The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 2/Division 4/Chapter 6

 

CHAPTER VI

THE ARMENIAN CHURCH

 

(a) Langlois, Collection des Historiens Anciens et Modernes de l'Arménie, including Agathangelos, Moses of Chorene, "the Herodotus of Armenia" (5th century), etc.; Vartabet Matthew, Life of St. Gregory the Illuminator (trans. by Malan); The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church (trans. by Malan); Vitæ Sanctorum Calendarii Armeniaici (12 vols. pub. Venice, 1814); Asseman ii.; Le Quien, Oriens Christianus, vol. i.

 

Armenia is a name used for a country of indefinite and varying extent, centred at the southern slopes of the Caucasus and the high table-land which is a western projection of the plain of Iran, and which culminates in Mount Ararat. At the time of the Romans it was divided into Armenia Minor, west of the Euphrates, and Armenia Major, east of that river. Situated at the meeting point of vast and ambitious empires, Armenia has been tossed to and fro between them as the repeated victim of their shifting fortunes. After having been conquered by Alexander the Great and then placed under Macedonian supremacy, Armenia obtained a partial independence from the Romans, who set up a kingdom there, not attempting to incorporate it in their empire. But Parthia and Persia in turn seized hold of the country, which came to be divided between the Byzantine and Persian powers, with different degrees of autonomy in successive ages, until the Mongolian invasions swept over it and at last the Mohammedan conquests brought the greater part of it under the sway of Islam. The Armenians, who are now largely scattered over Asia Minor and considerably represented at Constantinople, are an ancient, distinct race of the Indo-Germanic family with marked characteristics, among which is a keen business ability, that has enabled them to attain to wealth where it has been possible for them to do so, in face of oppression and persecution. They were neither Hellenised under the Byzantine Empire nor Latinised under the Roman. They have retained their own language and national characteristics in spite of the terrible series of destructive tyrannies to which they have been subject. In this respect, and in the hatred their commercial superiority has aroused, we may compare them to the Jews, whom they thus resemble more than any other race.

It is usual to divide the history of the Armenian Church into three periods—(1) a.d. 34–302, beginning with the legendary mission of Thaddæus to King Abgar, together with supposed visits of Bartholomew, Simon, and Jude;[1] (2) a.d. 302–491, from the mission of Gregory the Illuminator to the breach with the orthodox Church owing to rejection of the decrees of Chalcedon; (3) a.d. 491 to the present time, when the Church of Armenia has been entirely independent of Constantinople and doctrinally severed from the Greek Church. But the first of these periods is mythical; we have no clear evidence of any Christianity existing in Armenia previous to the fourth century, when Gregory Illuminator, the apostle of the Armenians, introduced the gospel to these people.

Gregory, who is surnamed "The Illuminator," because "Illumination" is the technical Armenian word for conversion, was born about the year 257, at Valarshabad (now represented by Etchmiadzin), the capital of the province of Ararat in Armenia. At the instigation of the Sassauid Sapor i. his father assassinated Chosroes i., the King of Armenia, for which act the dying king ordered the whole family to be slain; but Gregory, then a young infant, was saved and carried off to Cæsarea in Cappadocia, where he was brought up as a Christian. Subsequently he became an attendant of Tiridates iii., the King of Armenia, who raised him to the rank of a noble. But, being true to his Christian faith, he angered his royal master by refusing to take part in a heathen sacrifice. "The twelve tortures of St. Gregory" are a series of torments with which the saint is said to have been punished for his disobedience. Unfortunately his contemporary biography has been so embroidered with legendary decorations that it is impossible to disentangle it from these later materials. "We see Tiridates transformed into a wild boar for murdering a nun who is a member of a religious community that has taken refuge in Armenia in order to escape the Diocletian persecution, and who has refused his advances and got away from his palace after having been carried off for the royal harem. It is revealed to the king's sister that he can be restored if Gregory is brought up from the pit where he has been confined. This is done; whereupon Gregory brings back Tiridates to his human form, and cures the people who have been smitten with the plague. The saint is now encouraged to preach the gospel to the delighted king and nation, and he does so with very great effect.[2] After this we are compelled to be doubtful as to other details in the story, such as the statement of the large number of churches that Gregory built. Still, there is no question that the Illuminator was a successful missionary in Armenia, nor that from his time Christianity was the recognised religion of the State. This was before Constantine had adopted Christianity. Thus Armenia was the first country to receive and acknowledge Christianity as its national religion.

Gregory was consecrated bishop of Armenia by Leontius, the bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia. Taking the year of his release from the pit as a.d. 300, Mr. Malan assigns his consecration to the year 302. But as the earliest notice of Leontius as bishop of Cæsarea is in the year 314 when he signed the canons of the councils of Ancyra and Neocæsarea, this may be a little too early. The connection between Armenia and the Cappadocian Cæsarea was kept up for a hundred years, after which it was broken by the Persian advance. St. Gregory is said to have exercised the functions of bishop for about thirty years, and then to have retired to a solitary life among the caves of Manyea, where he only lived for a twelvemonth, and died in the year 332. The tradition of his visit to Constantine with his sovereign, which subsequently grew into a splendid journey to Rome and reception by Pope Sylvester, is purely legendary and evidently false.[3] Gregory was succeeded in turn by his two sons, Rostaces and Bartanes, after whom in succession came two sons of Rostaces. Thus we see Gregory's personal and family influence long dominating the Church of which he was the founder. It must have been about the time of the last of these descendants of Gregory the Illuminator that Julian, when about to set out on his ill-fated Persian expedition, sent an insulting letter to Arsacius, King of Armenia, claiming his alliance and co-operation, and warning him that unless he acted according to the emperor's directions, his God in whom he trusted would not be able to deliver him from the vengeance of Rome.[4]

Towards the end of the fourth century Armenia had a famous bishop, or rather catholicos, as the head of the Armenian Church was now called, who was in ofltice for thirty-four years. This was Norseses i. He too was related to Gregory the Illuminator. Norseses was present at the council of Constantinople (a.d. 381); he was put to death by Pharme, the King of Armenia.[5]

The original Armenian version of the Bible was made about the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries by Mesrob, a scholar from Edessa, with the help of a Greek scribe named Hrofanos—whom Scrivener supposes to have been Rufinus—and two pupils named John and Joseph; it was based on the Greek text, and began with the Book of Proverbs. Near about the same time the Bible, or part of it, was also translated by St. Sahak, i.e. Isaac, who, however, only worked on a Syriac text. The present Armenian version appears to be a recension made shortly after the council of Ephesus.[6] There can be no doubt that the early possession of the Scriptures in the vernacular helped to enlighten and consolidate the Armenian Church and to fortify it for the trials it was called upon to endure.

After the murder of Norseses, the metropolitan of Cæsarea refused to allow his three successors to ordain. Isaac, the translator of the Bible, was the first to be empowered to resume this function, and he held office for forty years, during which time the native dynasty was overthrown by the Persians. The Armenian liturgy dates from the time of Isaac, which may be regarded as the golden age of Armenian literature. Then a cloud of troubles burst on the Church. In the year 440, Isaac was deposed by the Persians, who set a succession of their own nominees in his place.

We now approach the events that severed the Armenians from the main body of the Church in the East. They refused to accept the decrees of the council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451). Dr. Neale maintains that this was not because they sympathised with the Eutychian doctrine, but because they misunderstood the council's position and supposed it to favour Nestorianism. That may have been the case at the time, but it will not serve as a defence of Armenian orthodoxy in perpetuity. Nine years later, the archimandrite Barsumas, the leader of the turbulent band of monks who had violently attacked the opponents of Eutyches at the "Robber Council," and a staunch supporter of Eutychianism, sent his disciple Samuel into Armenia to confirm the Church of that country in its rejection of the council of Chalcedon. Thus Samuel became the propagandist of Monophysitism in the Armenian Church, and therefore, even if its attitude in disapproving of the fourth œcumenical council may have been at first due to a misapprehension, from the time of Barsumas's interference it was definitely drilled into the Monophysite doctrine. No doubt it was at a disadvantage in only having the views of the two extremists. The Armenians saw Nestorianism among their Syrian neighbours and rejected it; they were offered Monophysitism as its distinct opposite; but, unlike the Greek and Latin Churches, they did not have the via media of Catholic doctrine presented to them in its antagonism to both extremes. Under such circumstances it would have been a miracle if they had not become Monophysites. Still, forty years passed before there was any breach with the orthodox Church. This took place in the year 491, when the Armenian National Council assembled at Vagarshiabad formally anathematised the council of Chalcedon. From that time onwards the national Church of Armenia—now known as the Gregorian Church, after the name of its famous founder—has stood apart from the Greek Church, remaining in isolation down to the present day, in spite of repeated attempts at reunion.

In the year 535 there was held the famous council of Tiben, which anathematised the orthodox Church of Jerusalem and added the Monophysite clause, "who was crucified for us," to the Trisagion, at the same time confirming the union of the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany (or baptism of Christ) in opposition to Catholic usage. So important has this council been reckoned in Armenia, that the national calendar has been dated from it—though starting with a wrong year—a.d. 531, four years too early.[7]

Towards the end of the sixth century there was a temporary schism resulting from an attempt on the part of the Roman Emperor Maurice to bring back the Armenians to the orthodox fold. The Armenian monarch, Chosroes ii., owed his throne to Maurice, who thus acquired paramount influence in Armenia. Chosroes even gave him the province which had been under the Persian dominion. In this way Tiben, where the catholicos then resided, was transferred to the Roman Empire. It was natural, therefore, that an orthodox emperor, accustomed to rule over the Church in his dominions, should expect the Armenians to come into line with the rest of his subjects. But Moses ii., who was Armenian patriarch at the time, declined to change his creed at the bidding of a Greek despot, and refused to communicate with those bishops of the transferred province of Taron who had given in their submission after a conference at Constantinople. Then Maurice appointed a rival catholicos, John of Cocosta. On the death of Moses, his successor, Abraham of Arastune, summoned a council of bishops, presbyters, and archimandrites, which decreed that all who refused to anathematise the council of Chalcedon should be banished from the country. This led to a formal secession from the Church by John and his party.

In the year 632 the Emperor Heraclius assembled a council of Greeks and Armenians at Carana (the modern Erzeroum), which after a month's discussion came to an agreement in anathematising the decisions of Tiben and accepting the Chalcedonian position. The one champion of Armenian orthodoxy was John Maracumensis, who was a candidate for the post of catholicos. He was condemned at this council to banishment, condemned again at a second council, branded on the forehead with the figure of a fox by the prætor of Roman Armenia, and driven away to Mount Caucasus. But he had his disciples who cherished the seed of the old Armenian faith, and who eventually succeeded in restoring it in the national Church. Then came the Mohammedan conquest. But again the country was forced to a nominal acceptance of Greek orthodoxy, when Justinian ii. temporarily recovered Armenia to Christendom, and the catholicos Isaac iii. and his bishops were summoned to Constantinople, where they were induced to give in their adherence to the creed of Chalcedon (a.d. 689). On their return home this act of weakness was repudiated by their Church, and the reconquest of Armenia by the Saracens enabled the National Church to revert to its old position. This was confirmed in a famous synod summoned by the command of the General Omar at Manaschiertum on the confines of Hyrcania in the year 715. It was politic fur the Saracens to promote an ecclesiastical schism that divided their Christian subjects from the Byzantine Empire. At this synod there were six Jacobite Syrian bishops; and it resulted in the fusion of the two communions on the basis of the Monophysite doctrine, except that the Julianists,[8] who were well represented in Armenia, held aloof. After this the affairs of the Armenian Church pass into obscurity.

Even in spite of the rejection of the decrees of Chalcedon the severance of the Armenian from the Greek Church was gradual, fluctuating, and long indefinite. This is proved by the fact that there were Armenian bishops at the three succeeding œcumenical councils—II. Constantinople (a.d. 553); III. Constantinople (a.d. 680); and even II. Nicæa (a.d. 788)—and that the decrees of those councils were acknowledged in Armenia. As late as the year 1166 the catholicos Narses, writing to the Emperor Manuel Comnenus, distinctly repudiated the Eutychian heresy. But then he did not accept the Chalcedonian definition. The position assumed by his Church all along when not disturbed by foreign influences was that its doctrine was ancient primitive Christianity, not Eutychian nor any other peculiar theology, and that the council of Chalcedon had been false to that teaching in leaning towards Nestorianism.

During the mediæval period the Armenians were not represented by any conspicuous ecclesiastic or theologian, and yet the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries all contributed some works to Armenian literature. Turks and Byzantines now made Armenia their battlefield, and the miserable people suffered only less from the latter than from the former. For three centuries the country was swept by nomadic tribes, and can scarcely be said to have had a national existence. The devastating rush of Timour came with fatal force over Armenia. The peasants were driven from the plains, and the whole population reduced to the depths of poverty and misery. Many hid in the mountains. Not a few in despair accepted Islam and intermarried with Kurds. Others escaped to Cilicia and Cappadocia, and there became the nucleus of the Christian kingdom of Lesser Armenia, which contrived to exist in independence, though ringed round with Moslem provinces and not in alliance with the Byzantine Empire. These Western Armenians joined hands with the Crusaders, and when communications with Europe were reopened began to develop the remarkable commercial genius for which the race has been famous all around the Mediterranean down to our own day. Unfortunately this same facility of communication with Europe opened the way for papal aggressiveness. In the year 1335 there was formed an Armenian Uniat Society, which accepted the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. At the council of Florence (a.d. 1439) this body was designated "the United Armenian Church." Subsequently it suffered some persecution from the national Church of Armenia and its patriarch.

The well known monastery of the Mechitaristes on the island of St. Lazaar near Venice belongs to the Uniat Armenian Church. It is named after its founder Mechitar, who was born at Sebaste in Asia Minor in the year 1676, and who entered an Armenian convent at Erzeroum in 1691, but afterwards obtained permission to study at Etchmiadzin. Finding that he could learn little there, he got further permission to go to Rome; but owing to illness was only able to proceed as far as Constantinople, where he fell in with some able Roman Catholic ecclesiastics, under whose influence he joined their Church. Subsequently he founded an order of Armenian monks under a modified Benedictine rule, which was sanctioned by Pope Clement xi., who made Mechitar the head of the order with the title of abbot. This was at Modan in the Morea, then under Venetian rule. The conquest of the peninsula by the Turks led Mechitar and his monks to migrate in the year 1715 to Venice, where the Senate granted them the island of St. Lazaar. This monastery became an important centre of scholarship, and the monks devoted themselves to the spread of Armenian literature and education. The Cœnobite Armenian monks of the national Church follow a form of the rule of St. Basil; those who live a hermit life belong to an order of St. Anthony.

When Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks (a.d. 1453), the Armenian bishop of Brusa was appointed patriarch by Mohammed ii., and put under the patronage and control of the Ottoman government in a similar way to that in which the Greek patriarch was treated. He became the political head of his nation, and through his bishops he was made responsible for the government of his people, with authority in civil as well as in religious matters. For this purpose the Christian population was divided into communities called millets. The patriarch was supported by a council of bishops and clergy, and each bishop was set over his own province. The result was the same as among the Greeks. The Church was degraded by being made subject to chief clergy who were also officials of the Turkish government, and slavish sycophancy prevailed among these officials themselves. Still, the Armenians gained something in having a legal constitution under guardians of their own nationality. At first this only applied to the Western Armenians, who had been involved in the fall of the Byzantine Empire; but in the year 1514 the Osmanli Turks under Selim i. conquered Armenia proper, and Idris the historian, a Kurd from Biltis, was then entrusted with the task of organising the province. In order to hold the district effectually, he transplanted into it a number of people of Ids own nationality. Thus from this time onwards the population of Armenia has been mixed, consisting mainly of the two races—Armenians and Kurds. Therefore, while on the one hand many Armenians have left their country because of its successive troubles and settled in Asia Minor, Constantinople, and other Western places, after the manner of the Jewish "dispersion," in the present day the land is largely stocked with a rude, alien, Mohammedan race, inferior to the original inhabitants both in civilisation and in morals. The two races have never coalesced. Religious more than racial differences have kept them apart. This fact should be borne in mind when we consider the Armenian problem. Armenia is no longer a geographical term in any national sense; it represents a persecuted people, almost living as outlaws both in their own original land and in many other places, chiefly Turkish, Russian, and Persian.

In the year 1603 the catholicos Melchizedic called in the aid of the Persian Shah Abbas to deliver his people from Turkish oppression; but after over-running the land the shah transported many of the Armenians by force into his own country, where he concentrated them in a colony near Ispahan. For two centuries after this Armenia was trampled on alternately by contending Turkish and Persian armies. The Church was also suffering degradation from the sale of the office of catholicos. There was a dispute between the Armenian patriarchs at Constantinople and Jerusalem and the catholicos as to the supremacy of the latter. In the year 1655, Philip, an able man, only second to St. Isaac of the patristic period as a great ecclesiastic, consolidated the Church by inducing the two patriarchs to submit to him as catholicos of all the Armenian Christians. But now the Armenians were disturbed by Jesuit missionaries, and the office of catholicos again fell into unworthy hands, so that during the first half of the eighteenth century the Church was in a deplorable condition. This was the time of the catholicos Lazar, who left behind him an ill name. But in the time of Simon, who came into office in the year 1763, things began to improve under Russian influences.

Russia acquired Georgia in the year 1801; and in 1828 she took possession of part of Armenia, including the ecclesiastical capital, Etchmiadzin, with the result that the catholicos of the Armenian Church became a Russian citizen. Henceforth that ecclesiastic was responsible to the tsar, though still elected by his own bishops. His powers were now limited by a synod, after the Russian pattern.

Protestant and evangelistic work was commenced in Armenia in the year 1831 by American missionaries. In 1846 the catholicos anathematised all Armenians who accepted Protestant notions, with the result that a separate Protestant Church was founded as the "Evangelical Church of the Armenians." In spite of opposition from France and Russia, the British ambassador succeeded in getting this recognised officially as a millet. The American missionaries founded Armenian colleges on the Bosphorus, at Kharput, Marsivan, and Aintab.

Meanwhile the greater part of the Armenian nation still remaining under the Ottoman government suffered continuously from its ruinous extortion and recurrent acts of violence. Consular reports have poured in an unbroken stream of information as to the outrages perpetrated by the Kurds at the instigation of the Ottoman rulers. By the treaty of San Stephano, Turkey promised Russia to carry out reforms "in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Kurds and the Circassians." But on the insistence of Lord Beaconsfield the treaty of Berlin (1878) abrogated the Russian protectorate of the Armenian Christians, and conferred it on the six signatory powers, to whom Turkey gave the pledge of reforms in Armenia. In the same year, by the Cyprus Convention, the sultan promised Great Britain to introduce necessary reforms "for the protection of the Christians and other subjects of the Porte" in the Turkish Asiatic territories. Thus first the protection of the Armenians was granted to and accepted by Russia; then it was taken from Russia and assumed by Europe, but with an additional responsibility assumed by England in obtaining her own special pledge from the sultan. All this has been a dead letter. No reforms have been carried out. No compulsion has been put on the Turks to have the sultan's pledges fulfilled. It is true that in 1880 identical notes were presented to the Porte by the powers, and that in 1881 the British ministry sent a circular note to the five other signatory powers in the Berlin Treaty; but these powers, especially Germany and Russia, were disinclined to act, and it was only fleets and armies that could move Turkey. Thus the nominal "Concert of Europe" came to an end. Since then successive British ministries have called the attention of the sultan to his failure to keep his promises pledged in the Berlin Treaty. These communications have only been replied to with polite evasions.[9]

In the year 1895 the world was appalled by the awful news of the Armenian Massacres. Information came through by degrees, till at length the total was summed up at figures growing from 20,000 to 25,000, 50,000, and even 120,000, besides 5,000 to 6,000 massacred at Constantinople. Men, women, and children had been done to death amid scenes of unspeakable horror and outrage. It seems clear that the Ottoman government had been alarmed by reports of a revolutionary movement, to which the more daring of this long-enduring nation had been goaded by the unchecked irritation of Turkish misrule. But the mass of the people had not taken any steps towards rebellion. How could they have done so with any hope of success, since weapons were forbidden to Christians, while Kurds and Turks went about fully armed? Moreover, the massacre overwhelmed the innocent. There was no attempt to select the suspected revolutionists. Yet there was a species of very careful discrimination which pointed to orders from headquarters, and disposed of the excuse for Turkey which her champions would urge, that all this was but an outbreak of Kurdish savagery. The slaughter was confined to two classes of Armenians—the Gregorians of the national Church, and the Protestants. Uniats were spared as under the protection of France, and members of the Greek Church for fear of Russia.

 
  1. See Lynch, Armenia, vol. i. p. 277, note 2.
  2. Agathangelos, 89.
  3. Niceph. Callist. H. E. viii. 35; Moses of Chorene, 89.
  4. Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. vi. 1.
  5. Le Quien, vol. i. 1375.
  6. Scrivener, Introduction to the Criticism of the New Test., 4th edit, pp. 148–154.
  7. Le Quien, Oriens Christianus, vol. i. 1383.
  8. See p. 120.
  9. While this chapter is in the press the newspapers are recording the rejoicings of Turkey in the establishment of a constitution with freedom for all on the sworn promise of the sultan. The reader will know with what results.