The Evangelical Church of Armenia in Eastern Armenia: History at a Glance
By Pastor Aram Babajanyan*
When we think about the formation, history and the course of the Evangelical Church of Armenia (ECA), we first go back to 1846, Constantinople (Turkey), Pera district. We mark this crucial year and the next decisive period of almost two decades. We remember the establishment and the flourishing of the ECA in Western Armenia before the Armenian Genocide with great pride. In particular, we remember our four unions with their many churches and educated clergy. We remember our remarkable spiritual, educational, enlightening and public service. We remember many schools, colleges, theological seminaries and other institutions established by the Armenian Evangelical Church. We remember our patriotic mission in almost the whole territory of Western Armenia. However, next to Western Armenia, we must mention Eastern Armenia and emphasize that the ECA in Eastern Armenia was formed, developed, spread and organized almost parallel to Western Armenia.
The History of Armenian Evangelicalism in Eastern Armenia
In Constantinople and Eastern Armenia, the Evangelical movement did not appear all of a sudden. It was directly connected with the social, cultural, ideological, educational and scientific awakening in the region. Both the higher awareness of human rights and the freedom of speech, thought and expression created a new generation of intellectuals. The young, educated and enlightened members of the society, who received their education in the European universities and in the Russian Empire, generated new qualities and ways of thinking and presented new challenges to the larger community. This influenced the spiritual life, public perceptions and of course the church. Thus, the birth of Evangelical ideas and movement in Eastern Armenia was directly related to this.
The Evangelical movement in Eastern Armenia started in the early 19th century. However, it should be noted that in contrast to the Western Armenian reality, where in mid-19th century the ECA was officially recognized as a separate religious community by the State, the Russian government in Eastern Armenia did not officially allow the activities of Evangelical preachers and there was no officially recognized religious community until the early year of 20th century.
Although the government banned the activities of Armenian Evangelical preachers, underground Evangelicalism gradually began to grow, develop and give birth to the first local Armenian Evangelical communities. Already in the mid-19th century, there were Armenian Evangelical communities in Yerevan, Vagharshapat, Alexandropol, Kars, Tbilissi, Baku, Batumi and Sukhumi. In the 1820-1890s, the center of Armenian Evangelicalism in the Caucasus was Shamakhi and Karabakh. The Armenian Evangelical schools of Shushi, Shamakhi and Tbilissi (Georgia) were very popular in Transcaucasia. The Swiss missionaries, who promoted the Armenian Evangelical movement in Shushi, received permission from the tsarist government in 1823, settled in the city and began their Evangelical activities. From the end of the 19th century and especially in the beginning of the 1900s, Yerevan became the center of Evangelicalism in Eastern Armenia.
In 1914, the Armenian Evangelicals of Yerevan province submitted a petition to Vorontsov-Dashkov, Governor of Caucasus, to be recognized as the “Armenian Evangelical Ararat Community.” Instead, respecting their request, he formally ratified it in one of his letters (Jan. 31, 1914, N 4150). That year the Armenian Evangelical Ararat Union was formed, the center of which was Yerevan. The Union included Armenian Evangelical Christians from the former province of Yerevan and was fully formed, organized and operated by local Armenian Evangelical leaders. It became the most influential and largest Armenian Evangelical Union in the Caucasus. The formation and organization of this Union helped Western Armenian Evangelicals who migrated to the Caucasus after World War I, as well as the American Board Missionary Society, which operated in the Caucasus in 1916, and later the Near East Relief. The Ararat Union unified the Armenian Evangelical communities of Yerevan, Vagharshapat, Alexandropol, Kars, Nor Bayazet and their surrounding villages. The Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian Evangelicals experiencing difficult times merged and formed a strong and qualitatively new Union in Armenia.
At the formation of the Ararat Union, the Chairman of the Union was Rev. Vahan Mikaelyan, who was a graduate of Etchmiadzin Seminary. In 1893, Rev. Mikaelyan was invited to Tabriz and taught for 10 years at the local American Missionary Memorial School while preaching at the ECA in Tabriz. He returned to Yerevan in 1903 as Pastor of the local Armenian Evangelical Church. During this time the American Relief Committee for the Middle East began its charitable work in the Caucasus. The American Relief Committee in its humanitarian ministry started cooperating with Rev. Mikaelyan and with other Evangelical pastors, such as Rev. Hakob Mudoyan and Pastor Nariman Nikoghosyan. Rev. Mikaelyan, due to his experience and organizational skills, soon gained a great reputation and influence among the leaders of the Armenian Evangelicals in Yerevan, Kars, Alexandropol, Tabriz, Tbilissi (Georgia) and with the American Relief Committee.
Evangelical Church of Armenia during the Years of First Republic of Armenia
In 1918, with the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Armenia on May 28, and despite the hard conditions of the newly created and weak statehood and political, social and economic alarms, the Armenian Evangelical churches entered a new period of unique history. The migrating Western Armenian Evangelicals gave new importance to the evangelical work in Yerevan, Alexandropol and other places. In 1919, there were eight organized churches in Armenia and many experienced Armenian Evangelical pastors, preachers and evangelists. The number of Armenian Evangelicals in Armenia was about 3,000, and in the whole Transcaucasia about 3,500-4,000. Almost all communities had their own churches or fellowships, Sunday schools and ordained pastors. One of the most famous Evangelical figures of the Ararat Union during the early years of the First Republic was Rev. Hakob Mudoyan who was born in the village of Ishkhanigom in the Hayots Dzor region of Vaspurakan. He was the secretary of the central council of the Ararat Union. In 1915, he took part in the heroic battle of Van-Vaspurakan and also organized and led the self-defense battles of Hayots Dzor. Rev. Mudoyan held responsible positions on the Near East Relief Committee and the Etchmiadzin Brotherhood Aid Committee, chaired by Hovhannes Tumanyan.
Middle East Relief Committee and its cooperation with Evangelical Church of Armenia
In 1916, the Middle East Relief Committee (American Near East Relief) began its humanitarian and charitable ministry in Eastern Armenia. The American Relief Committee began serving the Armenian people by opening orphanages, hospitals and schools. However, they were new to Eastern Armenia and unfamiliar with the local people, their culture, psychology and many peculiarities. The Relief Committee started looking for someone to lead them. Someone who would be well informed, aware of the situation and trustworthy.
They found Rev. Hakob Mudoyan and he was invited to work for the Relief Committee. Rev. Mudoyan, who had previously worked with them in Van for many years, knew their pro-Armenian spirit, resigned from his work and accepted the offer. The goal was the same, the work was the same, only the means were changing. The Brotherhood Aid Committee of Etchmiadzin did not oppose Mudoyan’s decision, on the contrary, it appreciated his dedication and granted him a certificate proving and evaluating his service.
The American Relief Committee then began its vast, vital service to the Armenian people in Eastern Armenia. It was a non-political, charitable organization founded by the United States Congress. In April 1919, an agreement was signed between the Government of the Republic of Armenia and the Relief Committee according to which as of May 1, 1919 all Armenian orphanages and children’s hospitals in Armenia and Georgia were transferred to the American Relief’s care and leadership. Alexandropol became the largest orphanage in the world, it was a home to about 30,000 orphans. According to the statistics of the Relief Committee, under its care in 1919-21 there were 75 orphanages and 10 hospitals. In his June 27, 1919 report, Artak Vardapet, interim Leader of Kars diocese, wrote: “American Relief by taking care of the orphans of Yerevan, Alexandropol and Kars, saves the lives of thousands of orphans.” After the establishment of Soviet government in Armenia, the Relief Committee continued its ministry for several years. Beginning in 1923, the Soviet government started restricting the Relief Committee’s activities, and finally on January 1, 1931 it was completely stopped.
During the years of the Relief activity, besides Rev. Mudoyan, many other Armenian Evangelical figures, pastors and preachers worked closely with the Relief Committee. Leaders and figures such as Rev. Arsen Keorkezyan, Tigran Abeghyan, Rev. Hovhannes Bznuni, Rev. Titos Manukyan, Abraham Melik-Janyan, Tsolak Papikyan, Mushegh Sahakyan, Rafael Melik-Adamyan and many others. The diligent Armenian Evangelical spiritual leaders were very helpful ministers and figures in the Relief Committee by taking responsible positions of counselors, overseers, preachers, evangelists, translators, and staff in orphanages and hospitals.
Armenian Evangelical Eastern Armenia Intellectual Figures
It is worthy to remember that the ECA pursued its own educational development immediately after starting its service in Eastern Armenia. The development of education, mental and intellectual progress, enlightenment, and the adoption of progressive views and ideas have always been the focus of the Armenian Evangelical Church. Proof of this are the Armenian Evangelical intellectuals who entered the field of Armenian reality in the middle of the 19th century before the formation of the Republic of Armenia. Along with Rev. Vahan Mikaelyan and Rev. Hayk Mudoyan, it is worthy to mention other spiritual, educational, scientific and public figures and activists who made a great contribution and left a significant mark, especially in the Eastern Armenian reality, such as Abraham Amikhanyan and Sedrak Tarayan.
Evangelical Church of Armenia during the Soviet Period
On December 15, 1923, the government of Soviet Armenia officially recognized the Armenian Evangelical Ararat Union and registered the constitution of the Union. In the 1920s in Soviet Armenia, there were 15 Armenian Evangelical ecclesiastical communities recognized by the government, and 15 places where religious meetings were allowed. Despite the fact that in 1923 the Soviet government officially recognized the Ararat Union, by the end of the 1920s authorities began to intensively obstruct the activities of Armenian Evangelicals and secretly persecute prominent Evangelical figures.
Step by step, Stalin’s dictatorship and repressions began to reveal and have direct influence on the Armenian Evangelical Church. Starting in 1927, Soviet authorities in Armenia canceled the licenses of Armenian Evangelical preachers. Persecution began, and many pastors and Evangelicals were imprisoned or exiled. The number of churches gradually decreased, and activities of the Armenian Evangelical Churches were banned in the USSR. The Armenian Evangelical Ararat Union stopped its existence. During this difficult period, small groups of Armenian Evangelicals remained mainly in Yerevan and Leninakan (Gyumri). When the Soviet Union government passed the Freedom of Conscience Act in 1944, some Armenian Evangelical groups in Armenia were able to function and organize. Members of the former Ararat Union, such as the head of the community of Samaghar village of Etchmiadzin region Benyamin Kocharyan, Rev. Vahan Mikaelyan’s son Arshavir Mikaelyan and others, helped preserve small Armenian Evangelical groups in Armenia in the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1945 began to rebuild at least one community with the name of the Ararat Union.
On May 20, 1945, the Ararat Union of Armenian Evangelicals was reestablished. The community of Yerevan had 46 communicative members. In 1945, the government of the Armenian SSR allowed the community to operate with the right to have a place of worship located on Nar Dos Street in Yerevan. But since the USSR government in 1944 allowed all Evangelical groups and the most prominent group in USSR ̶ Baptists ̶ to operate only in a single union, the Armenian Evangelical and Baptist communities in Armenia were forced to unite (first in Yerevan, later in Leninakan) and were called the Community of Evangelical Christians and Baptists. It became a part of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of the Soviet Union.
The church of these newly emerged Evangelical Christians and Baptists was strengthened and received flesh and blood thanks to the traditional Armenian Evangelical families who moved to Armenia from various colonies around the world during the great repatriation of 1946-1948, passing on the unique culture of the ECA and everyday life to this newly formed community. In February 1946, the government of Soviet Armenia officially recognized the Armenian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Yerevan, which also included the community of the Leninakan Evangelical Baptist Church. The ECA continued its existence and activity in this form and condition until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Republic of Armenia.
Evangelical Church of Armenia after the Independence of the Republic of Armenia
After the difficult atheistic years of the Soviet period, the ECA in Armenia resumed and reestablished its active ministry after the tragic Spitak earthquake in 1988. This new era for the ECA, started when the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), under the leadership of its Executive Director Rev. Dr. Movses Janbazian began its activities in Armenia soon after the earthquake. The AMAA immediately came to Soviet Armenia to help eliminate the consequences of the earthquake and the disaster that struck Armenia and to support the Armenian people in those difficult times. The AMAA began to help and serve our people with numerous social, material, medical, educational, Christian education programs and initiatives. In October 1991, the AMAA officially included Armenia in its geography, opened an office in Yerevan, and by 1992, branches were opened in Gyumri, Vanadzor and Stepanavan, in 1995 in Artsakh, in 1997 in Goris and in many other towns and villages.
On September 1994, the Armenian Evangelical World Council sent Rev. Dr. René Nerses Léonian to Armenia as its representative and as of November of the same year, he was also the representative of the AMAA. He was called to synchronize the minstries of the Armenian Evangelical World Council and AMAA programs. On March 17, 1994, the Council of the ECA adopted the ECA constitution, which was registered by the state government on July 1 of the same year. The ECA received the privilege of operating legally in Armenia. The reestablishment of the ECA in Armenia simply is the continuation of the ECA, born in 1846 and the revival of the Armenian Evangelical Ararat Union established in 1914 in Eastern Armenia. The ECA included the Armenian Evangelical Churches of Yerevan, Vanadzor and Stepanavan. In the fall of 1994, these churches elected Rev. Léonian as the Senior Pastor and leader of the Armenian Evangelical Church. He served as ECA Senior Pastor and leader in Armenia from 1994 to 2011.
The official celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the ECA in 1996 at the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater became very important for the reorganization and revival of the ECA in Armenia after independence. This celebration and especially the congratulatory-encouraging speech of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I. emphasized and confirmed several very important realities. First, the ECA’s history of one and a half centuries and its patriotic service and mission were confirmed and received a worthy assessment. Second, our presence, weight, role of the historical church and our mission in the life of our people, Armenian state and the Armenian society were reaffirmed and reestablished. The speech of the Catholicos of All Armenians also revealed the essence, content and the course of ECA relations with the Mother Church.
In 1997, the ECA and Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches of Eurasia jointly established the Evangelical Theological Academy of Armenia (ETAA). The main goal was to train highly qualified pastors, leaders and ministers. Here we must emphasize the role of ETAA, its importance and contribution to the ECA reorganization and development process. Almost all present pastors of the ECA have passed through the forge of the ETAA and are graduates of this institution. They received their basic theological education here. Almost all the responsible persons and numerous ministers of the current Christian Education field of the local Armenian Evangelical Churches have been educated and trained at the ETAA.
The official journal “Armenian Evangelical Church” was published in 1997. The publication of this journal also marked the organization and development of the ECA print media. The official journal was published on a quarterly basis, presenting the internal life and activities of the ECA, as well as the external relations and ministries.
The ECA considers education to be one of the most important and inseparable areas of its mission and service. This is a historical fact. The ECA believes preaching the Gospel of Christ and spreading the Good News includes the spiritual and mental enlightenment of the people. This is the reason why the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School was opened by the AMAA on September 20, 1999, with the aim of educating and upbringing the present and future generations of the Armenian nation. Avedisian School students receive a comprehensive education and Armenian-Christian upbringing. They enjoy the respect and love of teachers and educators. All this contributes to the formation of a high moral image of the Armenian new generation. Until the year 2000, under the leadership of Rev. Léonian and with the cooperation of the local pastors and Christian Education Directors, several Armenian Evangelical communities were established, particularly in Gyumri, Spitak, Ijevan, Dilijan, Armavir, Goris, Talin, Maralik, Hrazdan, Alaverdi, and later in other locations in Armenia until 2006.
The Present Evangelical Church of Armenia
Currently the ECA has 23 local churches in almost all regions of Armenia and Artsakh. These churches include the central one at 18 Baghramyan Street in Yerevan, and the House of Hope in Yerevan, Shengavit district, the Southwest District of Yerevan, Stepanakert, Gyumri, Vanadzor, Stepanavan, Alaverdi, Spirakamut, Tumanyan, Spitak, Ijevan, Dilijan, Berd, Noyemberyan, Armavir, Artashat, Ayntap, Abovyan, Vardenis, Goris, Sisian and Kapan.
Since 2012, the ECA Senior Pastor is Rev. Mgrdich Melkonian. The ECA has 13 ordained pastors and 15 licensed preachers and assistant pastors. In recent years, the ECA has been paying great attention to deepening the higher theological education of pastors and raising their academic level. Rev. Melkonian has made a great contribution to this very important mission and for this purpose the ECA has established close cooperation with the well-known Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut. The cooperation with the seminary is through the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches of the Near East. Two ECA pastors have already received their education at NEST and are serving in Armenia. Two more ECA students are currently studying at the Seminary.
The supreme body of ECA is its Council, which governs the church through its 11-member ECA Spiritual Council or central body. The Council has seven auxiliary committees. The ECA has its own Constitution and internal Bylaws, according to which the church and community life is organized and regulated. ECA is in effective interchurch relations and cooperation with the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches and jointly leads the Bible Society of Armenia, the Jinishian Foundation, the Armenian Round Table Foundation of the World Council of Churches, and the ECLOF.
The ECA, being an integral part of the Armenian Church, realizes its historical, traditional and unique role and mission in Armenia and among the Armenian people. Being faithful to its own mission, the foundation and the basis of the ECA’s present and especially future ministry is first the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. This means to embody and translate the message of the Gospel and its content to all spheres of the life of the Armenian people. The result is to change the quality of our individual, national and collective life. In addition to serving the spiritual awakening and growth of our people, the purpose of the ECA mission and service is also the general enlightenment, intellectual, educational and cultural development and rise of our people. The ECA also considers social and charitable service as an integral part of its mission.
*Pastor Aram Babajanyan is the Pastor of the Evangelical Church of Armenia in Gyumri