Shy Gideons observe 100th year; Scripture: The organization started by two Christian business travelers now has 130,000 members in more than 170 countries, dedicated to distributing Bibles.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Why do they put the Gideon Bibles only in the bedrooms, where it's usually too late, and not in the barroom downstairs? --Christopher Morley

Rocky Raccoon checked into his room

Only to find Gideon's Bible. --John Lennon, Paul McCartney

It's in the night stand drawer, next to the bed of nearly every hotel and motel room in the country, a comfort to travelers far from home. It has also been a literary reference and a movie prop.

The Gideon Bible has become a cultural icon.

The Gideons International, which has dedicated itself to making sure that anyone in the world who desires a copy of the Bible should receive one free, is celebrating its first century.

The idea for the association had come in the fall of 1898 to John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, who met as business travelers arriving at a very crowded hotel in Boscobel, Wis. Space being tight, the hotel management suggested the two men share a room.

Once settled in, they discovered they were both Christians. As a 12-year-old boy, Nicholson had promised his dying mother that he would pray and read the Bible each day, and he invited Hill to share in his devotions.

As they prayed together that night, the idea for an association was planted.

In July 1899, Nicholson, Hill and Will J. Knights gathered at the YMCA in Janesville, Wis., to form the association, which would "band Christian commercial travelers together for mutual recognition, personal evangelism and united service for the Lord," according to the group's history.

Hill was appointed president, Knights vice president and Nicholson secretary and treasurer. Together at that first meeting, they fell to their knees to pray to God for guidance in selecting the proper name for their newly formed organization.

"Mr. Knights arose from his knees and said, 'We shall be called Gideons,' " the history says. The name comes from the sixth and seventh chapters of the Biblical Book of Judges, which describes Gideon, one of Israel's judges, as a man willing to do exactly as God commanded him.

"This is the standard that the Gideon association is trying to establish in all its members, each man to be ready to do God's will at any time, at any place, and in any way that the Holy Spirit leads," the history says.

The Gideons describes itself as an extended missionary arm of the churches and is the oldest Christian business and professional men's association in the country.

Today, it estimates it has more than 130,000 members in more than 170 countries, who are dedicated to distributing Bibles "in the human traffic lanes and streams of national life," Gideons literature says.

Hotels seemed the most natural place to put them. Many of the early Gideons were traveling businessmen and they wanted to find a way to become more effective witnesses in the hotels where they found themselves spending so much of their time.

A member suggested placing a Bible at the registration desk, where a guest desiring inspiration could borrow it.

Another member said the organization should go even further, placing a Bible in every room, a plan that was adopted at the 1908 Gideons convention.

Today, guests expect to find a Gideon Bible in their room, almost as part of the standard furnishings.

"There's a desk, there's a pad and pen, and a Bible in the desk drawer," says Bill Walsh, general manager of the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor, where the Gideon Bible shares space with the Book of Mormon, a nod to the faith of the hotel chain's chairman, J. W. "Bill" Marriott Jr.

According to its own estimates, the Gideons International distributes more than 45 million copies of its Bible each year, an average of 1 million copies given out every eight days, or 86 per minute.

Yet they are hardly banging their own drum. Even in its centennial year, Gideons International executives shy from publicity.

"We're just a very low-key organization," says executive director Jerry D. Burden at the Nashville, Tenn., offices, in declining to be interviewed.

"We don't seek out publicity, we don't encourage it, and we turn it down when it comes along."

But a glimpse of its work can be had by scanning the news accounts on its Web site, which carries testimonies of Gideons, who are organized into geographical "camps," winning souls to Christ. The latest issue describes a successful "scripture blitz" in May in Yokohama, Japan, where the Gideons International president stressed to his colleagues that they needed to be "personal witnesses" to Christianity.

"Responding to the challenge, Assistant National Secretary Nori shared Christ with the waiter that very evening," the report says. "As a result, Shinnosuke Nakano accepted Christ as his personal Savior in the banquet room. In addition, another waiter, Makota Nagashima, was saved through the witness of one of the blitz participants."

An item in the same issue describes how members of the Chernovtsy Camp in Ukraine distributed Bibles at a military base in the Carpathian Mountains near the Russian border. An order was issued for their arrest and the Gideons went straight to the base.

"Upon arrival the Gideons offered free New Testaments as well as some free apples," the report says. "The soldiers received these gifts as well as words of testimony from the Gideons. The commander stated, 'We are in such a remote area and there is so much snow that no one comes here. We thought that God really did not care about us, but He has sent you.'

"The commander of the base accepted Christ as his personal savior."

The former Soviet Union is not the only place where Gideons have run into trouble in carrying out their mission.

In this country, the Gideons have fun afoul of those who champion the separation between church and state. They have drawn the most fire when they attempt to distribute Bibles in public schools.

In a major victory for opponents of religious proselytizing in school, the Supreme Court in 1993 let stand a lower-court decision that prohibited school officials in Rensselaer, Ind., from allowing the Gideons to distribute Bibles to fifth-grade students. The federal appeals court said the practice of handing out Bibles in the classroom "offends the First Amendment of the Constitution."

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says his group occasionally gets complaints about the Gideons distributing Bibles in schools.

"Gideons have been successful in getting access to public schools that other groups have not," he says. "I think the Gideons would do better to limit their attempts at proselytism to public squares, where there's not controversy."

"Gideons normally will withdrew if there's controversy," Boston says. "Sometimes it's an easy matter to solve simply by alerting school officials" about what's allowed and what's not under the Constitution.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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