1900 - 1919
In the spring of 1900 an English missionary called Albert Kestin was walking through a North London park on a Sunday afternoon when he came across a group of boys. “How is it that you boys are not at Sunday School?” he asked. His enquiry would have seemed perfectly reasonable as all boys and girls were expected to attend afternoon Sunday school in those days.
“We don’t like it, Sir,” was the simple but clearly genuine reply. “What a pity”, Albert Kestin replied. “If I were to start a Bible Class specially for you, would you like to come?” They said they would, and the following Sunday (1st April 1900) they attended the first ever Crusader Class in 71 Crouch Hill, London, the home of Mr and Mrs Saffery where Kestin was lodging while on furlough after working as a young missionary in Calcutta.
Concerned that these young people were missing out on the opportunity to discover the good news of Jesus Christ, Kestin’s missionary passion resulted in him offering to run a special meeting for them every week, and he sought to present the Christian message in a challenging and engaging way.
Others took note of what he was doing and a number of such weekly meetings, called ‘classes’, began to spring up. The first Class outside of London was started by Kestin's friend, Herbert Bevington, in Brighton. On 29th March 1906, the Leaders of eleven Crusader Classes, with a total membership of some 600 boys, met together in London and The Crusaders’ Union was born.
Its aim was simply to teach the whole Bible in a creative and relevant way to young people who did not attend church. Albert Kestin suggested a motto for this new organisation, taken from Hebrews 12:2: ‘Looking to Jesus’. The distinctive Crusader badge was established in 1908 and in the same year, the very first Crusader Camp was held in Bognor Regis. Also in 1908, the First Annual Rally saw 500 boys from 21 Classes come together in London.
The original Crusaders' Union was boys only but girls Classes were already starting up. Mixed groups would be a while off yet but in 1916, The Girl Crusaders’ Union formed with 22 Classes.
By the end of the First World War, over 3000 Crusaders had joined the Armed Forces and sadly 300 never returned home. A J Vereker took over running Crusaders in 1918, overseeing significant growth during his 27 years in charge.
1920 - 1939
There were 4500 Crusaders in 58 Classes in 1922 and this was the year of the First Annual Sports Day, held in Putney (something that would become a regular feature throughout the following years).
Crusaders reached north of the border in 1927. The first Class in Scotland was Glasgow West, started by Jimmy Duncan. By 1929 there were 200 Crusaders in Scotland and in 1933, the first Scottish Camp took place. The first Class in Ireland was started in Belfast (followed soon after by Cork, Dublin and Londonderry) around the same time and the first Welsh Class arrived in Penarth in 1928.
1929 saw the first appearance of the Crusader ‘Specials’ - a series of organised rail trips especially for the boys (complete with personalised name plates on the engines). One such 'Special' gave Crusaders access to Swindon Locomotive Works, thanks to the influence of Cecil J Allan.
By 1934, Crusaders was ready for its first official headquarters and the organisation moved into Ludgate Hill (in the Churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral in London). This prestigious location would be home for over 40 years. The 30th anniversary was celebrated in 1936 with a huge Rally at the Royal Albert Hall also in London.
By the time the Second World War began in 1939, Crusaders had grown to 256 Classes with more than 16000 members. In contrast by 1942, 34 of those Classes had suspended activity (due to significant impact of evacuation and enlistment).
1940 - 1959
Over 4000 Crusaders were serving their country by 1944 and Crusaders made every effort to keep in touch with them out in the field. 40 gallantry decorations (including 2 Victoria Crosses) were handed out to members and at least 600 had been killed by the end of the War. The movement had reduced down to 5000 members meeting at home but there was still considerable growth in the rural-based Classes due to the evacuation of children from the larger towns and cities.
In 1948 Westbrook opened on the Isle of Wight as a memorial to the Crusaders who lost their lives in the War - partly funded by the generosity of construction mogul, Sir John Laing - and A J Vereker became the very first Warden there after being forced to give up office work.
With the war behind us, Crusaders grew back up to 248 Classes with 13325 members. The first opportunity to integrate with GCU saw a joint Autumn Bible School held in 1948. By 1956, the Crusaders’ Union Girls’ Association (CUGA) had formed and moved into the Ludgate Hill Headquarters.
By the Golden Jubilee year of 1956, around 2500 Crusaders every year were enjoying Crusader Camps at Westbrook, Studland (Dorset), St Davids (Pembrokeshire, Wales), Polzeath (Cornwall) and Stoke Fleming (Devon) among others. The Golden Jubilee itself was marked in style with Rallies at the Royal Albert Hall and a leaders conference at Swanwick with 12000 in attendance across the events. By the Jubilee, there were 316 Classes and almost 20000 members too.
1960 - 1979
By 1960, eight mixed Classes had started (and by 1980 this number had grown to 182, representing over 40% of the total number of Classes). The first mixed Houseparty was held at Clarens in Switzerland in 1961. Just three years later, the first joint committee meeting between The Crusaders’ Union and CUGA took place (but it wasn’t until 1976 that the two organisations combined into one.)
The Diamond Jubilee of Crusaders was celebrated in 1966 with a Thanksgiving Service held at St Paul’s Cathedral on the doorstep of the Headquarters, with Rev John Stott giving the address.
Crusaders membership peaked in 1972 with 29000 young people involved - but with new Groups (rather than more formal Classes) generally being mixed and single-gender Groups beginning to merge in keeping with the changing times.
In 1976, the decision was reached that the Headquarters should leave the Capital with its rising rates and transport costs. Crusaders moved to St Albans, into a lovely building on Romeland Hill, within sight of St Albans Abbey.
1980 - 1999
In 1983, Ernie Addicott became the first appointed Director of Crusaders and he would be succeeded by Dr Alan Kerbey in 1992.
The first Area Development Workers (ADWs) were appointed in 1985 to plant new Groups and find volunteer Leaders - leading to record numbers of new Groups starting in the early 1990’s.
A new termly magazine called Link was started in 1986 to help raise the public profile of the organisation. In the same year, the CRUSOE (Overseas mission) trips began with a project in Tanzania to extend two airstrips for local villages. These Overseas Adventures still continue to this day, having developed into more recently ReBuild house-building projects and ReNew community development experiences.
2000 - 2019
In 2000, Matt Summerfield, the youngest Director in Crusaders’ history took over the reins and the following year, Crusaders set an unlikely World Record. A Sponsored Head Shave in a shopping mall in Watford saw 137 people volunteer to lose their hair in just 4 hours!
The organisation moved to its current home in Luton in 2003 and into a significantly larger building which has allowed improved support and services to Groups - including conference facilities and accommodation to visiting staff and volunteers.
Energize launched in 2004 as the first online youth and children’s resource in the UK. It started as an innovative tool for providing meeting plans, training and leadership development for Crusaders Groups but has continued to grow into a significant resource for the wider UK Church.
Echoing the Golden Jubilee 50 years before, Crusaders celebrated their Centenary in 2006 by returning to the Royal Albert Hall in London, where the bold decision to rebrand as Urban Saints was announced. Crusaders officially became Urban Saints the following year and the staff team visited the very North London park where the movement had begun to plant a tree to commemorate the first encounter Albert Kestin had with his soon-to-be Group.
As part of the 'Hope 2008' initiative, the ReAct UK mission took family fun days and open-air services to 30 towns in the summer of 2008. The following year, ReBuild took over from CRUSOE (see above), taking the first house-builders over to Mexico. ReBuild would allow far more young people to experience overseas mission than the small CRUSOE teams could and hundreds have since followed in their footsteps.
In 2012, Urban Saints were a key partner in the National Day of Prayer that took place with over 34000 people in Wembley Stadium. Hundreds of young people encircled the pitch of the national stadium wearing red hoodies, to symbolically pray for the Nations. This was followed by a year of prayer where a special scroll was passed from group to group, and church to church for twelve months unbroken.
Also in 2017, Richard Langmead took over as CEO, with a strong passion to return to the roots of Crusaders and the core mission of disciple-making in local weekly Groups. Urban Saints launched 7 brand new Groups in the following year, with more to come year on year.
In 2018 Energize reached a significant milestone of serving 1500 churches and organisations across the UK, Ireland and beyond (and continues to grow each year too).
Urban Saints' team members returned again to the original North London park in 2019 as they walked the 28 miles from the start of Crusaders to the current home of Urban Saints, via our former base in St Albans. It was symbolic of the “Long Walk in the Same Direction” that Crusaders and Urban Saints has been committed to - to make young disciples for Christ - and that adventure continues today...
The Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 saw a total suspension of all Groups and Camps – unprecedented in our history even during war time. However, we were quickly able to help both Groups and Camps transition to gathering online or supplying resources to children and young people in their homes. Energize really came into its own supporting not only our volunteers but also our large network of connected churches.
Ant Horton joined the team in 2021 as Chief Mission Officer as we looked to navigate the post-lockdown world of youth and children’s ministry. Most of our Groups returned to meeting in person but this global change in culture has prompted us to explore how digital might play a bigger part within Urban Saints. Whatever the future holds for this movement, we remain committed to providing safe spaces for children and young people to ask big questions and explore life and faith together.