Assemblée au Désert, Jeanne Lombard, 1934. Wikimedia Commons
The Assemblée du Désert, which takes place on the first Sunday of September in the Cévennes region of France, is an annual fixture in the French Protestant calendar, and derives its name from the Old Testament story of Moses’s wanderings in the Sinai desert with the children of Israel. The biblical notion of 40 years spent wandering in the desert provided a direct parallel for the period of persecution inflicted on France’s Protestant minority from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 until the Edict of Tolerance in 1787. During this period, deprived of the exercise of their former religious practices, many Protestant worshippers eventually took the risk of holding clandestine services in deserted open-air places, notably in the Cévennes, the Moyen Poitou, the Dordogne, and throughout the Languedoc. Such meetings also took place in many other regions of France, where almost all of the Protestant temples had been demolished by royal order, and the culte abolished.
These meetings took place sporadically, the faithful often taking advantage of the arrival of an itinerant Protestant pastor in their region, though both the pastor and his temporary flock were risking imprisonment, or even death, by organising and holding them. The first assemblées were called desert synods, and at Les Montèzes, a village in the Monoblet commune in the Gard, is a plaque commemorating a clandestine synod which took place there in 1715. Much further north, at a location known as la Boîte à Cailloux [literally, the box of stones] at Hesbécourt in the Somme region, such meetings took place as early as 1691 until the Revolution in 1789, and this fact is recorded on a stone monument there. Indeed, disused quarries, canyons, and wooded areas provided secret places for worshippers to carry out their devotions. Couples would be married and children baptised into the Protestant faith at these meetings, although neither ritual was recognised by the Catholic authorities.
Despite the precautions taken, such as coded passwords, and false information spread to lure the authorities elsewhere, some of these clandestine assemblies were denounced by local informers and surprised by the King’s troops, often with dramatic consequences. At the Mouzoules Pass in the southern Cévennes is a stone plaque dedicated to the memory of the Protestant worshippers who were captured there as late as 1742: the men were sent to man the royal galleys in the mediterranean, whilst the women were incarcerated in the infamous Tour de Constance at Aigues-Mortes, in the Gard, both sentences being of indefinite duration.
Since 1911, a commemorative Assemblée, comprising an open-air communion service in the morning and speeches in the afternoon given by eminent Protestant historians, has been held almost every September in the strongly Protestant region of the Cévennes, at Mialet, a hamlet in the Gard. Now attended by up to 15,000 people from throughout the South and elsewhere in France, and from the countries of the Huguenot Refuge, it takes place in the rugged terrain surrounding the Musée du Désert, with which it has close associations. During the Second World War, the Assemblée was a source of great pastoral support for the Cévenol Protestants, and in 1942 the presiding pastor, Marc Boegner, brought together those pastors present to discuss his sad conviction that after France’s capitulation, the Vichy government had knowingly aligned itself with the racist ideology of the forces of occupation. It was no accident that the Protestant town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Cévennes, under the direction of Pastor André Trocmé, was so active during the occupation in its covert protection of Jewish children, a noble commitment for which the town was to receive the title of ‘Righteous Among The Nations` from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre .
The theme of this year’s Assemblée is the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the "Mission Populaire", a social Christian movement whereby the French Protestant Church has actively engaged with the working classes, taking the evangelical message for example to workers in bars and on river barges, and undertaking specific educational initiatives.
The Musée du Désert was inaugurated in 1911, at the first Assemblée, and among other subjects documents the highly organised struggle of the Protestant camisards against the persecution to which they were subjected, under the leadership of Pierre Laporte, alias Rolland, 1680-1704. It was his place of birth, Le Mas Soubeyran, which later provided the museum’s setting at Mialet, and Rolland’s victory over the King’s troops is said to have taken place in 1704 at the site of the rebuilt Pont des Camisards, which crosses the Gardon tributary near the hamlet. The museum, now the property of the Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français, has been successfully enlarged in recent years to more than double its original size, and holds an important collection of artefacts and images relevant both to the history of the Désert, and to the history of French Protestantism in general. During the summer, it organises a programme of events which evoke Protestant and Camisard history, such as son et lumière shows, nocturnal assemblies, lectures and concerts.
After the unavoidable cancellation of the 2020 Assemblée, and the long closure of the museum during the pandemic, both will be up and running again this year, to minister to the arriving congregation and to educate and entertain visitors. No doubt much joyful singing of the Protestant psalms, so long forbidden during the period of the Désert, will take place at the Assemblée, along with the baptism of several infants. If you have the good fortune to be in the area on 5 September, do go along for a uniquely moving experience.
K. Chater, ‘The legacy of the Huguenots in wartime France`, Huguenot Society Journal 30, no. 2 (2014), 181-192.