Strange as it may seem to Western Christians, Armenia can claim to be the first kingdom to officially convert to Christianity.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of civilization in Armenia dating back to the early Bronze Age, but Armenians first appear in history in the eighth century B.C. as the kingdom of Urartu. Urartu was pronounced “Ararat” by the early Israelites. Thus, when the Bible claims that Noah’s Ark came to rest on the “mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4), it is referring to the mountains of Armenia. Indeed, the massive volcanic Mount Ararat, near Yerevan, Armenia, is traditionally identified as the resting place of Noah’s Ark.
The Armenian kingdom of antiquity was one of the major powers of the classical Middle East; its king Tigranes the Great (r. 95-66 B.C.) conquered much of the region. With the approach of the Romans from the west and the Persians from the east, however, Armenia was eventually conquered and partitioned between those two great powers.
Religiously, ancient Armenians were polytheists, influenced by both Greek and Persian religions. But this began to change in the early fourth century A.D. According to tradition, a young Armenian prince named Gregory became a refugee from his homeland when his father was executed for attempting to assassinate the king of Persia. The young exile was raised and educated by a Christian and ultimately converted to Christianity. Upon returning to Armenia, Gregory “the Illuminator” (or “Enlightener”) (ca. 257-331) started preaching throughout his homeland. Known as a miracle-worker, Gregory was summoned to heal the ailing Armenian king Tiridates III (r. 287-330). Convinced by his miraculous recovery, Tiridates converted to Christianity around 301, a decade before the conversion of Constantine of Rome. Although the population of Armenia was still largely pagan at this time, Tiridates made Christianity the state religion and Armenia became the first officially Christian nation.
With the blessing of Tiridates, Gregory continued preaching throughout Armenia. He was ultimately made patriarch of Armenia, and he laid the foundations for the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the mother church of Armenia. Upon his death, he became the patron saint of his homeland. Thereafter, Christianity in Armenia spread slowly but steadily. Armenian bishops participated in early church councils, and, in the early fifth century, the Bible was translated into Armenian by St. Mesrob, who created the Armenian script and laid the foundation for a rich medieval Armenian literature.
However, theological and political disputes with the Imperial Church of Byzantine Constantinople eventually led to a schismatic break with Greek Orthodoxy. At the Council of Dvin in 506, the Armenian Apostolic Church became independent. Thereafter, Armenian Christianity developed its independent theological tradition, with a unique style of church architecture and large elegant, highly ornamented free-standing stone crosses known as “khachkar” (“cross stone”). For well over a thousand years Armenian Christians have also had a striking presence in Jerusalem, with their patriarch and a headquarters and seminary at the Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian (southeast) quarter of the Old City.
In early modern times, Armenia had the misfortune of being situated in a border zone between three large competing empires — Iran, Turkey and Russia — and was frequently partitioned among those states. Armenians have thus suffered severely from the horrors of war and revolution, most notoriously in the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Turks in 1915. During World War I, Armenians were divided roughly equally between Russian and Turkey. Muslim Turks feared that Christian Armenians would support the invading Christian Russians, and anti-Armenian paranoia spread like wildfire. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were murdered, with hundreds of thousands becoming refugees in a global diaspora.
In 1990, Armenia, one of the Soviet “Republics,” declared its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, and is now an independent country. Today, approximately 3 million people live in Armenia, while several million live outside their homeland in the diaspora. (Russia and the United States have the largest expatriate Armenian populations.)
As part of that diaspora, nearly 2,000 Armenian-Americans reside in Utah today. However, Utah’s links with Armenia extend back well over a century. Under The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Turkish Mission — covering regions then under control of Ottoman Turkey — Mormon missionaries preached to Armenians from 1884-1909 and 1921-1924. When war and revolution rendered such missions increasingly problematic, the mission was closed, though a small Armenian LDS branch survived in Aleppo into the 1940s. A new LDS mission opened in 1999, and there are now several thousand LDS members in Armenia.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.