William Bell Riley

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William Bell Riley (1861-1947) based in Minneapolis, was one of the leading Fundamentalist theologians and organizers of the 1920s and 1930s.


He was a Baptist from Kentucky, and was well educated at Hanover College and Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, where he took a divinity degree in 1888. In the 1890s he was pastor at the new Calvary Baptist Church in Chicago. The weekly meetings of the Chicago Baptist Ministers' Society often ended in angry exchanges, with Riley and other fundamentalists on one side and the liberal University of Chicago theologians on the other.

In 1897 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, which he made famous. He was engaged in politics, opposing America's entry into the Spanish–American War in 1898. He denounced corrupt politics, and engaged in several crusades on behalf of prohibition. In the 1930s he began to attack Communism with the same vehemence he had earlier reserved for theological liberalism. He also bitterly opposed the New Deal and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

He was a powerful preacher. Standing over six feet tall, with curly black hair that gradually turned white, Riley made an impressive figure on the podium. He was a persuasive public speaker, gifted with a ready wit and a flair for the dramatic. He castigated sin as he saw it, including divorce, dancing, and all the "isms" of the day—socialism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, spiritualism, Catholicism, and liberalism. The worst of these was Darwinism, and more than anyone he turned Fundamentalism into a crusade against evil scientists.

Organizing Fundamentalism

He founded the Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School (1902), Northwestern Evangelical Seminary (1935), and Northwestern College (1944); they produced thousands of graduates.

Unable to change the Northern Baptist Convention, he persuaded the Minnesota Convention to disown the parent body

After World War I, Riley became the leading organizer of the movement for Fundamentalism. He created, at a large conference in Philadelphia in 1919, the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). It became the chief interdenominational fundamentalist organization in the 1920s, and Riley was president until 1929. After that the WCFA faded in importance.

Although the fundamentalist drive of the 1920s to take control of the major Protestant denominations failed at the national level, the network of churches and missions developed and controlled by Riley indicates that fundamentalism had a deep base. Riley's own "empire" was organized around the Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in Minneapolis, which expanded to include a seminary, annual bible conference, a monthly magazine, and eventually to control the Minnesota Baptist Convention. Both rural and urban in character, the flourishing movement acted as a denominational surrogate and aimed at a militant orthodoxy of evangelical Christianity. Centralized in the person of Riley, however, it was unable to survive his death in 1947.[1]


Riley was best known in the 1920s for defending the Bible and for encouraging Fundamentalists to attack the teaching of Darwinism. As fundamentalists began an campaigns to pass state antievolution laws, Riley and the WCFA helped provide guidance and speakers for all critical areas. For example, his WCFA retained William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Riley led the opposition to the teaching of evolution in Minnesota schools. He sponsored speeches by William Jennings Bryan in the Twin Cities in 1922. His anti-evolution bill was decisively defeated in the Minnesota state legislature in 1927. Riley's chief target was the University of Minnesota, of which the students and president, Lotus Delta Coffman (1875-1938), provided the most effective opposition to Riley's proposed anti-evolution law. Their resistance, based on the issue of academic freedom, together with lack of support for Riley's campaign from denominations other than the Baptists and from the general public, doomed the anti-evolution measure. Nevertheless, Minnesota came closer than any other northern State to passing such a law.[2]

Riley influenced Billy Graham, to whom he turned over his schools in 1947.

Riley wrote 60 books and numerous articles arguing that the Bible was verbally infallible and was an explicit revelation of God to man. Riley's lasting contribution has been in his influence on Graham, the World Christian Fundamental Association, and the conservative nature of Minnesota Baptists.

When Riley started preaching anti-Semitism in the 1930s in order to defeat the New Deal, his fellow Fundamentalist preachers rejected and denounced his position and Riley lost most of his following outside Minneapolis.[3]

See also

Further reading

  • Furniss, Norman F. The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954)
  • Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture (2nd ed 2006), the standard scholarly history (by a fundamentalist) excerpt and text search
  • Sandeen, Ernest R. The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970)
  • Trollinger, William V. God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (1991) excerpts and text search

Primary sources

  • Trollinger, William Vance, Jr., ed. The Antievolution Pamphlets of William Bell Riley. (Creationism in Twentieth century America: A Ten-Volume Anthology of Documents, 1903-1961. Vol. 4.) New York: Garland, 1995. 221 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Riley, William Bell. Theosophy, Or, Buddhism Abroad‎ (1899) 27 pages full text online


  1. William Vance Trollinger, Jr. "Riley's Empire: Northwestern Bible School and Fundamentalism in the Upper Midwest". Church History 1988 57(2): 197-212. 0009-6407
  2. Ferenc M. Szasz, "William B. Riley and the Fight against Teaching of Evolution in Minnesota." Minnesota History 1969 41(5): 201-216. 0026-5497
  3. Trollinger, God's Empire (1991) online pages 77-79