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.