Rousas John Rushdoony: A Brief History, Part 1 “I Am Armenian”
This year marks the centennial of the birth of my father, Rousas John Rushdoony. I thought it appropriate to use the occasion as a suitable one to describe something of the context of his own history and that of his ministry.
My father started Chalcedon in 1965. Last year we celebrated its 50th anniversary. I do not know if there is a Christian worldview organization that is older than Chalcedon or not, but it was certainly a pioneering work in 1965 and still represents something of “a voice crying in the wilderness,” certainly in that of our culture, but unfortunately also in much of the modern church.1 My father very clearly identified his work and that of Chalcedon in terms of a “big picture” worldview in which the growth of the Kingdom of God was certain. His view of Christian duty dispensed with the vague, subjective, spiritualized ethics often promoted as “Christian,” and instead focused on specific, literal faithfulness to God’s law—in one word, obedience. To understand my father’s life work therefore necessitates an understanding of his worldview, one which was impressed on him by his earliest memories.
An Ancient Family
My father was conceived in the Ottoman Empire just as its Turkish rulers were initiating the first genocide of the twentieth century. One and a half million Armenians died and virtually all others had to flee to surrounding nations with no worldly goods. In a matter of months, over two and a half millennia of Armenian history was eliminated from its Anatolian home.
In the months between his conception and birth nearly six thousand miles away in New York City, Armenians were eliminated from their ancient homeland, which centered in South-Eastern Anatolia in the province of Vaspurakan, around the lake and city called Van (pronounced Vŏn).
The Rushdoony family can trace its origin back to the eighth century B.C. (during the lifetime of Isaiah). Historians have done so with certainty because of the known origins of our name. The name “Rushdoony”2 means “house/dynasty/fortress of Rusa.” The name “Rusa” is the same as my father’s first name “Rousas.” This name goes back to the last kings of the Kingdom of Ararat (or Urartu, after the Assyrian name for Ararat). We are descended from Rusa I of the last dynasty of Urartan kings (all after him were related and three others carried his royal name). The seventh century B.C. bronze ceremonial shield of Rusa III now hangs in the British Museum in London.
The Urartans were a warlike nation who lived in the mountains of Ararat and were long a thorn in the flesh to Assyria. They would, as opportunity presented itself, come down from the mountains and occupy the northern territories of Assyria, thereby taking over their trade routes (what has come to be called the Silk Road), and diverting its wealth to their kingdom. When Assyria tried to invade Urartu, they found it difficult to maneuver in the mountains. When they approached Urartan strongholds, they found them impregnable and had to be satisfied with wreaking havoc on the countryside and looting.
Urartu was one of the reasons that Assyria was never able to conquer Jerusalem after it overthrew the northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria, because moving south meant leaving their northern territory vulnerable to the Urartans. This rivalry is seen in an incident the prophet Isaiah records. When Sennacherib sent an army to capture Jerusalem, the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 men as they slept. The Assyrian king beat a hasty retreat to Nineveh and never threatened Jerusalem again. A postscript to that incident is that Sennacherib was later assassinated by two of his sons who “escaped into the land of Armenia” (Isa. 37:37–38).3
The Urartan Empire barely outlasted the Assyrian Empire, succumbing to tribal invasions from its north. The Urartan era was followed by the less-warlike and decentralized Armenian culture. The exact nature of the transition from Urartan to Armenian is debated by historians, but it appears to have been peaceful.4
The Rushdoony family was unique in that it traced its history directly to the Urartan kings. They became one of the ruling families in the land in the province of Vaspurakan, around Lake Van and the city of that name. In the surrounding mountains one can still find the remains of some of the fortress of the Urartan kings, and I was privileged to be able to visit some of these in 2013. As a ruling Armenian family, they controlled a canton in the province of Vaspurakan that came to be called the Rshtunik. During my visit, I saw a monument on Aghtamar Island that referenced a nineteenth century member of the family. Long after they ruled, this area was their home and the place of my grandfather’s birth.
A Christian Nation
The gospel is believed to have been brought to Armenia in the first century by two of the apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the latter being martyred there. In A.D. 301 Armenia became the first nation to declare itself Christian. In the fifth century the Bible was translated into Armenian, so it was available in the vernacular there long before it was in the West.
Christianity very quickly shaped the nation. Marriages with pagans were forbidden and the Armenian people, already ancient, developed a distinct religious and cultural identity that was often in conflict with the surrounding non-Christian nations. No Armenian representatives attended the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 because they were in a state of war with Persia. It was their disappointment that no Christian nation from the West answered their calls for aid as much as a theological difference that caused them to reject Chalcedon’s definition.5
Very early, it became a custom for some of the prominent families of Armenia to support one of their own to study for the priesthood. The Rushdoonys did this and became prominent in the Church of Armenia. In the first half of the tenth century, there were several Rushdoonys who served as the “catholicos” or head of the Church of Armenia. There were five consecutive generations of fathers and sons who were priests before my grandfather became a Protestant minister.
My grandfather, Y. K. Rushdoony, came into contact with Protestantism through an American Presbyterian mission in the city of Van that operated a school, orphanage, and the only modern hospital in the region. Armenia had come under the control of the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century and was, by the late nineteenth century, a part of the Ottoman Empire (now called Turkey). Due to their Christian faith, the Armenians became an oft-persecuted minority. There were frequent instances of injustice at the hands of the local Kurds or ruling Turks.
In the mid-1890s, my great-grandfather, a priest, was first blinded by Turks who presumed that would keep him from performing the church liturgy. They did not realize he had the liturgy committed to memory and, when he continued officiating, they murdered him. Then, in short order, his wife and only other child died, leaving my grandfather an orphan at the age of fourteen. He was sent to live with a relative in the city of Van, but another outbreak of violence there soon left him on the street, far from his extended family and village life.
My grandfather, in very poor health, was taken in by the American Presbyterian mission. Though they did not expect it, he recovered, and when his intelligence became obvious, his extended family was encouraged to leave him there to be educated.6 The mission continued to educate my grandfather through college and then found a sponsor for his postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
When he returned to Van, my grandfather married and began working at the mission and teaching in surrounding villages. Soon a son was born; not my father, Rousas John, but my uncle, Rousas George.
During World War I, while other nations were too preoccupied to interfere, Turkey decided to eliminate its Armenian population, long hated for their Christianity and their prosperity. In very crude and brutal ways, about 1 ½ million Armenians died. The rest had to flee to surrounding countries.
Van was unique in that it had the highest concentration of Armenians of any city in the empire, about one-third of its population. When word reached Van of massacres in surrounding areas, the Armenian community put up a hastily improvised defense. A short distance away, the American mission put up a similar defense rather than surrender its Armenians to an obvious fate. The Turkish military force was unable to overcome either defense, but a few days before they lifted their siege, Rousas George died of illness that had spread quickly in the crowded conditions. His funeral service was cut short when Turkish artillery was aimed at the gathered mourners.
The Russian Czar had sided with the Allies against the Central Powers, so an army was moved south to assume control of the area and stayed the summer of 1915. While forced marches and massacres still continued throughout the empire, Armenians in Van enjoyed the first self-government they had known in centuries.
The peace did not last long, however. The war did not go well for the Czarist Russians, and the army decided to withdraw before winter. The population had only a few hours’ notice. Now labeled as treasonous for giving comfort to the invading Czarist forces, the Armenians were warned that their best hope was to head for the Russian border, about 100 miles to the north.7 By this time, my grandmother, Rose Gazarian Rushdoony, was pregnant with my father.
The family survived by a series of providential events. A Russian officer who had camped in my grandparents’ yard supplied them with two horses deemed unfit for service. A small extended family group made it to Russia, drinking fouled water from puddles they strained through handkerchiefs. They arrived with raw feet and no food available to purchase. My grandfather told his family that Russia seemed on the verge of a revolution. An English military officer overheard my grandfather speaking English and asked him how he came to speak it so fluently. When my grandfather said he had graduated from Edinburgh, the officer was incredulous until shown the diploma they had put amongst their few possessions. The officer said a degree from a British University made him virtually an English citizen and insisted the authorities allow them to get where they needed to go. They were allowed to go by train to Archangel, Russia’s main supply line to the West, while most Armenian refugees were stuck in Russia. Some family members were in Russia through the Russian Revolution and starvation in the early 1920s. From Archangel they were able to book passage on a steamship to New York in the late fall of 1915. Their Armenian sponsor was Dr. George C. Raynolds, the founder of the American mission at Van.8
My father was born on April 25, 1916, a year and a day after the first commencement of organized attacks against Armenians in Constantinople. When he was six weeks old, the family traveled by train to California where Y. K. Rushdoony had been invited to start a Presbyterian church. On the way they stopped in Los Angeles, where Dr. Charles C. Tracey, another of the Van missionaries, baptized my father Rousas John Rushdoony.
I recount a history far removed from my father’s writings and Chalcedon because it was never far from him. If you had asked him to describe his background, he would have begun, “Well, I am Armenian …” His boyhood was, in some respects, not too dissimilar to that of his father’s, though in a far different historical and cultural context.
1. My father was advised in 1965 that an organization dedicated to an idea such as he envisioned Chalcedon could never work.
2. The way our family spells our last name is unique. I presume it was first transliterated from Armenian to our spelling by the American missionaries in Van in the late nineteenth century who educated my grandfather. Various writers have, more recently, used more currently accepted rules of transliteration when referring to the historical family, so in these contexts it may be spelled as Rushtuni, Rshtuni, Rshtooni, or the like.
3. The name “Armenia” here is a poor translation in the Authorized Version, as it was a later historic name of the people and area. A better rendering in this Isaiah passage would be Ararat, or the Kingdom of Ararat, an ancient name for the mountain region north of Mesopotamia.
4. Historians debate the relationship of the Urartans to the Armenians. Some believe they were the same people, others that the latter were a different tribal group who supplanted the former.
5. The independent Church of Armenia was never part of either the Roman or Eastern Orthodox churches. Its rejection of Chalcedon was not because it embraced the Monophysite error, though that path did, in fact, cause it to drift in that direction. One could say the error came in because they refused to take Chalcedon’s theological stand that precluded it.
6. Though the mission was intended to be to all the indigenous population, they found their efforts were only received well by the minority Armenian population.
7. The Turkish government has never admitted any wrongdoing in the Armenian genocide, still calling all casualties war-related and saying the cause of any needless Armenian deaths was their own Armenian revolutionary and subversive activity.
8. It was for Dr. George C. Raynolds (pronounced as if it were Reynolds) that Rousas George had been named.
Topics: Biography, Church History, Church, The, R. J. Rushdoony, World History, Education, Family & Marriage