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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Boscobel, Beaver Dam & Beginning The Gideons

Yesterday's Odd Wisconsin column in the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted the anniversary of a chance meeting in Beaver Dam out of which grew The Gideons International. More than a dozen readers immediately protested that the service group actually began in Boscobel, where a previous meeting of the founders is commemorated in a historical marker.

Where did The Gideons really begin? As so often happens when we do history, a seemingly simple question may have no simple answer. Deciding which town can claim the honor of being The Gideons' birthplace depends entirely on what you mean by "begin." Here's why.

The two instigators, John Nicholson of Janesville and Samuel Hill of Beloit, shared a hotel room in Boscobel in Sept. 1898. Both being devout Christians, they "lay awake a long time talking with each other over some plan to acquaint people with the Bible" -- but they took no action. A quarter century later this event was celebrated with a historic marker in the town's Central Hotel, but can we say that the Gideon's had been founded?

Eight months later -- having done nothing yet to make their Boscobel idea a reality -- the two men crossed paths in Beaver Dam, on May 31, 1899. They talked again and decided to "get right at it. Start the ball rolling and follow it up." They contacted some of their associates and invited them to help form an organization to promote the Christian faith among travelling businessmen. It as yet had no name, no charter, no infrastructure, and no members. Had it begun?

The result was an inaugural meeting, a sort of constitutional convention, set for July 1, 1899. When Nicholson and Hill showed up for that meeting in Janesville, they found only one other person (W.J. Knights of Wild Rose) who had taken up their invitation. The three men nevertheless elected themselves officers and chose the name, "The Gideons: The Christian Commercial Traveling Men's Association." This is the event that the Encyclopedia Britannica accepts as the true beginning of the Gideons International.

Each of the three committed himself to recruit more members. By the time of the next meeting, in Waukesha that September, it had grown to a dozen members, and Hill and Nicholson's ball was finally rolling. Like any fledgling organization it had few resources but grew steadily. At a meeting in Chicago, October 19, 1907, the suggestion was made that "The Gideons furnish a Bible for each bedroom of the hotels in the United States... this would not only stimulate the activities of the rank and file of the membership, but would be a gracious act, wholly in keeping with the divine mission of the Gideon Association." This plan was adopted by the convention at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1908, and the first Bible was distributed later that year.

To return to our simple question, when did The Gideons begin? Take your pick. The Gideons themselves say 1899, presumably eliminating Boscobel and endorsing Beaver Dam or Janesville. The Encyclopedia Britannica explicitly sides with Janesville. But it all depends on what you mean by "begin" -- is it at conception, birth, or somewhere in between? Decide for yourself by looking at some of the primary sources in our online collection of Local History & Biography Articles.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on June 1, 2006

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