Church History

by Michael B. Papazian


Armenian history cannot be understood without an appreciation of the central and vital position that Christianity and the Armenian Church have held with respect to all aspects of Armenian life. The rich history of the Armenian Church cannot be conveyed in just a few brief pages. This short outline of the Church’s history should, however, give some indication of the role of the Church and its relation to the spiritual, cultural, and political achievements and aspirations of the Armenian people.

The Origins of Armenian Christianity

Christianity in Armenia can be traced back to the age of the Apostles. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the first evangelizers of Armenia and, according to tradition, were martyred there. There is historical evidence of the existence of a Christian community and clergy in Armenia prior to the fourth century. The church historian Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260-c.339) refers to Meruzhanes, a bishop of Armenia in the middle of the third century. It was at the beginning of the fourth century, in 301, that Christianity was first proclaimed as the official religion of Armenia. This proclamation was the result of the missionary activity of St. Gregory the Illuminator (240-332). The fifth century historian Agathangelos recounts the works of the patron saint of the Armenian Church. St. Gregory, a relative of the Armenian king Tiridates (c. 238-314), was brought up as a Christian in Caesarea in Cappadocia. The pagan Tiridates had St. Gregory imprisoned for nearly fifteen years in Khor Virab (“deep dungeon”) in Artashat. Several years later, a group of Christian nuns, led by St. Gayane and fleeing persecution in Rome, came to Armenia. King Tiridates was attracted to one of the women, St. Hripsime, who resisted his attempts to possess her. In his anger, Tiridates had the women killed. After the martyrdom of the women, Tiridates was struck by an illness that turned the king into a wild boar. After all other attempts at curing him failed, the king’s sister St. Khosrovidoukht told her brother that only St. Gregory could cure him. Fifteen years had passed since Gregory’s imprisonment in the dungeon so he was presumed dead. But he was still alive and was released from the dungeon. Gregory cured Tiridates and converted the king and the royal family to Christianity. At this time, Gregory had still not been ordained. In 302, he left for Caesarea, which was an important see at the time, where he was ordained a bishop by Leontius, the Archbishop of Caesarea. Gregory returned to Armenia, baptized the king and the royal family, was installed as the first Catholicos, or chief bishop of Armenia, and continued to convert the Armenian people.

Another important event associated with St. Gregory was the vision that he had in Vagharshapat of Christ descending from heaven and striking the ground with a golden hammer. It is at this spot that the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin (“the Only Begotten descended”) was built. Nearby were built the churches of St. Hripsime and Gayane, where the relics of the martyred nuns are kept.

With the support of the royal family, Christianity was able to spread quickly throughout Armenia and within just a few centuries to permeate all aspects of Armenian life and culture. Furthermore, Armenian missionaries were sent among the Georgians and Alans, who also subsequently established their own national churches.

St. Gregory’s son, Aristakes, succeeded his father as Catholicos. Aristakes had been the representative of the Armenian Church at the Council of Nicaea (325). The Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, set forth the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is formulated in the Nicene Creed (Havadamk), which is professed every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. Under Catholicos Nerses the Great (c. 326-373; Catholicos from 353 to 373), monasteries and various charitable institutions were first established throughout Armenia.


St. Mesrob Mashdots and the Holy Translators

Although Christianity expanded rapidly in Armenia, there remained one barrier to the total integration of Christianity into Armenian life. There could not have been a truly Armenian Christian culture if the Gospel could not be proclaimed to the Armenian people in the Armenian language. Thus, the invention of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrob Mashdots (d. 438) in 405 was a decisive and crucial event for Armenian Christianity. Together with the Catholicos St. Sahak I (Catholicos from 387 to 439) and with a number of disciples, St. Mesrob worked on the translation of the Bible into Armenian. The Armenian Bible, one of the earliest translations of the Holy Scriptures, is without doubt an enormous literary achievement. The clarity and richness of its language would continue to influence all subsequent periods of Armenian literature as well as the popular consciousness. Following the translation of the Bible, translations of a large number of religious and theological texts were made. These include the writings of important Church Fathers like Irenaeus, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom. Indeed, some of the writings of the Greek and Syrian Church Fathers have survived only in Armenian versions.

The literary products of the Fifth Century, a period aptly named the “Golden Age,” are not limited to translations. One of the earliest original works of an Armenian author was written by a disciple of St. Mesrob, Eznik of Kolb. Eznik’s book, today referred to as the Refutation of the Sects, is a defense of the orthodox Christian understanding of God in response to various pagan and heretical teachings.


The Persian War and the Council of Chalcedon

The fifth century was critical for the Armenians for two other reasons besides the invention of the alphabet and the translation of the Holy Scriptures. First, in the middle of the fifth century, the Persian king or Shah, encouraged by Zoroastrian priests, attempted to impose Zoroastrianism on all of his subjects, including the Armenians. The Armenians refused to renounce their Christian faith and prepared to resist the Shah’s decree. The Armenians, under the command of the general St. Vartan Mamigonian, met the Persian forces in battle at Avarair in 451. Vartan together with more than a thousand of his soldiers were martyred. Although the Armenian forces failed to defeat the Persians at Avarair, the resistance continued under Vahan Mamigonian, Vartan’s nephew. Finally, in 484, the new Shah, realizing that all attempts to convert the Armenians to Zoroastrianism would fail, accepted the demand of the Armenians that they be allowed to practice their Christian faith freely. The recognition of the rights of the Armenians was formally proclaimed in the Treaty of Nuvarsag in 484. The strong faith of the Armenian people is evident. It would have been easy to capitulate to the Persian demands after the defeat at Avarair. If this had happened, Armenian Christianity may very well have come to an end. But the Armenians now viewed Christianity as their paternal religion, not a superficial aspect of their culture but essential to their national consciousness. It is perhaps as a result of the war with Persia more than anything else that the Armenian Church has become a national church having a vital role in the preservation of the identity and unity of Armenians.

At the same time as the Armenians were fighting the Persians at Avarair, another event was taking place that would have a lasting effect on the Armenian Church, its national character, and its relation with other churches. In 451, the fourth ecumenical council met in Chalcedon, near Constantinople. The Council of Chalcedon was convened to find a middle way between two approaches to understanding the nature of Jesus Christ. The difficulty lies in the attempt to state in a precise philosophical formula the ultimate mystery of the incarnate God, of “the Word become flesh.” (John 1:14). In saying that Jesus is both perfect God and perfect man, we may either emphasize the diversity or the unity of the incarnate God. Those who emphasized the diversity accused their opponents of denying or calling into question the humanity of Christ. Those who emphasized the unity argued that the others failed to account for the personal unity of Christ and in effect split Him into two persons. Chalcedon was supposed to reconcile these two approaches but instead it resulted in a lasting schism in the Church. Bishops at the Council who were supporters of the approach that emphasized unity felt that the Chalcedonian understanding of the nature of Christ conceded too much to their opponents. Thus, they rejected the Council of Chalcedon. The Armenian Church was not represented at Chalcedon, but since Armenian theological understanding of Christ tended to emphasize the unity of Christ’s nature, the Armenian Church eventually formally rejected the Council of Chalcedon at the Council of Dvin in 507. Thus, the Armenian Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, together with the Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syro-Malabar (Indian) churches, all of which reject Chalcedon. The Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church accept Chalcedon. Historically, the rejection of Chalcedon by the Armenian Church has served to emphasize its independent character and to distinguish it further from the Greek Church.

Recently, due to careful scholarship and a more favorable ecumenical environment, theologians have realized that no substantive theological issues divide the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches. Rather, the two sides use different terminology to express essentially the same truth. The schism is more correctly understood as being the result of certain political and cultural differences between the various churches.


The Cilician Period

The See of the Catholicos is not attached to any particular city. St. Gregory and his immediate successors resided at Etchmiadzin but in 485 the See was moved by Catholicos St. Hovhannes Manadakuni (Catholicos from 478 to 490) to Dvin, near Etchmiadzin. The See remained at Dvin until the beginning of the tenth century. From the tenth century until the middle of the twelfth century, it was moved several times to various cities. One of these cities was Ani, renowned as the city of “a thousand and one churches.” Ani contained many of the most magnificent examples of Armenian church architecture. The most extraordinary figure in the Church during this time was St. Gregory of Narek (950-1010). A monk, poet, and mystic, St. Gregory produced a remarkable literary legacy. His masterpiece is the Book of Lamentations, but his numerous hymns and theological writings also exhibit his genius.

As a result of invasions and the deteriorating political conditions in Armenia Major, many Armenians migrated to Cilicia during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In 1116, the See was moved to Cilicia. In 1149, it was established at the fortress of Hromkla, and then, in 1292, moved to Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.

The period during which the Catholicate of All Armenians was in Cilicia was an especially vibrant time for the Armenian Church. There was increased contact and relations with other churches, particularly with the Roman Church. The most famous and influential Catholicos during this period was St. Nerses IV Klayetsi (1102-1173), also called Shnorhali (“the Graceful”). St. Nerses Shnorhali is universally acknowledged as a great ecumenist who engaged in dialogue with both the Greek and Latin churches. He produced a large number of theological and spiritual writings, among the most famous being his “General Epistle,” which is addressed to the Armenian people. He was also a musician and poet, composing many of the hymns still sung today in the Armenian Church.

St. Nerses Shnorhali was the great uncle of St. Nerses of Lambron (1153-1198), who is also widely acknowledged for his deep devotion to and activity on behalf of unity of the churches. He is also the author of one of the best commentaries on the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church.


The Return to Etchmiadzin

In 1375, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed by the Mamelukes of Egypt. The Catholicate remained in Cilicia, but because there was peace in Armenia Major now, many Armenians wished to return the see to its original home in Etchmiadzin. Catholicos Grigor Mousabegyantz, however, did not wish to leave Cilicia. Instead, a new Catholicos, Kirakos of Virab, an ascetic, was elected at Etchmiadzin in 1441. Henceforth, there have been two Catholicates, the Catholicate of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin and the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia. Both Catholicates have their own jurisdiction and have generally cooperated and worked together harmoniously.

During the fourteenth century Latin missionaries attempting to unite the Armenian Church with the Latin Church were active throughout Armenia. In response to this threat to the distinct character of the Armenian Church, many Armenian clergymen and theologians defended the doctrines and practices of the Armenian Church. Among the most notable of these theologians is St. Gregory of Tatev (1346-1410). A gifted teacher and preacher, St. Gregory wrote a number of theological works in defense of Armenian orthodoxy.

Although the early Latin missionaries in Armenia did not succeed in converting a substantial number of Armenians to Roman Catholicism, their activities did eventually have significant consequences. One positive consequence was the translation of many medieval Western theological works into Armenian. Another is The Catholic Mekhitarist Order, founded by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), and today having monasteries in Venice and Vienna. The order is noted for its invaluable intellectual and scholarly achievements and for its role in the renaissance of Armenian culture in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the establishment of a distinct Armenian Catholic community and church in 1831 has caused a lasting and often bitter division among Armenians. The see of the Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics is located in the monastery of Bzommar in Lebanon.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries were also active in Armenia. Protestant missionaries established schools and charitable organizations and exposed many Armenians to the influence of progressive Western ideas. But Protestant missionary activity further divided the Armenians religiously with the recognition in 1846 by the Ottoman Government of a separate Protestant community.


The Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople

In addition to the two Catholicates, there are also two patriarchates in the hierarchy of the Armenian Church. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in 1281. The presence of Armenians in the Holy Land extends back to the earliest period of the Church. Together with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Catholic Franciscan Order, the Armenian Patriarchate serves as custodian of the Christian Holy Places. The Patriarchate also has a seminary that has produced many clergymen who have served and continue to serve the Armenian Church throughout the world.

The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople was established in 1461 to administer the affairs of the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire. This is the same role the Greek Patriarchate had with respect to the Greek community.


Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century, there was a reawakening of the political and nationalist aspirations of the Armenian people. Within the Church there was also a significant spiritual and cultural renaissance. Notable figures in this renaissance were Nerses Ashtaraketzi, Catholicos of all Armenians from 1843 to 1851, and Mkrtich Khrimian (“Khrimian Hayrig”), Catholicos of all Armenians from 1892 to 1907. Catholicos Nerses Ashtaraketzi played an important role in the emancipation of Armenians from Persian rule in 1827 and 1828. He was also responsible for establishing the Nersessian Secondary School in Tiflis, Georgia. Khrimian Hayrig is best known for the “Iron Ladle” sermon given after his return from the Congress of Berlin in 1878, at which the demands of the Armenians had been ignored.

Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935) is another outstanding example of a clergyman who made a lasting contribution to Armenian culture. Komitas studied music at Western conservatories and universities after graduating from the seminary of Etchmiadzin. He collected thousands of folk songs, Armenian as well as Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

Important changes in the administration of the Armenian Church were made during the nineteenth century. After the Russians had taken Eastern Armenia from the Persians in 1828, the Tsar promulgated a statute concerning the status of the Armenian Church. Known as the Polozhenye (“administration” in Russian), the statute placed the Armenian Church in the Russian Empire under the strict control of the Russian government.

In the Ottoman Empire, a National Constitution for the governing of the Armenian community was approved in 1863. Unlike the Polozhenye, the Armenian National Constitution gave a dominant role in the administration of the Church to the laity. Traditionally, the laity has always enjoyed a significant role in Church administration, but the National Constitution further extended its powers.


Twentieth Century

The Genocide of the Armenians by the Young Turks beginning in 1915 had a devastating impact on the Church as well as the nation. Following the Genocide, the fall of the independent Republic of Armenia in 1920, and the subsequent establishment of Soviet Armenia, the Church could no longer function as it had for centuries on historical Armenian lands. Turkey had been essentially depopulated of all Armenians, except for a small community in Constantinople. The official atheism of the Soviet state placed oppressive limitations on all religious expression and activity. Miraculously, however, the Church was able to survive first of all in the new Diaspora through the leadership of the Catholicate of Cilicia and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. After its expulsion from Cilicia, the Catholicate of Cilicia settled in 1929 in Antelias, Lebanon. During the 1930s, Catholicos Sahag II (Catholicos from 1902 to 1939) initiated the establishment of the seminary of the Catholicate patterned after the famous seminary of Armash. Under the leadership of Patriarch Eghishe Tourian, former dean of the seminary of Armash, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem reopened its seminary. The Catholicate of Etchmiadzin and the Church in Soviet Armenia continued to suffer under the harsh conditions of communist totalitarianism, especially under Stalin. Nevertheless, Catholicos Vazgen I (1907-1994), elected in 1955, was able to make numerous pastoral visits both within and outside the Soviet Union and to attend to the restoration of the cathedral of Etchmiadzin and other churches. His activities, which were accomplished under tremendously difficult circumstances, prepared the way for the current renewal of the Church and of Christian life in Armenia. This renewal has been made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist ideology and the restoration of an independent Republic of Armenia.

Today, the Armenian Church, which in 2001 commemorated the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Armenia as the first Christian nation, is at a propitious and critical moment. The election of Karekin I as Catholicos of all Armenians in 1995 marked the first time since the Cilician period that Armenians were able to choose a catholicos in an independent Armenia. With the election of Aram I as Karekin’s successor brought to the see of Cilicia another dynamic and highly educated man actively engaged in the modern ecumenical movement. Karekin I achieved many accomplishments during his short pontificate but his untimely death in 1999 left much of his vision for the Church unrealized. The election of Karekin II as Catholicos of All Armenians in 1999 offers the promise that a young and greatly respected leader will be able to fulfill that vision. The mission of the Armenian Church today is the reevangelization of Armenia following its emancipation from coercive atheism as well as the renewal of religious life in a Diaspora that is increasingly threatened by materialistic and secular influences. The mission today to integrate all aspects of Armenian life with the Gospel remains fundamentally the same as that of St. Gregory the Illuminator at the Armenian Church’s beginning.