Bedside reading

Observations on the Gideons

Bibles in hotel rooms are a bit like hairdryers: unless you're searching for one, it's unlikely you'll even notice them. But that doesn't worry the Gideons International, the Nashville-based Christian group committed to getting them there.

This year the group quietly marks the 100-year anniversary since the first Scripture was left in a hotel room. Since then, it has distributed nearly 1.3 billion Bibles, in 83 languages, worldwide. According to the organisation's latest financial statements, the group received $127m of income in the year ending 31 May 2007 (mostly from donors), to buy and distribute 70.7 million Scriptures in 181 countries.

But why are Bibles found in hotels? Some advocates believe a hotel room fosters loneliness and introspection; fertile ground for a conversation with God (rationalists argue that cable TV and minibars provide adequate alternatives). Others believe that a Bible acts as a moral reminder to us when away from home.

There are historical reasons for both. The roots of the organisation go back to 1898, when two Christian travelling salesmen were asked to share a room in a crowded hotel in Wisconsin. Both ended up discussing the Bible and praying together before settling to sleep. A decade later the group, named after the Old Testament judge, decided to distribute Scriptures to every hotel in the US.

"This was the beginnings of the capitalist system, mass immigration and the rise of a modern secular culture where traditional social order was under threat," says Clive Webb, a reader in North American history at the University of Sussex. "Many Christian businessmen found themselves outside the home for the first time, with the underlying fear of being led astray."

Nowadays, the Gideons has expanded globally, with a mission to introduce Bibles to "every traffic lane of life", including prisons, schools, hospitals and hotels. In Britain, where the group has been distributing copies of the Bible since 1949, there are now 270 "branches", which foster relationships with hotels and keep tabs on new properties opening in their area. Provided that permission is granted, the group will deliver Scriptures to hotels and periodically replenish supplies. "If someone steals it, which is great, we'll replace it without charge," a spokeswoman in the Gideons' Lutterworth office said.

All of which has allowed the Gideons to quietly go about its work for a century. But can it last another hundred years? And does Britain's increasingly secular society still have the stomach for a bedside Bible?

Opinion in hotels remains divided. Most large business chains have Bibles and offer alternative religious texts on request; the Marriott hotel chain, in line with its family heritage, also offers the Book of Mormon. One hotel in Ireland argued that a Gideons Bible has Protestant associations that would irk its Catholic guests. Edgier boutique hotels are proud that they have done away with them altogether. Brighton's Hotel Pelirocco stated: "We serve a menu of sex toys to guests, so Bibles aren't really our scene." Mr & Mrs Smith, the boutique hotel specialist, thinks a Kama Sutra is more appropriate bedside reading.

According to the sociologist Frank Furedi: "Because it doesn't actually require any real effort, the phenomenon can quite easily continue for some time. But ultimately a Bible's presence is no more than a theatrical gesture: a desperate throw of the dice by a religion at a loss as to how to get its word across."

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop