When I was starting my climb up the greasy pole of the financial services industry I had to spend a lot of time travelling which, inevitably, meant spending nights away in some soulless hotel room. Once I had checked in I would survey the room to familiarise myself with its layout and the facilities that it offered. Going through the drawers of the bedside cabinet, I would inevitably come across the Gideon bible and a telephone directory – the hotelier’s attempt to create a Desert Island Discs’ atmosphere. The Gideon – or the Osborne as I prefer to call it – is ubiquitous, some 1.5 billion languishing in darkened corners of hotel rooms around the world. And very useful they were too – for stabilising the inevitable wonky hotel room furniture, for eliminating the howling draft rushing through the ill-fitting doors or for exacting revenge on annoying insects and lepidoptera that had the audacity to disturb your repose.
Gideon was a biblical character, chosen by the Christian God to free the people of Israel and became a symbol of a man of faith who was willing to do as God commanded, irrespective of his personal views of the likely outcome. There is no real secret as to why the Gideon bibles are there – they are distributed for free by Gideons International.
The origin of the Gideons is more interesting. One day in 1898 two travelling businessmen, John H Nicholson and Samuel E Hill, arrived at a busy Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, looking for accommodation for the night. There was only one room available – presumably the stable was occupied – and so they decided to share. They got chatting and discovered they both shared a deep religious faith and, as you do when you are holed up with a stranger in some god-forsaken hotel room, decided to create an evangelical association for Christian businessmen.
Their initial meeting only attracted one other person, William J Knights – remember this was in the era before Facebook and other social media – and so they decided to name their association after Gideon who led a small band to overcome a larger enemy. They hit upon the idea of distributing Bibles as a way of proselytising their message. The first hotel to receive their bible was the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana in 1908 and the rest is history.
The Bibles follow a standard format – a short preface, a handy index of key texts for all occasions, a translation of John 3.16 in a variety of languages and scripts, the bible text itself – either New Testament or the full monty, usually the King James version – and a place for the reader to attest their belief in Jesus the saviour – or in my experience to note that Kilroy was here.
Of course, in these godless times there has been some reaction to the ubiquity of the Gideon bible. Last year a hotelier, Wayne Bartholomew, gained some notoriety by replacing the Gideon bible with copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (the wag!) and other trendier establishments are replacing the physical book with e-readers. With the advent of tablets and smart phones we bring our own entertainment with us and so it is only the techno-phobes or desperate who now resort to the book for their entertainment.
Still, next time you check into a hotel you now know the story behind the Bible in your bedroom cabinet.