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 Theological 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 fundamental evangelical Christianity. He conducted large evangelistic 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 devote 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, numerous booklets, and single sermons in pamphlet form.
ARTIST’S NOTE: The black-and-white colors emphasize the position of an out-and-out fundamentalist who takes a clear stand
with no middle position. The pinks and whites present his Nordic ancestry.
William Bell Riley
BORN: March 22, 1861
Greene County, Indiana
DIED: December 5, 1947
LIFE SPAN: 86 years, 8 months, 13 days
WAS ONE OF THE MOST DILIGENT fundamentalists 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 infiltration of liberalism. His chief foes were the Northern (now American) Baptist Convention and evolution. Although he stayed to fight from within the denomination, never withdrawing his church, his stand will never be forgotten.
William Bell Riley is known as “The Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism,” and his accomplishments 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 cutworms. 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 balance remaining.
With this money, he went to a Normal School in Valparaiso, Indiana, the winter of 1879-80. Homesickness 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 decided upon a Presbyterian school, Hanover (Indiana) College, 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 parents of six children: Arthur (December 2, 1892), Mason (March 16, 1894), Herbert (1895–killed in a hunting accident 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 during 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 director.
A period of depression followed and money was very tight. The pastoral work became very difficult because 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 Christian 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 University of Chicago, recommended him to the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis because he was unable to fill an invitation. Riley preached there in January of 1896. When he got off the train to the 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 revised 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 discontinue pew rent, church “fairs” and money-raising suppers. Some members left, but the church prospered and became the denomination’s largest with thousands of converts 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 sympathetic 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 country in four ways his addresses delivered at metropolitan centers across the land; a series of debates involving most of the outstanding advocates of evolution his writing–numerous books, newspaper, and magazine articles; and by the lives of his students from Northwestern Schools.
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 essence included:
(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 become 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 conference. 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 executive secretary.
William Bell Riley’s addresses across the country were not only on defending the faith, but he also excelled as an evangelist, holding many city-wide campaigns 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 after 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 notable 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 statesman 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 campaign 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 substitute, Edward Cantrell, was engaged for the last two in the place of Shipley. He was field secretary for the American 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 debate was about a tie, but the next three Riley won handily. 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 seventeen 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 Riley.
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 contempt 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, completing 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 special use of certain portions of scripture in soul-winning 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 Problems of Youth; The Philosophies of Father Coughlin; Pastor 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 volumes.
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 representatives of several denominations and with their cooperation organized the Northwestern Bible School. The seven original students grew in number until it became the second 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 current expense. Through the years Riley edited The Northwestern Pilot.
Riley also found time to found the AntiEvolution 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 president. 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 dedication 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 property had a value of one million dollars. The missionary budget and membership at the church continued to increase; also. He baptized 4,000 into the church and received another 3,000 by letter. It must be remembered that Minnesota is not Baptist country–indeed, Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists dominate the population. 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 ardent booster.
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 Springs, Arkansas.
The following day, Sunday, March 23, the cornerstone 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 sickbed 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 vacation 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.