In 1598, twenty-six years after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre where a varying estimate of 5,000 to 30,000 French Calvinists (called Huguenots) were murdered all across France for being Protestant, King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes which granted the Huguenots unprecedented rights and protection under the law in France. This edict, however, did not end Protestant persecution by the majority Catholic government and citizenship, which gradually ramped back up in intensity over the years.
In 1685 the then king of France, King Louis XIV, issued the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes which completely removed the Huguenot’s legal protection and their ability to worship God freely. With the passing of that edict, it became a crime for the Huguenots to worship God according to the biblical truths and the beliefs recovered in the Reformation. Over the course of time, many were betrayed by neighbors, imprisoned for decades, had their possessions and homes pillaged by governmental military brigades called Dragonnades, their books and Bibles were burnt in mass book burnings, and a great many lost their lives all for the crime of worshiping God according to the doctrines of grace and refusing to bow the knee to Rome.
Despite this heavy and increasing persecution, the Huguenots did not forsake the gathering of the saints (Heb 10:25). Even though their very lives were at stake they listened to sermons, sang Psalms, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together under the cover of darkness, going to the mountains, forests, or any other secluded place they could find. Since these meetings were often in the wilderness, they began to refer to them as, “The Church in the Desert.” As David in the wilderness of Judah, the Huguenots’ souls thirsted for God in a spiritually dry and weary land (Ps 63:1). And as more and more of their literature and Bibles were being burnt, Scripture memorization became increasingly more than a spiritual discipline: it became a spiritual necessity.
As Wayland Hoyt writes, “When, by any means, a New Testament had escaped capture and the flame, persons—often boys and girls—were put to learning it. And when, in some midnight, and in some cave or secluded place among the mountains, the “Church in the Desert” met for its worship, those who had memorized the Scripture recited it; and thus the nourishing and girding Scripture was fed on by the hunted saints.”1 Not only was this memorization vital for the “free” gathered church; it was also the imprisoned saints who memorized and daily sang the Psalms to one another which kept them encouraged and rooted steadfastly in the Word of God.
As of the writing of this article, we Christians in the United States enjoy and have enjoyed for hundreds of years a tremendous freedom to worship God according to our various traditions. God has certainly blessed His church these last several centuries. But in this time of peace it is easy for us to forget where we are and Christ’s command to be alert (Luke 21:36). It would be foolish of us to forget that this freedom to worship God has not been the norm in church history, nor is it guaranteed to continue. How quick we are to forget that those saved by Christ are wanderers in a foreign and hostile land (John 15:19). We live in a world that is ruled by Satan, who will use every opportunity and occasion to persecute Christ and His church (John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8). Our current predicament over COVID-19 is a clear example of this, where in the name of “public health” churches were mandated by their local and federal governments not to meet under the threat of potential fines and imprisonment. And this shutting down of churches was worldwide and happened quickly. What churches are facing today in regard to governmental overreach is a long way away from the persecution that the Huguenots faced in their day, and I’m not seeking to draw a parallel between them in this article. If I wanted to compare any set of modern-day Christians to the Huguenots, I would go to the church in Iran or China.
My point is this: although God in His sovereign grace has for a time given us the ability and privilege to worship Him freely, where we have a litany of reliable translations of His Word at our fingertips and are able to go into the public square and share the Gospel of His Son with a dying world without fear of harm, He may one day call us out into the desert as He did Israel, King David, His prophets, and as He did the countless number of faithful saints like the Huguenots throughout the centuries (Deut 8:15; Ps 63; Heb 11:38).
Therefore, we must “stay dressed for action and keep [our] lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). Why did Jesus tell His disciples that the world would persecute them in John 15:20? It was so that their hearts would not be troubled (John 14:1). How could telling His disciples that they are guaranteed to suffer for His name help soothe their hearts? Because they were now prepared for it.
Are you prepared to go to the Church of the Desert? If not yourself, are you preparing your children for the possibility that they might have to be a member of that church in their lifetime? Have you stored up the Word of God in your heart so that if all of your Bibles were burnt and you were cut off from the internet, you could still know, teach, exhort, preach, and sing the words of life to yourself, your children, and others (Ps 119:11; John 6:68; Rom 10:17, 15:4; 1 Tim 4:13; Col 3:16)? Follow the pattern that the Huguenots laid before us, who themselves were following the pattern of the psalmists and apostles, and devote yourselves not just to the reading and studying of the Word, but also to the memorization of it, so that if God ever calls you out to the Church in the Desert you will be well prepared and able to build one another up in the vein of Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
1Hoyt, Wayland. “Value of Memorizing Scripture” in The Presbyterian Banner. October 23, 1902, pg. 12.