Have a drink with: The Gideons
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room, only to find…
Ask them about: Getting into your hotel room
Now Rocky Raccoon, he fell back in his room,
Only to find Gideon’s Bible.
Gideon checked out, and he left it, no doubt,
To help with good Rocky’s revival.
– The Beatles
The Bible and the hotel room seem the unlikeliest of bedfellows at first glance; the former is the core of spiritual life for Christian communities, and the latter a place of abject neutrality for secular America. Yet in millions of hotel rooms worldwide, the Bible is as natural an amenity as little bars of soap thanks to the efforts of the Gideons International, a Tennessee-based Christian association. Paul McCartney included the Gideon Bible in his lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon,” the odd story of a jilted lover written on the roof of a building in Rishikesh, India; and Hunter Thompson in his hotel-room musings was known to thank the Gideons for providing him easy access to Revelation imagery.
So how did the Bibles get there? Wisconsin. (Last place you look, right?)
The Gideons came into being at the end of the 19th century, in Boscobel, Wisconsin. In September of 1898, John Nicholson arrived at the Central Hotel in Boscobel, where he was a regular guest, and found the hotel “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.”* The hotel was booked full for the night, but not wanting to turn Nicholson away, the hotel owner offered – and Nicholson accepted – a shared room with another businessman named Samuel Hill. Joining in prayers before bed, the two found common religious ground and stayed up much of the night talking about the possibility of beginning a Christian group for traveling salesmen.
They parted ways after meeting that evening, but in May of the following year the two ran into each other again. Once again discussing their idea, they revived the concept and decided to go ahead with plans to meet and invite other similarly inclined traveling men. By July they had assembled the first meeting of what would become the Gideons International, tiny though it was at that juncture.
In 1900 the Gideons got to work making themselves official: they created their first local chapter (or “camp”), held a national convention and began to print a newsletter called the Gideon Quarterly. Expansion of the group caused John Nicholson to devote more and more of his time to the Gideons, and in 1900 he was made a salaried Secretary for the organization. While they continued to proclaim their original goal of “winning commercial traveling men for Christ,” the scope and thrust of supporting efforts changed over time, and by the 1920’s, the Gideons were best known to the American public for placing Bibles in hotels.
Today the Gideons distribute Bibles in some ninety languages worldwide, and are a global organization with millions of dollars in book budgeting alone. How did the Gideons manage to take off so swiftly and solidly?
Well, first, remember: at the end of the 19th century the nation was coming off of the second Great Awakening – less a cohesive movement than an explosive loopy diversification of American Christianity, including everything from charismatic preachers to revival tents to utopian communities (socialism! group sex!). The country was by and large imbued with a new intensity for religion and a very active sense of evangelism, so the Gideons’ boots-on-the-ground approach plugged right in.
Just as important, though, was the hotel itself. In the early 1900’s, downtown hotels made up the bulk of the industry. They were for the most part inaccessible by car and nearly exclusively catered to salesmen traveling on foot or by train. Hotels were often strange and intimidating environments; since the tourism industry was hardly alive at this time in the nation’s history, the only people with reason to be in a hotel with any regularity were businessmen, who out of necessity traveled alone.
The hotel was seen as a lonely, empty place devoid of all but the transient character of its guests. And, the Gideons warned, not only would temptation rush in to fill the void in a traveling man’s life, but so would sadness and loss of identity:
“But are not these foes [alcohol, gambling and women] equally the enemies of all mankind? No. Why not? Because, like the traveler from Jerusalem to Jericho, the man is alone. He is away from home and home influences. The kiss of his wife is not fresh on his lips. It may have been weeks or months since he felt the clasp of a child’s arms about his neck, or the pressure of a baby’s face upon his cheek. The loving look of mother has gone from his memory in the rush and hurry of business. The hallowed influence of the old home church is wanting. The kindly interest of friends is lacking. He is alone. No one knows him, and no one knows where he is or what he does.” **
Today the hotel serves a much different purpose, catering to business travelers as well as tourists, families and, ironically, people seeking exactly the saucy entertainments or solitude that so terrified those first Gideons. But for the group’s founders, a Bible could not only provide a constant in a changing environment, it might serve to bring solace and guidance to a lonely traveler. Believing the world was hostile and Christianity the highest good, the Bible became a sort of moral ankle-bracelet.
The stories related in journal after journal of Gideon success are stories of miraculous transition, movement from dejection to confident peace:
“Some time ago, a guest of hotel Lafayette came to the desk with a Gideon Bible under his arm. Addressing Mr. Mayer [the manager] he said: ‘Being up against it, financially, I had made my mind made up to forge a check, which I was going to give to you….when I caught sight of this Bible, and I knew, when I saw it, that what I was about to do was very wrong, so 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 am able.’ The kind hearted manager told him to go ahead, and it wasn’t long until he received payment in full for the amount due him. ‘Do you wonder,’ asked Mr. Mayer, as he completed the story, ‘that I want a Gideon Bible in every room in my hotel?”^
From a current perspective we might label these stories formulaic and trite – moralistic fables or even the stuff of evangelist parody. But what they really seem most to suggest is that the Gideons were a predecessor to the mainstream spirituality of today’s self-help movement: proto-Oprah!
Like a lot of modern motivational material, the Gideons made an emotional appeal to the vulnerabilities of people who felt alone, when and where they were most isolated; and like a lot of modern motivational entrepreneurs, they were businessmen first. They avoided religious specifics or browbeating, sticking to positive evangelism and avoiding any church affiliation. The verses listed in the front of Gideon books call themselves “Bible Helps” and address by name a number of very real human concerns – fear, danger, indifference, sorrow, loneliness. If you think of the Bible as the original self-help book, the Gideons’ work can easily seem like an analog version of an infomercial, presenting a shiny, neat solution to the problem of life’s inherent messiness.
Today we most often feel alone and overwhelmed not in hotels so much as in our homes or workplaces, and we turn to a relentlessly positive social media flow of Instagram-ready inspirational quotes, positive psychology hacks, life coaches and the occasional Netflix binge. In the early 20th century Midwest, a Bible in your hotel-room drawer promised to do the trick.
In a more transparently pluralist world, it is all the more curious that hotels continue to allow Bibles above any other text to be present in hotel rooms, where one can make no assumption about the faith or inclination of a guest. Officially, most trade organizations have no official policy on the matter of Bible placing, leaving the decision to member hotels. Approaches differ: some hotels have no religious texts available; others provide them on request; still others stick to the traditional (and, thanks to the Gideons, free) Bible. The Book of Mormon has long been found in Marriott hotel rooms, as the D.C.-based chain was founded by J.W. Marriott, a Mormon himself. In an increasing number of hotels nationwide, the Bible finds theological bedfellows including Buddhism, Christian Science and Scientology.
The papal visit to the U.S. even raised questions about hotel Bibles.
The original three businessmen decided to name their group after Gideon, chosen by God to free the Israelites in the book of Judges: Gideon, with only three hundred soldiers behind him, destroys an altar to Baal and, with pitchers, horns and torches, wins a great battle. In recognition of this, the Gideons’ emblem is a white pitcher, aflame, upon a blue background.
An amusing anecdote from the Gideons’ history about the group’s fifth national convention in 1904: At a coffee house, “the waitresses had been told that a company of Gideons would have breakfast Friday, and tables were reserved for them. When the Gideons and their wives were served, one of the girls said to Mrs. Russell, ‘These men seem to be all right.’ ‘Why, of course they are all right,’ she answered. ‘I thought you said that we would have a lot of idiots for breakfast.’” **
That Hunter Thompson bit, from Generation of Swine: “That is when I start bouncing around the room and ripping drawers out of the nightstands and bed-boxes and those flimsy little desks with bent green blotters that they provide for traveling salesmen – looking for a Gideon Bible, which I know will be there somewhere, and with any luck at all it will be a King James Version, and the Book of Revelation will be intact at the end. If there is a God, I want to thank Him for the Gideons, whoever they are. I have dealt with some of His other messengers and found them utterly useless. But not the Gideons. They have saved me many times, when nobody else could do anything but mutter about calling Security on me unless I turned out my lights and went to sleep like all the others…”
Sing along with the Beatles!
*Kevin A. Miller, “Who Put the Gideon Bible in Your Hotel Room?”
^ Paul A. Westburg, They Stood Every Man In His Place
John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rodgers, The Motel in America