Who Puts the Gideon Bible in Your Hotel Room?
Paper salesman John “Nick” Nicholson didn’t reach his hotel until 9 o’clock that night of September 14, 1898. Another hard day of train rides, carriage rides, and appointments left him wanting only a quiet room in which to write up his orders.
But the lobby of the Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, bulged with people. In Nicholson’s words, the hotel was “crowded with drummers and ‘hangabouts’ playing cards, shaking dice, smoking, laughing, cursing, yelling, and singing with clinking of glasses and the tinkle of the mechanical organ.”
At the front desk, Nicholson’s fears were confirmed: Every room was filled.
A Last-Ditch Solution
The hotel landlord wanted to help Nicholson, a regular customer, so he proposed a last-ditch solution. “We have a man with us tonight by the name of Sam Hill,” he said, “a good clean fellow. There’s a spare bed in his room, and if you’re both willing to share, you could have it.” The landlord took Nicholson across the lobby to meet Hill, who was writing up his orders.
The fellow salesman agreed to the arrangement.
In Room 19 later that evening, Hill rolled over to go to sleep. “Excuse me if I keep this light on a little while longer,” Nicholson said. “I always make it a practice to read the Word of God and speak to him before I retire.”
“Read it aloud,” Hill told him. “I’m a Christian, too.”
Nicholson read John 15, and the two prayed together. Then he and Hill started talking about the need for Christian traveling salesmen to know about each other. By 2 A.M. they had determined they should start an association.
That morning, the two left the Central Hotel and soon forgot about the plan.
Only Three at the First Meeting
The following May, however, Nick Nicholson met Sam Hill on a street in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Chagrined over their previous lack of action, they set a date for the association’s first meeting and promised to invite other Christian salesmen to join them.
On July 1, 1899, only one other person showed up at the Janesville YMCA.
Nicholson, Hill, and the newcomer, William Knights, didn’t let the small turnout discourage them. They quickly appointed themselves president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer. They also adopted the name Gideons, after the fiery Old Testament leader.
The fledgling group of Christian “commercial men” met again to encourage each other and spur each other to witness for Christ. At this meeting, in which the Gideons’ emblem was conceived, the group expanded to twelve charter members, all from Wisconsin.
The following year, 1900, saw the first local chapter (called a “camp”), the first edition of The Gideon Quarterly, and the first national convention. The convention attracted only thirty-seven of the group’s now-six-hundred members, but it passed this significant resolution: “That every hotel, which Gideons patronize, furnish a Holy Bible for the benefit of its patrons.”
The turn of the century also saw pitched battles arise: Was it proper for “a traveling man” to preach in churches, as many Gidieons were being asked to do? Should all Gideons be expected to give their testimony in public, or should timid souls, who were dropping out by the dozens, be exempted? As later president Samuel Fulton explained, “Our organization is difficult to handle. There is a variety of minds, a variety of denominations, and such a wide variety of views with reference to incidental things.… Positions taken did not always please everybody.… ”
How Did Bible Distribution Start?
By 1903, the Gideons added a salaried national secretary and a headquarters in Chicago.
That year, an officer of the Gideons reported on a similar organization in England. “They are doing a great work by putting Bibles in all the rooms of the different hotels they go to,” he said. “I think that we ought to adopt the same. ”
His report was forgotten, apparently, for almost five years.
At the national convention in 1908, however, the Gideons committed themselves to place Bibles in every hotel in the country. But how would they pay for the ambitious scheme? Later that year, churches in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, agreed to fund Bible distribution in their area hotels. The Gideons saw that they could be an “extended arm” of the church.
Soon they began ordering thousands of Bibles. (At first, the Gideons preferred the popular new American Standard Version to the King James; in later years they began distributing the King James Version solely.)
Before the Gideons could approach hotel managers, however, one approached them. Archie Bailey of Iron Mountain, Montana, heard about the group and ordered twenty-five copies for his Superior Hotel. The following month, an order came from Detroit.
From that point, Bible distribution grew rapidly. By the late 1920s, in fact, it had become the best-known—often the only known—aspect of the Gideons. As one member warned in The Gideon (December 1928): “Many think still that our Bible work—placing Bibles in hotels—is our only aim. To be sure, this is a most important branch of our work, and the work for which we are chiefly known to the public at large. But the Gideon organization was founded with this object in view: ‘Winning Commerical Traveling Men for Christ.’ ”
Evangelism did continue in other forms. The Gideons sponsored programs at the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” Fair and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet Bible distribution remained their largest and most visible project.
Growth and Pains
In the 1920s, controversy broke out among the Gideons over how to pay for the administrative costs involved in distributing Bibles. Should all donations to the Bible Fund be used strictly to purchase Bibles, or could some of that money defray administration of the program? Eventually, 10 cents per Bible was set aside for administration. (Today, about 8 percent of the Gideons’ $45 million annual budget goes toward administration. )
The distribution to hotel rooms gradually spread to hospitals (1916), public school classrooms (1937), military personnel (1941), and each public school student (1944). In 1953, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled out Bible distribution to New Jersey students, and since then, many states have followed suit.
Despite the setback in schools, the Gideons continue their original and best-known work. Do hotel managers object to Bibles being placed in their rooms? Not to any great extent.
Some managers prefer having them there. Paul A. Westburg’s They Stood Every Man in His Place includes the story of one hotel manager in Rockford, Illinois. A guest came to the front desk with a Gideon Bible under his arm.
“Being up against it financially, I had my mind made up to forge a check … to give to you,” he admitted. But “when I caught sight of this Bible, … instead of forging the check as I had planned, I’ve come to tell you that if you will permit me to go home, I’ll mail you the amount of my bill just as soon as I’m able.” According to the manager, the man did.
Today, the Gideons’ membership stands at 100,000, all “business men [no women, except in an auxiliary] who believe in the Bible as the inspired Word of God” and who “have received [Christ] as their personal Saviour.” In addition, applicants must be members in good standing of a church and not be “engaged in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages.”
The Gideons occasionally have fought financial problems. In 1905, the national headquarters was moved to St. Louis, because the president lived there, and he agreed to personally cover all office costs, as well as edit the magazine. That same year, though, this new president suffered business losses. As a result, two issues of The Gideon never went out. The president didn’t come to the 1906 convention.
As late as 1954, the Gideons reported a general-fund deficit of nearly $50,000. To cover the deficit, the cabinet proposed increasing member dues from $10 to $25. The membership would approve an increase to only $12.50.
Overall, however, the Gideons have shown steady, remarkable numerical and financial growth. About 5,000 Gideons attend the annual July convention. Past presidents have included evangelical industrialist and college founder R. G. LeTourneau, and P. J. Zondervan, co-founder of the publishing company by that name.
The original Chicago headquarters has moved to Nashville, and the staff of one has grown to seventy-five. This year, the Gideons will distribute 32,000,000 Bibles, including 1,000,000 to military personnel in Operation Desert Storm. Most Gideon Bibles still wind up in hotels. In 58 languages, in 140 countries, travelers can find a Gideon Bible in (to use writer D. G. Kehl’s words) “hostels ranging from Heartbreak Hotel to the Hilton.”
Nick Nicholson and Sam Hill, who met ninety-three years ago in Boscobel’s Central Hotel, would approve. Because of their original vision, as novelist John Updike wrote, “Every hotel room … offers a Bible for the perusal of travel-worn salesmen [and] bickering vacationers” who can thereby find “the consolation and stimulation of this incredible, most credible book.”
Kevin A. Miller is editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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