Scripture Union began more than 150 years ago and has a rich history of growth from its small beginnings in a house in London where children gathered to listen to the Bible. You can read about how God has steered, shaped and grown the movement from its earliest roots to the present day.
Josiah Spiers at Islington, London (2nd June 1867)
On 2 June 1867 Josiah Spiers spoke to fifteen children in the drawing room of Thomas ‘Pious’ Hughes’ home at 309 Essex Road, Islington, London, pioneering a new approach to sharing Christ with children. Josiah taught the children hymns and choruses and told them stories of Jesus in a way that they could understand. It was also so lively, so informal and so very different from the boring sermons they had sat through in their churches that all the children returned the following week with some of their friends. By 17 November, the Hughes’ had a capacity crowd of fifty children in their front room. They needed a larger auditorium, so on 8 December the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) opened in a school-house in Islington with sixty-five children attending. Tom Bishop, a civil servant, had begun running similar meetings for children in South London. He met Spiers in 1868 and they began working together under the CSSM banner.
Josiah Spiers at Llandudno, North Wales (26th August 1868)
Josiah was on holiday at the seaside at a place called Llandudno in North Wales. Holidays by the seaside were a new fashion in Britain at the time, and the beach was crowded with children. So Josiah saw an opportunity. He called a group of children to him and suggested that they should make a text in the sand. He marked out the words “God is Love” and encouraged the children to decorate the letters with shells and seaweed. When the text was finished, he told Bible stories to the children. The first Scripture Union beach mission was born.
Annie Marston at Keswick (1879)
Annie Marston was a young Sunday School teacher in Keswick, in the north of England, who wanted to encourage the children in her Sunday School class to read the Bible each day. Every Sunday she wrote out lists of passages for them to read during the week. The next Sunday she discussed the passages with them, and answered their questions. As time went by, more and more children asked for the list of passages, so Annie Marston wrote to the CSSM (Children’s Special Service Mission) in London suggesting that they should print the list of Bible passages for children to read. By this time the CSSM was printing leaflets useful for their ministry, however, the first reaction of the General Secretary and the Committee to Annie was negative. But she kept writing to them, and eventually they were persuaded to publish an annual card of daily Bible readings for children.
Bible Reading Cards (1879)
The first Children’s Scripture Union Bible reading card appeared on 1 April 1879 attracting 6,000 members, all children. It was an immediate success and within months there were Scripture Union members as far away as Belgium, Spain and Russia including adult members with the introduction of adult Bible reading cards. By 1887 there were 328,000 members in the UK alone and by 1889 there were 470,000 cards printed in 28 languages in many different countries. By 1893 CSSM had distributed 13 million children’s leaflets in fifty languages all around the world.
The unique combination of ministry with children and Bible ministry spread quickly to many countries around the world and eventually the name of the movement became Scripture Union.
Christian Camps (1892)
In 1892 two students from Cambridge University came up with a novel idea. They wanted to organise a boy’s camp. They wrote: “Our plan is as follows: to collect together as many as possible in tents, to provide for them all the sports and amusements dear to the heart of boys, and while in the midst of these enjoyments, to influence them more by example than by words.” They did just as they planned and it is reported that, “on the last night some of the most unlikely ones, who had come to camp as a joke, told how they found Christ that week”.
By the 1940s the ministries of Scripture Union were become more diverse taking on a local flavour. Booklets of notes were published for British troops in the trenches during the Great War from 1914-18, and led to the first issue of Daily Notes for adults in 1923.
After the Second World War, Scripture Union England developed a new kind of ministry in state schools, the Inter School Christian Fellowship (ISCF). The commencement of these school groups paved the way for the development of schools ministry in other Movements around the world.
Old Jordans (1960)
In 1960 a very important Scripture Union international conference was held at a centre called ‘Old Jordans’ north of London. At that time Scripture Union work around the world, with a few exceptions, was governed by Scripture Union in England. There had been notable growth in Scripture Union throughout the world and a new infrastructure was needed for further growth. At this meeting six Regions were created with the strong Movements taking responsibility for the establishment and support of Scripture Union in countries within their respective Region. It was further agreed that each National Movement and Region should have their own governing body. The Regions were also responsible for maintaining high standards and ensuring the true essence of Scripture Union was preserved in each new setting. The Scripture Union International Council was formed with various representatives from the Regional Councils. It was understood that the International Council would provide guidance and leadership, and would be a means of retaining unity in the Movement. This co-operative, non-hierarchical model was far ahead of its time and under this new structure Scripture Union grew rapidly around the world.
SU Aims, Belief Statement, and Working Principles (1985)
By 1985 Scripture Union was present in over 70 countries. It was agreed that more was needed to ensure the unity of the Movement. At an international gathering in Harare, Zimbabwe, Scripture Union leaders from around the world agreed the aims, belief statement, and working principles as a framework for all National movements. It was a very timely decision as Scripture Union again experienced tremendous growth in the late 80s and 90s when SU ministry was developed in countries in Eastern Europe, the Former Soviet Republics and East and West Asia.
A Global Movement (2012)
By the turn of the century, Scripture Union was present in over 120 countries with a strong commitment to expressing the aims of SU in ways appropriate to each context. As the world increasingly became globally connected, opportunities for mutual support, sharing, and partnership within Scripture Union and with other agencies were developing. In 2012 Scripture Union around the world embarked on a global initiative, ‘Living Hope’, to define global priorities for ministry and leadership development. In order to fulfil these God given priorities and better operate in a globalised setting, major structural changes were agreed, the first since 1960. Regions were dissolved, replaced by Community Groups and a Global Board.
SU celebrates 150 years (2017)
In November 2017 Scripture Union marked its 150th year, along with a host of celebrations in SU movements around the world, there was also an international conference held in Malaysia. Some 350 delegates from more than 100 countries gathered for five days of learning sharing and celebrating together. There were many reunions and new friendships were forged. Scripture Union staff and volunteers joined in worship and prayer together, bridging cultural divides with simultaneous translation in five languages. The conference, under the theme of ‘Fuel the Future’, was an opportunity to look back and give thanks, and to look ahead and see how Scripture Union could develop and continue to be agents of Godly transformation with children, young people and families. Ideas and outcomes from the conference continue to inform and shape the work of Scripture Union International and the national movements spread across more than 120 countries.
Today, Scripture Union remains committed to working with the Churches to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and to helping people of all ages to meet God through the Bible and prayer. There are now many varieties of ministry around the world. Our vision is that, as people of all ages come to faith in Christ, they will be the means of transformation in their communities, the nations, and the world. Click here for an overview of the Scripture Union timeline through the years.