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 Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian: Հայաստանեայց Առաքելական Եկեղեցի, Hayastaneayc’ Aṙak’elakan Ekeġec’i) is the world’s oldest National Church and is one of the most ancient Christian communities. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, in establishing this church. The Armenian Apostolic Church traces its origins to the missions of Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the 1st century.
The official name of the Church is the One Holy Universal Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Gregorian Church, and this name is not acceptable by the Church, because the true name of Apostolic implies the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the founders, and St. Gregory the Illuminator as merely the first official head of the Church.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is a branch and an integral part of the Universal Christian Church. Until the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) the Christian Church was one. To set the dogmas of this one universal church, and to free it from the heretical nations infesting it in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, three Ecumenical Councils were convened: Nicea in 324, Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431.
In these three Councils the Fathers of the Christian Church formulated the orthodox interpretations of the Trinitarian doctrine, the incarnation and the nature of Jesus Christ, the understanding of the Holy Spirit, the position of Virgin Mary as Theotokes (God bearing) and all other theological points. In these three Councils the theology of the Christian religion was formulated for general usage in a concise form (Nicene Creed). Furthermore, in the last of these three councils it was solemnly declared that any further change, addition or deletion from the Creed or the accepted dogmas should be considered heresy.
The Armenian Apostolic Church accepted and has since strongly adhered to these dogmas and has never deviated from the doctrine set forth in the first three ecumenical councils. Other Churches have seen fit to call additional Councils. The changes suggested and accepted in these additional Councils have not been accepted by the Armenian Apostolic Church which has faithfully and firmly stood on the teachings of the first three councils, as have other Churches, namely the Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Armenian Church today is an autocephalous body, The Church is unique in that besides being a religious institution it is also a national institution inasmuch as almost all of its members are either Armenians or of Armenian descent, and for many centuries has played, in the absence of organized Armenian government, the role of this latter.
The hierarchical organization of the Armenian Church since 1441 recognizes four patriarchal heads, two with the title of Catholicos, and two with the title of Patriarch. The primary Catholical See is in Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia, the universal primary catholicate, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians; The second is a more limited catholicate in Antelias, Lebanon, the seat of the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. Each of these two Sees has its own dioceses, which are under the supervision of an Archbishop or a Bishop. The Armenian Church has two patriarchs, in Jerusalem and in Istanbul (Constantinople). Both patriarchs are spiritually dependent of the mother see of Holy Etchmiadzin, although they have fiscal and organizational independence.
Christianity was preached in Armenia first by the Apostles Thaddaeus and Bartholomew. St. Gregory the Illuminator continued the Christian mission in Armenian so that in 301 Armenia became the first State in the world to declare Christianity as its official religion.
After being founded by Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew in the first century, Christianity existed in Armenia continuously, even though in hiding, until the time of King Tiridates 1II who reigned between 287-330.
Since there was no Armenian literature prior to 406, all church services and the reading of the Scriptures were made in Syriac, and a translator used to interpret the lectures. At the time of Tiridates III, St. Gregory the llluminator came to Armenia from Caesaria, a great center of Greek Christianity in Cappadocia.
St. Gregory began to preach to Gospel openly; this incurred the wrath of the King, who after trying in vain to stop him, jailed him in a dungeon. Some years later when Tiridates became sick, his sister Khosrovidought, who had secretly joined the Christian religion, convinced him that he was being punished for the persecution of Christians and insisted that only Gregory could cure the King’s sickness.
After St. Gregory was freed and brought to the Palace, he prescribed a seven days’ fast and a true repentance. The King was cured, he accepted Christianity and decreed that henceforth in Armenia paganism shall be suppressed and Christianity shall be the state religion of the land. This event took place in the year 301. St. Gregory became the first official head of the Armenian Church. In the early Church the bishops could be married and the succession of the Catholicate was hereditary. The two sons of St. Gregory, St. Aristakes and St. Verthanes, the sons of this latter St. Housik, then Housik’s grandson St. Nersess and his son St. Sahag occupied the Catholical throne in turn.
The first Ecumenical Council of Nicea was called by Constantine the Great in 324; the official Armenian representative was St. Aristakes. In this Council, as mentioned earlier, the Creed was formulated in which is confessed the true Godhood of Jesus Christ. In this Council it was also established the manner of determining the date of Easter, which before that time was arbitrarily observed.
It was St. Nersess (Catholicos 348-374) who for the first time established in Armenia humanitarian institutions, such as hospitals, old age homes, orphanages, special camps for lepers, etc. He also organized religious celibate brotherhood and sisterhood, which were to become later the nuclei of the many monasteries in the country.
The need to keep the Armenian Church free of foreign influence was acutely felt towards the end of the 4th century; at this time the decline of the Arsacid Kingdom began and the political division of the country between the Byzantine Empire and that of Persia became a fact. To this need was added the necessity to conduct the church services in the native language.
It was St. Mesrob Mashtots who first thought of doing something about this situation which eventually led to his development of the Armenian alphabet. The written work in Armenian played a big role not only in making the Gospel understood by the general public without the help of an interpreter, but also gave to it a sense of self respect and a feeling of national identity and let to the opening of many schools and the translation of the Bible and other theological books.
One of the most significant events in Armenian Christianity is the battle of Avarair. Toward the middle of the fifth century, Armenia faced growing pressures from the Persian King Yazdegert II, who had issued an edict bidding the Armenians to renounce Christ and embrace Zoroastrianism. The Armenians remained loyal to their faith, repeatedly refused to disavow Christ. In 451, headed by the commander-in-chief Vartan Mamikonian, Armenians fought against the Persians to preserve their faith. St. Vartan fell in the battle field of Avarair and Armenians were physically defeated. For the next thirty years oppression and resistance followed, until 484 A.D., when under the leadership of Vahan Mamikonian, Vartan’s nephew, the Persian King Peroz reversed course and declared full toleration of Christian faith and the formal recognition and establishment of the Church, in the treaty of Nuarsak.
The following centuries were difficult periods for the Armenian nation: Persian rule (430-634) and later Arab domination (c.654-851). A long line of Catholical succession through the following centuries forms the history of the Armenian Church; in this period the Armenians had to fight many a religious war against incomparably stronger foreign forces that were trying to convert them first to Persian Mazdeism (the war of Vartanantz) and later to Arab Mohammedanism.
In the 9th century (c. 885) with the rise of the Bagratid dynasty there was an independent kingdom of the Bagratids in Armenia, however it ended in 1079. The Church also had a chance to prosper; in this period many new churches were built, monasteries reorganized, many manuscripts were written.
In the eleventh century Armenia was again politically disorganized. There was no central authority; foreign despots from one side and native regal and feudal princes on the other, helped to divide the country in many parts. The Church also suffered with many schisms. At one time there were as many as 6 or 8 Cathololicoses. The legitimate Catholicos was Gregory II, surnamed The Martyrophile, (1065-1105). He went abroad for a long period of time and his absence did not help the matters at home.
At about this time unbearable conditions in Armenia forced many Armenians to migrate toward Cilicia, where more propitious conditions existed.
Catholicos Gregory III (1113-1166) moved the Catholicate to the Black Mountains; a little later, Nersess the Gracious moved it to Hromkla (about 6 miles Northeast of Aintab); from this last place the Catholical chair was moved to Cilicia. This was the beginning of the Cilician See. Later on, when conditions were improved, a desire to repatriate the Catholicate was made known to the Catholicos Gregory IX Mousapegian (1439-1441). The Catholicos did not consent to this proposal, but he suggested to elect another Catholicos for the See of Etchmiadzin. This was done and Kirakos of Virap became the first Catholicos of Etchmiadzin of this second period. This is the beginning of the two Catholicate system which still prevails.
During the tumultuous history of the Catholicosate, she has been relocated over the years in various places up until 1441, where she returned to Etchmiadzin and has remained since. Listed are the locations and the roughly estimated durations of her stay: Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin 301 – 484/485, Dvin 484/485 – 927, Aghtamar 927 – 947, Argina 947 – 1001, Ani 1001 – 1051, Sebastia 1051 – 1062, Tavblur 1062 – 1065, Tsamndav 1066 – 1090, Karmir Monastery of Kesun 1090 – 1116, Tsovk 1116 – 1149, Rhomkla 1149 – 1292, Sis 1293 – 1441, Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Since 1441.
In the medieval Kingdom of Cilicia or Lesser Armenia, there was an independent entity from the end of the 12th century to 1375. In 1281 the Patriarchate of Jerusalem was founded by local Armenian Christians for the preservation of Armenian lands and rights in the Holyland. Following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1461 An Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was established by Sultan Mehmed II, in order to have a leader of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, so that it would be easier to conduct politics towards his Armenian subjects.
During the 14th Century Latin missionaries were active throughout Armenia. In order to preserve the distinct character of the Armenian Church, many Armenian clergymen and theologians defended the doctrines and practices of the Armenian Orthodox 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 Latin missionaries in Armenia did not succeed in converting a substantial number of Armenians to Roman Catholicism, their activities eventually did have significant consequences. One positive was the translation of many Western theological works into Armenian. Another is the Catholic Mekhitarist Order founded by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749) and today having the monasteries in Venice and Vienna. Following some Latin missionaries in 1742 some Armenians broke off to form the Armenian Catholic Church. They were established as the Armenian Catholic community in 1831 and have a Patriarchate of Armenian Catholics in Bzommar, Lebanon.
Beginning in the 19th 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 their activities further divided the Armenians religiously with their recognition in 1846 by the Ottoman Government of a separate Armenian Protestant community. However, the relationship between the Armenian Orthodox Church with both Catholic and Protestant Armenian communities has always been cordial and brotherly.
During the 19th 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 Catholicos Nerses Ashtaraketzi (1843-1851), and Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian “Hayrig” (1892-1907). The former played an important role in the emancipation of Armenians from Persian rule in 1827-1828, as he was responsible for establishing the Nersessian Secondary School in Tbilisi. While the later is best known for guiding the Armenian national aspirations and leading the Armenian people towards taking arms against tyranny with his famous “Iron Ladle” sermon after his return from the Congress of Berlin.
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 collected thousands of folk songs, Armenian as well as Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Another outstanding figure was Patriarch Maghakia Ormanian who made a monumental work called “Azgapatum” in which he compiled and wrote the history of the Armenian Church.
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 “Polozhenye” (administration), 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. It gave a dominant role to the laity in the administration of the Church. However, persecution and martyrdom had become common occurrences in the life of the Armenian nation. A larger proportion of Armenians were massacred by the Turks in the Ottoman during the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-1896 and during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, during which millions of Armenian perished and the millennial Armenian homeland was depopulated. Miraculously, however the Church survived in the new Diaspora through the Catholicate of Cilicia and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In 1930 The Catholicos of Cilicia moved to Antelias, Lebanon, as a way of seeking refuge from possible future oppression from Turkish rulers.
In the Soviet Union the official atheism of the Soviet state placed oppressive limitations on all religious expression and activity. The Church in Armenia continued to suffer under the harsh conditions of communist totalitarianism, especially under Stalin. Nevertheless, Catholicos Vazken I (1907-1994), elected in 1955, was able to make numerous achievements and visits to his flock, and to attend to the restoration of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and other churches. His activities, under tremendously difficult circumstances, prepared the way to the current renewal of the Church and of Christian life in Armenia. This renewal was made possible with the independence of Armenia in 1991.
Today, after the pontificate of Garegin I, Catholicos Garegin II leads our Orthodox life across the world. The mission of the Armenian Church today is the re-evangelization of Armenia and the renewal of religious life in the Diaspora. 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.