The beginnings of the Armenian Protestant church dates back to the late 19th century. As a movement it was “imported” and “implanted” by American and European missionaries, amidst the “intellectual renaissance” that was taking place in the Armenian community within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Tracing the roots of Armenian Protestantism is not as easy as it may seem. The authors who have written about the subject, while they agree on dates and personalities are divided over the reasons, rationale and effects of the events that lead to the establishment of a separate Armenian Protestant denomination.* The purpose of this article is to give a historical account of events rather than an analysis of the movement.
The First Reformers
The first Protestant missionaries that were sent to the Turkish empire were from the Church Missionary Society of the Church of England in 1818 and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1827, the Syrian Mission (established in 1823 by the American Board), led by two ministers received two Armenian helpers. Among the first missioners was William Goodell who arrived in Constantinople in 1831 and founded the Mission of the American Board for the Armenians of Turkey. In 1833, John Der-Sahakian and his companion Paul Minassian joined the mission. Within a year, Der-Sahakian was appointed general superintendent of the Mission’s high school in Pera. However, in 1837 the school was forced to close due to pressures from the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. Despite the opposition of the Armenian Patriarchate, the evangelical movement made considerable headway with a following of about 500 people.
The “mission” of the Protestant ministers caused a great deal of up-roar in the Armenian community. The Mother Church, headed by the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, protested the activities of the missionaries among the Armenians. Eventually, the confrontation lead to a formal anathema of Protestants by the Patriarch and even persecutions by the Ottoman government authorities. Here is an excerpt from a report sent by a missionary to the American Board, which gives a glimpse of events of the time:
“In order that misunderstanding may be cleared up, it should be stated here that missionaries to the Armenians and Greeks were not sent to divide the churches or to separate out those who should accept education and read the Bible in the vernacular. Their one supreme endeavor was to help the Armenians and the Greeks work out a quiet but genuine reform in their respective churches. The missionaries made no attacks upon churches, their customs. or beliefs, but strove by positive, quiet effort to show the necessary changes.
… When the separation did come. it was in spite of every effort of the missionaries to prevent.” [James L. Barton, Daybreak in Turkey (Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1908; pp. 108-109].
The missionaries were critical of the Armenian Church and viewed its practices as “corrupt.” Here is how Goodell describes the Armenian
“Like all the Oriental churches, the Armenian had become exceedingly
corrupt. It was almost wholly given up to superstition and to idolatrous worship of saints, including the Vigin Mary, pictures, etc. The Armenians hold to transubstantiation, and worship the host; and, indeed have adopted most of the errors of popery… As with all rigid formalities, the weightier matters of the law and the gospel are considered of small account compared with the punctilious performance of religious rites and ceremonies.” [Quoted in Chopourian, pp. 26-27].
While the “supreme endeavor” of the Protestants “was to help the Armenians… work out a quiet but genuine reform in their respective churches,” their eventual mission was characterized by an attack on the established “Mother Church.” These confrontations lead to a wide persecution of Protestants. Thus, in an attempt to survive the opposition in Turkey to their missionary work, the missionaries secured temporary shelter and amenities were obtained from contributions received from Protestant sympathizers in England, America, India and the Caucuses, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wurttemberg and Switzerland. Meanwhile, in mid February 1846, the evangelicals sent a petition to the minister of foreign affairs begging for protection of the imperial government. They refuted all charges of civil rebellion and stated that the reason for their persecution was due to their refusal to conform to usages of the national church such as the worship of images and priestly absolution. The following month they submitted a petition to the British, Prussian and American diplomatic representatives and finally one to the Sultan himself. On March 12, 1846, the minister of foreign affairs spoke with the Armenian Patriarch, Matthew, who, after extensive negotiations declared from the pulpit of the cathedral
church that “Religion is free in Turkey!” On May 17, 1846 the evangelicals were authorized to resume their “normal” life and obtain credit as Protestants. Thus ended the civil persecution of the Protestants.
Organization of Protestant Churches
On June2l, 1846, on the occasion of the feast of Etchmiadzin, Patriarch Matthew issued an encyclical of perpetual excommunication and anathema against all Protestants to be publicly read at every annual return of the festival throughout the churches. Thus, “the reformers,” originally a party within the church, excluded from the church’s fellowship and ordinances, formed a rival organization outside the church, i.e. the Protestant church.
On June 25, 1846, a constitution was drawn up for the Armenian Evangelical Church about to be organized. This constitution provided for a form of government half-way between Congregationalism and Presbyterianism. The doctrine of the church was embodied in a confession of faith composed of 12 articles to which all candidates for church membership were to express publicly.
On July 1,1846 the constitution was formally adopted by the evangelicals of Constantinople and the First Armenian Evangelical Church of Constantinople (with a total of 40 members) began. During the months of July and August, three more evangelical churches were organized on the basis of the above described constitution; Nicomedia and Adapazar with 14 members each and Trebizond with nine members. At the end of the year, the infant church of Constantinople had more than doubled its membership and the aggregate membership of the four churches was about 140. After the consummation of the ecclesiastical organization, the civil recognition by the Turkish government was made the important object of endeavor by the evangelicals.
On August 17, 1846 a meeting of the “Protestant Nation” (milet) was called at Constantinople and an executive committee of four was appointed to represent the community in its external relations. On June 16, 1846, this committee submitted a petition to the local governor requesting separation from the Armenian community and the granting of a charter. Four petitions were sent to the Sultan in the space of a few months. However, through the petition of the British embassy, and the efforts of Lord Cowley and later Stratford de Redcliffe, the first imperial acknowledgment was issued on November 15, 1847, recognizing the Protestants of Turkey as a separate community and granting them freedom of conscience and worship. But it was not until 1850, again through the efforts of Lord Stratford, that the rights and privileges of the Protestant community were permanently defined by imperial firman (edict) and the Protestants were authorized to elect a chancellor or civil head.
On December 13, 1850, at a popular meeting of the Protestant community in Constantinople, this firman was publicly read and Stephen Seropian was elected civil head of the community. As of the beginning of 1850, the expansion of Armenian Protestants was not great in scope: there were only 7 mission stations in the Armenian field: Constantinople, Bebek, Brusa, Smyrna, Trebizond, Erzurum, and Aintab; 6 outstations: Nicomedia, Adabpazar, Rodosto, Diarbekir, Urfa, and Cesarea: 18 missionaries and 20 female assistants; 8 churches with 2 of them in Constantinople, with an aggregate membership of about 240. However, by the end of 1850, with the promulgation of the imperial firman, the whole country was opened up to missionary operation. It awakened a general readiness everywhere to listen to the preaching of the Protestants.
About 100 towns and villages around Aintab. Marash, Urfa, Diarbekir, Arabgir. Agn. Silvas, Cesarea, Tokat, and Marsovan began to show “signs of an awakening,” and from remote localities “came requests to the missionaries for preachers of the gospel.” By the end of 1860, the field had become so extensive that it necessitated its subdivision into three separate missions; the Western Turkey Mission (including what was afterward the European Turkey Mission), the Central Turkey Mission and the Eastern Turkey Mission. Combined, there were 23 mission stations; 65 outstations; 50 missionaries and 50 female assistants; 40 evangelical churches, with a total membership of nearly 1,300 people.
The Rationale for a Protestant Armenian Church
According to the authors who have written about the Protestant movement in Turkey, the missions of the American Board to the oriental churches, more specifically, the missions of the Armenian church, were originally committed to a policy of strict non-proselytism (non conversion from one belief to another). Accordingly, this policy had as its sole aim the instillation into those churches evangelical ideas — without alienating any of the members from them. In their pursuit, “the American missionaries in Constantinople at first avoided all controversy and based their efforts on what the oriental churches needed above all else an enlightenment to arouse a wide spread interest in the Word of God.” However, in the 15 years from the founding of the Armenian mission, the missionaries of the American Board in Turkey “felt compelled” to establish an independent evangelical church, contrary to the original plan.
L. Arpee enumerates four reasons which led the missionaries to establish a Protestant church in Turkey prior to 1846 and to regard a strict adherence to their original policy of non-proselytisms as impracticable.
1) Pressure from the home churches for tangible results.
2) Intolerance of the oriental churches.
3) Antagonism between oriental orthodoxy and the missionaries’ doctrines and methods. Arpee writes, “The Armenian church, although it theoretically held to the Scriptures as the supreme authority, had given place to a great mass of patristic interpretations and ceremonial rituals with the result that the Word of God had been all but lost in the traditions of man.” On the other hand, the missionaries’ ideas and methods of ultra-evangelism were far to radical for the oriental churches and sooner or later would invite opposition. Therefore, long before they were excommunicated by Patriarchal anathema, the evangelical Armenians found themselves seceding.
4) The official recognition of the treaty rights of American missionaries in Turkey by the U.S. government in 1842. The U.S. government pointed
out to the Turkish empire that the American missionaries in Turkey were entitled by treaty to the protection of the U.S. government as long as they refrained from proselytizing. Since no distinction could be drawn from proselytizing and non-proselytizing missionaries, it was now understood that if a missionary had any right to reside in the Turkish dominions at all, he was also entitled as a citizen of the U.S. to the protection of his government.
By 1914, on the eve of the first World War, Protestants had 15 stations in Turkey, 146 missionaries, 137 churches and 13,891 communicant members. The most notable single evangelical influence on the Armenians of Turkey came from the combined efforts of the American Board and the American Bible Society in disseminating the scriptures into the people’s vernacular, (i.e. Goodell’s Bible for Turkish speaking Armenians, published in 1842 and Elias Riggs’ modern Armenian Bible, published in 1853).
By 1890’s, the relationship between the Apostolic and Protestant Armenian churches was cordial enough to permit the collaboration on a modern Armenian New Testament, which was published under the Armenian Patriarch’s imprimatur to provide free circulation among the Armenians.
Eventually, the massacres of Armenians in Turkey, (1895-1908) drained not only the Protestant Armenians of their leaders, but the entire Armenian nation. The 1915 deportations and massacres swept the Armenian evangelical churches out of Asia minor. The American Board liquidated its hundred-years interest in Turkey and withdrew from the field. However, as Armenians scattered throughout the world, so did Armenian Protestant congregations, which can be found in large Armenian communities in the Diaspora.
With the emergence of an Armenian Protestant church, in the 19th century, a rupture was created between the Armenian Apostolic Church and those who followed the missionaries. What were predicted as “dangerous trends” by Patriarch Matthew of the time — which eventually gave permanence to the separation between the Armenian evangelicals and the Mother Church — are summarized by V.H. Tootikian in these terms:
a) “The Armenian Evangelical Church failed in her original goal to reform
the Armenian Apostolic Church,” b) It “failed to keep the balance between the Armenian-Christian and Protestant-Evangelical heritages,” c) “‘The Armenian Evangelical Church weakened the solidarity of the Armenian people,” d) It “withdrew into isolation,” and e) “‘The Armenian Evangelical Church gradually became complacent.” [Vahan H. Tootikian, The Armenian Evangelical Church (Detroit: Armenian Heritage Committee, 1982; pp. 85-93].
However, Tootikian adds, that “When every criticism has been made, and every allowance recorded for the imperfection of the Armenian Evangelical Church, the fact remains that she worked her way into many corners of the life of the Armenian Nation. Obvious faults and weaknesses must not hide the deeper significance of the Evangelical Movement, because measured by its effects, it proved itself a potent force among the Armenian people.”
*Among the books that were consulted for this article were Leon Arpee’s A Century of Armenian Protestantism (New York: AMAA, 1946); O. H. Chopourian’s The Armenian Evangelical Reformation: Causes and Effects (New York: AMAA, 1972); and Vahan H. Tootikian’s The Armenian Evangelical Church (Detroit, MI: Armenian Heritage Committee, 1982).