William Bell Riley, 1861-1947,Pastor, Educator
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William Bell Riley
Baptist pastor and educator. W.B. Riley was born in Green
County, Indiana, but soon moved with his parents to Boone
County, Kentucky, where they lived in a log cabin. He spent
his formative years working the fields from dawn to dusk. In
1880 he completed sufficient schooling at a normal school in
Valparaiso, Indiana, and received his teacher's certificate.
After teaching in county schools, he attended college in
Hanover, Indiana, where he received an A.B. degree in 1885.
He served several Baptist churches in Kentucky, Indiana, and
Illinois, in addition to studying at Southern Baptist Theo-
logical Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
On March 1, 1897, he began his ministry as pastor of
the First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served
as pastor for 45 years and pastor emeritus for five years. A
gifted orator and preacher, he championed the cause of funda-
mental evangelical Christianity. He conducted large evangel-
istic campaigns in which thousands were saved, in addition to
building up the membership of his church to more than 2,500.
During his entire ministry, he fought modernism, liberalism,
and sin. On one occasion he debated against evolution at the
University of Minnesota.
In 1942, he retired from the active pastorate to de-
vote full-time to Northwestern Schools, which he founded on
October 2, 1902 as Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training
School. Dr. Riley was the author of at least 60 volumes, nu-
merous booklets, and single sermons in pamphlet form.
ARTIST'S NOTE: The black-and-white colors emphasize the posi-
tion of an out-and-out fundamentalist who takes a clear stand
with no middle position. The pinks and whites present his
William Bell Riley
BORN: March 22, 1861
Greene County, Indiana
DIED: December 5, 1947
LIFE SPAN: 86 years, 8 months, 13 days
RILEY WAS ONE OF THE MOST DILIGENT fundamental-
ists of his day. For 45 years he was the pastor of the
First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Along
with Norris in the South and Shields in Canada, Riley
was the voice of historic Christianity against the in-
filtration of liberalism. His chief foes were the
Northern (now American) Baptist Convention and evolu-
tion. Although he stayed to fight from within the denom-
ination, never withdrawing his church, his stand will
never be forgotten. William Bell Riley is known as "The
Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism," and his accomplish-
ments leave one breathless.
Born thirty days before the outbreak of the
Civil War, he was reared in a Boone County, Kentucky,
log cabin, where the family had moved. Son of Branson
and Ruth, he did his share of the chores. At age nine he
frequently plowed and worked the fields from 5 a.m. to 9
p.m. In 1872 the family moved to Owen County, Kentucky,
purchasing a 120-acre farm. He attended a country school
at Union. His irregular attendance was due to the farm
work which at times kept him home days at a time.
In August, 1878, when he was seventeen he made a
public profession of his faith in Christ at the Baptist
church in Dallasburg, Kentucky, which was 2 miles from
his farm home, and he was baptized in a pond.
Riley earned a reputation as a debater in the
public schools and was torn between a legal profession
and a call to preach. After some months of turmoil he
knelt between two rows of tobacco on a hillside and
said, "Lord, I give over, I give up, I will preach." He
recalls that this was his greatest experience with God.
At eighteen he rented his own farm and met his first
real test in life. Walking out on a field of 24 acres of
tobacco one early Sunday morning, he found that half the
plants lay dead from the work of cut worms. Laying down
in the open field, he wept. But the next day a heavy
rain made it possible to replace most of the crop and in
the next two years he paid off his bills and had a bal-
With this money he went to a Normal School in
Valparaiso, Indiana, the winter of 1879-80. Home sick-
ness and financial difficulties were part of the agenda,
but he received a teacher's certificate. An additional
year was spent at home due to family difficulties, but
in the fall of 1881 he was off to college. William de-
cided upon a Presbyterian school, Hanover (Indiana) Col-
lege, because of its spiritual reputation. He seriously
pursued his new calling, majoring in the classics as
well as being an active debater. He graduated with an
A.B. degree in 1885 and received his M.A. degree in
1888. His father died while he was in college, but was
greatly pleased to know his son was called to preach.
Riley started as a once-a-month preacher from 1881 to
1883 supplying in North Madison, Indiana. In 1883 he was
made pastor of his own churches at Carrolton and Warsaw,
Kentucky, preaching two Sundays a month in each place.
Riley was ordained a Baptist minister on December 25,
1883 at Dallasburg.
Riley completed his education at Southern
Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, graduating in
1888. While here, he had a student pastorate at the
Tabernacle Baptist Church of New Albany, Indiana 1887-
88. In 1887, D.L. Moody held a campaign in Louisville
and Riley was one of the personal workers. In June,
1888, Riley gave his Seminary graduating address in the
Broadway Baptist Church of Louisville on the subject
"The Triumph of Orthodoxy."
That same month he was installed as pastor of
the First Baptist Church of lafayette, Indiana, which he
pastored until 1890. He was instrumental in bringing
Moody to town for a union campaign. It was here he met
and fell in love with Lillian Howard and six weeks after
their marriage in December, 1890, he baptized his young
bride into the Baptist congregation as she had been a
member of a local Methodist church. They were the par-
ents of six children: Arthur (December 2, 1892), Mason
(March 16, 1894), Herbert (1895--killed in a hunting ac-
cident at age 19), Eunice (October 14, 1901), William
(November 29, 1904), and John (December 26, 1906).
In mid-1890 he accepted the pastorate of the
First Baptist Church of Bloomington, Indiana, which he
served until early 1893. Here, because of his protest
against gambling, some 250 convictions were secured. He
took the gamblers' written threats to the newspapers and
defiantly published them, daring the senders to lay a
hand on him.
Next, a new work, the Calvary Baptist Church of
Chicago, called him. There were sixty members, a mission
work of the First Baptist Church. By the time he left in
1897, the church had grown to about 500. Here his first
determined fight against liberalism began. His frequent
contacts with the professors of the University of
Chicago soon gained him the reputation of being
hopelessly orthodox. During the Chicago World's Fair in
1893, corruption and lawlessness mushroomed in spite of
the efforts of D.L. Moody in his campaign for souls dur-
ing those days. Riley and others joined the fight and
kept some of the saloons closed on Sundays. Again he was
threatened and this time he read the threats from the
pulpit charging "criminality is cowardice," assuring his
congregation there was no danger. During these days he
often spoke for Billy Sunday at his noonday meetings in
a Chicago Y.M.C.A., where the latter was the religious
A period of depression followed and money was
very tight. The pastoral work became very difficult be-
cause of the severe living conditions of many. Riley
gave so much time to visitation and aid in the daytime
that his studying had to be done late at night. The
church decided to merge with a Presbyterian and Chris-
tian congregation to pool their resources.
Now Riley began to pray for a smaller town to
minister where he could influence a whole area for God
as he felt he couldn't touch the entire city of Chicago.
A confessed liberal, Dr. Charles Henderson, of the Uni-
versity of Chicago, recommended him to the pulpit of the
First Baptist Church of Minneapolis because he was un-
able to fill an invitation. Riley preached there in Jan-
uary of 1896. When he got off the train to candidate, he
forgot one of his grips--the one containing the suit he
was to wear. He had to preach that morning in an old
sack suit--which was not taken very well by the
aristocracy of the church! After the church heard about
25 other candidates, Riley was called there and began
his ministry on March 1, 1897. The church roll was re-
vised and cut down to 585 members. Then the church began
to really grow. This growth was disturbing to certain
elements in the church. Riley decided that certain
things had to be changed and set out to accomplish them.
Stormy sessions arose as young Riley proposed to discon-
tinue pew rent, church "fairs" and money-raising sup-
pers. Some members left, but the church prospered and
became the denomination's largest with thousands of con-
verts baptized there. Soon he was in the midst of civic
reforms also--demanding adequate enforcement of liquor
laws. Riley's ministry was one of preaching the gospel
as well as fighting foes of the gospel, and he was sym-
pathetic to other evangelists engaged in this same
fight, providing help and support to R.A. Torrey and
Gipsy Smith. He was chosen secretary to prepare for J.
Wilbur Chapman's campaign in Minneapolis.
Riley's influence grew steadily across the coun-
try in four ways: his addresses delivered at metropoli-
tan centers across the land; a series of debates involv-
ing most of the outstanding advocates of evolution; his
writing--numerous books, newspaper, and magazine arti-
cles; and by the lives of his students from Northwestern
His addresses were given, for the most part, in
connection with the founding of the World's Christian
Fundamentalist Association which he was used to bring
into existence. The aim of this movement was to declare
war on modernism. In 1918 Riley and A.C. Dixon asked six
biblicists to meet them at R.A. Torrey's summer home to
consider the possibilities of organizing disturbed
evangelicals into a world fellowship. A day of prayer
and discussion started a foundation for the new group.
Riley called for a meeting in Philadelphia on May 25,
1919 and 6,000 gathered--due, for the most part, to the
labors of J.D. Adams of Philadelphia. Riley gave the
opening and closing addresses and was elected president.
The meetings continued through June 1st. Nine points
were drafted into a Confession of Faith, with R.A.
Torrey's mind dominating the final draft. The planks in
(1) Scriptures verbally inspired.
(2) One God existing in three persons.
(3) Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary being
true God and true man.
(4) Sinfulness of mankind.
(5) Christ dying for our sins.
(6) Resurrection and High Priesthood of Christ.
(7) Blessed Hope, personal premillennial and
imminent return of Christ.
(8) All who receive by faith the Lord Jesus be-
come children of God.
(9) Bodily resurrection of the just and unjust,
and resulting everlasting blessedness of the saved and
punishment of the lost.
The word Fundamentalist came out of this confer-
ence. Lyman Stewart, founder along with R.A. Torrey of
the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), offered
$300,000.00 for the publication of a series of volumes
on The Fundamentals. Nearly 3 million copies of these
volumes went out to laymen, ministers and missionary
workers around the world. Conferences in major cities
followed and the movement went overseas as well. Annual
conventions, confined for the most part to the United
States and Canada, drew great speakers and great crowds.
Riley resigned as president in 1929 and the
movement was led by Sidney Smith for two years, followed
by Paul Rood for many years. Riley later served as exec-
William Bell Riley's addresses across the coun-
try were not only on defending the faith, but he also
excelled as an evangelist, holding many city-wide cam-
paigns with thousands being converted. In February,
1912, a great crusade was held in Duluth, Minnesota,
with between 500 to 1,000 converts. In Peoria, Illinois,
a three-week crusade was held in the City Armory and in
Seattle, Washington, a tabernacle was built for a
month's campaign, with many saved. In Dayton, Ohio, 66
churches constructed a tabernacle seating 5,000 and af-
ter a four-week meeting, some 1,200 were added to their
memberships. In 1933, at Worcester, Massachusetts, some
25 churches participated with 400 professions of faith.
He also held individual church campaigns, a no-
table one being at the First Baptist Church of Fort
Worth, Texas. Three hundred and fifty two people were
converted in the twelve-day crusade.
Nor was he confined to America--his overseas
ministries started in 1911 when he went to England in
response to the invitation of A.C. Dixon, the pastor of
Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle. One Sunday there he
saw some 60 people accept Christ. He spent four weeks
there and another four weeks in other cities in England
and Scotland. In 1929, in response to a call from the
Bible League of England, Riley brought his wife and
ministered in England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, and
France. In 1936, he returned, this time sponsored by the
Advent and Preparation Movement. He preached one week in
Wales, one in Scotland, two in Ireland, a month in
England, and a week in Belgium and France.
The teachings of evolution were a hot issue in
those days so his debates became another phase of his
ministry. His first encounter was in Raleigh, North
Carolina, when six professors from the State College who
believed in evolution attacked the message of J.C.
Massee at a Bible Conference there. He met a Professor
Metcalf and, although no decision was rendered, debating
(in which he had excelled in high school) was back in
his blood. William Jennings Bryan had died in 1925, and
his mantle for fighting evolution passed to Riley. Bryan
had referred to Riley as "the greatest Christian states-
man in the American pulpit." Riley's next debate in 1925
was scheduled for the Church of the Open Door in Los
Angeles. At the last moment the antagonist backed out,
conceding defeat leaving the building filled with 4,000
who were eager to view the proceedings. He led in a cam-
paign against the exclusive teachings of evolution and
Darwinism in 1926 at the University of Minnesota. His
debates there opened a series of contests across the
country between Riley and the leading evolutionists.
Maynard Shipley, president of the Science League
of America, agreed to four debates with Riley. Riley won
the first two by a ten-to-one margin and a substitute,
Edward Cantrell, was engaged for the last two in the
place of Shipley. He was field secretary for the Ameri-
can Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The debates all went
against Dr. Cantrell. He was easier yet to defeat, the
Chicago vote being 1800 votes to twelve. Then Dr.
Birkenhead, Unitarian pastor from Kansas City, went down
in three overwhelming defeats. Finally, in desperation,
the evolutionists imported from England Professor J.B.
McCabe, author of many rationalistic books and ardent
advocate of the evolutionary hypothesis. The first de-
bate was about a tie, but the next three Riley won hand-
ily. In Toronto, Riley met McCabe again and now won ten
to one. Riley took on McCabe in New York before a crowd
of rationalists and atheists, but the verdict was seven-
teen to twelve in favor of Riley! After defeating
Charles Smith, president of the American Association for
the Advancement of Atheism, and Henry Holmes, head of
the philosophy department at Swarthmore (Pennsylvania)
College, it was hard to find opponents. Clarence Darrow
was challenged several times, but he refused to meet
William Bell Riley's influence was felt also
through his writings. He was responsible for some 90
books and many pamphlets and was renown for his fearless
literature as well as his fearless preaching. His book,
The Menace of Modernism, expresses his deep-seated con-
tempt for university professors who slander the Bible.
However, on a personal basis he sought to maintain a
friendly spirit to the enemies of the faith and always
acted as a true Christian gentleman.
In July, 1923, Riley started on the colossal
task of taking his church through the entire Bible in
consecutive Lord's day studies. He did just that, com-
pleting this project ten years later on July 1, 1933.
These sermons were published in forty volumes under the
title The Bible of the Expositor and the Evangelist.
This work is an exposition of the text and of the spe-
cial use of certain portions of scripture in soul-win-
ning appeals. The Perennial Revival (1933) was also
widely received as was The Preacher and His Preaching,
written just before he died. Other books include such
titles as: Revival Sermons; Wives of the Bible; My
Bible, an Apologetic; Seven New Testament Soul Winners;
Seven New Testament Converts; Conflict of Christianity
with Its Counterfeits; Rethinking the Church; The Prob-
lems of Youth; The Philosophies of Father Coughlin; Pas-
tor Problems; Saved or Lost; Is Jesus Coming Again?
Nearly one million of his books have been circulated.
His own personal library consisted of some 3,000
His work as an educator also endeared him to the
Christian public. It was back in 1902 that seven laymen
came to him requesting additional instruction in the
Bible so that they could preach in nearby closed
churches. On October 2, he called together representa-
tives of several denominations and with their coopera-
tion organized the Northwestern Bible School. The seven
original students grew in number until it became the se-
cond largest Bible School in the world at the time of
Riley's death, with some 1,200 students enrolled. The
Seminary (opened October 5, 1935 with 47 students) and
College (1943) were organized in later years.
In 1938, a recap was given covering the first 35
years of existence: Student numbers had grown from seven
to 815; teachers from two to 24; from no property to
four beautiful buildings; from no money to an $84,000.00
expense account. Riley never took a cent of salary, but,
on the contrary, was a constant contributor to its cur-
rent expense. Through the years Riley edited The North-
Riley also found time to found the Anti-
Evolution League with three others in 1923. Also, the
Baptist Bible Union started in May, 1923 in Kansas City,
meeting in a tent rented from Walter L. Wilson. Some
3,300 were present with T.T. Shields being elected pres-
ident. O.W. VanOsdel asked Riley to lead a separatist
group out of the Northern Baptists, but Riley turned him
down about 1927.
One would wonder how a man could find time to do
all of that which has been described and yet have time
left to pastor his church. Well, pastor he did--and most
successfully! The visit of Louis Entminger in 1920
revitalized the Sunday School resulting in the dedica-
tion of Jackson Hall--a $350,000 educational building,
on April 15, 1923.
Work was begun on a new 2,634-seat auditorium
for his church which was dedicated on January 6, 1925.
It was usually packed out, especially when he preached
on evolution or modernism. The two buildings and prop-
erty had a value of one million dollars. The missionary
budget and membership at the church continued to in-
crease also. He baptized 4,000 into the church and re-
ceived another 3,000 by letter. It must be remembered
that Minnesota is not Baptist country--indeed,
Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists dominate the popu-
lation. There were only 35,000 Baptist church members in
Minnesota during his days and he had one-tenth of them
in his church.
His position in his denomination was a unique
one. As stated, he never withdrew from the American
Baptist Convention, but it is believed that he did more
than anyone else in slowing down the take-over by the
liberals. He opposed the apostasy but he was unable to
reverse the trend. Riley as an individual did withdraw
from the convention shortly before his death.
Horses, dogs and fishing were avid hobbies. All
his life Riley was healthy and strong, except for an
eight-month bout with insomnia in 1911, and in 1925 when
he had a serious illness which threatened to take his
life. Upon recovering from this, he preached the funeral
of Charles Blanchard, fundamentalist president of
Wheaton College, in early 1926.
Riley's wife died on August 10, 1931, following
surgery eight days previous. He was later married to
Marie R. Acomb on September 1, 1933.
He retired from the church in 1942, becoming
pastor emeritus, and devoted his remaining years to his
schools. He became president of the Minnesota Baptist
State Convention 1944-45. The phenomena of Youth for
Christ was sweeping the nation and Riley became an ar-
On March 22, 1946, he was honored on his 86th
birthday at a civic luncheon at the Radisson Hotel.
Present were Governor Luther W. Youndahl, Mayor Hubert
H. Humphrey, and speaker Dr. John E. Brown of Siloam
The following day, Sunday, March 23, the corner-
stone of Memorial Hall, the new administration building
of the Northwestern Schools was laid. Riley hoped to
raise one million dollars for a new set of buildings and
saw the dynamic young Billy Graham as the man who could
do it. So Graham was asked to succeed him as president
upon Riley's death. He had also hoped Graham would use
his influence to get the schools accredited. Graham
headed the schools until 1952.
Shortly before midnight, on December 5, 1947,
William turned on his sick bed to say, "Goodbye, dear,"
to his wife at their home in Golden Valley,
Minneapolis--and he was gone. Billy Graham conducted the
funeral services. Riley's close friend and associate,
Robert L. Moyer, was called to succeed him at the
church, but Moyer's untimely death in 1944 was a shock
to all. An assistant pastor, Curtis B. Akenson, became
pastor. The church has continued to belong to the
Convention, despite all the warnings along the way.
Northwestern Seminary was discontinued in 1956
and taken over by Richard Clearwaters, continuing today
as Central Baptist Seminary of Minneapolis. The Bible
School program was also phased out. Soon the College was
out of business. It was reopened in the fall of 1972.
Riley also helped to popularize the daily vaca-
tion Bible school movement and was one of the early
pioneers in it. One summer he sent 403 of his student
body into this work. He was the editor of The Christian
Fundamentalist from 1891 to 1933.
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