Editor’s note: Today, we’re pleased to introduce a new contributor — Aram Sarkisian, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, has extensively studied both Armenian and Russian Orthodox history in America. He has familial ties with both Churches, and we’re very glad that he will be sharing his expertise here at OrthodoxHistory.org.
Recently, there has been interest from SOCHA to explore the history of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” family of churches. As a longtime reader of this blog and a member of the Armenian Church, I volunteered to write an article or two.
First, a bit of a personal introduction. My name is Aram Sarkisian, and I’m currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I’m both Russian and Armenian by ancestry. I was raised in the Armenian Church, and am an ordained subdeacon in the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, which is under the administration of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin.
That is not to say that I am unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy. My primary research interest as a scholar is in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in early twentieth century America. Additionally, my maternal grandfather was a priest in Canadian and Midwest Dioceses of the Orthodox Church in America, so I have also spent a great deal of time in a variety of Orthodox parishes as well.
It’s been my experience that many in the Eastern Orthodox family have only a passing knowledge about the Armenian Church, so I thought it might be helpful to give a short history of who we are and how we fit into the general scene of Christianity in America before getting into more particular historical posts.
The Armenian Church claims its roots from the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who tradition tells us preached the Gospel in the lands of historic Armenia soon after the time of Christ. Though various Christian communities did exist thereafter, the Armenian kingdoms remained officially pagan until the dawn of the fourth century, when St. Gregory the Illuminator, a Parthian by birth, converted the Armenian King Drtad to Christianity in 301 AD (the date traditionally held, but it may have been several years later). Because of the conversion of his kingdom, Armenia is generally regarded as being the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion.
In the following centuries, Armenians cultivated a unique cultural and liturgical identity tempered by encounters with foreign invaders and other Christian groups. The Armenian Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 not only for specific theological issues, but also due to the fact that the Armenian delegation could not physically attend the Council, as Armenians were fighting off the advances of Persian invaders as the Council convened. Thus, the Armenian Church has remained in canonical isolation from the Eastern Orthodox family of Churches for over fifteen centuries. Instead, we are a so-called Non-Chalcedonian, or Oriental Orthodox Church, in communion with the Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, and Indian Churches.
The Non-Chalcedonian Churches are all rather different, each having unique rites and languages. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, one could feel relatively at home and find much familiar in the services and ambience of a parish in Russia as they could in a parish in America, Syria, Greece, or Japan. Concelebration is common. For Oriental Orthodox Christians, an Armenian would find few commonalities in an Ethiopian parish, and an Indian would probably be lost in a Coptic liturgy. While we are theologically united, there does not seem to be a great deal of communication, concelebration, or understanding within our family of Churches, especially on the local, parish level.
So what does that mean in America? How did Armenians get here, where and how do we worship? Armenian immigration to the United States didn’t really exist on a widespread basis until the end of the 19th century, with most of the early Armenian immigrants coming from the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East for educational reasons. The earliest Armenian communities to coalesce in America were in New England and, later, California. These early communities largely worshipped in local Protestant parishes in lieu of churches of their own. They formed cultural and fraternal organizations, library societies, and political groups, and out of these institutions came the embryonic forms of Armenian parishes.
The first parish community emerged in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1889, which itself is a topic for another entry. In 1897, the Armenian community in America was separated into four “Ecclesiastical Districts:” Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Chicago, and Fresno, California, each under the administration of a single priest. The smaller communities of New York City, Troy, New York, and Philadelphia were also given spiritual oversight on a less formal basis. In 1898, Catholicos Mgrdich I, through an encyclical issued from the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, established the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.
In the 113 years since, the Armenian Church in America has grown exponentially from coast to coast, though unfortunately through several waves of immigration coming out of moments of tragedy for the Armenian people. Of course, the first of these was a result of the Armenian Genocide, a series of systematic exterminations of the Armenian populations of Eastern Anatolia at the hands of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. To a lesser extent, there would also be waves of immigration from Soviet Armenia in the decades to come, as well as the Middle East in the 1960’s and 1970’s. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which coincided with the beginning of a brutal conflict with Azerbaijan, another wave of Armenian immigration from post-Soviet states began, which continues to this day.
Thus, the Armenian community in America is really quite diverse within itself, reflecting immigrants that came not only from Armenia and Turkey, but also many other places as well. Linguistically, due to both this diversity and Americanization of 3rd and 4th-generation Americans, there are a lot of bases to cover. The Armenian Church worships in Classical Armenian, though in some parishes a limited amount of English, Russian, or even Turkish is often used in lections or sermons. Outside of worship, you’re likely to hear a number of languages spoken in the average Coffee Hour, from Eastern or Western Armenian to English, Russian to Arabic, Turkish to French. English is most common, and probably could be considered the vernacular, but many of our parishes are still Armenian speaking at a significant level.
There is also a jurisdictional divide in the United States and Canada, which came purely out of a political disagreement and the fallout of the 1933 assassination of Archbishop Levon Tourian (again, a story best told in another entry). Local divisions emerged, parallel parishes were established, and the administrative division became official in 1957 when a group of parishes entered under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate of Cilicia, with the remaining parishes staying under the authority of the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin. Thus, there are Eastern and Western Dioceses (Etchmiadzin), and Eastern and Western Prelacies (Cilicia). The schism is not a break in Eucharistic communion, but it is, in many places, an acrimonious split that translates to limited relations between the two parties.
This is, of course, a rather short and barebones introduction to who we are as a Church, but I hope, in the future, to fill in the blanks with some interesting material about the Armenian Church, and how it is has interacted with the Eastern Orthodox Church on the North American Continent. There are many commonalities in our witness in America, and much we all can learn from each other. I thank SOCHA for being so accommodating and willing to entertain an Armenian voice, and I am glad to lend a hand to broaden their exploration of the rich tapestry of ancient Christianity on the North American continent.
This article was written by Aram Sarkisian.