In the bedside stand of nearly every hotel room in the world is a copy of the Holy Bible. Who put them there, and why?
In 1898, two traveling businessmen, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, arrived in Boscobel, Wisconsin looking for a place to stay the night. Though they came from different places, chance put them both in the Central Hotel where there was only a double room left. Without anywhere else to go, the two strangers shared the room, and as two men in a small room are wont to do, they started talking.
When the temporary roommates discovered they were both Christians they decided to pray together that night. Pleased with their communal prayer, they mused on the merits of an organization for traveling Christian businessmen. The couple parted ways (to do their business, I assume), but promised to reconvene one year later at the local YMCA where they would welcome all businessmen looking for “mutual recognition, personal evangelism, and united service for the Lord.” Only one other person showed up: William J. Knights.
At their lonely meeting, the trifecta of traveling Christian businessmen started organizing. By default, Hill became president of their new organization; Knights, vice president; and Nicholson, treasurer and secretary. Next, they needed a name. So the three men decided to pray and wait. Knights was struck by
an epiphany divine inspiration and told the others to whip out their Bibles and check out Judges 6-8, which tells the story of Gideon, the Israelites, and the Midianites.
In the story, the Israelites had turned away from God (as they often did back in the day). As a punishment, God let the Midianites invade the Israelites’s land, force them into the mountains, and destroy their crops. As the it is written “they invaded the land to ravage it,” which is about as bad as it sounds. This ravaging went on for seven years until the Israelites said, “Hey God, please send help.” So an angel came down to a guy named Gideon who was threshing wheat in a winepress (strange fellow), and the angel said “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” To which Gideon replied, “Pardon?” After some discussion and miracles, Gideon and his ragtag group of 300 drove the Midianites out of their land, hunted the fleeing army down, and killed their kings. Hooray!
Knight thought Gideon, which means “destroyer,” was the perfect name for their group of traveling Christian businessmen. Not because they we’re going to hunt and slay an army, but because they were the few ready to take on the charge of the many. Over the next nine years Gideon’s numbers gradually grew and as their influence increased, they wondered how they might better serve God while on the road.
In 1908, the Bible Project was introduced and it became Gideon’s goal to put a Bible in every hotel room in America. They considered it “a gracious act, wholly in keeping with the divine mission of the Gideon Association.” They started in the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana, and haven’t stopped since.
Today, Gideons International has distributed over 1.8 billion copies of the Gideon Bible, with 700 million of those occurring in the last 10 years. The organization brags on their website that more than two copies of their Bible are distributed every second. And there’s nothing special about the “Gideon Bible”—it’s just a copy of the King James Bible distributed by Gideon.
The group has Bible distribution down to a science. Whenever a hotel opens up, one of Gideon’s 300,000 members from 190 countries presents the hotel manager with a ceremonial Bible, and provides enough copies for every hotel room (along with extras for the staff and some replacement copies). They hand over these Bibles and expect nothing in return. I guess when a shipment of 600 Bibles shows up at your hotel you might as well put one in every room. What else can you do? Donate them? Discard them?
Gideon expects each Bible to last about six years before they need to be replaced, at which point they replace them. And they don’t mind if people steal the Bibles. They figure if someone has the gall to take a Bible, it just means they need the word of God that badly.
But then there’s that lurking question we all have (and it’s even the first item on the FAQ section of Gideon’s website): Does anybody actually read these Bibles? Gideon says “Yes!” Though this is hard to verify, they claim in a Gideon Bible’s six-year life, 2,300 people will read it.
Gideons International runs solely off the donations and funds it receives from various benefactors. In their 2012–2013 fiscal year, they received $119 million in contributions. Coupled with other forms of income, the group amassed $131 million total which they then used $120 million of to buy more Bibles and send them across the world. (If you’re looking at that $11 million difference and thinking they might have made some money on the side, you’d be mistaken. In the 2012–2013 year they had to dip into their cash reserves to pay $137 million in combined expenses.)
This nightstand missionary has become popular enough that other holy books are starting to crowd the drawer next to the bed. J. Willard Marriott, founder of Marriott hotels was a Mormon missionary. In the bedstand of every Marriott hotel, there’s a Book of Mormon. Buddhist, Hindu, Christian Scientist, and Scientologist texts are making appearances in hotel rooms across the world. But it will take more time and money (and the interest of hotels) before an entire sacred library is found next to the complimentary chocolate on your pillow.