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December 02, 2010

SPREADING THE WORD, ROOM BY ROOM


David Ellis

HAD it not been for the Central Hotel in Boscobel in Wisconsin being over-booked one night in the American Autumn of 1898, the world would never have enjoyed the legacy of John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill.

Nor probably have even heard of them.

But it was Messrs Nicholson and Hill who were the founding fathers of a movement that became known as the Gideons, an extraordinarily forward-thinking yet publicity-shy group of Christians who in 112 years have freely placed over 1.6-billion Bibles and New Testaments in places as diverse as 5-star hotels and condemned men's prison cells world-wide.

But the Gideons have not been without their set-backs… when the one-billionth Bible was accepted at the White House by President George W. Bush, elaborate celebrations were marred within hours by events of the following day – September 11 2001.

John Nicholson and Samuel Hill were commercial travellers who found themselves forced to share a room in Boscobel's Central Hotel because it was over-booked on that night in 1898.

The two quickly discovered they shared strong Christian beliefs and values, and decided to maintain contact.  Gradually they brought together a fraternity of other Christians in their profession – men who spent long and lonely hours away from their families, moving from hotel room to hotel room as they flogged their wares along the highways and by-ways of America.

By July 1899 they'd formed a small group that called themselves the Gideons, and at a meeting in 1904 decided that to provide comfort for travellers in spiritual need, and to spread the word of the Bible, each man would contribute towards the cost of a Bible being placed at the Reception Desk of hotels in which they stayed.

Four years later at a convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the Gideons voted to go further than a Bible at every Reception Desk: they'd place one in every room of every hotel in America. The first went into twenty-five rooms in a hotel in the boisterous little mining town of Superior in Montana, and were paid for by one devout Gideon supporter, Archie Bailey.

Since then 1,630,523 Bibles and New Testaments have been placed free of cost in hotels and lodging houses, at Antarctic bases and in desert military camps, aboard cruise ships, in prisons, hospitals and in nursing homes in 192 countries world-wide…

The latest countries to be included in their distribution were Kiribati in September of this year, and Madagascar in October.

Initially members of the Gideons met the costs of the Bibles and their distribution, but later Christian churches began contributing to the cause.

And in some 40-plus years that's taken us within and without Australia more times than we care to remember, we've found only three hotels in Christian countries that did not have a Gideon's Bible in their rooms.

At Cunnamulla in Queensland, a local hotelier said that while there may not be a Bible in every bedside cabinet, they did have one for every room.

"But they're kept in the office," she told us. "Some cattle station blokes who'd  stay here on Saturday nights were tearing the pages out of our Bibles because they reckoned they made great roll-your-own smokes," she said. "There's now a note in rooms saying they can borrow a Bible from the office if they want."

Our second encounter was on Vancouver Island in Canada, where our hotel GM said he'd told the Gideons they could put a Bible in every room – if they also gave the hotel a holy book for all other major religions.

"They didn't of course. But we relented," he said. "And while not in each room, we now we have Gideon Bibles available at Reception."

And the third was in New York where guests at a hotel are offered a complimentary pet goldfish during their stay, but not a Gideon's Bible. Their explanation was that "society evolves."

The Gideons neither seek publicity nor publicly solicit funds. In Australia they distribute over 350,000 new Bibles and Testaments a year – part of a staggering 1.5-million printed in 90 languages around the world every week.

And all originating from that night 112 years ago when commercial travellers, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill were forced to share a room in an over-booked hotel.


PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE first 25 of the world's 1.6-billion Gideon Bibles to go into hotel rooms were placed here in the Superior Hotel in Montana in 1908.

[]  A typical Gideon's Bible found today in 192-countries world-wide.

[]  THE Cunnamulla Hotel in Queensland: Gideon Bibles are kept in the office after some guests discovered the rice-paper pages were idea for roll-your-own cigarettes.

 
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