The Rise of the Evangelical Movement Among Armenians – Rev. Antranig A. Bedikian

Rev. Antranig A. Bedikian (1885-1980) was born in Bardizag, Turkey. In 1907 he graduated from Robert College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From 1912 to 1915 he studied theology and sociology at the University of Chicago, receiving his bachelor of philosophy, mater of arts and bahcelor of divinity decgrees. The below article was published in 1946 on the hundredth anniversary of the organization of the first Armenian Evangelical Church in Constantinople. The following translation of the original text, written in Armenian, was published as a booklet in 1970 by the Armenian Missionary Association of America.

1846 is a date which marks the culmination of fateful events that took place within the bosom of the Mother Church during a period of roughly ten previous years.

In the year 1846 a small group of earnest and faithful members of the Mother Church broke away and organized an independent and self sufficient church they named the “Evangelical Church of Armenia.”

In course of time they abbreviated the original name, most likely for reasons of euphony, and renamed it “Armenian Evangelical Church.” I suppose the choice of the word “Hayasdanyats” instead of just “Hay” was deliberate and not accidental. “Hayasdanyats” in the name of the new church would serve as a fond reminder of the old church which they never stopped loving and cherishing. One fact stands out in the history of the Armenian evangelical Church, namely, that its basic inspiration was drawn from within the life and history of the Mother Church. The early adherents of the newly organized church were always aware of the vital role the Mother Church had played in shaping and firmly establishing the faith of her children on a Rock unshakable in life and death. Though they left their maternal home they never forsook their indebtedness to the Mother who had achieved the miracle of rebirth of the Armenian people from darkness to light, from heathen gods to the True God, from eternal destruction to eternal Salvation in Christ.

* * *
The break of a very small company of men and women from the Mother Church was inevitable, and yet it was undeniably true that the “inevitable” came to pass contrary to their wishes and will. Even a hurried review of the history of the “break” will convince any unbiased inquirer who asks the question, “Why was there a break?” If the Evangelical Movement within the Mother Church had taken place at a later period, when the official and popular attitude towards it was more tolerant, I, for one, feel quite sure that there would not have been a “break” nor a church organized apart and outside the Mother Church.

Today, in the Mother Church, there is a type of “Evangelicalism” comparable in its essential aspects to the Evangelical Church outside the Mother Church. The strange fact is that the same “Evangelicalism” that the Mother Church could not contain or tolerate about a century or more ago, is not only tolerated but cultivated and cherished at the present time.

If the members of the group who broke away from the Mother Church had been permitted to maintain their emphasis upon the superior importance of Christian life, they would have stayed in the Church. Instead, they broke away because of the undue emphasis that was placed upon the tradition and liturgical requirements of the Church.

When the evangelically-minded members of the Church were critical or openly demonstrative in words or conduct, they were contemptuously labeled the “protesters” or “Protestants.” Their actions were not directed against the Mother Church but against a church hierarchy that took an unreasonably harsh and intolerant stand against them. They were persecuted as sinful heretics, bent on destroying the traditions and doctrines of the church.

Those who have studied the history of the Evangelical Movement among the Armenians with an open mind are convinced that there would not have been a break if the Mother Church had been different from what is was at the time – with its traditions, liturgy, doctrines, practices, etc. The break came about because of the position and actions of the clergy in authority.

The enlightened religious spirit and thinking of the Evangelicals within the fold of the church was misjudged and mistreated as a menace to the peace and progress of the Church. If the hierarchy of the time had exercised sounder judgment regarding the Evangelical Movement the Church would have had the benefit of a new source of spiritual power and practice.

We certainly cannot correct the facts of history a century or more old, but we can try to interpret them without bias or prejudice.

When this Evangelically-minded group found it impossible to remain in the church to pursue their spiritual interests and walk by the light of the Gospel, they sorrowfully left the Mother Church. The parting was a disappointment they could hardly bear for their action was a defeat for them. Still, they could not help it and on July 1, 1946 they met formally and organized the first Evangelical Church of Armenia in the City of Constantinople.

* * *
Evangelicalism is the recognition of the authority of the Gospel over and above the authority of a hierarchy.

The Armenian Evangelical Church traces its birth to the Mother Church. It is her legitimate child. There is no foreign blood in her system as has been suspected. Missionaries from a foreign country helped the deserted child to grow but they had no share in her birth.

Indeed, the Evangelical Movement is not new in the religious history of the Armenian people for it antedates the “Reformation” of the 16th century. But, denominationally, the age of the Armenian Evangelical Church must be calculated from 1846.

Towards the beginning of the Nineteenth Century there was a significant intellectual and spiritual awakening in Constantinople. This enlightenment proved conducive to an earnest study of the Bible. In the neighborhood of the Armenian Patriarchate, and under its patronage, a school was opened, headed by Krikor Peshdimaljian, one of the outstanding and brilliant intellectuals of the time. The principal aim of this school was the training of qualified clergy for the Armenian Apostolic Church.

One of the immediate by-products of this awakening was the formation of the so-called “Pietistical Union.” Its members, first in the capital, and later in the provinces, were in the habit of getting together for the study of the Bible. Naturally, in the course of these studies they raised questions regarding the tenets and traditions of the church, which to them seemed to conflict with Evangelical truths. There were two ways open for the church to deal with the new situation: these questions could either be answered with understanding and candor, or the questioners could be silenced by force. Unfortunately, the church authorities of the day chose the latter. The clash between the evangelical mind and the religious authorities was violent. While the pressure was intensified by one party, resistance was strengthened by the other. They both were obdurate in their respective positions. By degrees the relationship degenerated into one of persecutor and persecuted. Exile, imprisonment, and similar stringent measures, however, proved impotent to shake the faith of the “pious” in the fundamental truths of the Gospel. To them the validity of these truths did not depend upon their agreement with the doctrines of the church. In the end they were formally and solemnly excommunicated and expelled from the church. Only after their expulsion were they forced to form a separate church. It was thus ten years after the formation of the “Pietistic Union,” on July 1, 1846, that the “Armenian Evangelical Church” came into being.

* * *
If we are to base our judgment on historical facts, we are obliged to place the responsibility for the religious separation, or at least the preponderant weight, not on the foreign missionaries, or the “Protestants,” but on the religious heads of the day who, unfortunately, were found wanting in farsightedness and practical wisdom. They dealt with the incidents of the day with undue fanaticism, quick judgment, and cruel action.

Undoubtedly “evangelicalism” would have been a healthy voice of “protest in the Mother Church.” If Evangelicalism can exert a reformatory influence upon the church, why should it be repressed? History’s answer to this question is that it was repressed and therefore the birth of the Evangelical church was inevitable.

Had the repression of Evangelicalism been successful, no one would have continued the search for truth and freedom. To keep Evangelicalism within the fold, the Patriarch of the day should not have had to accept the infallibility of the church and its restrictive and final authority in the interpretation of the Gospel. Furthermore, he should not have accepted the restriction of the right to read the Bible, or the freedom of interpreting its truths according to one’s own light.

What did the Evangelicals declare? Here is the record of their words: “We respect the ecclesiastical authorities, we honor its traditions, sanctified by the blood of martyrs; we accept the creed of the universal church, we love the Armenian nation with all our heart and soul, but we hold the freedom of conscience more sacred than every thing else, and we cannot let any authority, tradition or mandate deprive us from the Gospel of Christ.”

Finally the Evangelical Church was organized on the following basic doctrinal principles: (a) The Trinity alone is to be the object of worship; (b) The relics of the saints, the cross and the icons or pictures in the church are incompatible with the spirit and the letter of the Gospel; (c) Man is a sinner by nature and needs the revitalizing power of God, and the preaching of the Word is the most effective means wherewith to impart that power to the subject; (d) The Bible is the sole guide and rule of faith and life; (e) Christ alone is the Head of the Church, the Savior, and the Intercessor, the only means through which atonement is achieved; (f) Salvation is achieved through faith and not by deeds, by fasting, by giving alms, or by confession; (g) Holy life is the proof of salvation; (h) Any group of faithful Christians can form a church of Christ; (i) The Sacraments are two; Baptism and Communion.

* * *
That Evangelicalism was a genuine movement, “immaculately conceived,” and born of the spirit, in the Mother Church, can easily be proved by the facts of history. We shall recount at least one of these facts.

It is a notable fact that the leaders of this movement were men not only of sterling character, deep spiritual experience, and unusual intellectual power, but they were loyal adherents to and servants of the Mother Church fervent in their devotion. Two of them were priests, the third was a cantor. One cannot reasonably conclude that these men became Evangelicals because they lacked religious fervor. They were clergymen of rare qualities. They respected the Church authorities and its traditions.

For example, in his history of the Evangelical Movement, Stepan Utudjian gives the following account in regard to his brother Absolom, the cantor: “On all church feast days he never failed to confess and take communion. During the “Navagadik,” he spent the nights praying. He always kept beside his bed his Psalms, the “Nareq,” the prayer book, and the book of Sharagans. He read all these books, one after another, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud, and sang the “Sharagans” of penitence. In the morning, when he heard the voice of the sexton, (who walked through the streets inviting the people to church) he instantly got up and hurried to church. Before doing so, however, he first awakened his parents and his brothers and asked one by one their forgiveness for anything wrong he might have done. In the church, after the ceremony, of “Voghormestzi” (God have mercy on me) he took communion from the officiating priest.” He was, liturgically speaking, as perfect as one could be.

About that time, a printing plant in Smyrna managed by William Griffith, had started the printing of evangelical pamphlets and books, including the Bible, at first in installments, and later as a complete volume. In 1839, in the month of May, an encyclical was read from the pulpits of all the churches in Constantinople. Through it, the Patriarch of the time, Archbishop Hagopos, forbade members of his flock from reading publications which had come from the press of William Griffith. He ordered all those who possessed any of these publications to burn them or to deliver them to the Patriarchate. Cantor Absolom was the first to obey the Patriarch’s order. Without questioning the order of the Patriarch, he readily burned all such books in his possession. But it was this same cantor who, sever years later, when the Evangelical Church was organized, was ordained and became the first pastor of that church.

The story is almost the same in reference to the other two priests Vertanes Yeznakian and Haroutune Baghdasarian, both of Nicomedia, thus proving that Evangelicalism was not forced from outside into the Church but was conceived and born by the Holy Spirit within the church.

* * *
Father Hovhannes Meguerian, a distinguished priest in Constantinople, has this to say in regard to the rough treatment the “Protestants” received during the initial period of the movement as recorded in Utudjian’s History: “Archbishop Hagopos, the newly-elected Patriarch of Constantinople, initiated his reign by exiling as religious suspects all those who even greeted the American missionaries. This suspiciousness gradually assumed such proportions that all those who quoted a word from the Bible, those who could answer questions by ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ were suspected as Protestants. This policy of suspicion, exile, and persecution surely caused a lot of damage to our nation, especially during the Patriarchate of Archbishop Mateos when a faction of the Armenians seceded from the nation and formed a separate congregation.” (The narrator of course erroneously uses the word “nation” for “church.”)

* * *
It is interesting to ask: Had the Evangelical movement been contained within the church as an integral part, what would have been the consequence? To such a question only a hypothetical answer can be offered. There surely would have been far-reaching consequences and it was the premonition of such possible consequences that forced the religious authorities of the day to shun the problem instead of facing it. He who wants to keep his flour unleavened will naturally reject the leaven.

Those in positions of authority had their own characteristic logic. They clearly saw two possible courses open to them. When they decided in favor of one, they did their utmost to vitiate the other. They could either preserve the integrity or the traditional image of the church, or they had to risk changes (we avoid using the word “reforms,” reserving, for the time being, our judgment or our interpretation of a historical question) by a spirit of tolerance toward the Evangelical Movement. The course they chose is obvious. So is the result obvious. The branch was cut off from the trunk of the tree and it was planted by its side.

Evangelicalism helped the creation of a type of character and conduct consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ. One who reads the Gospel seriously cannot escape its influence on his thinking and action in daily life. This new concept of Christian character and conduct actually demonstrated in the lives of individuals was impressive and inspiring. The power of the Gospel had to be proved by what it does to individual lives. A changed life is the ultimate result of Evangelicalism. Doctrines may differ from one church to another, but doctrines do not decide Christian life. What the Evangelicals sought was consistent with what they believed and how they lived. Living transcends theology. Not that Evangelicals knew more, but they lived (or, were supposed to live) what they knew. Evangelicalism must be judged by the way Evangelical individuals live. There is no other standard of judgment Evangelicalism has been regarded tolerantly by some and intolerantly by others. No one can say that the break from the Mother Church was a fortunate event. Still, a lot of good has resulted from it. We could record a long list of benefits we have enjoyed individually and collectively in a great many ways.

* * *
Evangelicalism is a “reform movement” not only in a religious sense but also in a moral and social sense. It is impossible to be nurtured by the Gospel in its purity and at the same time view with indifference theories, doctrines, traditions, mores, customs and social practices in and outside the church which do not, in a strict sense, harmonize with the Gospel.

The question that interests us, therefore, is: Did Evangelicalism play a reformatory role in our national life?

The answer is “Yes” if we understand the word “reformatory” in a broad sense. If Evangelicalism had found soil for growth within the Mother Church, its reformatory role would have been pre-eminently ecclesiastical. But finding its soil outside the Mother Church, its reformatory influence has been felt in every phase of our national life. In the field of education, for example, the Evangelical schools have set a pattern to be followed by all the existing schools. One could not insist that evangelical schools have been the “best” schools, but our best national schools were the outgrowth of a competition created buy Evangelical schools. This “branch” pushed its roots deeper and in the course of years became a “tree” itself, bearing its fruits and extending the shade of its branches. This tree recognizes its “Mother” because it draws its sustaining power from the same source, namely, the same precious heritage of language and history. Its structure is based on love for the Armenian people, and their sacred traditions. No doubt the wound of the “broken branch” persists on the trunk of the “tree” – a constant reminder of an event that would have made the “Mother” and “children” happy if it had not happened. Unfortunately history will not change even if it is studied critically. History is irrevocable, therefore it behooves us to consider facts as they are.

* * *
The movement which Luther initiated brought about a double result. First, it rescued the Gospel from the superstructure of medieval superstitions, pagan customs, and the corruption of the clergy, and created a church in which the true image of Christ was recognizable. The Armenian Evangelical church exerted the latter influence on the Mother church. If the schism was an evil, it resulted in good. This good might have been achieved without the necessary evil of schism if the movement of reform had been left on its course unhampered.

There is another important point to consider. Over a century ago, the Church in Turkey was not only invested with religious authority, but also with political authority. The persecution, therefore, was not merely religious, but also, political. It still would have been possible to remain within the church if the “Evangelical” Armenians were not denied their elementary political rights. It was the denial of these rights that drove them to desperation and finally forced them to form a separate church. Excommunication not only deprived them of the church’s spiritual ministration, but also of social and political rights and privileges. Who would have blessed marriages if the priests denied their offices? There was no such thing as civil marriages then. Who would have conducted funeral services if the priests did not? Furthermore, Evangelicals who were excommunicated from the Mother Church were expelled from the trade guilds and were subjected to many privations.

Two saintly priests were the first victims of official intolerance. They were imprisoned like the apostles of old. father Vertanes was cursed publicly during a church service. Two weeks later Father Haroutune Baghdasarian was also cursed in the same manner. These two priests had served the church with marked dedication and competence. The people were heartbroken for the cruel way they were treated. The shepherds were stricken and the flock was confused and scattered.

Regarding the fundamental and history character of the church there was full accord. The controversy revolved around secondary issues. They were within their rights to insist on the fundamentals, but to open an unbridgeable chasm by insisting on secondary issues was not the better part of wisdom.

* * *
On August 25, 1846, the Evangelicals who had seceded from the Mother Church published a “Proclamation” stating the reasons for organizing a separate church. The following extract from the “Proclamation” is highly significant: “We subscribe and have always subscribed to the Church’s Nicean Creed to which all Christians subscribe. No other creed since 400 A.D. was ever imposed on the believers, but in 1846 a new creed is being imposed upon the members of the Armenian Church that is concerned with traditions and ceremonies. Therefore, by subscribing to the ancient Christian creed, we consider ourselves legitimate members of the church.”

Intolerance was carried to such an extreme that it could not be justified by fair judgment. It will be contended that this was the result of the fanatical mentality of the times. Fortunately, all this came to an end in the ensuing years. However painful the separation was, it should not have caused the poison of hatred to run through the veins of fellow Armenians. It is the primary duty of all Christians not to fail in love for each other and these early Evangelicals ended their historic proclamation with the fond with that “God might grant our nation every spiritual blessing.”

* * *
Persecution is an evil instrument that any church may be tempted to use now and then. But the church which has used it, has suffered as much as the persecuted. The history of the Church is an illustration of this fact. In 1846, there was a premature amputation in the form of excommunication. But, excommunication was not a cure, for, it removed a useful member. On January 25, 1846, the knife of the surgeon was applied to the Evangelicals, who were neither religious “sectarians,” as they were called, nor “spiritually sick” people.

The general and perpetual excommunication of the evangelicals on June 21, 1846, wrecked the pillars of the spanning bridge, and thus made the separation inevitable. It brought about the counter-reformation in the Catholic church itself.

In the course of years, the churches branched out and prospered. In six months organized churches emerged in Nicomedia, Adabazar and Trebizond. Before the year was over, the number of their adherents was raised from 40 to 1000. During the following ten years churches were organized in chronological order in Garin (Erzeroum), Aintab, Brusa, another church in Constantinople, Aleppo, Kilis, Rodosto, Smyrna, Kessab, Marzovan, Caesarea, Arabgir, Akhissar, Tokat, Marash, Mashgert, Divrik, Adana, Harput and Khnoos. At the close of a quarter century, there was an Evangelical church in almost every important city in Turkey with a considerable Armenian population. By 1914, there were 150 churches with a “membership” of 15,000 and 60,000 adherents.

* * *
The question is, will the Evangelical church henceforth be able to maintain its position and continue to remain a source of constructive influence? To answer this question, one must consider all the complex geographical and social conditions in which the Evangelical church must live and labor. These considerations are wholly different from those which gave birth to the Evangelical church and in which she thrived through a period of three quarters of a century. Those conditions were more conducive to the preservation of the principles upon which the church was founded. In the initial years the church clashed with ecclesiastical traditions, but that conflict was never with the conditions of life. At present, in an alien environment, where the Armenians and their churches – either Apostolic or Evangelical – are scattered all over the world, the conflict of the Gospel is more violent.

Speaking in clearer terms, we are bound to admit that the evangelical Church has perceptibly lost its onetime vitality due to the pressure of the new conditions of life in which she has been forced to live and labor. This is a painful fact, but irrefutable just the same. Diminution in numbers is no menace to the continuity of the life of the church. But the weakening of its spiritual vitality is a distinct danger. Why? Because the structure of the Evangelical church rests on two pillars. The first is the Gospel’s impersonal and sovereign authority; the other is a pattern of personal life which is in harmony with the letter and the spirit of the teachings of the Gospel. Pull down these two pillars and you destroy the entire structure. Organization, the scheduling of church activities, doctrines, liturgy, etc. cannot maintain the integrity and continuity of the Evangelical church. It is the life of the individual Evangelical Armenian that determines whether or not the church will continue as a vital institution. Today, more than ever, the Evangelical Armenian must assume greater responsibility for maintaining the vitality of the church. Without this vitality, historic Evangelicalism will wither and die.

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