Armenian Gregorian Christianity

Armenia, won to Christianity in the third century chiefly through the efforts of Gregory the Illuminator, owed much of its cohesion to that faith. Christianity was the national religion and had a national organization. A border state, between the two great empires of the Romans and the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians and then between the Byzantine successor of Rome and the Arab Caliphs, Armenia was repeatedly invaded and threatened by conquest from both sides. Inhabiting a rugged country, the Armenians relied for their independence upon their armies and the fortified hilltop strongholds of their nobility. The Sassanids succeeded in extending their suzerainty over the country, and in the fifth century, perhaps to ensure complete submission, attempted to force Zoroastrian-ism on the land. This led to revolt and late in the fifth century the Sassanian monarch gave up the effort to de-Christianize Armenia by force and granted religious liberty.

The Armenian Church held to the faith of Nicsa as against Arianism, but it rejected Chalcedon and remained Monophysite. The definite rupture with the Catholic Church was in 491. This may have been in part from the desire to preserve the independence of the land against Byzantine rule. Chalcedon was anathematized twice in the sixth century by synods of the Armenian Church, first in 524 or 527 and then in 552. In the latter part of the sixth century an occasional Armenian prelate conformed to the Catholic faith, but brought with him no large proportion of his flock. Late in the sixth century Persia was constrained to cede part of Armenia to the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. In the portion which he controlled, Maurice had a council of Armenian bishops called which gave its adherence to Chalcedon and named an Orthodox Catholicos, or head, of the Armenian Church. Since the bishops who were in the part of the country not under Byzantine control would not assent to this action, a schism took place. In general, the Armenians held to their Monophysitism and as a symbol of their political independence of Constantinople.

The coming of the Arabs meant a new threat to Armenian political and religious freedom. After fighting which lasted from 639 to 859 the Armenians granted the Arabs the same kind of suzerainty which the Sassanids had enjoyed. This permitted the Armenians a considerable degree of autonomy. In general, the Arabs conceded to the Armenians liberty to hold to their faith. Late in the seventh and early in the eighth century there were further Byzantine efforts to bring conformity with the Catholic Church, but for the most part the Armenians remained aloof and in 719 a national council again declared itself against the Chalcedonian position. The Christianity of Armenia differed in some of its practices from that of Constantinople. Its clergy were largely hereditary, perhaps going back for precedent to the hereditary priesthood of pagan days. In the mass it used wine unmixed with water. The Armenian Church had its own literature in the language of the country and made contributions in architecture which appear to be one source of the Byzantine ecclesiastical style. It had strong monasteries, prosperous schools, and distinctive art. It spread east of the Euphrates, largely through Armenian colonies and merchants.

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