A HISTORICAL AND CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF BAPTIST ORIGINS IN ARMENIA
The story of Baptist witness and ministry in Armenia began at the end of the nineteenth century. Its roots can be traced to an Armenian believers’ community in Tbilisi (in Georgia ), but also to Shushi and Alexandrapol (today’s Gyumri) in the part of Armenia which then was under the Russian Empire. However, it should also be noted that the ground for Baptist missions in Armenia , especially in its Eastern and Northern parts, was prepared by Lutheran missionaries from Basel , Switzerland , in the 1820s and 1830s. These missionaries acquainted Armenians with basic Protestant beliefs. Since there is no comprehensive record of Baptist developments in Armenia , the present essay aims to collect and analyze historical data found in different sources, often referring to only one aspect of the early Baptist story in this country. I am aware that the early Baptist story in Armenia is somewhat complicated. In addition to the above mentioned impulses, Baptist movement was indirectly influenced by Evangelical (Presbyterian and Congregational) work in Western Armenia , which was until 1915 under Ottoman rule and the young Turkish government. Also, one should remember, that there were large Armenian communities outside the Armenian territory. Throughout the history of Armenian Baptists these communities have played an important role – in the early years in Tbilisi as well as in Baku , Azerbaijan , and later, when many Armenians, including those with Protestant and Evangelical views, returned to their homeland, they also influenced the Baptist movement. Political realities also had an impact on Baptists. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the country was divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, and also the churches were influenced by that division. Though working closely with the wider Evangelical and Protestant movement in Armenia , the Baptists experienced the difficulty of different positions, especially in the field of ecclesiology.
It can be said, with certain reservations, that Armenian Baptists had a new beginning after the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s and the Second World War. This study will analyze the events and developments for Armenian Baptists after the war. An account will be given of the impact of that period when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union , and religious freedoms were seriously limited. Political independence and new religious freedoms in the 1990s brought a ‘third beginning’ for Armenian Baptists. Briefly, the dramatic growth of Armenian Baptist churches since independence in 1991 will be shared. The essay aims to demonstrate that there have been three periods of significant growth and development for Armenian Baptists, in a way ‘three beginnings’: in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the Second World War and, more recently, in the 1990s.
Baptist movement among Armenians in the Russian Empire
In 1867 the first Russian Baptist was baptized in the Kura River , Tbilisi , “Gruzinskaya Gubernia” (Georgian region). The Baptist movement spread throughout the Russian Empire, with the Tbilisi church being crucial for bringing the Baptist message to other areas in the theCaucasus. At that time Tbilisi was the cultural center in the Caucasus not only for Georgians, but also for Armenians and Russians. Many famous Armenian writers, composers and artists lived and worked in Tbilisi . For Armenians of that period, Tbilisi was a major center, whileYerevan , today’s capital of the Republic of Armenia , was only a city of 50,000 population. The Georgian capital city became also the spiritualcenter for the Baptists of different ethnic groups, including Armenians, who were represented in the city and its surroundings. Some of the newly converted Armenian Baptists went to their motherland, feeling responsibility and enthusiasm to share their views. Also, the Tbilisichurch sent many missionaries to “plant” Baptist churches in the Russian Empire, including Armenia . The distance from Tbilisi to the Armenian border is only 55 kilometers. These early Baptists, according to the Bratskiy Vestnik [Brotherly Herald], the Baptist magazine, were very mission-minded. V. Krasinskiy said in his article History and Growth of the Evangelical-Baptist Movement in Tbilisi :
“It is necessary to note that the Baptist Church in Tbilisi has been populated by inhabitants of multiple nationalities. Therefore, the members, who found acceptance in that community after having become stronger in faith and in the knowledge of the truth, left Tbilisi and went either to their motherlands or to work in other countries. After their arrival in a new place, they began the work of preaching of the Gospel, and new communities were planted. Thus, the community in Tbilisi became like a nursery for the distribution of evangelical truth across all the Russian Empire”.
The image of ‘nursery’ is fitting well to describe also Armenian Baptist and Tbilisi church relations. Armenians got encouragement, guidance and theological input from this church.
However, there was a unique Armenian element which shaped the beliefs and worship of Armenian Baptists in Tbilisi , and later in the ‘motherland’. This was closely related to a strong sense of national and ethnic identity. The Armenian believers wanted to organize an Armenian congregation in Tbilisi , in order to worship in their own language and preserve their Armenian culture. Different Armenian nationalistic groups of that period accused the Evangelical believers of neglecting their Armenian culture and tradition. However, the Armenians valued their language and heritage regardless of their denominational identity. One sign of this is that the Armenian Baptists developed their own worship culture. Even today, there is no single Russian hymn in Armenian Baptist hymnbooks.
Though the ‘official’ beginning is not clear, at the latest there was an Armenian-speaking Baptist church in Tbilisi by 1880. The well known Armenian Pastor Abraham Amirkhanyan, who was also the representative of the British Bible Society, began to preach and have services in three different languages, Armenian, Russian and German. He was one of the first Armenian Evangelical-Baptist pastors in the Caucasus .The Armenian Baptist church in Tbilisi was “strategically” located in a key-position, it was it the Caucasian metropolis. Even in Soviet times the Baptist church in Tbilisi had services in three different languages, Georgian, Armenian, and Russian. From this church, many famous Armenian Evangelical-Baptist pastors emerged, including Armenak Melkumyan, Asir Assiryan, Griqor Babayan, Vardan Shahinyan, Asatur Harutyunyan and many others.
A special feature of early Armenian Baptists in Tbilisi was their ability to reach out to the local Armenian intelligentsia. Amirkhanyan was a highly respected person among intelligent Armenians in Tbilisi . The most influential Armenian novelist of this period, Raffi (Hakob Melik-Hokobyan, 1833-1888) had special respect for him.
By the early twentieth century, Armenians had two Evangelical groups in Tbilisi : the church of Evangelical Christians and the Baptist church. These two churches had plans to join, but it was not possible, because of differences in small, but for them important reasons. These two churches merged into the Armenian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church only in 1928, with their own building on Metekhi Street , located in the Hablabar area of Tbilisi . Though the merger of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in Russia ( Soviet Union ) did not take place until 1944, there were local initiatives where Evangelical Christians and Baptists worked together.
Baptist ideas, however, spread not only among Armenians in Tbilisi and its surroundings, but also reached Armenia proper. In Armenia ,Protestant views were not totally unknown. As a result of the preaching of Felician Zaremba and August Dietrich from the Swiss Basel Mission (who worked in the Caucasus between 1821-1835), some Armenians became Protestant believers. This movement divided into two brotherhoods – one centered in Shemakha , Azerbaijan , where in 1866 a Lutheran church was formed, and the other, the Ararat Brotherhood, with its center in the town of Shushi . The latter brotherhood included adherents in the Karabakh region, now fought over byArmenia and Azerbaijan . Zaremba and Dietrich began the translation of the New Testament into eastern Armenian language dialect which is different from western Armenian. According to Northern Lights, a Russian magazine, this Eastern Armenian version of the New Testament was published, with the active participation of a teacher from the Moscow Lazaryan Seminary, Miqael Vardapet, in 1835. The second edition was printed in 1879, again in Moscow . While being an important contribution to Armenian culture in general, this translation also helped to spread the knowledge of the New Testament in Eastern Armenia and encouraged Armenians to read the Scriptures. Zaremba and Dietrich were sent to work mostly among the Muslim population in the Caucasus , but their preaching, educational and literary work also left a lasting trace on Armenian religious life. Later, it was in Shushi, one of the centers for the work of these missionaries, that a Baptist church was established in 1890.
For Baptist missions in the Eastern part of Armenia another town, Alexandropol (today’s Gyumri), was crucially important. I mentioned earlier that members of the Armenian Baptist Church of Tbilisi were actively involved in planting a church in Alexandropol. As in Shushi, the first group of Baptist believers in Alexandropol were already present in 1890. The beginning of this church was slow, but a Baptist revival and active mission work began when Mihran Kotikyan came to the town from Germany in 1920. As a fruit of his active work, many Armenians inAlexandropol and nearby villages were converted and baptized on confession of their personal faith. Kotikyan was assisted by the believers from the Armenian Baptist Church of Tbilisi. During that period in the 1920s, a former teacher of Van (city in western Armenia ) High School, Rafael Meliq-Adamyan and his wife joined Alexandropol Baptists in their church. Some time later, Meliq-Adamyan became the pastor of theBaptist Church in this Northern part of Armenia . Cultural and geographical, as well as religious elements helped the advance of Baptist mission in Armenia . In addition, the Baptist principle that every believer is responsible for making Christ known in this world, gave further energy for mission work.
The political situation should also be considered. During the terrible genocide of 1915-1920, which took place in Western Armenia , today’sEastern Turkey , during which up to 2,000,000 people were killed, the Armenian people were persecuted by the young Turkish government.This also had an impact on Armenian Baptists. Many people, including believers, moved from their homes to find a safer place to live. My own family experienced a major move after that genocide. My grandfather was born in West Armenia which is now Eastern Turkey , close to LakeVan . After the genocide of 1915 he moved to Tbilisi . In 1933 my father was born in Tbilisi . In 1935, they moved to Vladikavkaz, Osetia, in the southern part of Russia . Besides people leaving Western Armenia in the early decades of the twentieth century, there were other trends in migration. Some evangelical believers also moved to other regions in the Caucasus .
In 1920-1921, Baptist work began to grow actively among Armenians in different areas of the Caucasus . At that time and even before, the Armenian Baptist church emerged in the capital city of Azerbaijan , Baku , where another well known Armenian Baptist pastor, PatvakanTarayan, worked. An article by A. Belousov in Bratskiy Vestnik said about pastor Tarayan:
“A big influence on the spiritual development of believers from the Armenian people was made by pastor Patvakan Tarayan and published for them in Baku in the magazine of “Bari Lur,” (Good News). Brother Tarayan possessed uncommon abilities, knew several languages that enabled him to be an effective Evangelist in different cities. Besides that, he was one of the board members of the All-Union of Evangelical Christians. Its influence affected the development of the Armenian Evangelical-Baptist movement in Tbilisi ”.
Evangelical mission in Ottoman Empire : A Background Factor for Armenian Baptist Movement
As Baptists have worked closely with the wider Evangelical tradition in Armenia , especially after the Second World War, it is important to note the role of Presbyterian and Congregational missions in this region of the Caucasus . This Western Evangelical movement among Armenians was started in Istanbul on 1 July 1846 by American Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries. Already in 1831 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a Congregational organization, began considerable mission activity in Turkey , first in Istanbuland later in Anatolia . The goal of this mission, at least in its initial stages, was to renew the Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church, to save it from formalism, and to accustom it to the preaching of the gospel. Initially, Anglicans chose not to work among the Armenians in order not to compete with the Congregational-Presbyterian work. Later, Anglican work also began. Presbyterians and Anglicans were in agreement regarding the need and methods of social work and education, but differed on mission policy. Whereas the Presbyterian missionaries sought conversions, the Anglicans wanted to help the Armenian Apostolic churches to experience reform.
On 1 July 1846 , the Protestant church among the Armenians in Istanbul was established. Its members were excommunicated by theArmenian Apostolic Church . The Armenian Protestants (Evangelicals), who emerged in Ottoman Turkey, were later to influence church life in their motherland. On 27 November 1850 , the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Medjid granted permission for the creation of an independent ecclesiastical organization of Protestant Armenians, which implied acknowledgment of them as a separate millet (congregation). (This church did not have any specific denomination name.)
In the view of Rufus Anderson, the well-known secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the mission experience of thirty years in Ottoman Turkey showed that the old “dead” Nestorian Church could not be reformed and resurrected to spiritual life. Those who were ‘spiritually enlightened’ were to unite on an apostolic foundation in a separate Protestant church. In Western Armenia(then a part of Ottoman Turkey), the ABCFM had changed its mission strategy by the second half of the nineteenth century: not only was it aiming at conversions within the Armenian traditional church, but supported separatism and establishing Protestant ecclesial structures.
As Armenia was divided between the Ottoman Empire (west) and the Russian Empire (east), the people were also divided: those in westernArmenia differed from those in eastern Armenia both by culture and language. The relationship between the western and eastern Armenian people was not good because the Turks were afraid that if the two Armenian peoples were linked, they might organize a revolution in Turkey. In addition, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were engaged in wars, between 1853-1856 and 1877-1878. This was another hindrance in developing relationships between the two groups of Armenian people. Western Evangelical missions could not have any active mission work in Eastern Armenia which was under Russian control.
There is a widespread popular opinion, that all the Protestant movement of growth in Armenia came from the beginnings in Istanbul in 1846. However, this view is too one-sided. Armenian Protestantism, with all its links and differences between Lutherans, Congregational and Presbyterian believers, as well as Baptists, is more complicated. There were different Protestant and Evangelical influences, and an attempt to trace these back to one source only would inevitably distort the historical picture.
In these early years there hardly could be any relations or mutual influence between Congregational and Presbyterian origins and Baptist churches in Armenia . However, the situation changed in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Western Evangelical believers began to come to eastern Armenia in 1894-99 because the Sultan Abdul Hamid II organized the first wave of the Armenian genocide. About 200,000 Armenians were killed. Sultan declared privately that “The only way to get rid of the Armenian Question is to get rid of the Armenians”. Only after that genocide, some Evangelical believers from Western Armenia fled to Eastern Armenia , and when they arrived, they also built contacts with Baptists in Eastern Armenia . When these two groups met each other, they found that they had some areas of agreement and common experience, like being a persecuted minority. Nevertheless, doctrinally they had different approaches, especially about infant baptism and attitudes toward Scripture. These differences still exist today. However, during the Soviet years some of the ‘descendants’ of the nineteenth century Evangelicals of Western Armenia, joined the Baptists, then working under the name of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. The Armenian Baptist story, much more than in some other European countries, is intertwined with the wider Protestant and Evangelical story.
The Soviet Years 1920-1943 – from relative freedom to persecution
The Communist Red Army occupied the young Republic of Armenia at the end of November 1920. For seventy one years, from 1920 until 1991, Armenia was a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics . Just as in the whole of the Soviet Union there existed a short period of relative freedom for Evangelical churches (until 1929), also in Armenia and in the entire Caucasus region, the Baptist churches were strengthened during this period. Again, the Tbilisi church played a role of supporter and helper. As the fruit of active evangelism of Patvakan Tarayan and Hovhannes Galustyan (John Mark, his American name), many Armenians came to Christ in Tbilisi during 1921-1926. The new Armenian Baptist groups were started in Stepanavan, village Urut ( Northern Armenia ), and in Batumi ( Western Georgia ) by the mission work of the Armenian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Tbilisi. H. Galustyan in his book History of My Life, recalled his visits to the Evangelical-Baptist Church in Gyumri, where he met the well known Baptist minister Sanin, and a group of Baptist believers in Kara Kilis (today Vanadzor). Unfortunately, in 1924 communist leaders already started to put up different kinds of barriers, and to limit church activities. At the end of the 1920s these actions became a widespread persecution for all religious groups. Under the Stalinist persecution of the 1930s, all congregations were closed. Many church leaders and members of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches were sent to labor camps and some of them died or were killed under Stalin’s repressions. It was the most horrible period for Armenian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches, the work of the church was practically wiped out. This is why we are entitled to talk about a new beginning for Armenian Baptists after 1944.
The Soviet Years 1944-90 – Baptist churches re-established
In 1944, the changed religious policy in the Soviet Union again allowed Baptist work. Some Protestant groups, such as the Ararat Brotherhood which was a fruit of the nineteenth century Basel Mission work (Shushi), also merged with Baptists. In Yerevan , today’s capital city of Armenia , a Baptist church, springing from many different Evangelical traditions, was formed. Evangelical Christians-Baptists, with roots in Eastern Armenian Baptist tradition, were one of these groups. Also a number of Western Armenian Evangelicals, historically from Presbyterian and Congregationalist backgrounds, joined this new congregation. Most members of this group had repatriated to Armenia after the Second World War, from different Middle Eastern or European countries, such as France, Greece , Bulgaria and others. As most of these ‘Western Armenians’ held dear the theology of Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries, who had worked in Istanbul in the nineteenth century, theological conflict was inevitable. The issue of the meaning and mode of baptism arose in this new congregation in Yerevan . Most of these Western Armenian Evangelical believers already had been baptized as infants. Later, in their spiritual development, they had experienced a conversion or grown deeper into the life of discipleship. After long conversations, the Protestant-Evangelical group of Western Armenians gradually accepted the principle of believer’s baptism by immersion, and the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Yerevan with 110 members was accepted on 19 July 1947 into the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of the USSR (AUCECB). The Vice-President of the AUCECB, Mikhail Orlov, after visiting Yerevan in 1947, reported that the church had a choir of 20 members. The Yerevan church symbolizes the new beginning and the new challenges of the Armenian Baptist movement after the Second World War. There was a need to adjust to a new situation, the atheistic context, but also to learn to work with believers from different traditions.
The Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Yerevan became the mother church for many Armenian Evangelical believers between 1944-1990. If in the nineteenth century and even later, for many Armenian Baptists, Tbilisi played an important role, the focus now shifted towardsYerevan . The first pastor of the Yerevan church was Benyamin Kocharyan. The church experienced a revival when Sarqis Konsulyan took pastoral responsibility. He was very well educated and had earned the degree of Doctor of Theology. This was very unusual for that communist period. Konsulyan had studied in Bulgaria and Switzerland . Aram Arakelyan and Hakob Torosyan whom I interviewed in Pasadena were ‘disciples’ of Sarqis Konsulyan, and confirmed that Konulyan did wonderful work in the Yerevan church during his pastoral time between 1957-1974. He left Armenia because of some family problems in 1974.
For the church, it was very difficult after seventeen years of the ministry of Sarqis Konsulyan to hear the sermons of Voskan Eqmekjyan, who was ordained to spiritual work in the Yerevan church at the end of April 1975. Pastor Eqmekjyan was a very humble person. The congregation loved him, but his sermons and Bible knowledge were not so deep, like those of the previous pastor. His health condition also was not good enough to lead a church which had grown to 250 members. This is why, in 1979, a younger brother, Yuri Avanesyan, was ordained as the Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Yerevan. Yuri Avanesyan led this church between 1979-2003. In February 2003 he passed away after an unexpected and serious accident.
Though the Yerevan church had an important role for Armenian Baptists, there was a renewal of Baptist work also in Gyumri (Alexandropol), which during Communist times was renamed Leninakan . The church services in this town, which had seen a Baptist presence at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, started again from the beginning of 1960. The Church was under the leadership of Pastor Grigor Malakyan. In 1977 the new church building was dedicated. Though there were some sporadic Baptist groups, the Yerevan andGyumri churches remained for years the only official Baptist churches in the country. Baptist work, however, did not only depend on pastors. In a typical Baptist way there were a number of lay preachers who helped the pastors to preach the gospel.
The Soviet government put many restrictions on believers. Childrens’ work was practically prohibited. When this author first came to the Baptist church in Yerevan , in November 1982, Sunday School was permitted only at Christmas and Easter. And even this was an exception. Believers could not organize any kind of activity outside the church building. Bible study groups, witnessing to other people at a workplace or in school was considered illegal. Very often, a KGB informant was attending the Sunday morning service to hear what pastors and preachers were saying. Afterwards, if something was objectionable, the KGB agent, through a representative of the Council for Religious Affairs, could invite the chairman of the church board to his office for an interview and ‘admonition’. The church board chairman at that time,Aram Arakelyan, who during the writing of this paper was still living in Pasadena , California , had vivid memories of those years. I interviewed him on 9 December 2003 . He recalled that one never knew who the KGB agent was, though believers could try to guess. The State authorities also checked the church’s financial documents. Arakelyan recalled that the church leaders were very careful and tried to be correct so that there could be no accusation against them. Another leader from that period who was a deacon was Hakob Torosyan. He recalled that the KGB warned them not to have any activities outside the church building. The mission work of the church was hindered. Yet, it was not possible for the atheistic government to totally suppress the mission activity of church members. Often simple witness and testimony bear fruits. One of the Yerevan church members came to our home in November 1982 and witnessed to all of my family. Afterwards we visited the church. I came to the Baptist church because of the simple, authentic and convincing witness of Baptist believers. Needless to repeat, any systematic evangelism or church planting was impossible. In the Soviet years of slow re-start of the Armenian Baptist movement, the believers got strength from their historical identity: activity of every church member, personal witness and lifestyle, and fellowship in local churches, scarce as these were. In Yerevan , the Baptist church faced a need to clarify its relations to the Armenian Evangelical tradition, as many people from this tradition joined the Yerevan church. Baptist ecclesiological positions were confirmed.
There were some new developments regarding the majority church, the Armenian Apostolic Church . In those years, there were very good relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church which was also under pressure from the communists.Because of that, there was an understanding between the Baptists and the Armenian Apostolic Church . Very often, His Holiness Catholicos Vazgen I (1908-1994), the spiritual leader of that church, invited Baptist leaders Yuri Avanesyan, Aram Arakelyan and Hakob Torosyan for a friendly meeting. He was always asking how He (according to Armenian tradition, the pronoun for this leader should always be capitalized) might help if there was some kind of problem. Christians had a common commitment of defending Christian faith and practice. The Apostolic Church , which has an approximately 1700-year-long Christian tradition in Armenia , felt that, because of the communist oppression, it was important for Christians to support one another.
The New Era 1991-2006: Revival of Armenian Baptist Life
On 21 September 1991 , Armenia was proclaimed an independent state, with 99% supporting political independence. Two days later the Armenian Parliament officially proclaimed the Republic of Armenia an independent state. This new situation, which brought also new religious freedoms, had a great influence on the churches, especially the Baptist churches in Armenia . At that time the Yerevan church had about 350 members, and the Gyumri church had 70 members. There were also three mission points – in Kirovakan, Stepanavan, and Krasnoselsk. There were only 2 ordained pastors: Yuri Avanesyan in Yerevan , and Griror Malakyan in Gyumri. The latter left Armenia for America in at the end of 1990.
One significant event for Armenian Baptists was the founding of the Nazarene Bible College in September 1992 in the Central Baptist Churchin Yerevan . There were 24 Baptist students and one Pentecostal. This college, though not officially Baptist, helped to train Baptist preachers and church leaders, which were very much needed as Baptist work was going to expand in the coming years. However, also questions of identity could not be avoided. Though Baptists had friendlyrelationships with Nazarenes, in this phase of new growth it was necessary again to confirm Baptist principles and self-understanding.
On 26 March 1998 , the Congress of the Baptist churches decided to request the registration of the Baptist Union in Armenia . The registration was successful and Yuri Avanesyan was selected President and Asatur Nahapetyan was elected General Secretary. From that period the Board of the Union began to work actively with a vision of church planting and providing education for pastors. The new, historically the third wave, of resurgence of Armenian Baptist life and mission directed the union to focus on these two priorities: active evangelism and theological and ministerial training.
Working together with Nazarenes and Evangelical believers of ‘Western Armenian’ tradition in the field of theological education, though helpful in the early 1990s, also posed problems. The students, often young believers who were unaware of Baptist tradition in Armenia or in wider world, grew identity-wise in a ‘grey zone’ with several theological and practicalinfluences. No doubt, cooperation with other traditions should be recommended, however, it is important that one is aware of one’s own identity. In the situation where Baptist identity was comparatively weak in Armenia , it was clear that Baptists had a need for their own training center. In August 1998, the Board of the Armenian Baptist Union authorized Gagik Tarverdyan, Yuri Avanesyan and Asatur Nahapetyan to organize a Baptist seminary, and Asatur Nahapetyan was entrusted with the leadership of the Seminary. The first classes began in March 1999 in the Central Baptist Church in Yerevan . In October 2001, the new building of the Seminary was dedicated in the city of Ashtarak which is located, near Yerevan . Until 2006 approximately one hundred students had graduated from two departments, Bachelor of Theology and Christian Education.
Today, in 2006, in the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches of Armenia , there are more than 125 churches and mission points, with about 4000 baptized believers. Baptist seminary education is closely linked to the evangelism goals of the union. The third wave of Baptist mission in Armenia has not lost its momentum as of today.
This essay has argued that there were different influences on early Armenian Baptist life. Attempts to reduce Armenian Baptist story only to a single starting point or only one formative force, inevitably suffer from one-sidedness. An important impulse for this early movement came from the Baptist community in Tbilisi , which besides German and Russian speaking Baptist groups was a place also for an Armenian speaking Baptist work. Also, in Armenian territory, Protestant and wider Evangelical influences should be seen as a part of the Baptist picture. Lutheran missionaries from the Basel mission in the 1820s and 1830s raised the awareness of the authority of the Bible among Armenians and encouraged the local people to read the Scriptures in their own language. A number of Evangelical, mostly Presbyterian and Congregational, believers merged with the Yerevan Baptist church after the Second World War. There is still a need to maintain the “evangelical ecumenism” that has served the Armenian Baptists so well in the past and yet to strive for an awakened Baptist identity in Armenian Baptist life. The essay has also argued that Baptist development in Eastern Armenia and in Western Armenia have somewhat different dynamics, which should not be neglected. In Western Armenia the influence of Congregational and Presbyterian mission efforts is clearly a part of the story, even if the impact of this mission shaped Baptist life indirectly in the early years. In Eastern Armenia the beginnings of Baptist penetration have roots which go back to the Armenian Baptist Church in Tbilisi . Stalin’s repressions practically stopped Baptist life in Armenia , which was revived only after the Second World War, with the Yerevan church becoming an important Baptist center during Soviet times. Although the years of Soviet occupation placed severe restrictions on Christian witness, Baptists kept their faithfulness to God and their heritage by focusing on personal evangelism, Christian lifestyle and supporting each other in church fellowship. After new political and religious freedoms dawned in Armenia in the 1990s, a renewal of Baptist life has again taken place in Armenia . This new situation has opened up new avenues for witness and pastoral training.
Author: Asatur Nahapetyan
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