By Sarah Naron

Messenger Reporter

Perhaps one of the most well-known Bible stories is that of the night Jesus was born, when Mary and Joseph were offered a place in a stable by the owner of an overcrowded inn.

While the story of how The Gideons International came to be does not appear in the Bible, its beginning does bear some similarity as this story, too, started in a crowded hotel.

In the fall of 1898, Janesville, WI resident John H. Nicholson was passing through Boscobel, WI and stopped to spend the night at the Central Hotel. While there was not enough space available in the hotel for Nicholson to acquire his own private room, he was offered the spare bed in a room already occupied by Samuel E. Hill of Beloit, WI. Nicholson accepted, and as the two men began to get to know one another, they discovered their shared belief in Christ.

The pair began meeting for evening devotionals, and over the course of the time they spent in prayer during these meetings, each felt called by God to found an association to spread the message in which they believed.

The Gideons International official website explains that during a meeting in Beaver Dam, WI on May 31, 1899, the men “decided the purpose of their association would be to band Christian commercial travelers together for mutual recognition, personal evangelism and united service for the Lord.” The organization’s first meeting was scheduled for July 1, 1899 at the Janesville YMCA.

In addition to Nicholson and Hill, only one other man – Will J. Knights – was present for the meeting. It was decided that Hill would serve as president of the organization, while Knights would be vice president and Nicholson would straddle the roles of treasurer and secretary. After a special prayer in which they requested that God might place the proper name for their organization on their hearts, “Mr. Knights arose from his knees and said simply, ‘We shall be called Gideons.’” Knights then read the story of Gideon, which appears in the Bible in the sixth and seventh chapters of Judges.

In its early years, the association consisted primarily of men who traveled, which gave the members the desire to “be more effective witnesses in hotels.” A suggestion was made by one trustee to place a Bible in the bedroom of each hotel across the United States.

The trustee behind the idea was cited as stating, “In my opinion, this would not only stimulate the activities of the rank and file of the membership, but would be a gracious act, wholly in keeping with the divine mission of the Gideon Association.”

Nicknamed “The Bible Project,” the plan was approved by the members of the organization during the group’s 1908 Louisville Convention held in Kentucky.

Two months after the Kentucky meeting, a state convention was arranged in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At around the same time, Frank Garlick, National Secretary, and A.B.T. Moore were in attendance at a Ministerial Union, a gathering of pastors from around the world, at which Garlick presented “a short, yet inspiring speech” regarding the necessity of Bible distribution.

Moore’s pastor, Dr. E.R. Burkhalter, was reportedly so touched by the message that he stood up and requested “that Gideon Bibles be placed in all local hotels and that the Ministerial Union be responsible for the funds.” Dr. Burkhalter’s motion was unanimously carried by those in attendance, and a committee was formed “to allocate the cost to the churches, according to their strength.”

The first Bible was placed by the organization in a Montana hotel room, and since then, more than two billion copies of the Bible and the New Testament have been distributed by the Gideons International. The distribution of the first billion took place over a period of 93 years – beginning in 1908 and concluding in 2001 – while the second billion was distributed in only 13 years, from 2002 to 2015.

According to the website an average of more than two copies of the Scripture are distributed in one second, allowing for a total of more than one million to be distributed over a period of four days.

For those interesting in giving to the cause, a number of ways to do so are available. Monetary donations may be made on the website using a credit card, and the organization also accepts donations of items such as electronics, mutual funds and stock and used vehicles. By purchasing greeting cards or sending an electronic greeting card, individuals can also provide support for the association. Appointing a donation through a living trust or will is also an available option.

For more information, please visit www.2gideons.org.

Sarah Naron may be reached via email at snaron@messenger-news.com.