Nashville, Tennessee has an interesting niche in American Evangelical Christianity. Although not a religiously historic city, it is nevertheless home to not one, but two of America’s most famous Christian institutions: The Gideons International, and the Southern Baptist Convention. The first organization is world famous for its mission to spread the faith through the free distribution of Bibles; and the second is the umbrella organization for America’s largest and most active Protestant denomination. Together these institutions are among the most active evangelical organizations in the United States.
The Baptist denomination of Protestant Christianity is famous for promoting the independence of individual churches and congregations. Nevertheless, in America there have always been umbrella conventions designed to bring Baptists from across the country together for common interests. Originally almost all Baptist congregations were part of the Triennial Convention, but in 1845 most of the southern churches broke off as the Civil War loomed, forming the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention has a turbulent history, and for many years defended policies such as segregation. This was exacerbated after the Civil War, when most African-American Baptists left the convention to form their own church. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized for its former racist policies, and minorities are now a growing part of the Church. Today the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are among the most active in the spreading of Protestant orthodoxy and are among the strongest supporters of the literal Bible.
The Gideons International is one of America’s great home-grown missionary societies. As the story goes, it was founded in 1899 by Christian businessmen staying at a hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin. These men shared a passion for the Bible and the desire to make it available to anyone free of charge. A few years later the organization began distributing free Bibles, most famously in hotels. According to their estimates, the Gideons have distrubted nearly two billion Bibles to date.
The Southern Baptist Convention and The Gideons International are completely unrelated organizations, but have a few things in common. First, both organizations are passionately devoted to evangelical activities. Second, they are both among the most ardent supporters of the Bible as the literal Word of God. Finally, the two organizations are located just a few miles apart from each other in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Southern Baptist Convention Headquarters in Nashville is, strictly speaking, a nice but utilitarian office building. However, from the standpoint of visitor interest, it is home to the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives. This institution is home to one of the largest denominational collections of books and artifacts in the United States. Its most important exhibit is its collection of historic and rare Bibles and related documents which date as far back as the 17th century.
The Gideons International Headquarters is also little more than an office building of the type that can be found in any suburb in the United States. However, outside the building is a court enclosed by a wall covered in engraved plaques quoting the Bible in languages from around the world.
The Southern Baptist Convention Headquarters is located in downtown Nashville, while the Gideons International is located in the suburbs approximately five miles to the east. As of this writing no visitor information was available for either site. Web: www.sbc.net (official website of the Southern Baptist Convention); www.gideons.org (official website of the Gideons International).