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.
Recently, the posting of an article on the first Armenian Orthodox churches in America was the occasion for some controversy on the SOCHA Facebook page. Why are SOCHA resources being spent on this, etc.?
If you have a Facebook account and read the responses to these comments, you will see some very good reasons. Foremost among them is that this website is a private, cooperative endeavor between those who happen to be spending their own time on it. We don’t receive funding from anywhere other than our own pockets, so there’s no reason why anyone should fear that official funds are being used in some objectionable way.
Yet one must ask why this is supposedly objectionable in the first place. Ironically, we’ve covered a number of apostates and outright non-Orthodox in the past without much protest, yet there are folks who object to Non-Chalcedonians being covered. How they’re okay with the former but not the latter is frankly a bit beyond me.
To be sure, there are some among the Chalcedonian (“Eastern”) Orthodox who look upon the Non-Chalcedonian (“Oriental”) Orthodox as heretics and therefore utterly irrelevant to such a site as this. Readers are left to determine for themselves what they think about this theological issue. At the same time, the official dialogues between the two church bodies have pretty much determined that we have the same Orthodox faith. Whichever may be the case, it is an unmistakable fact that of all the church bodies in the world, the Oriental Orthodox are the closest to the Eastern Orthodox. Although we share the same literal language of Christology as the Roman Catholic Church, anyone who’s ever spent time with both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox church families will find much more in common there than between Eastern Orthodoxy and Rome. As such, it only makes sense that we would spend time together. How or if the theological problems will be solved is another matter, to be sure (and an important one), but that is not the point of this website, nor of SOCHA in general.
SOCHA consists of people who like history, both reading it and often writing it. If we happen to like writing about Non-Chalcedonians (something we’ve largely not done as yet because most of us are unqualified), or if we want to invite someone to write about them for the site, then that is simply for furthering our mutual interest in history. If readers want to read it, great! If not, then they can simply skip it. No one’s losing anything by virtue of there being such articles on OrthodoxHistory.org.
At the same time, even if we were to receive funding from a church or foundation or the like, we would still have no problem publishing material about the Non-Chalcedonians. After all, there are print publications that do the same thing—even from Chalcedonian seminaries. And who is harmed by this? I would argue that we are all actually benefited by getting to know each other better. There actually is some real possibility for reunion between the two church bodies in the future—whether readers happen to think this is a good idea or not, it is nonetheless actually a possibility, and it’s being discussed at the official level by both bodies in a way more serious than they treat any other church body.
In any event, I myself am not interested only in Orthodox Christian history (whether one defines that only as Chalcedonian Orthodoxy or to include Non-Chalcedonian), but Christian history in general and even non-Christian religious history. If you’ve ever listened to any of my podcasts comparing Orthodoxy and heterodoxy, you know I’m not particularly “ecumenical” (I like to practice what I call “Ecumenism with a Gun“). So believe me when I say that I think it’s worthwhile for us to include material from the Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Indian, Ethiopian and Eritrean churches on this site. And if you don’t believe me, well, then don’t read it! You’re most likely not paying for it, anyway.
This article was written by Fr. Andrew S. Damick.
As far as I can tell, in the year and a half we’ve been publishing articles here at OH.org, we’ve never once posted anything on the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The main reason is simply that our authors are all Eastern Orthodox, and really can’t speak with any kind of expertise on the history of Non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy in America. But, while very real theological issues exist between Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and while we Eastern Orthodox are not in communion with our Oriental Orthodox brethren, nevertheless we shouldn’t ignore their history. They don’t appear to have their own website to discuss their history in America, and when I stumbled upon the following reference recently, I thought that our readers might find it fascinating. Here, then, is an excerpt from the entry on the Armenian Church in the 1916 Census of Religious Bodies:
For many years, as a result largely of the influence of schools established by Americans, the attention of the people [of Armenia] had been turned to the United States, and a number of young men had come to this country, chiefly for education. With the increase of political disturbances and the disappointment of political hopes, others followed until there were several large communities of Armenians. Some of these had belonged to the Protestant Armenian Church, and, on coming to America, identified themselves with either the Congregational or Presbyterian denominations. The greater number, however, especially as the immigration grew, belonged to the national church, and felt the need of special services.
In 1889 Rev. Hovsep Sarajian, a priest from Constantinople, was sent to minister to a few hundred Armenians, most of them living in the state of Massachusetts, and in 1891 a church was built in Worcester, Mass., which became, and is still, the headquarters of the Armenian Church in the United States. The great increase of Armenian immigrants made it necessary for him to have several assistants, and the still greater influx of Armenians during and after the outbreaks of 1894 and later induced the Catholicos to raise the United States to a missionary diocese, Father Sarajian being consecrated as first bishop. Since then the Armenians have increased so rapidly, in both the United States and Canada, that the Catholicos found it necessary in 1902 to grant a special constitution, and in 1903 to invest the bishop with archiepiscopal authority. The mission was then recognized and divided into pastorates — the nuclei of future dioceses — over each of which a pastor in priest’s orders was appointed. All places outside these pastorates are regarded as mission stations under the direct management of the archbishop, who either visits them or sends missionaries to them from time to time.
Pending the building of churches, arrangements have frequently been made with the rectors of Episcopal churches for weekly services, to be conducted by Armenian pastors for their congregations. In other places halls have been rented and fitted up as churches, and regular weekday services have been conducted in them. Besides these regular weekly services, the pastors have biweekly, monthly, or quarterly services in different places, either in halls rented for each service or in Episcopal churches, while occasional services, such as baptisms, marriages, and other devotional exercises, are frequently conducted in private homes.
The 1916 Census reported 34 Armenian parishes and 27,450 members, served by 17 priests. Males represented about 2/3 of the population, which is comparable to the Eastern Orthodox numbers in the same census. The largest concentration of Armenian parishes and people was in Massachusetts, followed by Michigan, California, and New York.
A brief timeline of Armenian Orthodoxy in America may be found here.
If anyone out there has a good knowledge of Oriental Orthodox history in America and is interested in writing some articles for OH.org, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Journey To Orthodoxy yesterday ran a piece about the conversion of reggae artist Bob Marley to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (a non-Chalcedonian church very similar to but not currently in communion with the [Eastern] Orthodox Church). It’s worth a read. We thought it might also be of interest to see this primary source document pictured above which also witnesses to his 1980 baptism—at which he took the name Berhane Selassie (“Light of the Trinity”)—and subsequent burial in 1981 by the Ethiopian Orthodox in Jamaica.
The image we found is a little small, so here’s the full text for those whose eyes (zoom capability) might not be quite up to the task:
HON. ROBERT NESTA MARLEY, O.M.
(BOB MARLEY – BERHANE SELASSIE)
(Light of the Trinity)
THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
89 MAXFIELD AVENUE, KINGSTON, JAMAICA
THE NATIONAL ARENA
THURSDAY, MAY 21, 1981
HIS EMINENCE, ABOUNA YESSEHAQ
ARCHBISHOP OF THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
Assisted by Priests and Deacons of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jamaica
SERVICE WILL BE PERFORMED IN GEEZ, AMHAIRIC AND ENGLISH