Scripture Union began on 2 June 1867 in the home of Thomas Hughes in the London suburb of Islington.
Some 15 young children were there to attend a children's meeting led by Josiah Spiers. One year later, on the 26th August 1868, in the beach-side town of Llandudno, Wales, Josiah Spiers was concerned that children should hear the message about Jesus and how much God loved them. He began by writing 'God is love' in the sand. As children gathered around, he encouraged them to decorate the letters with shells and seaweed and told them stories about Jesus.
Scripture Union now work in over 130 countries around the world and is still introducing children and young people to Jesus. Although the gospel never changes, each culture expresses it in a particular way and so the work is carried out through local people in ways which are appropriate to the country, culture and situation in which a movement is based. This includes running camps, school seminars and student groups or producing resources for Bible reading, family counselling, AIDS education, urban children and youth ministry and ministry to those with disability.
Scripture Union is an autonomous organistion in each country, linked together by Scripture Union International. It is primarily a volunteer organisation with a small number of full-time staff training, encouraging and coordinating ministry workers around the world.
2 June 1867
Fifteen children aged between seven and twelve joined together in the evening at the house Thomas 'Pious' Hughes (in London). They were joined by Josiah Spiers who sang, taught the children hymns and choruses and told them stories of Jesus. It was also so lively, so informal and so very different from the boring sermons they had sat through at the dry-as-dust Sunday Schools they attended normally that all the children returned the following week with some of their friends.
8 December 1867
By November 17, the Hughes' had a capacity crowd of fifty children in their front room. They needed a larger auditorium, so on the 8th the Children's Special Service Mission (CSSM) opened a school-house in London with sixty-five children. The movement also acqured a name which continued being its title for nearly a hundred years.
26 August 1868
Josiah was on holiday the the seaside at a place called Llandudno in North Wales. Holidays by the seaside were a new fashion in England at the time, and the beach was crowded with children. 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 letters "God is love" with a spade. When the text was finished, he told Bible stories to the children. The first Scripture Union beach service had been held.
There was a young Sunday School teacher at 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 our lists of passages for them to read. 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 Scripture Union (still with the name CSSM) in London suggesting that they should print the list of Bible passages for children to read. The first reaction of the General Secretary and the Committee was negative. But Annie kept on writing, and eventually they gave way. The first Scripture Union Bible reading card appeared on 1 April 1879 with 6,000 members, all children. It was an immediate success and within months there were members as far away as Belgium, Spain and Russia. By 1887 there were 328,000 members in the UK alone.
It is hard to believe nowadays, when Christian camps for children and young people are commonplace all over the world, that this was unknown until the 1890s. It was two students from Cambridge University who came up with the idea for a camp at Littlehampton. 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." 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".
In the 1890s a number of Christian organisations in the west began to change their message. The influence of rationalistic Biblical criticism, originating in Germany, was spreading widely. Scripture Union had always been willing to experiment with new methods of evangelism. The question was whether they should change their message as well. Tom Bishop and the English Committee gave a great deal of thought to the issue. In 1894 they issued a long clear statement on their attitude to the Bible, which was published every year in the annual report. This helped to keep the movement on course, at a time when several similar organisations in England and in other countries were turning aside.
The first international conference was held this year at Old Jordans. Up to then Scripture Union, with a few exceptions, was run from England. Old Jordans changed all that, and forged the way for SU to become autonomous national movements. The conference also agreed to form Regional Councils, to which all national movements could belong, and an International Council to link together the various Regional Councils.
It was understood that the International Council would provide guidance and leadership, and would be a means of liaison between them. And finally, the conference agreed on statements of aims, belief and working principles as a framework for all national movements.
Itching for more?
You can read a more detailed history of Scripture Union in Michael Hews' book, A Tale of Two Visions.