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150 years of beach missions

July 2018 | by Roger Carswell

In 1850 Llandudno was laid out as a watering-place for holiday-makers. 18 years later, on 26 August, a small man with thick black whiskers was sauntering along the beach.

Heavy bathing machines were either standing or being dragged towards the sea by cart horses, as ladies were taking their dip in flouncing bathing gowns. Gentlemen were requested not to walk on that part of the promenade. The children were from wealthy backgrounds and, for most of them, church attendance and family prayers would have been normal.

Josiah Spiers watched the children fetching pebbles and seaweed, when he thought, ‘Why not encourage the children to make a Bible verse in a sandcastle on the beach?’ Very soon a crowd had gathered as smooth white stones were used to emboss the sand with the words, ‘GOD IS LOVE’.

The text finished, they turned to Josiah Spiers enquiring, ‘What shall we do next?’ So he told them a story from the Bible about Jesus. Now quite a crowd had gathered, and not content to hear one story, he told them another, then another; entering into the parts of the characters, sometimes jumping up and down.

Over 50 children loved what he was sharing, until their nannies came to take them for lunch in their boarding houses.

Stories and singing

The next morning as Spiers appeared the children ran to him, and more stories followed as well as singing. A new hymn had newly arrived from the USA and probably had its ‘world premier’ on a beach:

‘Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to Him belong.

They are weak, but He is strong.

‘Yes, Jesus loves me;

Yes, Jesus loves me;

Yes, Jesus loves me;

The Bible tells me so.’

By the time Sunday had come, Spiers had such a following that he announced there would be a children’s special service held on the beach near the North Parade. 300-400 children and adults gathered, so that Spiers led the service from a boat drawn up on the sand. The fortnight of children’s activities and services was the beginning of a work which was to grow.

Growing work

Most local children in Llandudno were Welsh-speaking. They were children of fishermen and farmers, or ‘immigrants’ from Anglesey whose fathers were miners in the Great Orme copper mines. Sadly, they would not have been part of the early beach missions.

The next year they ran a similar week in Margate, and later in Scarborough, Rhyl, St Leonards, as well as Llandudno. Children’s missions were also held inland, growing into an international movement: the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM), which is now known as Scripture Union (SU).

It was all the more impressive as it started at a time when it was felt irreverent for children to sing cheerful hymns with enjoyment. They should be seen and not heard!

Spiers believed that children could understand the gospel and could put their trust in Jesus as their personal Lord, Saviour and Friend. In fact, children used to write to him telling their story of how they understood that Jesus had died to take away their sin, and how they had asked him to forgive them.

Volunteers helped

By the mid-1880s there were beach missions in over 50 seaside resorts. Volunteer university students helped run the activities. Lewis Carroll, the famous author of Alice in Wonderland — who was inspired by a young girl called Alice who used to holiday in Llandudno — is commemorated in the town and was a great admirer of the missions. He would always sit among the children when the mission was being run in Eastbourne, soaking up the atmosphere and the teaching of the missions.

Josiah Spiers published beautiful, illustrated books for children. His first one had interesting facts and stories for children, such as ‘the dreadful story about a lion’. He wrote, ‘If any of my readers are easily frightened, they had better not read it’. But it sold 187,000 copies in 15 years.

CSSM itself, published a book of choruses to sing and then a hymn book, which sold 4,000,000 copies in 35 years. The choruses condensed Christian truth into short songs with memorable tunes:

‘Wide, wide as the ocean,

High as the heaven above,

Deep, deep as the deepest sea

Is my Saviour’s love.

I, though so unworthy,

Still am a child of His care —

For His Word teaches me,

That His love reaches me … everywhere!’

Beginning of UBM

Llandudno was also the place where United Beach Missions (UBM) began in 1953.  CSSM had stopped working there some years earlier. But in 1950, a farm labourer, a medical student and a team of young people went on a beach mission first in Rhyl, then the next two years in Blackpool, before going to Llandudno, where UBM was launched.

They were joined by another student, a maths teacher and a builder. They focused their work not only on children, but ran activities for all ages on the beach and promenade. The two students both became professors — one of rheumatology, the other of veterinary preventive medicine. Like CSSM/Scripture Union, UBM expanded and today works in 40 locations in the UK, plus at centres throughout Ireland and continental Europe.

There is nothing untoward about the message of the beach missions. Representing the major churches, they believe the historic Christian message of Jesus and his love. Games are organised, competitions run, stories are told, songs are sung and fun is had. And there is never a charge for anything.

Serious work

Yet there is a serious aspect to the missions too. Hundreds of volunteers give up their summer holidays to work with families, paying their own way. After all, if (as one of the children’s favourite Bible memory verses says) ‘the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’, it is not too much to pass on the most loving message the world has ever heard!

Each of the team members has come to a time in their lives when they heard and understood that God who made them, loves them, even though they have not always done as they should. Beach missioners vary in age and background, coming from a variety of churches and countries, but work together well in teams of 12–30.

Unique to the Christian message is that God has taken the initiative and come to reach and rescue us. We don’t deserve God’s love, but ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. One of UBM’s favourite songs on the beach is:

‘He made the stars to shine;

He made the rolling sea;

He made the mountains high;

And He made me.

But this is why I love Him,

For me He bled and died;

The Lord of all creation

Became the crucified.’

Roger Carswell is an evangelist. He was born and brought up in Leeds, England, and has lived in Horsforth for the past 23 years. He is married to Dorothy, and they have four children and six grandsons. His mother is Armenian; his father was a Yorkshireman.