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Why Are There Gideon Bibles in Hotel Rooms?

© William Whitehurst/Corbis

Because the Gideons put them there! The Gideon Bible is not some special version or translation of the Bible that hotels really like (the books are usually plain old King James Versions); they're named for the group that distributes them.

Gideons International got its start in 1898, when two traveling businessmen, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, arrived at the crowded Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, for the night.

The two had never met, but there was only one double room left, so they decided to share it. The men got to talking and found they shared a common faith and had both toyed with the idea of creating an evangelical association for Christian businessmen.

They decided to give it a shot together. They called a meeting the following year for men who were interested in joining together for “mutual recognition, personal evangelism, and united service for the Lord.” Only one other person showed up to that meeting—William J. Knights, who suggested they name their organization after Gideon, an Old Testament judge who led a small band of men to defeat a much larger army.

As the group expanded in its first few years, most of the new members were men who frequently traveled for work and spent many of their nights in hotel rooms. They wondered how they might be more effective witnesses for Christ on the road, and hit upon the idea of providing Bibles to hotels. They could be used not only by the Gideons’ members as they traveled around the country, but also borrowed by other guests in need of them. They started with the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana, then set out to put a Bible in every hotel room in America. Since 1908, they’ve distributed more than 1.7 billion Bibles, expanding beyond the U.S. to more than 190 other countries.

Passing Them Out

The Gideons don’t go room to room themselves, slipping the books in nightstands like Bible elves. When a hotel opens, local Gideons members will present a Bible to the hotel's general manager in a small ceremony and then give enough books for each room and some extras to the housekeeping staff for distribution. In addition to hotel rooms, the Gideons also give Bibles to military bases, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and to students on college campuses.

Each Bible handed out is free of charge, and the project is funded entirely by donations to the group. The Gideons will also replace any books that go missing or get worn out, and the group says that the books have a six-year life expectancy, on average. They don’t get bent out of shape when people ignore the “thou shalt not steal” rule when it comes to the Bibles, either. They’d rather you just take the book if you need it that badly.

Based on the success of the Gideons’ Bible project -- the group’s own statistics claim 25% of the people who check into a hotel room will read the Bible placed there -- other religious groups have begun distributing their own free literature to hotels. The Marriott hotel chain, founded by a Mormon, places the The Book of Mormon in many of its rooms, and many hotels also offer Buddhist, Hindu, Christian Scientist or Scientologist books along with the standard Gideon Bible.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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