WILLIAM BELL RILEY
1861 - 1947
William Bell Riley was born
to Branson Radish and Ruth Anna Jackson Riley
in Indiana just before the start of the Civil
War. He was the sixth of eight children. He
grew up on his parents' farms, first in Indiana
and then in Kentucky. His family were devout
Baptists and he made his own profession of
faith in Christian doctrine in August of 1878.
At eighteen, he earned a teacher's certificate
after a year's attendance at a normal school.
He continued his education through attendance
at Hanover (IN) College, from which he received
a B.A. degree in 1885 and an M.A. in 1888.
After becoming convinced of his call to the
ministry, he began preaching as a supply minister
in 1881. He had his own churches by 1883 in
Carrolton and Warsaw, KY, and he was ordained
a Baptist minister the same year. He attended
Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY,
to increase his theological knowledge and
while there was a personnel worker for an
1887 campaign held in that city by Dwight
L. Moody. He graduated from the seminary in
1888. On December 31, 1890, he married Lillian
Howard and they had six children: Arthur Howard
(1892), Mason Hewitt (1894), Herbert Wilde
(1895), Eunice (1901), William Bell (1904),
and John Branson (1906). Lillian died in 1931
and in 1933 Riley married Marie R. Acomb.
After graduating from the
seminary, Riley pastored churches of the Northern
Baptist Convention in Lafayette, IN (1888-1890);
Bloomington, IN (1890-1893); and Chicago,
IL (1893-1897). While in Chicago, he entered
into frequent debates with liberal Christian
theologians on orthodoxy, attacked the city's
growing crime rate and relaxed liquor laws,
and became a friend of a YMCA worker known
as Billy Sunday. In 1897, Riley accepted a
call to the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis,
MN, where he remained until his retirement
in 1942. He became influential in the city,
advocating various civic reforms and building
up his church from 585 members when he started
to approximately 3500.
He also developed a national
reputation through his debates around the
country with religious liberals on the orthodoxy
of the Bible and, in the 1920's, evolution.
He also held many revival campaigns including
ones in Duluth, MN (1912); Peoria, IL; Seattle,
WA; Dayton, OH; and Worcester, MA.
He was increasingly concerned
about what seemed to him the falseness and
prevalence of liberal Christianity. Numerous
disputes within his own Northern Baptist denomination
caused him to break ties with Convention leaders,
although he remained in the Convention until
shortly before his death. He, A.C. Dixon,
and R.A. Torrey met with a few others in 1918
to discuss what should be done about liberalism.
Out of this meeting eventually grew the World's
Christian Fundamentalist Association, of which
he was president until 1929. He assisted in
the preparation of The Fundamentals, a basic
statement of fundamentalist belief. He was
already editor of The Christian Fundamentalist,
a position in which he served from 1891 to
1933. Among Baptists, he helped organize the
Baptist Bible Union in 1923. All of these
activities, plus his support of William Jennings
Bryan during the Scopes Monkey Trial, caused
Riley to be recorded as a major, if not the
leader of American fundamentalists.
He was also known as an educator.
In 1902 he began the Northwestern Bible Training
School to which eventually he added a seminary
(1935) and a college. Billy Graham served
briefly as president of the Northwestern Schools
after Riley's death. Central Baptist Seminary
and Northwestern College are descended from
Besides all of his other
activities, Riley wrote dozens of books and
pamphlets, including the forty-volume The
Bible of the Expositor and the Evangelist.
He died in Golden Valley, MN, in 1947.