Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Importance of the Armenian Evangelical Churches for Christian Witness in the Middle East

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Importance of the Armenian Evangelical Churches for Christian Witness in the Middle East

Article excerpt


1. The Origins

On 1 July 1846, thirty-seven men and three Armenian women established the first Armenian evangelical church in "mission chapel" at Pera, Istanbul (then Constantinople). Three groups of people were involved, directly or indirectly, in the rise and development of the Armenian evangelical church. These three were the reformists in the Armenian Apostolic Church, the American Protestant missionaries, and the Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul).

The first important group to play a decisive role in the rise of the Armenian evangelical church was the reformist or "spiritually-awakened" group in the Armenian Apostolic Church. It represented the religious counterpart of the Armenian secular renaissance associated with the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Several factors and forces initiated the changes that provoked the Armenian renaissance. The first and foremost of these was the Armenian Mekhitarist Order. [1] Abbot Mekhitar, an Armenian scholar and clergyman who embraced Catholicism in 1695 and founded the Mekhitarist Order in 1701, became one of the great benefactors of Armenian culture and scholarship. In the process of becoming agents of change, their publications in Latin, French, German, Italian and English brought the Armenian people to the forefront of European thought.

The second contribution to the Armenian intellectual renaissance was the revival of the Armenian press. The first Armenian periodical was published in 1793, in Madras, India, by Father Shmavonian. It marked the opening of a literary floodgate. New papers and books in Armenian began to appear in great numbers. This lively and exuberant age produced an enormous amount of literature.

The third important factor was the opening of Armenian institutions of higher learning. Among these the most noteworthy were the Lazarian Institute in Moscow (1815), the Nersesian School in Tiflis (1824) and the seminary of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul (reopened in 1827).

The fourth force was the influence of European culture on Armenian young people. In the early part of the nineteenth century many young Armenians went to Europe in pursuit of higher education. There they were exposed to a variety of revolutionary movements -- industrial, scientific, economic and philosophical -- that shaped the destinies of the people on the European continent.

These brave souls, members of the Armenian community of Istanbul in the 1820s, were the first to give expression to these feelings. The religious revival in the Armenian Apostolic Church owed its existence to a large extent to the seminary of the Armenian patriarchate of Istanbul. Almost all of the early Armenian evangelical reformers were graduates of the seminary. The reformists became critical of the church and the clergy. They began to criticize openly the theology, rites and rituals of the Armenian church, to the extent that they accused her of losing her original New Testament simplicity and purity and insisted that the church ought to be cleansed of her corruption and the gospel be substituted for "human inventions".

Therefore, the soil was fertile and ready for a religious awakening because this revival of thinking on all fronts suggested a parallel revival in the religious area and braver souls felt the need to revitalize the traditional Armenian church.

In 1836 the reformists established a secret society called "The Society of the Pious" in order to reform the Armenian Apostolic Church. The organization of this society may properly be said to mark the beginning of Armenian evangelicalism. The twelve reformists who organized the society did not think of themselves as members of a new church. For them the reformation was a renewal of the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church. They demanded that the gospel be restored and that the church in Armenia "return to its ancient purity and simplicity". …

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