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Gideons marking 100 years of distributing Bibles

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Long before cable television, spa treatments and eco-friendly shampoos became staples in hotel rooms, there was the Bible — the Gideon Bible.

And the book with the familiar two-handled pitcher and torch on its cover that most guests find inside hotel nightstands doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Gideons International is celebrating its 100th anniversary distributing Bibles and has begun efforts to hand out more Bibles in the U.S. to boost a distribution rate that's remained relatively flat in recent years.

Nearly 76.9 million Gideon Bibles were given out in nearly 85 languages in 187 countries last year. Close to 1.5 billion Bibles have been distributed since 1908, when the Gideons first began to place Bibles in hotel rooms.

Since then, the nondenominational evangelical group run by businessmen has spread its tremendous reach, also giving out free Scriptures at hospitals, schools, prisons and in the military.

The admittedly media-shy Gideons rarely seek outside attention, but leaders agreed to an interview with The Associated Press at the group's Nashville headquarters to mark the anniversary.

"We've never been an association that necessarily dwelt on the past," said Gideons executive director Jerry Burden. "We always work in the present and look to the future. We're a very low-profile organization. That's been our underlining philosophy. For us, we look to be around another 100 years."

Because the Gideons were founded by Christian traveling salesmen who spent a lot of time away from home, the group sought to put Bibles in hotel bedrooms to spiritually nurture themselves and others.

Around 1916, the group started distributing Bibles within hospitals, followed by the military, public schools, prisons and colleges and universities.

The Gideons have about 176,000 members, plus their wives, who distribute Bibles around the world, and their numbers have remained steady over the years. The group only allows for evangelical business and professional men to hand out Bibles to its targeted groups, although Gideons allow their wives to hand out Bibles as well in health-care settings and in prisons for women.

Elliott Osowitt, 59, pastor at Faith Fellowship in Jefferson, N.C., said when he used to work in the tourism industry, the life he led "involved loose living and immorality." His wife eventually kicked him out of the house on Christmas Eve in 1996.

His daughter had also been sent to prison during that time, and Osowitt felt he'd failed as a father and husband. He was going to shoot himself in a motel room that night, but before he did, he saw a Gideon Bible laying on a television, he said.

"When I looked at it, I thought who needs that and threw it on the floor. It fell on the floor and it still stayed open, like it was beckoning me," Osowitt said. "It really made me mad, so I kicked it, but it hit this wooden box frame under the bed and popped back on the floor."

He then picked it up and was about to throw it when he looked down and started reading a passage from the Gospel of John.

"It caused me to stop. It caused me to cry. When I read it was Jesus, I had a hard time with it," said Osowitt, who converted from Judaism to Christianity and became a Southern Baptist minister.

"It literally began a process of healing that eventually led to the reconciliation with my entire family. I just thank God for saving me and the Gideons for being so faithful."

Steve Smith, director of communications and development for the Gideons, said the group has thousands of similar recorded testimonies.

While worldwide Gideon Bible distributions increased by one-third from 2004 through 2007, U.S. distributions have averaged about 10.5 million annually for the last few years.

Gideons want to try to increase that number to 12 million by the end of the group's fiscal year in May. The group is trying to reach more college-aged students.

"In many cases, a lot of our local (member) groups are just not aware of the colleges they have in their area," Burden said. "They recognize the major schools, a university or college, but they don't think about the business schools, the technical schools and others available to them. There's a significant amount of students there."

The majority of Gideon Bibles, about 60 percent, are given to students, a demographic the group sees as a source for future growth.

Jeremy Gunn, director for the ACLU's program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the ACLU doesn't specifically challenge Gideon distribution. He said the ACLU would take issue with any organization given what's perceived to be privileged access to children on public school grounds.

Even the place where the Gideon movement got its start is changing. An increasing number of hotels are offering religious texts besides the Gideon Bible to appeal to visitors from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds.

The Gideons have made some other adjustments to accommodate the hotel industry, which has become more environmentally conscious to respond to their guests' wishes and save money on laundry and cleaning. For example, this year the Gideons started putting Bibles made of 30 percent recycled paper into hotel rooms.

"We think it's beneficial to the environment. We need to be conscious of that. And then secondarily, if the hotel industry is going that way, it helps with our relationship with them," Burden said.

"We're fine with that. We're just going to continue to do what we do."