NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Long before cable television, spa treatments and eco-friendly soaps and shampoos became staples in hotel rooms, there was the Bible — the Gideon Bible.
And the book with the familiar two-handled pitcher and torch on its cover that most guests find inside hotel nightstands doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
Gideons International is celebrating its 100th anniversary distributing Bibles and has begun efforts to hand out more Scriptures in the United States to boost a distribution rate that has remained relatively flat in recent years.
Nearly 76.9 million Gideon Scriptures were given out in nearly 85 languages in 187 countries last year. Close to 1.5 billion Scriptures have been distributed since 1908, when the Gideons first began to place Bibles in hotel rooms.
Since then, the nondenominational evangelical group run by businessmen has spread its tremendous reach, also giving out free Scriptures at hospitals, schools, prisons and military installations.
“This is not a church-sponsored, clergy-led effort,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for evangelical churches and organizations. “It’s individuals that go around and distribute Bibles. It’s an astonishing accomplishment.
“What it’s done is actually changed our culture. People expect there to be a Bible in a hotel room. There’s hardly anything that’s parallel to it.”
The acknowledged media-shy Gideons rarely seek outside attention, but leaders agreed to an interview with the Associated Press at the group’s Nashville headquarters to mark the anniversary.
“We’ve never been an association that necessarily dwelt on the past,” said Gideons Executive Director Jerry Burden. “We always work in the present and look to the future. We’re a very low-profile organization. That’s been our underlining philosophy. For us, we look to be around another 100 years.”
Because the Gideons were founded by Christian traveling salesmen who spent a lot of time away from home, the group sought to put Bibles in hotel bedrooms to spiritually nurture themselves and others.
Around 1916, the group started distributing Bibles within hospitals, followed by the military, public schools, prisons and colleges and universities.
The Gideons have about 176,000 members, plus their wives, who distribute Scripture around the world, and their numbers have remained steady over the years. The group allows for only evangelical business and professional men to hand out Scripture to its targeted groups, although Gideons allow their wives to hand out Scripture as well in health care settings and in prisons for women.
Elliott Osowitt, 59, pastor at Faith Fellowship in Jefferson, N.C., said that when he worked in the tourism industry, the life he led “involved loose living and immorality.” His wife kicked him out of the house on Christmas Eve in 1996.
His daughter was sent to prison during that time, and Mr. Osowitt felt he had failed as a father and husband. He was going to shoot himself in a motel room that night, but before he did, he saw a Gideon Bible lying on a television, he said.
“When I looked at it, I thought, ‘Who needs that,’ and threw it on the floor. It fell on the floor and it still stayed open, like it was beckoning me,” Mr. Osowitt said. “It really made me mad, so I kicked it, but it hit this wooden box frame under the bed and popped back on the floor.”
He then picked it up and was about to throw it when he looked down and started reading a passage from the Gospel of John.
“It caused me to stop. It caused me to cry. When I read it was Jesus, I had a hard time with it,” said Mr. Osowitt, who converted from Judaism to Christianity and became a Southern Baptist minister.
“It literally began a process of healing that eventually led to the reconciliation with my entire family. I just thank God for saving me and the Gideons for being so faithful.”
Steve Smith, director of communications and development for the Gideons, said the group has thousands of similar recorded testimonies. “I think there’s an untold number of people that have had their lives changed as a result of reading the Gideon Bible or New Testament,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to learn the details of many of those and are confident there are still many more we have not yet learned about.”
While worldwide Gideon Scripture distributions increased by one-third from 2004 through 2007, U.S. distributions have averaged about 10.5 million annually for the past few years. Gideons want to try to increase that number to 12 million by the end of the group’s fiscal year in May.
Mr. Burden said that in some areas of distribution, the Gideons are experiencing limitations, mainly in public schools. Several school districts throughout the United States have been sued or threatened with legal action by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue that distribution of Bibles at schools is an endorsement of religion. Mr. Burden said the Gideons hand out Bibles on sidewalks off school grounds.
About 60 percent of Gideon Scriptures are given to students, a demographic that the group sees as a source for growth.
Jeremy Gunn, director for the ACLU’s program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the ACLU doesn’t specifically challenge Gideon distribution. He said the ACLU would take issue with any organization given what’s perceived to be privileged access to children on public school grounds.