The Ottoman Empire’s assault upon its Armenian population, later characterized as the Armenian Genocide, commenced in April 1915.
After 106 years, the United States government officially declared the horror a genocide.
President Joseph Biden issued a statement on April 24, 2021, remembering the victims “who died in the Ottoman-era genocide,” noting that “one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination.”
While it took more than a century for an American president to acknowledge the genocide, at least one Baptist denomination responded to the Armenian Genocide as it was taking place.
The plight of the Armenians was highlighted in the November 1915 issue of Missions, a Baptist magazine:
“The concerted and carefully planned and cruelly executed attack upon the Armenians in Turkey surpasses in ferocity and thoroughness anything that has ever preceded in that country, … It is time the moral forces of the world found expression in protest against Turkey’s atrocious procedure, calling upon Germany and Austria also to restrain their ally.”
The Northern Baptist Convention (now known as American Baptist Churches USA) addressed this catastrophe during its 1916 convention. It endorsed a fundraising appeal from the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America and the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief:
“We urge Baptist churches everywhere to present this appeal for the relief of the stricken of Europe, and especially for the Armenian survivors. These, our brethren, are suffering through deportation and famine. The whole race is threatened with extermination and is staggering under an unprovoked blow of heartless assassination.”
The delegates saw the Armenian massacre as “unprecedented,” recognized that it could lead to the “extermination” of a people, sympathized with strangers who nevertheless were of the same Christian faith, appealed for sacrificial giving, but did not name the aggressor.
This omission was addressed at the 1917 convention, identifying the Turkish perpetrators in religious terms (“Moslem misrule”) in order to evoke sympathy for the Armenians, who were culturally and religiously Christian.
The resolution, “in view of the imminent danger of starvation that threatens the survivors,” called on Baptist churches to respond to the crisis “as one of the most pressing for immediate relief if these imperiled fellow Christians are to be rescued.”
In 1920, the Northern Baptists, in a more politically focused resolution, invoked Baptist core convictions to express solidarity with the Armenian victims.
They called for the U.S. government “to do everything in its power to secure for these long-suffering and heroic Christian people the free exercise of their rights to life, liberty of conscience and of person, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A year later, Northern Baptists expressed concern that “the enemies of the Armenians again may begin the policy of enslavement and extermination.”
The convention urged the United States to utilize “all just and honorable means to secure the lives and liberties of the Armenian people in their own and other countries.”
Both diplomatic and other means (implying military options) were put forward.
Progress in halting the genocide was limited, however, and the 1922 convention called upon the U.S. president and secretary of state to take immediate action.
“We view with profound pity and horror the extermination of the Christian peoples – Armenian, Greek, Syrian – now in progress at the hands of the Turks,” a statement read, urging coordination between the U.S. and Europe to stop “the ruthless starvation and massacre.”
Disappointment in the United States government was expressed in 1923: “We deplore as a wrong against humanity the attitude of the Allied Nations, and especially America, for failure to protect these people from the despoiler.”
In 1926, delegates approved a resolution arguing against any treaty with Turkey that “does not guarantee full religious liberty and freedom from persecution and make the necessary reparations in property, including the specific provision for the release and restoration of its Christian womanhood, now defenseless against atrocity and in need of the charity of the world.”
The Armenian crisis created a precedent for how Northern Baptists would respond to Germany’s persecution of Jews, influencing the attitudes, strategies and tactics the denomination adopted in the 1930s and 1940s.
Frustrated by its own inability to halt genocide and by governmental inaction, the Northern Baptist Convention entered into the Nazi era humbled and uncertain of how to actualize its peacemaking mandate when protests failed and evil prevailed.
A century later, this decade of Baptist protest against the Armenian genocide provides perspective and wisdom for Baptists today.
Baptists have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with oppressed people, such as those in Myanmar and other violence-torn countries.
President Biden concluded his proclamation by asserting that remembering the Armenian genocide should call us all to “turn our eyes to the future – toward the world that we wish to build for our children.”
Baptists might discern their own convictions embedded in his dream to create a “world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security.”
May we join with others of goodwill and, as the president says, “renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.”
Author’s note: This article is based on excerpts from my book Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust (Judson Press, 2017).
An ordained Baptist minister, he serves as historian for the Baptist World Alliance and affiliate professor of church history at Northern Seminary. At the end of 2019, Spitzer retired as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. He is the author of Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust (Judson Press, 2017).