Christianity in Armenia can be traced back to the age of the Apostles. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the first evangelizers of Armenia and, according to tradition, were martyred there. There is historical evidence of the existence of a Christian community and clergy in Armenia prior to the fourth century. The church historian Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260-c.339) refers to Meruzhanes, a bishop of Armenia in the middle of the third century. It was at the beginning of the fourth century, in 301, that Christianity was first proclaimed as the official religion of Armenia. This proclamation was the result of the missionary activity of St. Gregory the Illuminator (240-332). The fifth century historian Agathangelos recounts the works of the patron saint of the Armenian Church. St. Gregory, a relative of the Armenian king Tiridates (c. 238-314), was brought up as a Christian in Caesarea in Cappadocia. The pagan Tiridates had St. Gregory imprisoned for nearly fifteen years in Khor Virab (“deep dungeon”) in Artashat. Several years later, a group of Christian nuns, led by St. Gayane and fleeing persecution in Rome, came to Armenia. King Tiridates was attracted to one of the women, St. Hripsime, who resisted his attempts to possess her. In his anger, Tiridates had the women killed. After the martyrdom of the women, Tiridates was struck by an illness that turned the king into a wild boar. After all other attempts at curing him failed, the king’s sister St. Khosrovidoukht told her brother that only St. Gregory could cure him. Fifteen years had passed since Gregory’s imprisonment in the dungeon so he was presumed dead. But he was still alive and was released from the dungeon. Gregory cured Tiridates and converted the king and the royal family to Christianity. At this time, Gregory had still not been ordained. In 302, he left for Caesarea, which was an important see at the time, where he was ordained a bishop by Leontius, the Archbishop of Caesarea. Gregory returned to Armenia, baptized the king and the royal family, was installed as the first Catholicos, or chief bishop of Armenia, and continued to convert the Armenian people.
Another important event associated with St. Gregory was the vision that he had in Vagharshapat of Christ descending from heaven and striking the ground with a golden hammer. It is at this spot that the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin (“the Only Begotten descended”) was built. Nearby were built the churches of St. Hripsime and Gayane, where the relics of the martyred nuns are kept.
With the support of the royal family, Christianity was able to spread quickly throughout Armenia and within just a few centuries to permeate all aspects of Armenian life and culture. Furthermore, Armenian missionaries were sent among the Georgians and Alans, who also subsequently established their own national churches.
St. Gregory’s son, Aristakes, succeeded his father as Catholicos. Aristakes had been the representative of the Armenian Church at the Council of Nicaea (325). The Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, set forth the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is formulated in the Nicene Creed (Havadamk), which is professed every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. Under Catholicos Nerses the Great (c. 326-373; Catholicos from 353 to 373), monasteries and various charitable institutions were first established throughout Armenia.