Scripture Union has grown from one man running services for children in London in 1867, to an international organisation working in over 130 countries worldwide.
The Scripture Union story began when Josiah Spiers started "Special Services" for children in Islington, London.
"Special Services" had an informal, friendly atmosphere, lively chorus singing and exciting talks with visual aids. This was a completely new approach to work with children and quickly grew into the Children's Special Service Mission or CSSM. Josiah Spiers became an itinerant children's evangelist with the CSSM - a life-long calling. Tom Bishop brought key administration skills and, later, Edwin Arrowsmith introduced training.
The first beach mission
Josiah, on summer holiday at Llandudno beach, North Wales, drew the Bible text: "GOD IS LOVE" in the sand for children to decorate. The enthusiastic response of the children started the first of many beach missions to children and families.
The Scripture Union method of Bible reading is born
Persistence from Annie Marston, a teenage Sunday School teacher in Keswick, North England results in the launch of the Scripture Union method of daily Bible reading to encourage children, and later adults, to read the Bible daily. This has been called "the best thing to happen on April Fools' Day!".
Annie had discovered the need to select Bible passages to encourage children to read the Bible every day. Every Sunday she had encouraged a small group of girls to enjoy reading the Bible daily — but like most of us they found this a bit of a struggle. So every Sunday morning Annie would write each of her girls a list of Bible readings on a little card. The girls took the card home and completed one reading a day. The next Sunday Annie would discuss with them the passages and answer their questions.
At the end of the year, the girls still wanted the Bible reading cards, even though they were moving on to another class. So Annie would write cards for them, as well as cards for her new class. As time went by Annie found herself writing more and more of these little cards.
Searching for a way to resolve this escalating situation Annie wrote a letter to TB Bishop at CSSM in London, and asked them to consider printing these lists of Bible passages. This is his reply:
“If your scheme fails, it would have been better never to have tried it. If it succeeds, it would involve us in a great expense.”
Annie didn’t let this reply stop her — she kept on writing letters asking CSSM to reconsider, until one day she received this reply:
“I am bringing your suggestion to our Committee. I personally have little hope they will agree, but you may like to pray while the meeting is on.”
Eventually Annie's persistence payed off and on 1 April 1879, the Scripture Union method of daily Bible reading was launched. It began with 6000 members, all of them children. Within eight years there were 328,000 members. 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 50 languages all around the world.
Scripture Union reaches New Zealand
The first Scripture Union cards reached New Zealand and the first members of Scripture Union in New Zealand were enrolled.
New Zealand was the first country outside of the UK to distribute these notes, which are the forerunners of the Bible Reading Guides we now sell through our online bookshop. For the next 50 years the work in New Zealand was led by voluntary secretaries who distributed the cards and other publications and encouraged daily Bible reading. Several CSSM evangelists visited New Zealand from England to lead missions and encourage the work.
The first evangelistic camp for school boys was held at Rustlington on the south coast of England.
Three years earlier Scripture Union had began to work in "public" (which in New Zealand we would call private ) schools. School groups and camping developed rapidly and were later extended to girls' camps and state schools.
The first beach missions and start of school "Crusader Unions" in New Zealand
In January, the first CSSM beach mission in New Zealand was held at Brown's Bay, Auckland.
From September to November Dr Howard Guinness, a young Irish student missioner, was sent by the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in England (now Tertiary Students' Christian Fellowship or TSCF in New Zealand) to hold missions in many secondary schools throughout New Zealand. He formed "Crusader Unions" of Christian students. His "whirlwind" visit was very successful, although it lasted less than two months. Follow-up was needed to establish the groups and encourage the converts.
Dr John Laird begins work for Scripture Union in New Zealand
Dr John Laird, a young Scot, working as a ship's doctor, visited Inter-Varsity Fellowship in universities and with SU in camps and beach missions in Britain. John was invited to consider staying in New Zealand to help follow up the Howard Guinness missions. His ship, the Northumberland, went on to Napier and was in port on 3 February when an earthquake destroyed the town and killed 256 people. John Laird became famous as the ship's doctor who helped with emergency medical aid. The ship travelled on to Wellington and John decided to accept the invitation to stay in New Zealand.
John Laird's earthquake fame was very useful in opening doors in schools as headmasters were invariably willing to let him talk to students about his experience in the earthquake.
Times of growth and the first Ponui Island camp
John Laird remained in New Zealand until the end of the Second World War. With inspiring and wise leadership he built the SU work. Crusader Unions were formed in secondary schools throughout the country. Girls' schools were given equal emphasis with the appointment of Margaret McGregor as staff worker.
The first South Island CSSM 1933
Extensive programmes of camps for secondary school students and beach missions for children and families were developed. Among these was the Ponui Island camp in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf. Ponui has been the longest running camp in Scripture Union history and is still enjoyed by campers every summer.
Ponui Island camp today
Scripture Union Branches were formed in churches and elsewhere, and monthly rallies were held to encourage daily Bible reading. A broadly representative council was established. An office and bookroom selling literature were opened. Even in war-time the work flourished and grew under John Laird's outstanding leadership in the goodness of God. By 1945 there were 73 Crusader groups in schools attended by over 2000 students, 16 camps and 6 beach missions each year, and 14 staff members. In 1945 John Laird returned to Britain to become the joint-director and later national director of SU in the UK.
Growth continues with appointment of children's evangelists and opening of bookstores.
Colin Becroft was appointed to succeed John Laird and the SU work continued to grow. Children's evangelists were appointed.
Dr Vine Martin became a Crusader travelling staff worker in 1947. "Doc", as he was known, became a legend and pioneered adventure camping. He was a medical doctor who had been present at the start of the Student Bible League during his preliminary university training for medicine in Auckland in 1927, and on the team of the first New Zealand beach mission at Brown’s Bay in 1930 while at Otago Medical School.
Doc attended the first Evangelical Union camp for Otago University students led John Laird in April 1931, and assisted at early Crusader camps including the first camp on Ponui Island in January 1932. He had volunteered for the Field Ambulance Reserve during World War Two and after just eleven days of service in Tobruk, Egypt, was captured and spent four years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany.
After he was released he met up with John Laird in England, and in 1947 accepted a position as staff worker. Originally he planned this to be a year’s interlude before returning to medicine, but he eventually served 26 years in the movement before retiring in 1972, and travelled around the whole country, often living from a suitcase.
In the 1950s Doc encouraged the development of a more adventurous style of camping, introducing bike hikes, mountain climbing and canoeing. With his background in the army and prison camps he recognised the value of strong leadership, and ruggedness and endurance were a recognised part of Crusader camps in his era. Doc was said to be “never happier than when he could be a boy with the boys at camp, yarning with them about wartime experiences and Christian living, and leaving organisational details to take care of themselves”[i].
The CSSM & Crusader Bookroom Society started to open bookshops to sell Christian literature. These later became the national chain of Scripture Union Bookshops. The three organisations CSSM , Crusaders and Scripture Union, were unified under the name of Scripture Union. John Judge took charge of the office administration. He worked from 1952 to 1987.
Peak times for Crusaders
Bruce Lumsden, an Australian, succeeded Colin Becroft when he left to direct Scripture Union work in Australia. The work of Crusaders reached a peak. Six percent of secondary students throughout New Zealand belonged to Crusader groups. Four percent attended meetings each week. Crusaders was one of the largest voluntary, teenage organisations in New Zealand. Bruce Lumsden was a forward thinker in children's ministries, but apart from beach missions this aspect of the work did not grow because staff workers could not be found.
Formation of a worldwide Scripture Union Infrastructure
A very important International Scripture Union Conference was held at Old Jordans, north of London. There had been notable growth in Scripture Union throughout the world. An infra-structure was created for further growth. National movements were grouped into five Regions with Regional Councils. Regional Councils would be represented at the International Council. This co-operative, non-hierarchical model was far ahead of its time and has proved its value for growing autonomous, mutually supporting national SUs. New Zealand and Australia were grouped with the East-Asian SUs to become the ANZEA Region. Later this region was divided to become two - East Asia and the Pacific. New Zealand and Australia now belong with Pacific Island countries to the Pacific Region. Scripture Union works in 130 countries throughout the world. Each country has its own council and indigenous leadership.
Evolution of children's programmes and opening of Crusader Lodge on Mt Ruapehu
Lawrie Becroft, Colin's younger brother, succeeded Bruce Lumsden in directing Scripture Union in New Zealand. Eddie Bradley-Feary came from England to manage the bookshops. Under the new name of Scripture Union Bookshops a chain of nine bookshops and a wholesale department were developed throughout New Zealand. Keith Overend was appointed to as Coordinator of Children and Families ministries. Training ministries and suburban holiday programmes for children with a family emphasis were commenced. Other initiatives included the Christian Option Programme, presenting Christian points of view within the curriculum in state school classrooms, Discoverers Groups in intermediate schools, Coffee Houses as outreaches to youth at holiday resorts and the Crusader Lodge, a ski-lodge built on Mt Ruapehu in the National Park, for snow camps. This was just one way in which camps became more specialised. The name Crusaders was changed to Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF) in 1972 with a new emphasis on serving rather than owning the groups in schools.
The first Congress on Children and Families and centenary of Scripture Union in New Zealand
Rev John Evans succeeded Lawrie Becroft to direct the work in New Zealand. Lawrie moved to coordinate the Scripture Union work in Auckland.
In January 1978 Scripture Union and the Bible College of New Zealand co-sponsored the first Congress on Children and Families on behalf of churches and Christian organisations throughout New Zealand. This combined lectures from overseas specialists with seminars and workshops. It proved to be seminal for many of the delegates.
1980 was celebrated as the centenary of Scripture Union in New Zealand. A travelling Road Show took a range of ministries to various churches throughout the country in weeks of celebration and training.
"Opening the Bible with People in Life Changing Ways"
Humphrey Babbage succeeded John Evans as National Director. Regionalisation was emphasised and developed. "Opening the Bible with People in Life Changing Ways" was adopted as a unifying slogan for all aspects of the work. In 1987, as part of the Luis Palau and Leighton Ford Missions, Scripture Union organised a celebration programme for children and families called the Rainbow Special. 44,000 people throughout New Zealand participated. Camping programmes were developed under the leadership of Stuart Salisbury. Camps working groups were established to supervise camping in regions. Mem Jo, the first Maori staff worker was appointed.
A nation-wide team of children and families workers
Ken Edgecombe became the new National Director. The Second Congress on Children and Families was held in 1992. The aim of covering the country with a Children and Families staff team supported by working groups was largely achieved. Scripture Union Bookshops were sold and a direct mail order service was established called Scripture Union Direct. The name of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship was changed to Scripture Union in Schools (SUIS).
Developing partnerships with churches
Cathie Smith was appointed to succeed Ken Edgecombe as the new National Director. The name of the youth programmes was changed again from SUIS to SUYouth. A new strategic plan was developed with greater emphasis on regional staff teams working in partnership with churches. SUPAkidz clubs were begun as a new initiative in Primary Schools. SUPAkidz Clubs function as an alternative for schools that will not accept Bible in Schools. They are run with the permission of the school board, and take place in lunch time or after school. They are led by parents and volunteers from churches around the school.
Implementation of risk management system
Mark Brown came from Perth, Australia, to be the National Director. An intensive programme to review safety on all Scripture Union programmes is initiated with the adaptation of the Risk Management System developed by Scripture Union in Australia, Lighting a Path to Safety, which is later rebranded Childsafe.
The first WAY2GO Children's ministry conference is held in 2004.
2007 to 2018
Wayne Fraser took over as National Director.
In 2010 SUNZ partnered with the New Zealand Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators to launch the 'E100 Bible Reading Challenge' in New Zealand. Over 400 churches representing 29,000 people participated. In May 2011 the E100 partnership launched the 'Essential Jesus' resource.
In 2012 SUNZ branding was reviewed to unify the branding of different ministries are around a common look with a strong indigenous style and meaning. The new visual identity was inspired by the landscape of New Zealand, rivers and mountains, as well as the traditional Scripture Union lamp or flame. The white space in the logo represents the journey we take through the landscape and how SUNZ connects with us along that journey. "He rama tāu kupu ki ōku wae" was added as a Te Reo Māori byline. This is taken from Psalm 119:105 — "your word is a lamp for my feet".
Changes in NZ government health and safety legislation and new audit procedures for adventure-based activities mean a major overhaul of all our camp safety procedures and documentation.
In March 2014 "You're Losing Us" workshop was launched to help churches develop strategies for more effective faith formation of children and young people, and try and stem the flow of young people out of churches.
The first national children's ministry survey was undertaken by the Children and Families team. The results were published as a small booklet entitled "He waka eke Noa - We're all in the waka together". Follow up surveys every two years are planned.
In partnership with A Rocha Aotearoa NZ and Adventure Specialties, we start E3, a new ten-day wilderness adventure journey for students in the last two years of high school, in December 2014 in Canterbury. A second E3 journey in Otago was added the next year. As students tramp, mountain bike and raft or kayak through remote areas they are encouraged to think about the journey of life after leaving school from a Christian perspective.
Scripture Union International changed to a new global structure and the Pacific officially stopped being an SU "Region" at the end of 2014.
Exodus Prime young leader training programme for emerging leaders at secondary school began in January 2015. After the January camp, students spend the year with in-church mentors supported by SUNZ. The first graduates completed all four years of the course in 2018.
Changes in NZ government health and safety legislation and new audit procedures for adventure-based activities mean a major overhaul of all our camp safety procedures and documentation.
In 2015 the Bible Reading Guides began being printed in New Zealand, allowing for incorporation of local photographs and articles.
2015 was the 50th anniversary of SU Adventure Lodge (formerly Crusader Lodge) on Mt Ruapehu.
Increasing secularisation and a changing schools environment has made schools less open to a formal Christian presence or Christian groups meeting on the school grounds. SUNZ Secondary school strategy has shifted to working more with local churches so that they can engage effectively with school communities.
In August 2017 we celebrated the 150th birthday of Scripture Union with birthday parties at locations around the country. Auckland Children & Families Consultant Andrew Ramsbottom dressed as Josiah Spiers to cut one of the birthday cakes:
2018 to present
Hilary Hague, a long-time SUNZ volunteer, staff member and former SUNZ Children and Families Team Leader, returned to SUNZ as National Director in April 2018.
Āpōpō, a mental health awareness workshop in a variety of forms is trialled in Christchurch over 2018, and rolled out nation-wide in 2019.
In 2019 the SUNZ vision statement was refreshed to:
"We support churches to help children and young people discover Jesus and become life-long disciples who serve the world around them."
[i] P122, No Ordinary Union, Peter J Lineham, Scripture Union in NZ, 1980