Christianity in Armenia can be traced back to the age of the Apostles. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the first evangelizers of Armenia and, according to tradition, were martyred there. There is historical evidence of the existence of a Christian community and clergy in Armenia prior to the fourth century. The church historian Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260-c.339) refers to Meruzhanes, a bishop of Armenia in the middle of the third century. It was at the beginning of the fourth century, in 301, that Christianity was first proclaimed as the official religion of Armenia. This proclamation was the result of the missionary activity of St. Gregory the Illuminator (240-332). The fifth century historian Agathangelos recounts the works of the patron saint of the Armenian Church. St. Gregory, a relative of the Armenian king Tiridates (c. 238-314), was brought up as a Christian in Caesarea in Cappadocia. The pagan Tiridates had St. Gregory imprisoned for nearly fifteen years in Khor Virab (“deep dungeon”) in Artashat. Several years later, a group of Christian nuns, led by St. Gayane and fleeing persecution in Rome, came to Armenia. King Tiridates was attracted to one of the women, St. Hripsime, who resisted his attempts to possess her. In his anger, Tiridates had the women killed. After the martyrdom of the women, Tiridates was struck by an illness that turned the king into a wild boar. After all other attempts at curing him failed, the king’s sister St. Khosrovidoukht told her brother that only St. Gregory could cure him. Fifteen years had passed since Gregory’s imprisonment in the dungeon so he was presumed dead. But he was still alive and was released from the dungeon. Gregory cured Tiridates and converted the king and the royal family to Christianity. At this time, Gregory had still not been ordained. In 302, he left for Caesarea, which was an important see at the time, where he was ordained a bishop by Leontius, the Archbishop of Caesarea. Gregory returned to Armenia, baptized the king and the royal family, was installed as the first Catholicos, or chief bishop of Armenia, and continued to convert the Armenian people.
Another important event associated with St. Gregory was the vision that he had in Vagharshapat of Christ descending from heaven and striking the ground with a golden hammer. It is at this spot that the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin (“the Only Begotten descended”) was built. Nearby were built the churches of St. Hripsime and Gayane, where the relics of the martyred nuns are kept.
With the support of the royal family, Christianity was able to spread quickly throughout Armenia and within just a few centuries to permeate all aspects of Armenian life and culture. Furthermore, Armenian missionaries were sent among the Georgians and Alans, who also subsequently established their own national churches.
St. Gregory’s son, Aristakes, succeeded his father as Catholicos. Aristakes had been the representative of the Armenian Church at the Council of Nicaea (325). The Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, set forth the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is formulated in the Nicene Creed (Havadamk), which is professed every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. Under Catholicos Nerses the Great (c. 326-373; Catholicos from 353 to 373), monasteries and various charitable institutions were first established throughout Armenia.
The See of the Catholicos is not attached to any particular city. St. Gregory and his immediate successors resided at Etchmiadzin but in 485 the See was moved by Catholicos St. Hovhannes Manadakuni (Catholicos from 478 to 490) to Dvin, near Etchmiadzin. The See remained at Dvin until the beginning of the tenth century. From the tenth century until the middle of the twelfth century, it was moved several times to various cities. One of these cities was Ani, renowned as the city of “a thousand and one churches.” Ani contained many of the most magnificent examples of Armenian church architecture. The most extraordinary figure in the Church during this time was St. Gregory of Narek (950-1010). A monk, poet, and mystic, St. Gregory produced a remarkable literary legacy. His masterpiece is the Book of Lamentations, but his numerous hymns and theological writings also exhibit his genius.
As a result of invasions and the deteriorating political conditions in Armenia Major, many Armenians migrated to Cilicia during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In 1116, the See was moved to Cilicia. In 1149, it was established at the fortress of Hromkla, and then, in 1292, moved to Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
The period during which the Catholicate of All Armenians was in Cilicia was an especially vibrant time for the Armenian Church. There was increased contact and relations with other churches, particularly with the Roman Church. The most famous and influential Catholicos during this period was St. Nerses IV Klayetsi (1102-1173), also called Shnorhali (“the Graceful”). St. Nerses Shnorhali is universally acknowledged as a great ecumenist who engaged in dialogue with both the Greek and Latin churches. He produced a large number of theological and spiritual writings, among the most famous being his “General Epistle,” which is addressed to the Armenian people. He was also a musician and poet, composing many of the hymns still sung today in the Armenian Church.
St. Nerses Shnorhali was the great uncle of St. Nerses of Lambron (1153-1198), who is also widely acknowledged for his deep devotion to and activity on behalf of unity of the churches. He is also the author of one of the best commentaries on the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church.
In 1375, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed by the Mamelukes of Egypt. The Catholicate remained in Cilicia, but because there was peace in Armenia Major now, many Armenians wished to return the see to its original home in Etchmiadzin. Catholicos Grigor Mousabegyantz, however, did not wish to leave Cilicia. Instead, a new Catholicos, Kirakos of Virab, an ascetic, was elected at Etchmiadzin in 1441. Henceforth, there have been two Catholicates, the Catholicate of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin and the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia. Both Catholicates have their own jurisdiction and have generally cooperated and worked together harmoniously.
During the fourteenth century Latin missionaries attempting to unite the Armenian Church with the Latin Church were active throughout Armenia. In response to this threat to the distinct character of the Armenian Church, many Armenian clergymen and theologians defended the doctrines and practices of the Armenian Church. Among the most notable of these theologians is St. Gregory of Tatev (1346-1410). A gifted teacher and preacher, St. Gregory wrote a number of theological works in defense of Armenian orthodoxy.
Although the early Latin missionaries in Armenia did not succeed in converting a substantial number of Armenians to Roman Catholicism, their activities did eventually have significant consequences. One positive consequence was the translation of many medieval Western theological works into Armenian. Another is The Catholic Mekhitarist Order, founded by Mekhitar of Sebastia (1676-1749), and today having monasteries in Venice and Vienna. The order is noted for its invaluable intellectual and scholarly achievements and for its role in the renaissance of Armenian culture in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the establishment of a distinct Armenian Catholic community and church in 1831 has caused a lasting and often bitter division among Armenians. The see of the Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics is located in the monastery of Bzommar in Lebanon.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries were also active in Armenia. Protestant missionaries established schools and charitable organizations and exposed many Armenians to the influence of progressive Western ideas. But Protestant missionary activity further divided the Armenians religiously with the recognition in 1846 by the Ottoman Government of a separate Protestant community.