Two billion Bibles later, the Gideons are still at it, spreading the Gospel room by room.
By BOB GREENE
Jan. 14, 2016 6:56 p.m. ET
If 2016, as various where-is-society-heading experts predict, turns out to be the year in which the sleek new digital world rudely shoves ink-on-paper products deeper than ever toward the dustbin of history, someone forgot to tell the Gideons.
You may not have thought about them in a while. Which is fine with them. The Gideons don’t seek publicity. They are content to do quietly what they have done for more than a century: endeavor to put a free Bible in the drawer of every nightstand in every hotel room in the United States and throughout the world.
The presence of those Bibles has been so constant for so long that many travelers barely notice they’re there. But the Gideons’ theory—the reason for the existence of Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn.—is that even if a person seldom picks up a Bible, there may come an unexpected dark night of the soul when a man or woman is on the road, alone and despairing, and by instinct will know that potential comfort is an arm’s reach away.
The organization began in 1898 when two salesmen who had never met— John H. Nicholson, of Janesville, Wis., and Samuel E. Hill, of Beloit, Wis.—were staying at the Central House Hotel in Boscobel, Wis., and took their evening devotions together. Their conversation led to a second meeting, and then a third; they wondered what might be done to help travelers who found themselves in solitude on the road and in need of spiritual sustenance.
Taking their name from a biblical figure emblematic of fidelity to God, the Gideons came up with what seemed like an outlandishly ambitious idea: put a Bible into every hotel room in the country, at no cost to the hotel owners. The project, in sheer numbers, has been nothing short of astonishing.
According to the Gideons, they have distributed, since the group’s inception, more than two billion Bibles around the world in more than 90 languages. The Bibles are given to hotels and are also offered to police and fire departments, military bases, hospitals, prisons and domestic-violence centers. The Gideons say their work is supported entirely by contributions, and if a hotel guest decides to take a Bible home—well, no one’s going to call the cops. The Gideons are always glad to print more.
There is a one-page guide at the beginning of each Gideon Bible, sort of an emergency index, with the headline “Help in Time of Need.” It directs the reader to specific Bible verses that address problems of the kind that people are sometimes reluctant to admit even to themselves, including “Comfort in Time of Loneliness”; “Relief in Time of Suffering”; “Protection in Time of Danger”; “Courage in Time of Fear”; “Strength in Time of Temptation”; and “Rest in Time of Weariness.”
When the Gideons began their mission, there were no radios or television sets in hotel rooms, and the four walls could make the space seem hauntingly empty and isolated. But in the modern age, even the most wealthy and celebrated travelers could from time to time understand that hollow feeling; the Beatles, at the height of their success, sang: “Rocky Raccoon, checked in to his room, only to find Gideon’s Bible. . . .”
Although the Bibles are there for anyone to use, the Gideons describe themselves as “the oldest association of Christian businessmen and professional men in the United States of America,” and there are occasions when hotel guests or outside groups, considering every aspect of that definition to be incontrovertibly exclusionary, complain to hotel managers and demand that the Bibles be removed from all the rooms.
Sometimes they succeed, as happened recently at the hotel on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill.; in our increasingly multicultural age, it will not be surprising if there are more such efforts. The Gideons, through their headquarters, routinely decline requests for interviews, preferring to let their work speak for itself.
But a case can be made: In 21st-century hotel rooms, on the high-definition television screens bolted to the walls or on the computers and tablets and smartphones that travelers never are without, every manner of violence and bloodshed and pornography is readily available 24 hours a day. So, with all that, perhaps there still is a place for the printed Bible tucked away in the drawer next to the bed. No one is forcing the guest to open it.
The Gideons define what they do rather simply: “Our mission is to reach the lost.” Which is a description that, in all of its nuances, will probably apply to just about everyone at some time or other in life. That book in the nightstand, if it’s allowed to remain, will likely never lack for readers.
Mr. Greene’s books include “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen” (William Morrow, 2003).