American Gospel: Selling Mormon Salvation in the Ottoman Empire

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Over 120 years ago, on May 27, 1894, to be exact, my great-great grandfather Hagop Tumas Gagosian stood on the banks of the Halys River, drenched and reborn, a spiritual outlaw. He would recall later that it was a “good-sized river” fed by mountain streams, with its “clear, cool water” the home to many fish. His distant cousin, Nishan Krikor Sherinian, had just baptized him as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Nishan himself had been a relatively recent convert to the faith, six years earlier in 1888. He was one of a handful of Armenians in the Ottoman cities of Constantinople, Aintab, Marash, Zara, and Sivas who would hear the word of the Mormon missionaries, and make the radical decision to leave behind the Orthodox faith of his family, a faith his ancestors had followed since 301 A.D.

In keeping with a motif common to Mormon conversion testimonies, Nishan is said to have had a dream in which he and his father in-law, Nigoghos Sherinian, argued with some of their relatives in defense of the Mormon faith. The men could not be reconciled in their disagreement until a stranger entered the door and spoke on behalf of Nishan and Nigoghos. The next day, the missionary Ferdinand Hintze came to Nishan as he was working in the dry goods store he owned and told him he had just the previous day baptized his father in-law Nigoghos and ordained him as an elder. The dream had been a message, and the message spread quickly in the Armenian community of Zara.

This true tale is tucked away in an obscure and forgotten corner of both Armenian and Latter-day Saint history, and the motivations and desires of those involved are often veiled behind an ongoing evangelical agenda with which my family has been complicit.

***

Like many Diaspora Armenians, I was raised with the specter of Genocide lurking furtively around the corner of a personal history I discerned only fragmentarily. Until much later in my life, my experience as an American of Armenian extraction did not extend very far beyond the mustering of my saintly forbearance when strangers inevitably tripped over the foreign syllables of my name.

It is, of course, not my fault. This lack of Armenian identity… it is due to no lack of interest on my part. Dilution, absorption, and assimilation are only the natural consequence of the dispersal of our cultural seeds. Although my great grandfather, Ferdinand Gagosian, was born in Ottoman Armenia in the little village of Zara, his son, Hagop Gagosian, did not speak Armenian, and consequently, neither does my own father. We did not eat Armenian food – save when it came in the guise of its close culinary cousin, at the occasional Greek or Lebanese restaurant – nor did we listen to Armenian music. As a child, I read about Armenians avidly to try and fill the gaps, books like David Kherdian’s The Road from Home, or whatever cursory histories I could find in the public library. I had never even heard the Armenian language spoken aloud until I was in my 20s. During those early years, when my father spoke to me of Armenians, the conversation mostly touched upon two topics: the Genocide and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Mormons – to which my family owes a rather paradoxical debt.

While falling under the broader auspices of Christianity, like the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sanctity of the Old and New Testament scripture, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is unusual in that it not only originated in the United States, but provides an additional canon of newly “discovered” and “translated” scriptural texts written in a language dubbed “Reformed Egyptian.” The central text, The Book of Mormon, is a purportedly miraculous historical tome written on plates of gold that the Church’s prophet and founder, Joseph Smith Jr., claimed to have received through divine inspiration, exhuming it from a hill in New York where it had been buried for millennia. These scriptures are considered by the LDS Church to be not only a new revelation from God, but proof of the veracity of Smith’s claim to have been visited by the angel Moroni, who penned the final chapter of the sacred text himself during his time on Earth. The assumption is that it would have been impossible for an uneducated farm boy to have the knowledge necessary to fabricate the profound text of The Book of Mormon.

Whatever the legitimacy of Smith’s claims, he had little trouble finding willing followers toward the end of the Second Great Awakening. New sects of Christianity had sprung up everywhere, but none of them promised a new scriptural revelation of such magnitude and scope, and certainly none placed its divine narrative smack-dab in the middle of the American frontier.

According to The Book of Mormon, the ancient Hebrew prophet Lehi was warned in a dream to take his family out of the Holy Land, build a boat, and sail off into the unknown, thereby escaping the coming Babylonian invasion and occupation of Israel. Their boat crossed the Atlantic Ocean safely and landed in America, where Lehi and his sons, Nephi and Laman, became the ancestors of the modern Native American tribes. Genetic improbability aside, the tale begins to shed some light on the motivations behind a Mormon missionary presence in the Holy Land. More specifically, it highlights a central theme within the Mormon faith: the insertion of the European colonization of the Americas under the arc of a Biblical interpretation of history.

In the Mormon conceptualization of the world, the history of the Americas is not an unrelated side note to a Mideast-centered cosmogony, but an integral part of that same divine plan beginning in Eden and ending with the gathering up of the scattered tribes of Judah in the Holy Land. In the Latter-day Saints’ vision of this timeline, Christ visited the Americas after his resurrection to preach redemption and pave the way for Joseph Smith’s 19th century revelation: the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. And most importantly, as prophesied by Joseph Smith Jr. himself, the tribes of Israel would be gathered up again in the final days and brought back to their rightful seat in the Holy Land. It all began in America, and it will all end in Palestine. Mormonism brought forth the first Gospel of the United States of America; it is a peculiarly American religion.

“I have covenanted with them that I would gather them together… that I would give unto them again the land of their fathers for their inheritance, which is the land of Jerusalem.” (3 Nephi 20:29-31, 33)

The Zionist bent of the Latter-day Saints was nothing new to Christianity, but it took a different approach to the definition of “Israel.” First, there is the Israel of “blood,” which refers to any bloodline descendent of Jacob. Second, there is the Israel of “land,” which refers to any person living in or attached to the physical land of Israel. The Israel of “covenant,” however, refers to anyone who accepts the restored gospel of Christ and is baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thus, the gathering of Jews in the Holy Land as promised in the Book of Mormon refers not only to the ethnic and political progeny of Jacob, but to the Mormons who become, in effect, spiritual chosen ones once they are baptized and ordained.

In the spring of 1840, in the early days of the LDS Church, a man named Orson Hyde was called upon by Joseph Smith to “go to Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers and be a watchman unto the house of Israel” and “by thy hands shall the Most High do a great work, which shall prepare the way.” This “great work” turned out to be the first dedication of the Holy Land for the gathering up of the Jews in the latter days. Orson made the long journey to Jerusalem, and there, one morning in the autumn of 1841, he sat in silence on the Mount of Olives and wrote down a lengthy prayer for the “raising up of Jerusalem” and all “who take an active part in behalf of Abraham’s children.” Another such dedicated mission would follow 30 years later, headed by President George A. Smith, and then would come the first missionaries of the Church – Jacob Spori, Joseph Tanner, and Ferdinand Hintze – a little over a decade later.

The Ottoman Empire began to falter by the mid-19th century. Known mockingly as “the sick man of Europe,” the empire lagged behind other world powers in matters of technology, education, economics, science, war, and infrastructure. So the proverbial gates eventually opened and a flood of Westerners came in with their money, their business ventures, and of course, their religion. By the time the first Mormon missionaries arrived in 1884, various Protestant denominations had already established their own missions in the Ottoman Empire. However, as they themselves tell it, the Mormons came by special invitation.

The story goes that an Armenian living in Constantinople, Hagop T. Vartooguian, had heard of the Latter-day Saints and was curious about them. Perhaps he heard about the religion through other missionaries, perhaps, through an English-language newspaper… the details of his initial curiosity are hazy at best. Either way, Vartooguian, a man who spoke English and French on top of the requisite Turkish and Armenian, wrote a letter to the President of the European Mission, Elder John Henry Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, requesting that missionaries be sent to his city.

Smith called upon Jacob Spori, a Swiss-born Latter-day Saint, to introduce the Ottoman Empire to their new gospel. Though Spori was purportedly a “gifted linguist” who would master 10 languages in his time, he arrived in Constantinople a lone man unfamiliar with the cultures and languages of the region. He very promptly baptized Vartooguian and his wife and children as the first Armenian converts to Mormonism. It is in Vartooguian’s home that the very first meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ottoman Empire took place. Eventually, Vartooguian, like many other converts in Constantinople, would abandon the missionaries and his newfound faith, leaving Spori without a guide to help him navigate the challenging languages and cultural dynamics of the region.

Often the missionaries’ accounts of these Armenians tended toward a noteworthy ambivalence. In one moment, Spori referred to the Armenians as “tall and powerful with dark eyes and hair,” with “the Spirit of God…working with them,” and in the other, when Spori encountered indecision on the part of those hearing his message, he grew noticeably frustrated. After a short while, Spori’s efforts were bolstered by the arrival of missionaries Joseph M. Tanner and Ferdinand F. Hintze, and while their presence was encouraging, it didn’t seem to greatly increase the efficacy of the mission in Constantinople.

While en route to continue his mission in Haifa, Ferdinand Hintze received a letter from one Dekran Shahabian, inviting him to Sivas and thereby prompting the Turkish Mission to direct its energy toward the Armenian vilayets of the East, essentially abandoning their floundering endeavor in Constantinople. Hintze and the newly baptized Shahabian then traveled to Zara, where they converted and baptized Nishan K. Sherinian and his father-in-law Nigoghos, before moving on to Aintab and Marash. Despite pleas for him to remain, Hintze hurried along to Haifa, where the primary converts came from a colony of pious Germans he encountered there.

The missionaries often speak far more highly of their fellow Europeans than they do the Armenians and other ethnic groups of the Ottoman Empire. Elder Janne M. Sjodahl described the German’s houses as “mostly surrounded by gardens…everything is clean and neat…Inside everything bears a religious stamp of the old pietistic color.” Glowing praise indeed compared to Sjodahl’s description of Haifa’s streets as narrow and dirty, with houses “built in a style of architecture common to American packing boxes.”

Hintze kept his word and returned to Adana and Aintab the following year, in 1889. As the Mormons gradually grew to understand the language and culture of the people they sought to convert, their missions became better established. And though they were never large in size – no more than 200 members in all – these Mormon Armenians survived harassment from competing Protestant missions, hostility from both Muslims and other Christians, and internal instability and doubt on the part of their Armenian converts.

It is interesting to note that the missionaries’ plans for the future emphasize from the outset Spori’s “eventual assignment to preach the gospel in Palestine.” Much like the mission in Constantinople, the missionaries’ work in the Armenian Highland did not seem to churn out the success they had hoped for in terms of numbers; while people demonstrated polite interest, they were generally disinclined to make the leap toward conversion. Spori, Tanner, and Hintze continually expressed frustration over this reticence, and what they perceived to be fickleness on the part of Armenians; their complaints often demonstrated cultural naiveté and a near-complete misunderstanding of the plight of the people to whom they had directed their message. Hintze even implied it was due to some flaw inherent in the Armenian makeup: “The Armenian is smart, is imitative, has a splendid memory, has a strong desire to be the same as ‘Christian’ nations in Europe in all matters…So long as they [Armenians] are ruled with an iron hand they are obedient and useful…but when left to themselves they melt away nationally and individually.”

Hintze’s depiction of Armenians as essentially wayward and weak-willed children parroting their European betters says far more about his own ingrained prejudices than it does about the Armenians who received and later either ignored or abandoned the Church. It reflects an overall pattern of racial and cultural bias, which permeates nearly all of the LDS missionaries’ dealings with the people of the Ottoman Empire. Despite their dogged attempts to overcome the numerous barriers to proselytizing in the Holy Land and despite their eventual mastery of the languages and intimate work with the Armenians, even their most loyal Armenian converts remained starkly “other” in some disconcerting way. The missionary Charles U. Locander would also reiterate this mindset: “[The Armenians] have faith but no depth of soul. Very few weeds, if any, choke them, but they have no moisture.”

A quick perusal of the names of those who were instrumental in the establishment of the Turkish Mission is itself rather telling: Spori, Tanner, Hintze, Sjodahl, Locander, Dieterle, Stauffer, Lund. Naturally, once there were Armenians who were actually converting, they played an integral role in the conversion of their fellow countrymen. But the missionaries themselves, primarily Western European or Anglo-American, were subject to the prejudices of their time, namely that people of the “Orient” were less civilized and enlightened and were in need of their European guidance. In their own minds, it was an altruistic notion, but their words betray them. Woven into that lofty tapestry of divinely mandated missionary work was a thread of disdain for the people they claimed to be saving.

There were, in fact, very sound reasons for Christians in the Ottoman Empire to exercise a degree of caution, especially in dealing with foreign missionaries. The first reason is obvious enough: people were reasonably reluctant to trust the words of men who could not read, write, or speak their own language and who understood little of their culture and history. Armenians, as an oppressed minority, had begun to agitate for independence, and any interaction between them and unknown foreign missionaries often placed them under suspicion of sedition, for which they could be imprisoned.

Secondly, there were strict bans on religious proselytization in the Ottoman Empire, especially any missionary work directed at the Islamic millet. The printing of unapproved texts was also prohibited, so there was little-to-nothing physically tangible that the Mormon missionaries could present to potential converts. This is especially important in light of their extravagant pronouncement of a newly “restored” gospel. What good is such a gospel if, after describing its miraculous discovery and transcription, one fails to produce an actual Turkish or Armenian translation of the sacred text? The missionaries expected the kind of demonstration of blind faith that Joseph Smith’s first converts had for their own charismatic prophet. They expected the Armenians to convert immediately upon seeing the “truth” and then work diligently alongside them to translate The Book of Mormon, having themselves never actually read it or seen it – a definitive example of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Smith at least spoke the same language as his own fawning disciples when he asked them to believe in his miraculous revelation.

In addition to the problematic proscriptions against missionaries, authority in the Ottoman Empire was arranged along a hierarchical system of millets in which populations were divided according to state-recognized religions and groups, including Islam, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Judaism. Each millet was allowed a modicum of self-governance under the central authority of the Sultan. The non-Muslim millets thus enjoyed a certain degree of religious freedom but, as minorities, were treated as a secondary class. Converting to a non-sanctioned religion was tantamount to becoming an outlaw and converts effectively removed themselves from the purview of any recognizable governing body, facing ostracization from the Empire as well as their own ethno-religious community. It seems that the missionaries were initially quite oblivious to the significance of what they were asking when they demanded these people heed their gospel and abandon their community’s religion. While the Mormons had experienced some share of persecution in America, the Turkish Mission often expressed more concern over its own plight as persecuted outcasts maligned by other Protestant sects and paid little mind to the precarious political plight of the Armenians.

Despite the small size of the Turkish Mission and the accompanying familiarity that must have been shared among the converts (many were related by blood), there is a pervasive sense of hierarchy in which the Western missionaries govern a flock of wayward and often fickle Armenians. Hintze belies his self-important role again in one particularly cringe-worthy instance: “Zara is a filthy place and it caused me to thank God that we were permitted to take a better knowledge to Zara.”

Somehow, in Hintze’s mind, the poverty of this little village is indicative of its inferiority and lack of true spiritual knowledge, much like Sjodahl’s disdain for the squalor of Haifa was contrasted with the clean and neat piety of the German community there. Hintze’s words sound suspiciously like the typical colonialist “White Man’s Burden” that his European ancestors and compatriots have been lugging all over the world for centuries.

From what I can discern, the relationship between the Armenian converts and the Latter-day Saints might best be described as one of mutual convenience. Armenian conversion was neither the primary goal, nor even a major facet in the presence of the Turkish Mission, whose stated end objective from the outset was the eventual “gathering up” of Israel in the Holy Land. Armenians, as a persecuted and marginalized minority in an unstable empire, essentially presented an easy target for proselytization and conversion, particularly the poorer, less worldly Armenians of the eastern stretches of the empire. Not only were the bans on proselytizing less stringently enforced in the case of the despised Armenians, Hintze went so far as to state that “[the Ottomans]were willing we should convert any Christian Armenians…They felt that such work would break up Armenian unity and thus make it easier to govern them.” This statement has some truly damning implications for the Turkish Mission in light of the impending Genocide. Had the Mormon missionaries been more successful, they might have inadvertently contributed to the demise of the very people they expected to save. Luckily for them, their self-interest and overall lack of concern for the predicament of the Armenian people prevented them from doing any such damage. Twice they abandoned the Turkish Mission and its helpless converts to the violent paroxysms of the collapsing Empire: once in 1895, in response to the Hamidian Massacres, and again in 1909, as the situation devolved into violence once more.

The Mormon Church cannot be faulted for recalling its missionaries in order to protect their safety, but it should be said that nothing was done to save, protect, or even hide the Armenian Latter-day Saints who stayed behind. Those who had attained the Melchizadek priesthood, like my great-great grandfather Hagop Tumas Gagosian, had emigrated as quickly as possible. They intuited the impending doom to which their European and American brethren seemed so oblivious, riding the wings of their newfound faith to a safer existence in a foreign land. The Armenians were eager to distance themselves from the “Oriental” squalor of the Ottoman Empire that had for so long oppressed and threatened to annihilate them.

What the LDS mission in Turkey failed to understand is that, for most people, religion is a matter of personal and cultural identity, often so deeply ingrained that conversion is practically impossible. Their success in converting any Armenians at all was due to the pressure of outside forces upon the Armenian identity. Dissatisfaction with the millet system and religion in general, persecution, repression, kidnappings, rapes, and eventually a series of massacres crescendoing into the vast state-orchestrated obliteration of the Armenian race: These were the events fracturing the Armenian identity enough to allow this strange little church from America to gain a small foothold.

They not only offered a new gospel and a return to the original hierarchy of the first Christian church. They offered something that the Armenians needed even more: escape. While the missionaries came seeking the Holy Land where everything would end, the Armenians, from their precarious vantage point teetering at the end of the Ottoman World, sought the Promised Land of America, where everything might begin anew. The Turkish Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened that door for a handful of them, and because of it, they were spared.

Uprooted from their homes and livelihoods, many of the Armenians, like my great-great grandfather, went to work immediately in the coal mines of Utah. They were spared the Genocide, but they lived a life every bit as poverty stricken as the one they had left in “filthy” little Zara. In his memoir Odyssey of an Armenian Doctor, Nishan K. Sherinian’s son Herond describes the mine west of Saltair Beach Resort in which his father worked. It was owned by none other than Ferdinand Hintze. Nishan Sherinian received no pay for his work other than meager provisions from Hintze’s farm and stock in the mine, which turned out to be worthless. As a stockholder, Sherinian was expected to pay assessments toward the maintenance of the mine, but when he could not pay his dues, Hintze talked him into giving him six rugs that his wife had woven, the last possessions of any value and all that remained of their life in Zara.

In light of this story, it is difficult to see the missionaries as anything but opportunists using their religion as an excuse to prey on those less fortunate. My Armenian ancestors look less like hopeful, dewy-eyed converts and more like harried refugees exploited as a cheap source of labor. I suppose I should be grateful that they escaped with their lives, whatever the form their new ones took. Nishan did not spend the remainder of his days working in the mine and his son, Herond, eventually became a wealthy doctor who traveled the world and settled in Beverly Hills, California. Hagop Tumas was not so lucky. As a child, I was told that he died of black lung. Even my grandfather, before he died, spoke briefly to me of working in the mines as a boy. Once he got out, he swore he would never go back. He escaped the mine, just as his father and grandfather had escaped the Genocide.

The irony of that escape is not lost on me as I sit here, writing in my native English. I have managed to teach myself to read and write Armenian passably, and to speak, haltingly and nervously, when I have to. But I’m curious as to what sort of future my ancestors scried through from that cloud of apprehension and uncertainty as they settled down in a new land with a new religion. Emigration saved them from near-certain death, but their conversion to Mormonism cost them the very same culture they had sought to preserve in the face of Ottoman persecution. Hagop Tumas was a member of the Hunchak Party, a dissident. Did he know he was being lured overseas as cheap labor, only to spend his days in a coal mine? Did he know he was party to one of the most blatant acts of cultural usurpation in Christianity – the literal writing of Anglo-Saxon America into what is undoubtedly a Middle Eastern cultural history, the figurative excavation and relocation of the Biblical Far East to the backyard of the New World, the conflation of Semitic tribes with Native Americans? Did he comprehend the irony of it all?

These Mormons had uprooted Eden from the banks of the Euphrates and placed it squarely in their own world, and here he was, a descendant of the first Christians over 1,500 years older than their fledgling religion, toiling to protect what had been appropriated.

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13 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating article about a little known piece of Armenian history.
    What has happened to the descendants of these Armenian Mormons?
    Do they still have some degree of Armenian identity?
    To what extent have they assimilated? (Probably quite a bit).
    What about the author’s relatives?
    The Mormons have come to Armenia since independence, and one of the Huntsman’s has been quite generous, as I understand it.
    What is the status of the Mormon Church and movement in Armenia?
    How many Armenian Mormons are there in the US, and to what extent do they identify as Armenians?

    • Josiah Gagosian on

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. As you have guessed, the descendants of the first Armenian converts have largely assimilated as Americans. It’s common for immigrant populations to deal with a degree of alienation that drives their children to conform and appear less foreign, and this was definitely so in the Mormon community which has a rather unfortunate history of racism and bigotry. Many of my own family married non-Armenians and Armenian wasn’t spoken at home with their children, so within a generation the language and culture were lost. My grandfather and father both left the LDS Church which essentially cut them off from the rest of the Mormon Armenians. My grandfather’s apostasy created a rift between he and his own father Ferdinand that was never healed. For most of my life I knew little about my Armenian family and had no contact with any of them.

      As far as I know there is still a functioning branch of the LDS Church in Yerevan, (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/facts-and-statistics/country/armenia) but the Armenian-American Mormons are few and scattered and have little connection to their Armenian heritage beyond the common LDS obsession with genealogy. The LDS teach that family bonds are made literally eternal in the church and are part of their eternal progression toward godhood. They also believe in baptisms for the dead, in order to ensure the cohesion of the family past-and-present for all eternity. For this reason, the Church keeps extensive genealogical records of all its members and their ancestors, which has immensely aided my own research.
      As for how many Armenian Mormons are in the U.S., it’s difficult to say. I don’t think anyone has ever bothered to count.

    • Tracy Keeney on

      Actually, there is quite a large Mormon descendancy from the families who converted– including the Sherinians spoken of in the article.

      Most Armenian Mormons (from families that immigrated so many decades ago) don’t have the super charged Armenian identity that many other descendants do. However, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they are Mormon— just that they AREN’T Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, etc. In other words, they have about the same amount of “Armenian identity” as an Armenian who’s a Baptist or Episcopalian. As you know, ALOT of the culture is tied up within the Armenian churches– so if you’re parents decide to become Hari Chrishna’s or atheists, then you’re going to grow up OUTSIDE of all the Armenian culture that the Armenian churches provide.
      Additionally– where you LIVE makes a huge difference. Unless you live in a larger city where there is a significant Armenian community, then again, you don’t have the influence of all that culture being around you.
      I live in Kansas City Missouri– there is NOT an Armenian “community” here. In fact, the few times I’ve “run into” people and realized they were of Armenian descent (because they were a store clerk with a name tag, because we met at a meeting, etc) I had WAY more Armenian identity than they did, (one didn’t even know that her last name Torosian, was Armenian). Admittingly I’ve only just begun to really discover mine in the past few year. In fact– it’s BECAUSE of my Mormon faith that I know ANYTHING about my Armenian identity, because of the stress the Church puts on knowing your family history, studying it, researching it, etc.
      As for the number of Armenians that are Mormon– throughout the United States– that would be really hard to say. But the church’s website shows the statistics for Armenia itself– 11 different congregations and
      3, 344 members.

      Regarding Mr. Huntsman, in addition the money and resources he donated, he also paid to build a concrete plant built in Yerevan after the earthquake, to help rebuild the area– they made reinforced concrete for the building of homes, apartments and business. Then the church sent a bunch food and other supplies along with humanitarian missionaries to help with the rebuilding, and they even thought ahead enough to send experts in seismic engineering. (If you’re going to rebuild in an earthquake prone area, that’s kind of important. 🙂

      And just for further information— and a different “take” on the very same missionaries who served in Turkey and were instrumental in the baptism of the people mentioned in the article, I suggest reading this article published at the AGBU’s website.

      http://agbu.org/news-item/utahs-richard-aposhian-and-dr-nishan-sheranian-talk-in-parallel-about-grandparents-journey-in-faith/

    • Tracy Keeney on

      David, there’s actually quite a large Mormon descendancy from the families who converted– including the Sherinians spoken of in the article.

      Most Armenian Mormons (from families that immigrated so many decades ago) don’t have the super charged Armenian identity that many other descendants do. However, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they are Mormon— just that they AREN’T Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, etc. In other words, they have about the same amount of “Armenian identity” as an Armenian who’s a Baptist or Episcopalian. As you know, ALOT of the culture is tied up within the Armenian churches– so if you’re parents decide to become Hari Chrishna’s or atheists, then you’re going to grow up OUTSIDE of all the Armenian culture that the Armenian churches provide.
      Additionally– where you LIVE makes a huge difference. Unless you live in a larger city where there is a significant Armenian community, then again, you don’t have the influence of all that culture being around you.
      I live in Kansas City Missouri– there is NOT an Armenian “community” here. In fact, the few times I’ve “run into” people and realized they were of Armenian descent (because they were a store clerk with a name tag, because we met at a meeting, etc) I had WAY more Armenian identity than they did, (one didn’t even know that her last name Torosian, was Armenian). Admittingly I’ve only just begun to really discover mine in the past few year. In fact– it’s BECAUSE of my Mormon faith that I know ANYTHING about my Armenian identity, because of the stress the Church puts on knowing your family history, studying it, researching it, etc.
      As for the number of Armenians that are Mormon– throughout the United States– that would be really hard to say. But the church’s website shows the statistics for Armenia itself– 11 different congregations and
      3, 344 members.

      Regarding Mr. Huntsman, in addition the money and resources he donated, he also paid to build a concrete plant built in Yerevan after the earthquake, to help rebuild the area– they made reinforced concrete for the building of homes, apartments and business. Then the church sent a bunch food and other supplies along with humanitarian missionaries to help with the rebuilding, and they even thought ahead enough to send experts in seismic engineering. (If you’re going to rebuild in an earthquake prone area, that’s kind of important. 🙂

      And just for further information— and a different “take” on the very same missionaries who served in Turkey and were instrumental in the baptism of the people mentioned in the article, I suggest reading this article published at the AGBU’s website.

      http://agbu.org/news-item/utahs-richard-aposhian-and-dr-nishan-sheranian-talk-in-parallel-about-grandparents-journey-in-faith/

      • Josiah Gagosian on

        I’ve gotten some interesting comments back on this article from Mormon-Armenian descendants. I’m assuming you are a descendant as well, Tracy? Are you a Sherinian? You bring up a valid point regarding the Armenian Church and its role in the preservation of Armenian culture as well as the presence or lack of Armenian community in keeping the culture alive and thriving. The LDS Church does a marvelous job of keeping genealogical records of its members and I have many times availed myself of this priceless information. In some ways it is a means of preserving our particular families’ history, but I would hardly say it equates to any sort of cultural preservation. It really took only one generation, at least as far as the Gagosians are concerned, for the language and cultural heritage to be abandoned almost completely, partly due to their own desire to blend in. But one must ask where this desire to blend in came from. Why the pressure to become homogeneously American-Mormon? Armenian communities have thrived throughout the U.S. and it cannot be simply equated to the presence of Armenian churches. There are plenty of secular Armenians in California for example, speaking Armenian all day and reading Armenian newspapers and sending their children to Armenian schools. In Utah, the Armenian population was of course much smaller, but why were the Mormon-Armenians so eager to do away with their identity? Could it be that there was no place for it in their new predominantly LDS communities? Learning that one has Armenian ancestry through genealogical records doesn’t undo the erasing of that culture. As I stated in the article, this is of course a natural consequence of emigration and assimilation into a foreign culture over time. However, I do believe the LDS Church like many of its other Christian counterparts has exhibited a degree of prejudice, and in some cases outright racism throughout its history. The words of many of its missionaries and leaders make their biases very clear. This is not to condemn all of the individuals who have followed the faith as horrible people. Often they were merely a product of less enlightened times when institutional racism was much worse in our country, but it does no one any good to deny the wrongs of the past. If anything, I think the elasticity of the LDS Church, its willingness to adapt and change its message with the times, is often its greatest strength and is why it will be with us for many years to come. As a final note, I only analyze and criticize the Church because I find it so fascinating. Again, thanks for commenting and thanks for the article link, I had read another AGBU article on the Mormon Armenians, but I missed this one somehow.

        • Josiah– I’m so sorry I never responded! I didn’t come back to the site to see if there was any response to my comments and I guess I didn’t check the box to notify me of follow-up comments. I JUST stumbled on the article again while searching for something else– in fact, when I first started reading the article just now, I didn’t even remember having read it before. Then it slowly started sounding familiar and I saw my comment! 🙂
          To answer your questions, yes– I am of Armenian descent. My mother is 100% Armenian, whose grandparents were each either survivors of the 1915 genocide, or the Hamidian massacres that occurred earlier. But no, I’m not a Sheranian. (Although I recently became friends with one through the Armenian Genealogy group I started a couple years ago.)
          I DO agree that genealogy in and of itself doesn’t really do much to preserve the culture. However, there’s a big difference between mere “genealogy” and “family history”. Genealogy in and of itself is simply the names and dates. The church’s big push though is far MORE than just the names and dates. It IS about discovering the culture, learning the family stories, the traditions of your heritage, etc.
          For me personally, the only Armenian “culture” I knew growing up was through a few of the traditional foods that my mother prepared.
          Dolma, pilaf and the occasional Pahklava. That’s pretty much it.
          However, because of my genealogical research, and finding nearly 40 2nd and 3rd cousins that I never even knew I had, who DID grow up in Armenian communities, going to Armenian church services, hearing the language all the time, celebrating Christmas on January 6th, knowing the dances, knowing the traditional music, playing in Armenian music groups, belonging to traditional Armenian dance groups, etc, I’ve learned TONS about the culture and have begun introducing these things to my children. I’m making several of the traditional foods (even ones my mother never made), we’ve watched several documentaries online, I found a couple books about Armenian village life that my OWN ancestors are quoted in– talking about their traditions for courting, marriage, naming children, cooking food, what their homes were like, the games they played, etc. I even found a translated transcription of the recording of the oral history given by one of my great-grandfather’s cousins, talking about her childhood, describing the rooms in her house, tricks she played on her brothers, songs she sang, how she survived the death march into the Syrian desert, how she witnessed her father being killed, her sisters and brothers dropping dead from starvation during the march, etc. These are all things I’ve been able to share with my children.
          I also recently discovered that there IS an Armenian church in Kansas City and took my kids to a couple of the services so they could experience it. Sadly, because there isn’t a thriving Armenian community here, we were 5 of only a total of 25 or so people in the congregation. They only hold services ONCE every other month, because a priest has to come from Boston to officiate their services! CRAZY!! And it turns out that nearly every single person there is actually FROM Armenia (not Turkey like the vast majority of early immigrants were) or they are from Iran and Lebanon. They are first generation Americans. And in a discussion after the service (naturally, there was coffee and donuts in the basement afterwards 🙂 ) they themselves said that the culture THEY grew up with is quite different than the culture of the Armenian immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. They ones from Armenia said that the culture they grew up with was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, under whose government they, their parents and grandparents lived since 1922 all the way until 1991.
          The Armenians from Iran and Lebanon said the same thing regarding the Muslim/Arabic cultures and government surrounding them and their parents and grandparents, ever since their ancestors fled Turkey 100-120 years ago.
          Of course, their Armenian identity is more “pure” than MINE is– because despite being under Soviet rule, or living in other countries, they were STILL in Armenian communities, know the language, as well as Russian or Arabic.
          To answer your question about “blending in” and where that desire came from. Again– that has nothing to do with religion– Mormon or otherwise. My mother was the first (and only) person in her family to join the Mormon church– and she didn’t do that until she was married and had kids. It was her PARENTS who wanted their kids to “blend in”.
          And what I’ve learned from many of the nearly 2,500 people in the Armenian Genealogy group, is that their grandparents did the same thing. And NONE of them are Mormon.
          My grandparents wanted their children to “blend in” for several reasons. First, they wanted their children to avoid any sort of discrimination for being the children of immigrants. It’s sick and twisted– but we all know that immigrants were and sometimes still are treated differently and often unfairly. It’s harder for them to get jobs, they have language barriers to deal with, often a lack of education, etc. And back THEN, it was far worse than it is now.
          My grandparents first language was Armenian, but my mother and her brothers never spoke it, because their parents didn’t WANT them to. They wanted their children to speak English without a foreign accent, to go American public schools (even though there was an Armenian church right up the road with a private school that taught how to read, write and speak Armenian.) AND– they didn’t attend the Armenian church. My mother says that if it hadn’t been for her grandmother, (who only spoke Armenian and DID go to the ARmenian church) that she never would have heard her native language and never would have stepped inside an Armenian church. But her grandmother died when she was still a little girl– and she rarely ever heard Armenian after that– only every now and then when she would visit other family members who spoke the language.
          I’ve learned from the genealogy group that this was actually NOT an uncommon thing. In fact, many people changed their Armenian surnames to English ones– or they shortened their name, dropping the suffix that made it obviously Armenian.
          The names in my family are Grjekian (got changed to Ohanesian), Mugerdichian, (changed to Dichian), Anooshian, (changed to Sweet– similar by translation) Garoogian and Mardirosian (changed to Mardiros). There are SO many people in the group whose names were changed to sound more “English” or just “less” Armenian.
          Ohanesian to Johnson
          Voskerichian to Gold
          Garjikian to Short
          Kevorkian to Gregory
          Garabedian to Charles
          Bedrosian to Peterson
          Stepanian to Stevens
          Melikian to King
          Boghosian to Paul

          ….the list goes on and on!

          And I PROMISE you— none of these people are Mormon. As I said, there currently just under 2,500 people in my group– and the only ones that are Mormon (that I know of– but I thoroughly investigate each person who asks to join because I won’t put up with all the political, anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim crapola on my site the way so many other Armenian groups do) and from what I can tell, it’s only MY immediate family members (2 others besides me) and 3 others who are LDS. (And interestingly– none of their families changed their names to be more “English”– they all have Armenian surnames.)
          And– they all live in Utah and, despite the lack of very many Armenians in the Wasatch valley, participate in whatever Armenian cultural activity the very small Armenian community there provides.
          (Despite the small community there, it’s STILL much larger than the one here in Kansas City). In fact, several of them are Sherinians and Kezerians– all of whom are descendants of the Armenians who converted to the church back in Aintab, just before the genocide.
          Despite their “American-ness”, they are FAR more in touch with and familiar with Armenian culture than so many diaspora Armenians like me, who don’t live in large Armenian communities. And it’s BECAUSE of their religious beliefs that are so fundamentally rooted in family, ancestry and family history, that they’ve been so successful in keeping so much of their Armenian identity and culture, DESPITE living in the stereotypically “WASP-y white, Anglo-Saxon-ish, Scandinavian, Norwegian, English” Mormon culture and heritage that mostly settled and still populates Utah.
          As a side note– (as if I haven’t rambled on long enough already)– you should totally join the Armenian Genealogy group. Shameful plug– the group is now the single, largest Armenian genealogy group in the world and we have members from all over the world-wide diaspora and Armenia itself. Armenian historians, the creators of The Armenian DNA Project, The Armenian Immigration Project– you name it. I’m also happy to say that we have THE largest collection of online searchable databases and websites pertaining to Armenian genealogical research– stuff that ISN’T available on Ancestry or FamilySearch. Rosters of the children sent to various orphanages after the genocide, lists of families who ended up living in refugee camps post 1915, translated lists (and PHOTOS) of students and graduates from various Armenian colleges in Turkey during the time, all sorts of stuff.
          Please forgive the boast– but we ROCK at what we do. On top of helping people trace their ancestry, we’ve reunited families with other family members that they didn’t even know they had– other descendants of great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc who ended up separated and in totally different countries, losing contact with each other during and after the genocide. They’ve been able to give each other information, share photos, find pictures of their own great-grandparents in the photographs from a newly discovered relative living in Lebanon, Israel, the United Emirates, Argentina— seriously—
          it’s been absolutely fascinating and thrilling to see it all happening and unfolding– in live time, right on Facebook.
          Anyone interested should come and join us!!

          https://www.facebook.com/groups/Armeniangenealogy/

  2. Tyler Brinkerhoff on

    Josiah,
    I also found your article interesting. Hagop Gagosian is also my great great grandfather. His daughter Nimzar is my great grandmother. Nimzar married a missionary from the United States named John T. Woodbury. I have been very interested in the history of the Gagosian family. Several years ago I went to visit Zara Turkey with about 10 of my family members. We saw the area where they may have been baptized and found a building that looked similar to the building where they held their church meetings. It was great experience for us. I live in Utah and have been able to visit the grave of Hagop and Arake. I have really enjoyed reading about the histories of my ancestors. Even though I have a small percentage of Armenian blood, I am proud of my heritage.

  3. Shannon cardoza on

    Very interesting Ferdinand was my great grandfather and I spoke with him as a very young child about some of what you write about.

    • Tyler Brinkerhoff on

      Hi Shannon,
      Thanks for your response. If I understand it correctly, Ferdinand was a brother to Nimzar, who is my great grandmother. How old were you when Ferdinand died? That is great that you were able to talk to him. Nimzar dies at a young age and I never knew her. You many already have some of the written histories, but if you don’t, we have some and would be glad to share them.

  4. Leo M. GARDARIAN on

    My name is Leo Gardarian, the grand-son of Zelma Gagosian Gardarian. She was the sister of Nimzar and Ferdinand. I have the diary of Hagop Tumas Gagosian. If you are interested, please E-mail me.

    • Tyler Brinkerhoff on

      Hi Leo,
      Thank you for your response. I would be very interested in the diary of Hagop. What is your e-mail address?

      Thank you,

      Tyler Brinkerhoff

  5. Paul Amundsen on

    Hi, Great article by JOSIAH GAGOSIAN,
    I think Ferdenand Hitze first purpose was to convert the people of Zara to the gospel. When the church encouraged all converts come to “Zion” in the United States, That it was hard to find good jobs for them. I think that though Hagop and my grandfather Armenag Kezerian both came down with black lung, there were other forces working at the time besides the religious angle. Greeks also worked the mines of Price Utah and they were not converted. Mexican also worked at the Murray Smelter where my grandfather worked and they were not converted.
    LEO M. GARDARIAN It is amazing that many in the first Zara Branch became writers. Maybe you could post the diary under https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/L5VK-MZR/details.

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