The Place of Places - The First Armenian Presbyterian Church, Fresno, 1919
Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we enter The First Armenian Presbyterian Church, Fresno, 1919.
This chapter honors Saroyan’s early years with spirituality and his connection to his father. Though he was never a true believer, William attended the Armenian church as his mother instructed when he was a child. Here he talks about the preacher at his church, M.H. Knadjian. He was a man Saroyan respected. He writes, “I sometimes liked accepting the instructions of my mother to stay for Church after Sunday School, because the tall gentleman in the cutaway coat spoke both English and Armenian, had a good voice, and now and then told an interesting story” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).
He notes that Reverend Knadjian married an Englishwoman and had half a dozen kids who he never saw at church. Knadjian received degrees at the University of London, then served for 13 years in Cairo as a chaplain for the British army of occupation. He was then stationed in Turkey and then served Fresno’s First Presbyterian Church from 1912 to 1920. He went on to serve other Central Valley Armenian communities, dying at age 89 in the Bay Area. Though Saroyan imagined he had half a dozen children, his obituary has Knadjian survived by only four children, the same number as the Saroyan kids.
In the early 1900s, there weren’t many academic theology historians, but instead there were religious leaders who were also religious historians. Knadjian was an educated man who knew both his scripture and the history of his people. He drew crowds in Fresno by giving speeches about history completely outside of his church sermons.
In “Sunday is a Hell of a Day,” published in 1957 in American Mercury, Saroyan writes, “Sundays in Fresno were both pleasant and boring for me. Most of the time I hated going to the First Armenian Presbyterian Sunday School, but I went just the same, because it was the rule of the family. I didn’t mind too much, because it was possible to have fun there too. Everything was in English, of course, except the major part of Reverend Knadjian’s sermon, but we didn’t stay for that very often. If we did we sat up in the gallery and counted bald heads and millionaires. There were around thirty bald heads to one millionaire. There were three millionaires, but they weren't halfers, they were full millionaires. How or why they'd become Presbyterians, I don't know. Things like that happen in a mysterious manner. The three millionaires of The First Armenian Presbyterian Church had good heads of hair. There was no connection, though, because so did ten times as many poor men. As for the women, they all had long hair.”
He explains that sometime around the 1940s, Knadjian visited the Saroyan family and left signed copies of some of his books. Saroyan wasn’t a big book reader but closes the chapter with, “Reverend Knadjian came to the house at 1821 15th Avenue in San Francisco one day when I was in New York and he left for me an inscribed copy of one of his ten or eleven books – historical, patriotic, poetic, religious. This particular book was patriotic: I found it absolutely fascinating – well-written and with great dignity.”
Though Saroyan didn’t know the reverend much, his presence remained in William’s mind. There was something impressive about the reverend that maybe stood in for his absent father. Perhaps Knadjian looked like the man Armenak could have become if he had found a pulpit in Fresno.
Reverend Knadjian is also a character in the play Armenians, which was produced by the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York in 1974. Armenians follows several preachers and a few well-respected lay people who are discussing the annexation of Armenia to Russia in 1921, nominally when the play takes place. They feel somewhat helpless, having survived the Genocide by being in America, and do not know how they can help their brothers in the Old Country anymore. Notably, the pastors are from different denominations, but speak together as Christians. Protestant Armenians were much more likely to assimilate into American society, having typically been educated by American missionaries, and oftentimes married American or English women. On the other hand, Armenians who stayed with the mother church were less likely to Americanize or speak English, and this was sometimes a bone of contention between the two groups. Still, their Christian brotherhood was stronger than their differences most of the time.
Armenia is considered the first Christian nation, and it has always been a majority Oriental Orthodox, or Apostolic. Presbyterianism originated in Scotland and thrived in the United States in the 19th century. William’s father, Armenak, converted to Presbyterianism, but carried many of the old ways with him. This must have been another interesting mixture in his father that Saroyan could somehow relate to – Western Christianity met ancient Orthodoxy within Armenak, just as Californian culture met ancient Armenian culture within William. We can’t know how Armenak treated this duality, but we know that it was something that William studied within himself.
The history of Protestants in Armenia is relatively brief. Apostolic Armenians had lived among Ottoman Muslims for centuries in many towns, and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire allowed non-Muslims to practice their faiths, though not as equals to Muslims. In the 1820s, American Protestant missionaries entered Anatolia to convert the Muslims. This was a huge failure, so they moved on to ancestral Armenia, where they believed they might have an easier time of converting people from one Christian faith to another. This was a success, and the American missionaries began publishing newsletters and opening schools for Armenian students. They also promoted a freedom of thought that caused unrest among the newly enlightened Armenians who began to openly distrust the rules and administration of the sultan.
In his 1906 diary, translated into English only recently, Armenak wrote, “My freedom is fueling my thoughts, enabling them to fly, to soar, now that they are freed from restrictions. How blessed is life in freedom, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the will! How enlivening! Wonderful laws allow humans new advancements. France enlightened me about these. Freedom is the guarantee of happiness, which heaven was slow to grant to us Armenians. It was a gratifying experience for me to witness the supreme creature’s ability to live freely, in accordance with his calling and ideal, to think freely and to act freely. God, who is free, made his creation free and ordained it to live in freedom” (Journal of Armenak Saroyan, 1906). In 1906, he was working at The Christian Herald, journaling on the side and promoting humanitarian causes internationally via the Evangelical Christianity of the weekly newspaper.
With Greek nationalism surging and democracies in Europe pushing against the crumbling Ottoman Empire, missionaries were embedding themselves in the cracks. The religious balance was being interrupted in Armenia, and on the cusp of World War I, there were tens of thousands of Armenian pupils in Protestant schools. After the Turks massacred Armenians in the 1890s, the stage was set for more conflict. In trying to snuff out Protestant and European values, the sultan alienated all Armenians. Armenians rebelled and created further unrest in the empire, which was already struggling internally in the West and with the Russians in the East. Armenians were in the middle of a tinder box when genocide began.
In speeches that Knadjian gave in Fresno in 1915, he stated, “When the Armenians began adopting American and European ideas, about 50 years ago, the Turks developed a jealousy and a hatred that culminated in two dreadful massacres…The Turk when he found that his prey was taken away from his hand [as a result of the resistance at Van], resorted to his traditional method of attacking the innocent and defenseless populations in the interior. Orders went from Constantinople to every town and village to exterminate the Armenians” (Fresno Morning Republican, November 24, 1915).
Because of their close relationships with American missionaries, many Armenian protestants were able to escape the burgeoning violence and emigrate to the United States before World War I, sponsored by American preachers. This was how Armenak Saroyan left Bitlis, under the protection of William Stonehill, a Protestant preacher in New Jersey and the namesake of William Saroyan.
The First Armenian Presbyterian Church was founded in Fresno in 1897. Its first pastor was a former American missionary to Armenia, Reverend Lysander Burbank, who had served in Bitlis and spoke fluent Armenian. After him, the pastors of the church were Armenian men.
Saroyan attended church as a child and because his father was such an important mystery to him, he was interested in religion and spirituality. William tried many avenues to get to know his father posthumously. One way was to follow in Armenak’s footsteps by spending time in New York and Patterson, New Jersey. Another way was to examine Armenak’s poetry with the help of his family. Though he spoke Armenian, he didn’t read it. Armenak wrote in Armenian, though he was fluent in English. Especially in Saroyan’s early works from the 1930s, when he was very focused on his father, he incorporated religious themes in his writing.
In William’s 1931 draft, “Autobiography of One of My Selves,” he writes,
I go to church to sit, to be there. I am not a Christian, Presbyterian/ or atheist. I merely go. Whatever is said I do not hear, am not interested in. I look at the ceilings and at members of the congregation. If there is a beautiful woman in the church I look at her. Nothing is quite as delightful as a large voluptuous woman in a church. Everyone has noticed this. Why the women go to church perhaps they alone know.
I stand with the congregation to sing and I sing. I sing as loud as any of them and I am not mocking. I like to sing religious songs. Sometimes I sing them at home but the folks say I am mocking. I used to work with an old telegrapher in a small town telegraph office and all day Sunday he used to sing religious songs with a cigar in his mouth. He would sing "Sun of My Soul, Thou Savior Dear", Jesus, Thy Name I Love", "Nearer My God to Thee", and many others. Between stanzas he would spit into the cuspidor, but he was not mocking. I sing the same way. No one in a congregation has ever suspected that I didn’t believe what they believed. It’s my singing.”
Later he would write “The Presbyterian Choir Singers,” a vignette in My Name is Aram, in which young Catholic Aram is drafted by a Presbyterian into her choir because he has such a beautiful singing voice, a “Presbyterian voice,” she says. She pays him for his services and when he hits puberty, fires him. Aram tells us, “Like most Americans, my faith consists in believing in every religion, including my own, but without any ill-will toward anybody, no matter what he believes or disbelieves, just so his personality is good.”
1936’s Inhale and Exhale contained many stories with religious imagery, including “Psalms,” “Six Hundred and Sixty-Six,” and “Yea and Amen.” Armenak also lived on through his son. In the father’s travel journals, he writes, “When traveling, [it is] as if criticism, alienation, and ethnic distinctions disappear, and families relate to one another as members of one family” (Journal of Armenak Saroyan, July 22, 1906). This is echoed in William’s writing and in the way he chose to approach the world.
By the time William was older, his urge to know his father had faded some, especially once he became a father himself. He had begun to understand that there was no easy way to be a father, dead or alive. In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, Saroyan writes, “Now, my father, Armenak of Bitlis, as I think of him, the failed poet, the failed Presbyterian preacher, the failed American, the failed theological student, up and died in a way that was clearly damned foolish and deeply discourteous, and yet in another way a great kindness to me.”
In this chapter, he explains that some time in the 1960s, the First Armenian Presbyterian Church became available for sale. He considered purchasing it because of its importance in his childhood, but his money manager talked him out of it as a bad investment. However, he admits to us, the readers that, “The fact is that something else prevented me from going through with the purchase. I was afraid to buy it. The place was deeply centered in my memory. I could actually go and buy and own such a place, but it would be a profound interference of some kind.” Owning the church would in some ways be making good on his father’s desire for a pulpit when he immigrated to Fresno. But that time had passed, and an older William knew it.
This chapter illustrates the many ways he tried to understand his deceased father through religion, through surrogates, through history, and even through buildings. Feeling connected to his roots was also a way to keep his father alive, and Saroyan would maintain this connection throughout his whole life.