Persecution and Scripture Memorization

In the early 1950’s in Communist Russia, three charismatic pastors came up with a risky idea they thought might be worth doing despite the risk. Nik Ripken, in his outstanding book about persecution, The Insanity of God, explains that:

“…they planned and organized a youth congress in Moscow and invited all of the young, unmarried members of their various house churches—from eighteen to thirty years of age—to meet and encourage one another. They hoped that there would be some spiritual cross-pollination between the different house-church groups and that these younger believers might learn what God was doing on a broader stage.

What some people judge to be ‘foolish’ about the idea was thinking that a week-long meeting of almost seven hundred young believers in Russia during the early 1950’s could possibly escape the notice of the communist government. Sure enough, the authorities did take notice. When the event was over, all three organizing pastors were arrested and sentenced to prison for three years each.

The people who were now telling me the story claimed that the pastors would have eagerly suffered the same punishment over and over again, because, as they explained it, ‘The Holy Spirit fell on that conference.’

The primary purpose in bringing the young people together was to gather the scattered parts of the Body of Christ in one place. The goal was to hear what God was doing with other people and to simply enjoy the experience of Christian community. At the beginning of the conference—evidently without much forethought or planning—the young people were given an interesting challenge. None of them had owned a Bible. They had never had hymnbooks or songbooks or recordings of religious music. So, in an off-handed way, the three pastors decided to determine how much Bible truth was present in that group of young people.

They said, ‘This will be like a game. Every day this week, we want you to gather in small groups. And we want to see how much of the four New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—you know and have memorized. In your groups, see how much of the Gospels you can recreate. And then do the same thing with songs and hymns. Let’s see how much of that can be reproduced by memory.’

At the end of the conference, when they compared and combined the efforts of all the different small groups, the young people had recreated all of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with only a half-dozen mistakes. They had also recreated the lyrics of more than twelve hundred songs, choruses, and hymns of the faith from memory.

It became clear to me in an instant why and how the Christian faith had survived and often thrived under decades of communist oppression in the Soviet Union. I also understood what had enabled so many Russian believers to remain strong and faithful.

On the day I heard the story about that conference, I was able to visit with some young people. The younger ones were excited about the chance to meet a real, live American; they wanted to practice their English language skills. Many of these young people were the grandchildren of the pastors who had been telling me the stories from those earlier days. I asked the grandchildren of the men who had so proudly told me how much Scripture and how many lyrics the young people in the house churches had been able to reproduce back in the 1950’s: ‘Tell me, how much Bible do the young people in your churches know today?’

They looked at each other and rather sheepishly admitted, ‘Not much.’

I didn’t want to put them on the spot or embarrass them by asking how much of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John they might be able to quote. So I asked them how many different stories from the Gospels they could think of and list. They came up with a handful.

‘How many books of the Bible can you name?’ I asked.

‘Only a few,’ they said.

I don’t know if those young people were embarrassed by their responses to my questions. I did see, however, what the Russian church had lost in its first decade of ‘freedom.’ Under communism, the church had found a way to survive and often thrive. Scripture and holy song was its lifeblood. Now, in a much freer day for the church, Scripture and holy song did not seem nearly as important. This coda to the earlier story was sobering and sad.”[1]

That was after less than a decade of freedom from Soviet persecution. Most of you reading this story live in localities where you and your parents and your grandparents and your great, great, great grandparents going back for two and a half centuries have experienced freedom to own and read the Bible as much as you want. But knowledge of Scripture in such “free” countries is currently at an all-time low. Perhaps in our “freedom” to read God’s Word as much as we want, we have lost sight of the incredible gift of God’s Word. We need to pray for and prepare for a revival of caring about the Bible—enough to learn it. And we ourselves need to model such revival by loving it, learning it, leaning into it, and living it out.


[1] Nik Ripken with Gregg Lewis, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected (B&H, 2013), 164-166.

Do you want to be inspired to learn, love, and live out the Bible more? See my Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book, 2d. ed. (Lexham, 2018).

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