There is no way of knowing when such a desperate moment will arise — perhaps in the solitude of an otherwise empty hotel room, in the chair of a doctor’s office waiting room, amid the joyful chaos of graduation, or the loneliness of a nursing home with only memories for company.
No matter the place, hope is within reach. For those who seek, it can be easily found — usually in a top drawer.
It’s a Bible, placed there by one of an army of anonymous Christian men throughout the world. Its origin is emblazoned in gold on the front cover: “Placed by the Gideons.”
Few have ever seen one, but everyone knows that Gideons exist because of the Bibles they leave behind in what are known as “pathways of life” — hotel rooms, retirement homes, doctor’s offices, prisons and jails, military bases, graduation ceremonies, etc.
These Bibles are not available for purchase and are not provided to individuals, churches or other organizations for distribution. Only Gideons can distribute them.
“I imagine most people don’t think about us much at all,” said Bobby Bailey, past president of the Cleburne County Camp. “They think all those Bibles miraculously appear, and that’s just fine with us.”
Gideons are not mysterious, invisible Bible elves. Rather, they’re low-key Christian laymen — pastors cannot be members — who pay membership dues, meet regularly for prayer and fellowship and distribute free Bibles around the world.
“It’s not secretive,” Bailey said. “It’s understated because it’s not about us. It’s about the word of God.”
It started in a hotel room
Gideons International began distributing Bibles in 1908. Today, there are more than 287,000 members and Auxiliary members (wives of Gideons) in more than 190 countries. Women can’t be Gideons, but there are more than 100,000 wives of Gideons in the Auxiliary.
Gideons are best-known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms because it was in a hotel room where the mission was born.
In 1898, traveling businessmen John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill arrived at the crowded Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wis. There was only one double bed left in the hotel. The two men were strangers, but decided to share the room. They soon discovered that both were Christians and wanted to establish an evangelical association for Christian businessmen.
They called a meeting on July 1, 1899, at the YMCA in Janesville, Wis., but only one other person showed up: William J. Knights.
After a long prayer, Knights arose from his knees and said, “We shall be called Gideons,” in honor of an Old Testament judge who led a small band of men to defeat a much larger army.
In the early years, most Gideons were traveling businessmen, so the question naturally arose as to how they might be effective witnesses in the places they spent so much of their time. One trustee went so far as to suggest Gideons furnish a Bible for each hotel room in the United States.
This became known as “The Bible Project,” and it started at the Superior Hotel in Superior, Mont.
‘It costs me to be a Gideon’
The Gideons aren’t a church or a particular denomination. Members must meet professional and spiritual qualifications, and be recommended by their pastors.
Ben Character has been a member of the Anniston camp of Gideons International since 2000. “It’s been one of the most fulfilling ministry roles of my life,” said Character, who currently serves as chaplain of the 50-plus member Anniston camp. “It’s a great way to get the Gospel message out. It’s a great way to transform lives ... wherever a Bible is found, a seed is planted.”
Every penny donated to the Gideons — whether through membership dues, donations or the group’s card ministry — goes toward buying new Bibles.
“We don’t have any administrative costs,” Character said. “We pay our own way through. It costs me to be a Gideon.”
Part of a Gideon’s responsibility is to routinely check on the condition of the Bibles, and to make sure they haven’t been taken — which is frowned upon but understood. The average lifespan of Gideon Bible is about six years.
The Gideons estimate that 25 percent of those who check into a motel will read the Bible that’s been placed there.
Visiting schools and churches
Gideons also visit public and private schools, meeting with fifth-grade classes and offering them free Bibles.
“You’d be surprised the number of people who don’t have a Bible,” Character said, “even in the South.”
Local Gideons have been a presence at the Donoho School in Anniston for more than 10 years. Donoho lower school principal Laura Phillips remembers being visited by the Gideons when she was a fifth-grader in public school “way back when.”
Although she had Bibles at home, and had received one when she was baptized, the Gideons’ testament was special, Phillips said. “Because of its size and the idea that it was given to me ‘just because.’ No one was expected to give it to me,” she said.
“I view it as an opportunity for children who might not have been exposed to Christianity otherwise to have a chance to do so,” she said. “We do encourage the children to talk with their parents about having received the Bible and how — or if — it fits into their system of beliefs.
“While Donoho was founded in Christian principles, and you’ll still find prayer here daily, we also try to teach understanding and acceptance of all faiths.”
Heflin First Baptist Church hosts a Gideon speaker once a year. “I believe in what they do,” said pastor Philip Morris. “I have been blessed to have Gideons in my churches, and they have always been the best supporters and prayer partners a pastor could have.”
Morris still has the Gideon New Testament Bible that was given to him when he left for Air Force basic training in 1968.
“Years later, I worked at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Montgomery and saw these men come every day and give these New Testaments to men and women leaving home,” he said. “No telling this side of heaven what an impact this made.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on joining the Anniston camp of the Gideons, contact camp president Horrace Carson, 256-831-6060. To schedule a church speaker, contact Anniston camp ministry chair Lem Burrell, 256-419-1537.