Only to find Gideon's Bible: The Good Book in the hotel nightstand turns 100
New York’s famed Plaza Hotel reopened in March after a $400 million, two-year lobby-to-roof renovation. Every room features 24-karat gold-plated sinks and fixtures. And inside every Louis XV-inspired nightstand sits a Bible, courtesy of the Gideons.
The same goes for the Motel 6 in Abilene, Texas, where you pull off I-20 onto Shirley Road, park at your room’s front door, open the drawer of the nightstand, and there it sits, the Bible, courtesy of the Gideons.
Since 1908, sixty years before the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon went into his room, only to find it, the Gideon-distributed Bible has been sent, gratis, to nearly every hotel in the United States, as well as those in 183 countries. Though the mission of Gideons International reaches the century mark this year, there is no celebration planned at its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., nor would organization officials grant interviews.
Nearly 1.4 billion Bibles--translated into 83 languages--have been distributed by the Gideons worldwide, 500 million in the last decade alone and 70.7 million last year.
According to a 2006 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 9 out of 10 hotels have some religious material in their rooms--and odds are, a good portion of those are from the Gideons. All 105,731 hotel rooms in the Hyatt hotel chain carry Gideon Bibles. So do Motel 6’s 91,000 rooms.
The hotel nightstand is where most people remember seeing the Gideon Bible, and that’s where pop culture places it, too: in the 1996 movie version of "Mission: Impossible" Tom Cruise discovers Jon Voigt’s betrayal because of the Gideon Bible. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in 1953, Marilyn Monroe sings, “I’ll be in my room, every post-meridian. And I’ll be with my diary and that book by Mr. Gideon.” It can also be found in hospitals, military entrance processing stations, nursing homes and prisons, mostly in the King James, New King James or Modern English versions.
The hotel association’s 2006 survey found an increase in hotels that provide religious materials, 91 percent compared to 75 percent a decade earlier. Jessica Sokolow, the association’s media relations manager, noted a 12 percent increase in luxury hotels (those charging over $200 a night) providing religious texts, contrary to a 2007 Newsweek.com story that reported an 18 percent drop. Some hotels provide other holy books, such as the Marriott chain, which was founded by Mormons and provides the Book of Mormon. The Gideon Bible, though, remains the most prevalent.
“It’s been in the U.S. lodging industry for so long-–when you open a hotel, it’s one of those things on your checklist,” said Joe McInerney, chief executive of the hotel association. “It’s not a requirement on our part, but I think each chain you’ll find does have it as a requirement, it’s on their lists--it’s right up there with soap.”
The Gideons International formed in 1899, a year after two traveling businessmen shared a room in a crowded Boscobel, Wis., hotel. Samuel E. Hill and John H. Nicholson, both Wisconsinites, found they shared a common faith and thought about creating an association for Christian traveling businessmen. Eventually, they were joined by William J. Knights, who proposed the name “Gideons” from the sixth and seventh chapter of Judges.
In the early days, most Gideons were traveling businessmen, and it is still an evangelical association of professional men of various Christian faiths. The organization decided in 1908 to provide a Bible to every hotel room in America--a somewhat easier proposition a century ago, when there were around 800,000 rooms, compared to nearly 4.5 million today.
“They were concerned about businessmen being away from home and wanted to provide a good, godly influence while they were away,” said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College. “It bespeaks an overwhelmingly Protestant notion of the Bible and scriptures ... the notion that anybody could just pick it up and almost at random leaf through the pages and come away with some sort of spiritual belief.”
It’s not totally random. At the beginning of the book the Gideons provide a sort of cheat sheet for travelers, listing problems–-trouble with your marriage, stress, depression–-and the appropriate passages to read. Paul Kleinau, 63, the scripture chairman for the Staten Island camp of the Gideons, said he finds it a “nice, informative thumb mark to help people find the answers they need.”
Kleinau is in charge of distributing the Bibles to hotels on Staten Island, though he’ll often help out when new hotels pop up in Manhattan. It’s a simple procedure: a new hotel opens, he calls them or they call him and he ships out a Bible for each room, either from his warehouse on Staten Island or direct from the publisher in Philadelphia. Every two months, he checks on their supply, which usually deplete around the holidays. He’ll replace Bibles that have been scribbled over with children’s crayons, hastily written phone numbers or whose pages are torn.
“If somebody came in and stole the Bible--which is great, that’s a positive thing--we’ll replace it,” he said. Contributions help pay for the Bibles.
Then there are hotels that don’t carry Bibles in every room, like the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, in Atlantic City, one of the few hotels to flat out refuse the Gideons’ offer. Instead, the hotel, which opened in 2003, makes 14 religious books--from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita to the Jewish Essence of Teshuvah and the Gideon Bible--available upon request from the front desk.
"Basically our thinking was that there was no one particular religious publication that is appealing to all sectors," said Michael Facenda, director of marketing.
The decision seems to have worked, at least for David Silverman. “When I go to Atlantic City, I always stay at the Borgata,” he said. “It’s more expensive, but it’s a great hotel and they don’t push their theology in my face.”
Silverman, communications director for American Atheists, said his organization believes hotels should provide a room for the night, not religious materials--or anti-religious material.
“We’re very strong supporters of the separation of church and hotel.”