Under threat from rising secularism, the iconic Gideon Bible is disappearing from classrooms and hotel nightstands. So the Gideons are devising new ways to spread the Word.
Published in United Church Observer in December 2015
Janet Horbas was a "distraught and desperate" newly divorced mother of three when she travelled to Monterey, Calif., at age 31 to meet a man that she had been in love with years before. "I was hoping he would be my knight in shining armour, but he ended up rejecting me," she says.
"I found myself in a hotel room, and I just didn't want to live any longer."
Horbas wrote a suicide note and intended to swallow a vial of prescription drugs. When she spotted a Gideon Bible in a nightstand drawer, her Catholic guilt kicked in. She believed suicide was a mortal sin that would prevent her entry into heaven.
"If I killed myself that was like murder, and I would be forever separated from God and tormented for all eternity," says Horbas. "I cried out for forgiveness, cut up the suicide note and flushed the pills down the toilet."
That was more than 40 years ago. Today, Horbas is a 73-year-old great-grandmother of nine who lives in Richmond, B.C. She says opening that Gideon Bible was the first step in turning her life around.
She found a local Baptist church whose members "brought kindness and casseroles." And she stopped drinking, smoking and even swearing.
"I had a truck driver's mouth back then," she says. "I was totally changed and set free, and I've never been the same since."
The Gideons have been in the business of saving seemingly lost souls like Horbas for more than a century - ever since they were founded as an association of Christian businessmen by two travelling salesmen who met by chance in 1898 after rooming together in an overbooked hotel in Boscobel, Wisc.
In 1908, they began distributing Bibles in U.S. hotel rooms, following suit three years later in Canada.
"This spirit of door-to-door salesmanship" stuck with them, writes Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, in his bookOne Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. "Selling God was a second calling."