The Armenian Church has its origins in the Age of the Apostles. Historical evidence shows two of Jesus’ disciples, St. Bartholomew and St. Thaddeus, preached Christianity in Armenia as early as the latter half of the first century.
For almost three hundred years, Christians in Armenia had to keep their faith a secret. They operated under heavy oppression. The authorities set up Christianity as the official religion of the state in 301 A.D.
Armenian Church History
The concept of Christianity as Armenia main religion of the state was innovative. The church’s patron saint was St. Gregory the Illuminator. The monarch at the time was King Thiridates III. He played an essential part in Christianizing Armenia. It is well-documented that Armenia was the first country to offer formal recognition to Christianity.
St. Gregory became the arranger of the Armenian Church hierarchy. The faithful have called the heads of the Armenian Church Catholicos, a name they still bear. Its origin is from the Greek word Katholikos, which means universal. St. Gregory chose the then capital city of Vagharshapat as the site of the Catholicosate.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, they started to institutionalize the Armenian churches. They also added distinct touches of Armenia to their worship and other aspects of the new church.
Some fifth-century events were crucial to the creation of a distinct Armenian church. This church has a unique identity and culture. Foremost was the Armenian alphabet, created by a monk, Meshrob Mashdots, which enabled the translation of scripture, liturgy, commentaries, history, and theology.
The fifth-century also saw the first blossoming of literature from Armenian writers. Yeznik Koghbatsi’s text, Refutation of the Sects, is an example. A literary golden age followed. Students flocked to centers of Christian and classical education in Caesarea. They also went to Edessa, Antioch, and Constantinople. Others went to Athens and Alexandria. They journeyed to those cities to learn liturgy and the Bible and to prepare Armenian translations of the sacred texts.
They also had to translate the writings of Syrian and Greek church fathers and the classical literature – Latin and Greek – into Armenian. They finished translating the Bible from the Septuagint in a few years. They went on to translate secular books, a process that lasted about two hundred years.
The church reveres these “Holy Translators.” It has since lost some of the Greek and Syrian original works. Their Armenian translations still exist.
Another event that shaped the formation of the Armenian Church was the Battle of Avarayr. This battle was against Persia in 451. It was a defeat for the Armenians under Vartan Mamigonian. Yet, it was the turning point that won Armenians the right to practice Christianity.
Armenian Apostolic Church vs. Catholic
The Armenian Catholic Church is sui juris, which means “of one’s own right.” It follows Eastern rites and falls under the jurisdiction of the Vatican. The Armenian Apostolic Church is distinct from it.
Abraham-Pierre I Ardzivian created the Armenian Catholic Church in the 1740s. He had converted to Catholicism and then became the Patriarch of Sis. Ardzivian created a split, which led many of the Apostolic Church members to profess Catholicism.
The Armenian Apostolic Church came into being in 506 at the Council of Dvin. This church disregarded the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Council had stated that the one person of Jesus Christ contains two natures, one human and one divine. It deemed any viewpoint that was different as heretical.
No Armenian delegates could attend the Council because of the Battle of Avarayr. The battle had concluded only a few weeks before. The lack of participation did not incline the Armenians to agree to the Council’s decisions. They felt that it had not heard their concerns. The reigning emperor was Marcian. He had also vetoed Armenian appeals for help against the Persians.
The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics consider the Armenian Church to be “Monophysite.” It subscribes to the doctrinal opinion that Christ had only one divine nature despite his life in a human body. They consider the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD as the last legitimate one.
Jesus Christ heads the Armenian Apostolic Church. The church also has a spiritual leader, much like the Pope, but on a smaller scale. He is the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is the Armenian Church’s headquarters, located in Vagharshapat. The Church still guides its believers after 18 centuries of existence. It keeps on the bright pathways of achieving the holy mission of the Church – directing people to God.
Armenian Apostolic Church Beliefs
The Church bases its dogma and faith on the Holy Tradition. It also uses apostolic teachings and the written Word of God. The Holy Tradition is the ongoing life of the church from the time of Christ to the present. It is the liturgy and worship, the Bible, the church fathers’ writings, the canons, saints, rituals, and religious art. The church transmits the Armenian faith via the Holy Tradition.
The main statement of faith is the Nicene Creed. It declares its belief in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. It also states its belief in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It describes itself as One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Armenian Church bases its doctrines on these “articles of faith.”
The Armenian Church has seven sacraments, and it venerates the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. In its divine liturgy, it believes that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus, there is a very close affinity between the Armenian and Eastern Orthodox churches.
The Armenians have preserved an ancient and rich Christian liturgical tradition. About 92 percent of modern-day Armenian believers belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church. The membership of the Armenian Catholic Church is also quite large.
Other religious groups include Armenian Uniate Catholics, Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other churches include the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. Then there’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Armenia also has Yezidis, Molokan Christians, Baha’is, and Jews. The country also has pagans who adhere to a pre-Christian faith.
Islam is another major Armenian religion. Most adherents to Islam in Armenia are Kurds and Azerbaijanis. A large number of Muslims fled the country after the first Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, which ended in 1994. The City of Yerevan has the largest Muslim community. It includes Iranians, Kurds, and Middle Easterners.
In 1991 Armenia passed a law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (FRCO). Its preamble declares the Armenian Apostolic Church as “the national church of the Armenian people.” It adds that the church is an “important bulwark for the edification of its spiritual life and national preservation.” Yet, Article 6.17 emphasizes the separation between church and state.
The first three articles of Armenian law guarantees freedom of conscience. It provides for the profession of any faith of the citizen’s choice. Every citizen has a right to decide his or her position toward religion. Citizens may also choose not to profess any religion or manifest their belief through church ceremonies and preaching. They’re free to practice other religious rites.
The Armenian Orthodox Church in the United States
Armenians have faced horrible persecutions over the last 200 years. The first trickle of Armenian immigration to the U.S. was in 1834, mainly high school students. They were in search of higher education at American universities.
Many more fled Armenia in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries. Some went to the United States. These refugees were escaping Ottoman Turkish oppression, especially the massacres of 1895-96. Many settled in Worcester, MA.
Soon, the city had 300 Armenian residents, and they petitioned for a clergyman. They established the first U.S. Armenian church in 1891. By 1897, six Armenian clergymen were serving. The number of Armenian immigrants to the U.S. continued to increase. They often held services in Episcopalian and other churches. The Armenian Church of America became official in 1898.
One of Armenia’s nicknames is the “land of churches.” The country has over 4000 churches and monasteries. It is the home of the oldest cathedral in the world, Echimiazin Armenian Apostolic Church.
There’s also the Zvartnots Ruins, which UNESCO has listed as a heritage site. It was the first circular three-story church. It lasted only three centuries before an earthquake destroyed it.
Armenians later learned to build more stable rectangular-based churches. The new structures could better withstand the shaking of the earth.
The Armenian Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox or non-Chalcedonian family of churches. These include the Coptic, Armenian, Indian Malabar, Syrian, Eritrean, and Ethiopian churches. The original Armenian Church remains strong.
Armenia is an excellent place to practice Christianity because it has always allowed freedom of worship to all faiths and denominations.