In June 1867, Josiah Spiers spoke to fifteen children in a drawing room in Islington, London, pioneering a new approach to sharing Christ with children. These meetings grew rapidly and soon the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) was formed, which was to become Scripture Union (SU).
Tom Bishop, a civil servant was involved in a similar meeting in South London and met Spiers in the spring of 1868. They were to work together for the next forty years, establishing a ministry which by 1893 had distributed 13 million children’s leaflets in fifty languages all around the world. Later on in 1868, Spiers went on holiday to Llandudno in North Wales and spontaneously held a children’s meeting on the beach. He drew the text ‘God is Love’ in the sand, invited children to decorate it, then told them a Bible story. The beach mission was born.
In 1879, CSSM introduced a system of daily Bible reading, the Children’s Scripture Union. Initially, members received an annual membership card with a list of daily readings and suggestions for prayer. Later, children’s magazines were produced with explanatory notes. Booklets of notes were published for troops in the trenches during the Great War from 1914-18, and led to the first issue of Daily Notes for adults in 1923.
The first Boys’ Camp was held in 1892 in Littlehampton, led by Major Leibenrood, a veteran from the Zulu War. The following year, the Caravan Mission to Village Children (CMVC) was started, using a baker’s cart to travel from village to village. The CMVC became part of CSSM. Both names were dropped in the 1960s when Scripture Union (SU) became the name of the movement as a whole.
After the Second World War, SU developed a new kind of ministry in state schools, the Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF), paving the way for the schools ministry. Pioneering and developing ministry has always been a feature of Scripture Union’s ministry, and it continues today, apps such as Guardians of Ancora and related digital ministries such as WordLive, LightLive and SchoolsLive. The context may have changed but the needs of children and young people remain the same.
Paul, an Italian American and Elisabeth Maida Contento, a Scot were missionaries serving with the China Inland Mission at the border with Mongolia. They met in the mission field and were married in 1933 in Tientsin. The marriage ceremony was performed by Elisabeth’s classmate in Scotland, also serving at that time in China, a certain Rev Eric Liddell, an Olympic runner who chose to honour God by not running on a Sunday. The movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ tells this story.
(Photo: Elisabeth and Paul Contento with Prof Khoo Oon Teik)
When the communist rose in the mid 1950’s, the Contento’s came to Singapore and were the first OMF missionaries here (as China Inland Missions became OMF). Together with Mr Calvin Chao and his wife, the four began the Singapore Theological Seminary (now Singapore Bible College) and the Inter-Varsity movement. Paul Contento was teaching at Nanyang University in Singapore and Elisabeth Contento taught at the Singapore Teachers Training College. During that time, Paul knew about the Intervarsity Fellowship (IVF) movement from David Adeney, who was also with the China Inland Mission and the IVF.
The Contentos were instrumental in starting SU and the Inter School Christian fellowship here in Singapore. Singapore in those days was about 3% Christian and SU through its daily devotionals was very instrumental in the spiritual growth of the many who started to turn to the Lord. The work in schools by the ISCF was abundantly fruitful.
The beginning years in SU Singapore’s history:
1950 – SU reading notes were ordered by Bro Ralph Mitchell from Bethesda Church and distributed to his Brethren assemblies and few other churches in Singapore.
1954 - Dr John Laird from SU in London visited Singapore to speak at an ACS Chapel service and SU Rally held at Raffles Institution.
(Photo: David Adeney)
1955 – Dr Leon Dale from Australia (who lectured Geography at the University of Singapore) initiated the first SU Singapore Committee.
1956 – Rev Lester Pfankuch (from New Zealand) became the first Inter- School Fellowship (ISCF) staff worker.
1958 – Rev Tony McCutcheon from Melbourne was seconded to become the General Secretary for Singapore and the Federation of Malaya and implemented a committee structure that was responsible to the Singapore Council. Dr Khoo Oon Teik became the Chairman of the first Council in 1958 and served diligently till 1973.
1960s – The 1960s saw the building of SU as an organisation and her ministries in Singapore. In 1960 the first ANZEA (Australia, New Zealand and East Asia) Council under Chairman Mr Alan Kerr from Australia met in Sydney. In May 1961 SU was officially registered as a Society with the Registry of Societies. By 1962, Singapore, together with Japan joined Australia and New Zealand as full members of the ANZEA Council. By 1960, SU Bible Reading subscribers increased to more than 3,000 (for English) and 600 (for Chinese). The ISCF ministry began to grow to 60 English speaking groups. In 1963, Prof Phoon Wai-On joined the SU Singapore Council and became the Chairman of the Bible Reading Committee. At the same time, in an effort to reach the Chinese speaking community, Mr Goh Ewe Kheng became Chairman of the Chinese Committee. The Chinese ISCF grew to 25 groups in 1968. The SU Book Centre, started by SU Singapore to meet the growing needs of Christian literature was opened in 1963. In 1965, the first SU Junior ISCF Committee was formed with Ms Kam Poh Kin a teacher. As Chairperson and 3 years later, the very first SU Junior ISCF camp was organised.
1970s – The years in the 70s saw SU growing in her camping ministries and the SU Bookshop. SU Singapore moved to its present location at Bible House. In 1972, the first SU campsite was dedicated at Wing Long Road, Changi. In 1978, SU obtained a 30-year lease from Sentosa Development Corporation for a campsite on Sentosa. The camping ministry reached out and impacted hundreds of campers through the years. SU Singapore participated in the 1978 Billy Graham 1980s Crusade through printing of follow-up materials. Dr Khoo Oon Teik was elected Chairman of SU ANZEA Regional council. Prof Phoon Wai-On became Chairman of SU Singapore. In March 1979, Rev Alfred Yeo was appointed Secretary General of SU Singapore.
– The expanding years saw the SU Bookshop grow and the SU Children’s Ministry develop. On 19th June 1984, SU Singapore celebrated her 30th Anniversary. Mr Eric Chan became Chairman of SU Singapore in 1985. In 1986, Dr Freddy Boey was made honorary General Secretary of SU Singapore till 1988 when he left for graduate studies. From 1988-1990, Mr Harry Cotter from SU Australia, served as Associate Director at SU Singapore. The late 80s saw the need for SU to change her students’ ministry approach. All ISCF groups had to cease as the Ministry of Education changed the ruling regarding the teaching of religion as a subject under the moral ethics programme in schools.
1990s – In August 1993, SU Sentosa Camp Centre hosted the 1st SU East Asia International Students camp. SU Singapore’s 40th Anniversary was celebrated in May 1994, with Dr John Stott as Guest-of-Honour. The 45th Anniversary was held in September 1999. By the early 1990s the SU Book Centre expanded to 6 retail outlets. Several Chairman leadership successions took place during this era: 1991-1993 Mr Tan Soo Jin, 1994- 1997 Dr Douglas Kong, 1998-2000 Mr Goh Ewe Kheng. From 1991-1997, Mrs Mona Lee-Chia was appointed Executive Director of SU Singapore. Mr David Leong took over from 1998-2011. In the region, Rev Alfred Yeo was elected as a member of the SU East- Asia Regional Executive Committee from 1995 to 2004.
2000 onwards – Dr Freddy Boey was elected Council Chairman till 2005. In 2003 Mr Michael Wee was appointed Chief Executive Officer of SU Singapore to assist Mr David Leong in administrative functions. In 2005 Mr Jon Ong served as Chairman till 2007. From 2007 – 2014 Rev Alfred Yeo served as Chairman. 2010 onwards, SU Singapore assumed a more active role in the region. Dr Lim Teck Boon served as National Director from 2013 -2017. The following countries have since come under the companionship of SU Singapore: SU Myanmar, SU Thailand, SU Vietnam (HCMC) and SU Cambodia.
Today, SU Singapore continues to be involved in children’s and youth ministry work. We have seen the Gospel reached among the young in the local communities. Looking ahead, SU Singapore will continue to help our regional companion countries develop further. With the use of technology, SU Singapore endeavours to achieve greater escalation. By the grace of God and placing our trust in the Lord, the journey continues.
Scripture Union Singapore seeks to engage children and young people
to experience God daily through His Word and empower them to serve.