Friday, August 15, 2014

Made in Wisconsin: the Gideon Bible

My own life trajectory was profoundly affected by the Gideon Bible twice, one academic, the other spiritual. And it turns out that the Gideon Bible actually comes from my home state of Wisconsin. Even so, my encounters with the Gideon Bible did not turn out as the Gideons themselves would have preferred.

History of the Gideon Bible

In 1898, traveling salesman John Nicholson, from Janesville, Wisconsin, checked into the Central House Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin. Because the hotel was full, he was only able to stay in a double room with another traveling salesman, Samuel Hill, from Beloit, Wisconsin.

As they made their common acquaintance, they discovered that each was a Protestant Christian and they conceived that night of the concept of businessmen such as themselves somehow promoting evangelization efforts. They met again the following year in Janesville, Wisconsin, joined by a third interested party, William Knights. They formalized their new organization and selected the name "Gideons." Early in their efforts, since most of the people they recruited for their new mission were traveling salesmen, someone suggested they arrange to place a Bible in every hotel room in America. Their mission was born.

1977 - A Gideon Bible on the way home from Florida

This is essentially the page I saw.
My family took a vacation to Florida in 1977. While on our back, we were snowed in somewhere and stayed in a hotel. Bored, I was looking through the Gideon Bible in the room and I stumbled upon Psalm 119. This psalm is an acrostic in the Hebrew and this particular edition printed the Hebrew letter corresponding to each stanza (which then all begin with that letter in the original Hebrew). To the left is an example of what I saw. 

When we got home, I was so enamored by this alphabet that I practiced writing the letters over and over until I had the entire thing memorized. I would eventually study Biblical Hebrew formally in college, as a way to follow through with my earlier exploration. And I would get my doctorate in Biblical Hebrew. And my doctorate minor in Arabic. And I would serve as an Arabic linguist for the NSA. And I don't think any of it would have happened, had I not opened that Gideon Bible.

1985 - A Gideon Bible on my way to University

The Bible he gave me. Of course I still have it!
In the Spring of 1985, during my second semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I stepped off the bus and a gentleman handed me a small green-covered Gideon Bible. Up to that point, I had been very uninvolved in the Lutheran Church of my nurture for several years. I would still be attending services with the family on major holidays, but that was it. Between classes I would typically have hours of time to kill. That day I read the Gospel of Matthew in its entirety from that little Bible. And I consider that day the beginning of a spiritual revival that never abated. Following years of biblical, historical, and theological research, I made the decision for myself to leave the Protestant tradition.  In 2003, I become a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was after my entry into the Orthodox Church that I met my Romanian-American wife, I did not convert for her.

Lamentabile dictu, the Gideons do not allow non-Protestants to be members or serve in their organization. As such, they apparently do not consider non-Protestants such as Catholics and Orthodox to be, in fact, Christians at all.

Which is ironic, since I consider the man who handed me that Bible that day to have had a key role in me being a practicing Christian today...

Keith Massey was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. He has his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Biblical Hebrew, with a minor in Arabic. After 9/11, he served as an Arabic linguist at the NSA. He is currently a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey.

Keith is the author of Intermediate Arabic for Dummies. His fiction novels follow the adventures of Andrew Valquist, roughly patterned after himself--a man born and raised in Wisconsin who gets pulled into the world of international intrigue. 

Keith's novels are A Place of Brightness, Amor Vincit Omnia: An Andrew Valquist Adventure, Next Stop: Spanish, and In Saecula Saeculorum.