted religious services.
We went from the Gedik Pasha church to the Pera Church with the Church Council chairman, Mr. Torkomoglu. This was a pilgrimage that we will never forget. It was in Pera that in the year 1846 forty members of the Armenian Church formed the Armenian Evangelical Church. The Pera Church was destroyed by fire at the turn of the century, and it was rebuilt as we saw it. It is still serving the Armenian Evangelical community for an uninterrupted period of 155 years. We went to the basement, and Mr. Torkomoglu showed us carefully preserved pictures of the early leaders of the Armenian Evangelical community of Istanbul. We were overwhelmed realizing that the Pera church was where the Evangelical movement was introduced into the history of Armenian Christianity.
Let me quote here the words of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I, of blessed memory: In his book entitled “And the Boat Moves on the Waters”, in the chapter “Reflections on the Seventeenth Centenary”, he says: “The spirit and eternal values of the past speak to us still. How profound is the ancient proverb that says, ‘From the fires of the past, carry the flame, not the ashes.’ Within the Armenian Church, the seventeenth centenary should be a kind of Pentecost, blazing a trail of renewal for our people. And what about outside the Armenian Church? The answer is clear, we live in an ecumenical age. It would be inconceivable to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the conversion of Armenia without giving it an ecumenical dimension.”
In an ecumenical spirit, His Holiness Karekin I included us, Armenian Evangelicals, in the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s acceptance of Christianity. We join the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches in praising God for watching over our nation during these centuries, and in the year 2001, we rededicate ourselves and declare our faith in Jesus Christ as our savior.
We remind ourselves that the 75th anniversary of the founding of Calvary Armenian Congregational Church is being celebrated the same year when we celebrate the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s acceptance of Christianity. It is also worth remembering that the Armenian Evangelical spirit that started 155 years ago in Constantinople is alive in your church. You have experienced difficult years as well as glorious years. Today you are continuing as the faithful heirs of the Armenian Evangelical movement to live the Christian life that started in Armenia 1700 years ago. Let us continue to build on what we have inherited from our ancestors. “From the fires of the past, carry the flame, not the ashes.”