- (Photo: AP Images / Steve Dykes)
NASHVILLE - 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 anytime soon.
Gideons International is celebrating its 100th anniversary dispensing Bibles and has begun efforts to hand out more Scriptures in the United States to boost a distribution rate that's 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 Scriptures at hospitals, schools, prisons, and in the military.
"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 admittedly publicity-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 Jerry Burden, Gideons executive director. "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 in 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 only for evangelical business and professional men to hand out Scripture to its targeted groups, although Gideons allow their wives to also hand out Scripture in healthcare settings and in prisons for women.
Elliott Osowitt, 59, pastor at Faith Fellowship in Jefferson, N.C., said when he used to work in the tourism industry, the life he led "involved loose living and immorality." His wife eventually kicked him out of the house on Christmas Eve in 1996.
His daughter had also been sent to prison during that time, and Osowitt felt he'd 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 laying 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," 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 Osowitt, who converted from Judaism 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."