Sunday, July 26, 2009

"No doubt to help with young Rocky's revival": Gideon's first century.

For a long time now, I have begun my classes each semester by stealing a joke from my old professor Walter Brueggemann. As I go over the syllabus and required texts for my courses, I tell students they will also need to bring a Bible to each class meeting. If they don't have a Bible, I go on to tell them, "check into a hotel and steal yourself a Gideon's between now and our next meeting."

Though it usually gets a polite laugh, the truth of the joke depends on the hard work of this scrappy little organization that finds its home just a short drive outside Nashville. They have been quite diligent in their endeavors.

Currently, the Gideon's International Bible Society gives away, on average, one copy of the Bible (or at least their New Testament/Psalms publication) every second of every day [1]. That's a pretty amazing statistic, but not surprising for those who know the history--and the zeal--of this organization.

The month of July marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the Gideon's ministry of placing Bibles in hotel and motel rooms across the country and around the world. The decision to start the ministry occurred during a Gideon's convention in 1908, held in Louisville, KY [2]. Working with the help of the American Bible Society, who provided copies of both the King James Version and the American Standard Version to the Gideon's ministry at a very reasonable cost.

The pilot for the program started late in 1908, with 25 Bibles placed in the Hotel Superior in Iron Mountain, Montana. "By July 1909, 5774 Bibles had been placed in 17 U.S.A. states. Texas beat out Indiana by one Bible, placing 1,389 versus 1,388" [3].

By 1951, then Executive Vice President of the American Hotel Association, Charles A. Horrworth, pledged that the Gideon's Bible would not only be available in every American hotel room, but "displayed prominently" in plain view [4].

To say that they were successful would be a tremendous understatement. I have traveled the world, and have found Bibles (in various languages) placed by the Gideons in rooms I have stayed in from central Mexico, to Paris, and Tuebingen, Germany.

In the hundred years of the Gideon hotel ministry, many religious organizations have followed their lead, making a variety of religious texts available to travelers. The highest profile example of this, perhaps, is the Marriott hotel chain's inclusion of the Book of Mormon in each of its rooms (the Marriott family, who still have primary ownership of the corporation, are longtime Latter-Day Saints).

The Gideon's Bible is remarkable in that it is, at the same time, one of the most thoughtfully designed and least-obviously designed Bibles available. The Gideon's place their Bibles in locations where people are on the move and perhaps in times of transition or great crisis. Hence you will find a Gideon's not only in hotel rooms but hospitals and doctors offices throughout the land. They know who they want to reach, and the unassuming design of the cover invites inspection without denominational or faith credentials. Once the cover is opened, carefully-placed one-page guides throughout the book direct the reader to a "plan of salvation" designed to lead to succor, if not transformation.

Regardless of how you feel about the Gideon's or their ministry, it must be admitted that this simple idea--a Bible in every room--has been one of the most successful evangelical endeavors of recent memory. So happy 100th birthday, guys. Here's to the next century!

1. "The Battle of the Books: The Business of Marketing the Bible and the Koran says a lot about the state of modern Christianity and Islam," The Economist, December 22, 2007, p. 80.
2. Sowers of the Word: A 95 Year History of the Gideons International (Lebanon, TN: Gideons International, 1995), p. 100.
3. Ibid.
4. Sowers of the Word, p. 102.

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