(Gregory the Illuminator, 14th century mosaic from the Pammakaristos Church, Constantinople, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The reign of Constantine the Great is often seen as one of the most important breakthroughs for the acceptance and rise of Christianity in the lands touched by the Roman Empire. Constantine ushered Christianity out of persecution and elevated the religion to a place of prominence in the Roman world. Yet, one of Constantine’s contemporaries had already beat him to the prize of becoming the first head of state to convert to Christianity and brought about a national conversion—King Tiridates III of Armenia.
The story begins with a young child being smuggled out of Armenia and into the region of Caesarea, Cappadocia, which is in modern day Turkey. The boy was from a noble family that had lost influence in Armenia and was now being hunted. While the child waited in Caesarea for his homeland to become safe again, he converted to Christianity. He eventually returned to Armenia to preach his new religion, and became known as Gregory the Illuminator (240-332 CE).
At first, King Tiridates III responded to the Christian population in his country much like the emperors in the Roman Empire—with oppression and persecution. Gregory the Illuminator, however, was a great and persistent missionary. As the legend goes, Tiridates III was finally converted to Christianity after Gregory performed a miracle healing, curing the Armenian king of some illness. King Tiridates III is thought to have converted during the first decade of the 4th century CE and Christianity was made the national religion of Armenia around 314 CE. As for Gregory the Illuminator, he was chosen to be the first chief bishop (catholicos) of the Armenian Church.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Early Christianity: A Brief History by Joseph H. Lynch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.