175th Anniversary of AEC
Celebration of the Armenian Evangelical Movement’s 175th Anniversary is a time to remember the history of the Movement, commemorate the legacy of its leaders, and be joyful about what the reform Movement has stood for. In celebrating, it is also necessary to reflect on the changes the Movement has gone through, particularly in its recent history.
The history of the Armenian Evangelical Movement may be divided into three periods: 1) its inception in the Ottoman Empire in 1864 until the 1915 Armenian Genocide, 2) growth of the churches in the Middle East and North America from 1916 to the turn of the century, and 3) the 21st century. Each of these periods has its own characteristics that define what the Movement represented.
Education Compliments Faith
The first period in the Ottoman Empire is characterized by a desire to gain insight into biblical interpretation and acquire a broad-based higher education that included the sciences. American missionaries, under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, played a crucial role in cultivating Armenian Evangelicals in the reformed faith as well as the prevailing scientific advances.1 This was an education that was based on Western mainstream Congregational and Presbyterian values. As a result, numerous high schools, colleges and seminaries were established throughout Anatolia. In doing so, a future generation of clergy and lay people were prepared to guide the Armenian Evangelical Movement into its post-Genocide home in the Middle East.
The second period stands out as one in which the churches and related educational institutions flourished in Lebanon and Syria because of the governments’ tolerant attitude toward education and the proximity of these institutions to the leading university in the Near East, the American University of Beirut. Armenians studying in high schools, Haigazian College, now Haigazian University, and Near East School of Theology had access to the degrees and courses available at the American University of Beirut. Armenian Evangelical liberal education in these institutions helped Armenian Evangelicals to identify with their past mentors and leaders. Also, the establishment of the Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East in 1921, and the sending out of seminarians and clergy to North America to further their education or serve in the churches, kept the Evangelical Movement’s heritage alive.
In North America, the Armenian Evangelical churches have had a unique history of their own since the establishment of the first church, The Armenian Congregational Church of Martyrs in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1881. Armenian Evangelicals concentrated on the East and West Coasts established their own Unions in 1901 and 1908 respectively, eventually merging to form the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA) in 1971.2 The churches that numbered 20 in the 1970s grew to more than 30 by the late 1990s.
A distinctive feature of the early churches in North America was their vision to establish in 1918 a separate missionary association, the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), to financially assist refugees of the Armenian Genocide.3 AMAA’s mission that started as a refugee focused mission developed into an organization with multifaceted worldwide missions to evangelize, help the poor, as well as establish and support Evangelical churches and educational institutions.
The expansion of church membership under AEUNA and the success of AMAA’s missions gives us the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on our 175-year history. Reflection, when compared to celebration, however, covers a broader timeline that includes not only the past but the present and the future. The situation of the churches in the 21st century, the third period, should be understood to determine what should be done to remain faithful to the Armenian Evangelical Movement’s heritage and secure its future.
Crises of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the 21st Century
The changes that took place in the Armenian Evangelical churches in North America in the late 1990s appeared to be successful in that the number of churches joining AEUNA grew by 30 percent and church membership peaked to more than 5,000 members.4 AEUNA’s “new” program seemed to be moving in the right direction. This altered new program sent seminarians to Fundamentalist institutions in the United States, allowing them to embrace radicalized theologies that opposed those of mainstream Evangelical churches.5 Ultimately, the change of course led to the breakdown of the Armenian Evangelical churches’ belief system. Theological controversies within the churches could not be reconciled, and dissention among congregants escalated, thereby exacerbating church desertions. Within a short period of ten years (2010-2020), Armenian Evangelical church membership dropped by more than 50%, pulpit vacancies grew, and youth participation in the churches dwindled. AEUNA witnessed these events with concern but could not stop the accelerated demise of the churches.
Fortunately, AEUNA acknowledged the crisis and resolved to study the deteriorating situation in the churches by creating a Task Force in December 2019 to develop a 2-year program to “reconstruct” and revitalize the churches. This “congregant oriented” program was to engage the larger Armenian Evangelical Community for ways to “rebuild” the churches. The first phase of the Task Force’s project (Listen and Discover) is proceeding well and will be followed by deliberations to formulate ideas and implement them.6 The Evangelical community is looking forward to the Task Force’s recommendations for “strengthening and uniting” the churches.
Absence of an Armenian Evangelical Theology
In its quest to unite the churches, the Task Force has to clarify, among other things, the theology of the Armenian Evangelical Movement and determine whether it can be used to reform and unite the churches. This clarification should take the form of a new Statement of Faith/Creed for the 21st century. The professed 1846 Armenian Evangelical “Statement of Faith” has obviously not united the churches. It is hoped that AEUNA will take on the arduous task of formulating a new creed.
Rev. Giragos H. Chopourian, Ph.D. addressed the dilemma of an Armenian Evangelical Creed in 1986, on the occasion of the 140th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Movement:
Does the Armenian Evangelical Church have a formulated updated Creed to which one can go for instruction? Technically speaking, the answer has to be in the negative. No Theologian has written on the Theology of the Armenian Evangelical Church. We have no specifically formulated, researched and written creed. That is because the Armenian Evangelical is satisfied by his ability to refer to The Book; and by the facility by which he can refer to the general prevailing Evangelical tenets of the main Protestant Denominations and the Lutheran Reformation.7
As Executive Director of AMAA in 1986, Rev. Chopourian presented this challenge on behalf of AMAA to the Armenian Evangelical churches and the Armenian communities in North America as a ministry of evangelism and teaching. Of interest is Rev. Chopourian’s reference to Armenian Evangelicals’ reliance on “main Protestant Denominations,” intimating that it was time for Armenian Evangelicals to have their own contemporary Creed. Can AMAA today present a similar challenge to AEUNA regarding the crisis in the churches?
AMAA Vows to Provide Spiritual Support to the Churches
AMAA should recall what its founding member, Rev. Antranig A. Bedikian, had to say about the relationship between AMAA and AEUNA in his inaugural address on June 7, 1918:
…Today we may not fully understand the significance of the proposed Missionary Association, but in the near future, I am sure, we will see the glory of the panorama of this organization. One of the avowed goals of this Association is to keep alive the Armenian Evangelical Church. God willing, with our material and spiritual support, we shall strengthen our churches in America, as well as those in the overseas (Italics mine).8
Rev. Bedikian understood the importance of AMAA’s role in the spiritual guidance and support of the churches. This understanding was taken for granted for more than 80 years because AEUNA clergy occupied leadership positions in AMAA. With the weakening influence of clergy in AMAA’s affairs and the increased independence of both organizations, their partnership weakened, and AMAA’s avowed role in the spiritual life of the churches was neglected.
Now that AEUNA has formed a Task Force to rebuild the churches, will AMAA form its own Task Force to examine whether it can play a role in the spiritual revitalization of the churches? Will the combined effort of both organizations to formulate a new creed reverse the deteriorating conditions in the churches?
The experiment of uniting the churches and its leaders “…within an ecclesiastical fellowship…,” as stated on AEUNA’s website, has failed. Instead, the theology of the Armenian Evangelical Movement should be defined and modernized, using it as a foundation to unite the churches. AEUNA and AMAA should partner this effort to articulate a contemporary Statement of Faith, basing it on the theology of past leaders whose ideals we extoll today.
- 1. Missions of the A.B.C.F. in Turkey, Constantinople, 1904. http://www.dlir.org/archive/archive/files/5ce87493859557903aa95cc9918f4527.pdf
- Vahan H. Tootikian, The Armenian Evangelical Church: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Southfield, MI: Armenian Heritage Committee, 1996), 79-80.
- Vahan H. Tootikian, The Genesis and Early Development of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (Southfield, MI: Armenian Heritage Committee, 2018), 43.
- Arthur H. Salibian, Armenian Evangelicals’ Challenge to Religious Extremism: The Growing Influence of Fundamentalism in Armenian Evangelical Churches (CreateSpace, Scotts Valley, CA, 2015), 56.
- Ibid., 11-12.
- https://www.aeuna.org (Vision Project, AEUNA Rebuilding Project, 2022)
- Giragos H. Chopourian, Fundamental Armenian Evangelical Teachings,1989. http://www.muncherian.com/r-giragoschopourian-fundamental.html
- Vahan H. Tootikian, The Genesis and Early Development of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (Southfield, MI: Armenian Heritage Committee, 2018), 40.