Those brave enough to open the drawer of a hotel nightstand may still find a relic from the days before people traveled everywhere with a digital computer in their pockets: a Christian Bible.
Found in chain hotels, motels and inns throughout the United States, this universally accepted hotel accessory is as common as a blow dryer, clean towels and mini soaps. And while some hotels are backing away from including religious texts in their rooms (Marriott’s Millennial-focused brands Moxy and Edition are Bible-free), a December survey by hospitality analytics company STR shows that 79% of hotels have religious materials in their rooms, a slight decrease from the 95% that reported stocking religious texts in December 2006.
According to 2015 data from the Pew Center, 70% of Americans identify as Christian, while 6% believe in other faiths and 23% have no religion whatsoever. But why have religious texts in hotel rooms at all? In 1995, the New York Times reported that hotels were accompanying traditional New Testament Bibles with the Book of Mormon, the Teaching of Buddha and even, in some instances, texts on Christian Science and Scientology.
While religious books are typically tucked away inconspicuously in a hotel nightstand, its presence alone offends many. “For us to go into the hotel room and see this book that says we’re going to burn in hell for all eternity is unwelcome, to say the least,” said Andrew Seidel, an attorney (and self-proclaimed atheist) at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in a phone interview.
“Hotels are supposed to be welcoming guests in,” Seidel said of the ancient text, which condemns nonbelievers, homosexuals and many others to postmortal suffering. “If [hotels] are really truly concerned that people need a Bible when they travel, they can have one behind the desk.”
Bibles have been in hotels for more than 100 years
Bibles have been a staple in hotel rooms, guest houses, inns and more shared accommodations since the turn of the 20th century.
In 1899, a group of traveling Christian businessmen developed a group called the Gideons, a religious organization that, to this day, donates New Testaments around the world.
“While we are often recognized for our work with hotels, we also place and distribute scriptures in strategic locations so they are available to those who want them, as well as to those who may not know they need them,” the Gideons International website reads. One can see how a visitor in a foreign place, perhaps checking into a hotel during a tumultuous time or completely overwhelmed by new surroundings, may turn to the only book available in a hotel room for comfort in the days before Wi-Fi.
In 2017, just about every hotel has plenty of entertainment options, from Wi-Fi to on-demand movies and premium cable channels like HBO. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would reach in a nightstand to page through an ancient book. Religious travelers are likely to pack their own liturgical reading and prayer books or download religious texts onto their digital devices, making the hotel Bible pretty obscure.
“The Gideons are a sinister organization,” Seidel said, explaining that the religious group is solely a men’s club that doesn’t allow women to join (though wives can join the auxiliary). Seidel also pointed out that the Gideons target the “most vulnerable.” Many times, the target audience includes young students in public schools, a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. A spokesperson for the Gideons declined interview requests, citing policy against seeking publicity.
In additional to hotels, the Gideons’ approved distribution list includes public schools, public libraries, graduation ceremonies, airplanes, domestic violence shelters, military facilities, prisons and dozens more locations where “vulnerable” people may be. Seidel’s work with FFRF has proven the illegality of stocking Bibles at hotels on the campus of state-funded universities, national parks and other tax-payer funded lodging, but the Gideons list these public organizations on their distribution list.
“If you look at the way they operate, they know what they’re doing is wrong, so they target the lowest levels of operations at schools, not asking school attorneys but rather teachers or principals,” Seidel said of the way the Gideons get access to minors. “It’s illegal... And this is the group putting Bibles in hotel rooms.”
Stocking a Bible in hotel rooms may not be about hospitality at all, but rather a method to inculcate people into Christianity.
“It’s not about helping people, it’s about converting people,” Seidel said of the Gideons’ mission.
What exactly is the purpose of a hotel Bible?
Many people interviewed for this article appeared comforted knowing that there was a Bible in their hotel room, regardless of whether they opened the nightstand drawer and paged through the text. In many ways, the proximity to the ancient scripture seemed to ease the anxiety of being in an unfamiliar place, the way a security blanket helps a person feel safe falling asleep at night.
Anna Renault, a 67-year-old writer, is a strong proponent of keeping Bibles in hotel rooms for a reason her grandmother once told her: the books were there for people who checked in for the purpose of committing suicide. “If it saves just one life of a seriously depressed or lonely person, it is worth the effort to have it there,” Renault said via email.
While a 2017 study concludes that religious participation may be linked to lower suicide rates in the United States, there’s no evidence that spontaneous Bible reading effectively thwarts suicide attempts. Still, the Gideons’ blog reports stories of formerly suicidal individuals finding a Bible and experiencing a new enthusiasm for life. The testimonies do not, however, include any data nor acknowledgement of the suicides that can’t be prevented with a Bible’s proximity or are perhaps even encouraged by the Bible’s ancient lifestyle standards.
Suicide in hotel rooms is not uncommon. Maria Ulmer, licensed marriage and family therapist and chief operating officer of Summit Behavioral Health, said some people check into hotels that “offer privacy” and lack of interruption to carry out a suicide plan. Less intimate than a home, a hotel room also provides fewer emotional distractions. And while Ulmer noted that the Bible has served as a “source of comfort” for some individuals looking for a different perspective on life, Bibles may not have the same effect on millennials “as many do not identify with a religious foundation.”
Still, the logic doesn’t add up. “Gideons portray it as if they’re saving lives, but if they’re generaly concerned about suicide or mental health, the solution is to open up a free mental health consoling hotline and put that number in every hotel room,” Seidel said. Of course, it’s good business for hotels to prevent deaths in their rooms, but is an ancient text really going to stop guests with the intention of killing themselves from ending their lives?
How contemporary hotels respond to religious and spiritual travelers
To some hotels, hospitality extends beyond keeping a list of religious spaces and houses of worship at the concierge desk.
Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Portland, Oregon, offers religious texts by request only, but also provides a complimentary “quiet room” on the property’s fifth floor for anyone to meditate, pray or reflect in.
“We consulted with religious leaders, new moms and yoga practitioners to ensure it was conducive for all those uses,” Marianne Moissant, assistant general manager at Hotel Monaco, said of the creation of the quiet room. The space has a small bookshelf with a Bible and Quran — which was gifted by an imam who reviewed the space — and a yoga mat, which is also available in all guest rooms.
“So far, response to the quiet room and its intended purpose has been phenomenal. Being a Kimpton hotel, diversity and inclusion are part of our company DNA, so our guests expect amenities and service that aligns with that mission,” Moissant said.
Hotels without dedicated spaces have also tried to accommodate religious travelers while simultaneously not offending those who do not share mainstream religious beliefs. Instead of stocking religious books in guest rooms, boutique hotel company Provenance Hotels has offered a “spiritual menu” since 2009, allowing guests to request a complimentary copy of whatever religious text they may want to borrow during a visit.
“It’s about recognizing diversity of our guests,” said Kate Buska, director of public relations for Provenance Hotels. “We wanted to offer something that would enable us to cater to whatever our guest’s spiritual orientation is.” Buska said she’s never heard of any complaints that the often-expected Bible is missing in rooms, but rather gets comments from guests that they appreciate the consideration that went into the program. To Buska, this religious compendium is just another way to be hospitable and make guests feel comfortable, similar to the pillow menu offered in Provenance’s guest rooms.
The end of the hotel Bible?
“We live in a far more diverse society than we used to, there’s no room for [anything other than] a recognition that we live in a pluralistic society,” Seidel said.
For those opposed to hotels stocking Bibles, FFRF sells “warning” stickers that guests can apply to religious liturgy stocked in hotels or other public spaces. Seidel attested that he’s seen the stickers on books at various hotels for which he was no responsible, meaning there’s a larger national movement of people actively opposing this product in hotels.
Seidel will also go so far as to “edit” hotel Bibles, highlighting some of the “worst verses” that encourage violence or hatred and replacing the first three words (”In the beginning”) with “Once upon a time.” Seidel isn’t alone in his efforts to deface hotel Bibles: Social media is rampant with examples of people writing, doodling and leaving mementos in the books. A recent tweet suggested using the thin pages as “rolling papers in a pinch.”
Still, Seidel wants to iterate that he’s not opposed to anyone reading the Bible.
“The road to atheism is littered with Bibles that have been read cover to cover,” Seidel said. “If you want someone to become an atheist, have them read a Bible.”
But in Seidel’s eyes, this book has no place in hotel drawers across America.
“It’s a sign of Christian privilege in this country,” Seidel said. “It’s outdated and needs to go.”