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How Bibles came to be in hotel rooms and why they’re disappearing

Bibles are an iconic part of America’s hotel rooms but with growing secularization, you may not find one.

The busy holiday travel season that extends through New Year’s is almost over.

As Americans continue to cope with the ongoing pandemic, travel has seen a steady increase once again. It means more people will be staying in hotels.

I have done my share of travel — both in the United States and internationally — over my two decades working as a journalist. The few things you could always count on for much of that time was a newspaper at the front desk, usually USA Today, and a Bible in your nightstand.

bibles hotel

Tom Cruise, in Mission Impossible, finds a note written in a Gideon’s Bible in his hotel room.

Not anymore. Print is slowly dying, and newspaper readers have migrated to the internet in recent years. What about those Bibles? They, too, seem to be slowly disappearing. I noticed this past summer, while on a trip to Washington, D.C., that there was no Bible in my hotel room.

Part of a larger trend towards secularism

The phasing out of Bibles in hotel rooms is actually part of a steady trend across the country over the past few years. In 2016, Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, typically supplied both a Bible and Book of Mormon in its rooms. But the company decided forgoing religious materials was the way to go at two of its hipper hotel brands such as Moxy and Edition, both aimed at younger guests.

In fact, Bibles used to be ubiquitous in hotel rooms. A 2017 survey by STR, a hospitality analytics company, revealed that 79% of hotels had religious materials in their rooms — a notable decrease from 95% of hotels surveyed in 2006. Indeed, as America becomes more secular and laptops and cellphones become more common, the need for a physical Bible inside your nightstand drawer is growing more obsolete.

bibles hotel

Members of Gideons International distributing bibles. Flickr/Elgin County Archives

Travel and Leisure reported that a majority of hotel franchises “allow individual hotel owners to decide whether or not to stock their drawers with religious scripture. And as more hotel chains aim to attract Millennial travelers, they are taking Bibles out of their rooms.”

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, back in 2015, sent a letter to major hotel chains across the U.S. requesting that Bibles be removed from rooms. On its website, the group, which advocates for atheists and agnostics, said, “Many of your guests are freethinkers — atheists, agnostics, skeptics or ‘nones’ — who are deeply offended to be charged high fees only to be proselytized in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Not only that, the Bible calls for killing nonbelievers, apostates, gays, ‘stubborn sons’ and women who transgress biblical double standards.”

Start of a tradition over 100 years ago

Why are here Bibles inside hotel rooms? It was in 1908 that The Gideons International — the evangelical Christian group — decided to provide hotels with the Holy Book.

The group, on its website, recalls how the tradition got started: “The Gideons International is the result of a meeting between two men who wished to band commercial travelers together for evangelism. What began in 1908 as an Association of Christian businessmen placing Bibles in hotel rooms has evolved into an expanding mission to provide Scriptures to all people in nearly every facet of life. Today, we have taken more than two billion Scriptures in more than 95 languages to 200 countries, territories and possessions across the globe.”

A member of Gideons International placing a copy of a Bible inside a hotel room’s desk drawer. Wikipedia Commons photo.

Gideons International said it has donated more than 1.4 million King James Bibles to hotels around the world between June 2018 and May 2019 alone. Of those, some 650,000 were in the United States, the group added. Since the beginning, it has placed more than 2.4 billion Bibles.

bibles hotel

Other denominations, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commonly known as Mormons — followed suit and also started stocking rooms at hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts with their own free religious literature. Some, like Trump International Hotel in Washington, also provide guests with the Talmud, Quran, Gita and Avesta.

Increased use of Wi-Fi and digital devices

These days, guests have many online choices. Free Wi-Fi in rooms, for example, allows them to read whatever they want on their phones, tablets or laptops. As a result, Christians also have many online choices when it comes to religious literature. Gideons International has an app, while one of the most popular podcasts of the moment on Apple is a daily Bible reading by Catholic priest Mike Schmitz.

Can you take home a copy of a hotel Bible should you come across one? Unlike towels — we all know that’s a no-no — this one is tougher to answer.

Best Western Hotels said the following on one of its blogs: “If you were to take The Bible with you or remove it from the hotel room, The Gideons would not accuse you of stealing it. Some believe that The Gideons actually want you to take these Bibles, perhaps in hopes of spreading the Good Word. However, your hotel staff may disagree. Removing The Bible from its place in a hotel room is not actually supporting the reason it was put there in the first place, as they are intended for the next guest to read and so on.

“The Gideons are always in constant contact with their local hotels to ensure a Bible remains in every room. They often find themselves replacing Bibles that go missing from rooms and never charge the hotel for these replacements. So, whether you feel the need to read The Bible in private, bring it with you during your travels to keep faith close, or add it to your personal book collection, rest assured The Gideons are not calling this a sin.”

There’s a reason to leave that Bible behind should you come across one. Gideons said each Bible placed in a room has the potential to reach up to 2,300 people in its estimated six-year life span, with an estimated quarter of travelers reading the Bibles in their hotel rooms.

–Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.