William Bell Riley

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William Bell Riley
Born(1861-03-22)March 22, 1861
DiedDecember 5, 1947(1947-12-05) (aged 86)
Alma materSouthern Baptist Theological Seminary
SchoolBaptist, antievolutionism

William Bell Riley (March 22, 1861 in Greene County, Indiana, USA – December 5, 1947 in Golden Valley, Minnesota) was known as "The Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism." After being educated at normal school in Valparaiso, Indiana, Riley 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. In 1888 he graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1908, the Southwestern Baptist University of Jackson, Tennessee, conferred upon Riley an honorary D.D. degree.[1] He served several Baptist churches in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois before taking the pastorate at the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1897.


In 1878, at the age of 17, Riley publicly professed faith in Christ. He had planned to study law, but shortly after his conversion he felt called to the ministry. He became pastor of the First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota on March 1, 1897. He resigned after forty-five years but served as pastor emeritus until his death five years later. Riley wrote a number of texts on Christian Evangelism and founded the Northwestern Bible Training School along with an Evangelical Seminary.

Theologically, Riley was a Baptist traditionalist who subscribed to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833, the most popular Baptist creed of the 19th century. His first major work was an exposition of the Confession and in 1922 he tried to help the fundamentalist faction of the Northern Baptist Convention gain control and reject theological liberalism by convincing the Convention to adopt the Confession as its binding statement of faith.

Riley was the editor of The Christian Fundamentalist from 1927 to 1932. In 1919 Riley founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Riley was president of the Minnesota Baptist State Convention in 1944-45. When Riley died in 1947, Billy Graham, whom Riley had chosen to succeed him as president of Northwestern, conducted the funeral services. At Riley's death Northwestern Bible School was the second largest Bible School in the world, with some 1,200 students enrolled.


In 1923 Riley set up the Anti-Evolution League of Minnesota, which blossomed the following year into the Anti-Evolution League of America (later run by T. T. Martin). While the anti-evolution crusade is often thought of as a Southern phenomenon, two of its foremost leaders, Riley and John Roach Straton, were from Minneapolis and New York City respectively. In the early 1920s Riley promoted a vigorous anti-evolutionary campaign in the Northwest and it was Riley's World Christian Fundamentals Association that wired William Jennings Bryan urging him to act as counsel for the association in the Scopes Trial.[2]

Riley and Bryan tried to remove all teaching of evolution from public schools. One of the creationists in their movement, T. T. Martin claimed that German soldiers who killed Belgian and French children by giving them poisoned candy were angels compared to those who spread evolution ideas in schools.[3] Riley also claimed that "an international Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy to promote evolutionism in the classroom"[4] was behind the changes in curriculum occurring in the 1920s. Riley advocated a form of "Day-Age Creationism".[2]

The main objection that Riley had to evolution was:

The first and most important reason for its elimination is in the unquestioned fact that evolution is not a science; it is a hypothesis only, a speculation[5]


Some of Riley's beliefs and writings were anti-semitic. He wrote and spoke extensively about Jews, especially in relation to Communism, crime and historical social influence. He promoted the antisemitic canard of linking Jews with mysterious sources of influence, power and money. In his Introduction to a collection of Riley's anti-evolutionary writings [6] William Trollinger, the editor, describes Riley's belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to control the media and the economy. Trollinger believed Riley was partly influenced by the anti-Jewish Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Henry Ford had been promoting the Protocols at that time through his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. Riley believed that Jews had a prominent role in promoting evolution to undermine religious and social values. Riley saw this as part of a wider plot involving Communism's plan to conquer America, especially through the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he accused of being part of a communist conspiracy.[7] Riley declared that Soviet Russia "was under the dominance of a successful mob of atheistic Jews." [8] Riley described the origins of World War I as the result of the maneuvering of Jewish bankers and arms dealers.[9] Riley preached a sermon entitled "Shivering at the sight of a shirt" [10] in support of the Fascist Silver Shirts (of the Silver Legion of America) calling them "defenders of the Constitution."[11] In his book, "The Nazi Hydra in America: Suppressed History of a Century", Glen Yeadon [12] compares Riley's use of anti-Jewish imagery and rhetoric in his sermons and writings to Hitler's propaganda.

Some writers think that Riley moved towards anti Semitism after the failure of his crusade against evolution, blaming the Jews for his inability to influence Schools against teaching evolution.[13] Trollinger also argues that Riley was influenced by and became a leading part of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Minneapolis.[14] There were also parts of wider fundamentalist culture at that time adopting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.[15]

Riley denied that he was an anti-Semite. He argued that he was merely commenting on social conditions at the time, and that he theologically and personally supported the Jews. Soon after the British Army entered Jerusalem in 1917, Riley described his hopes of a restored Jewish state and the role of Jerusalem in end time events in a published sermon. Riley also believed that Jews as a race had been "under God's punishment", similar to the theology of Medieval antisemitism. Riley continued to be a supporter of more modern manifestations of anti-Semitism, such as belief in a worldwide Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy.[16]


  1. ^ Marie Acomb Riley, The Dynamic of a Dream (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1938), 95.
  2. ^ a b Creationism in 20th-Century America, Ronald L. Numbers, Science 218 (5 November 1982): 538-544
  3. ^ T. T. Martin, Hell and the High School (Western Baptist Publishing Co., Kansas City, Mo. 1923), pp. 164-165
  4. ^ Schaller, Thomas (2008) [2006]. Whistling Past Dixie. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-7432-9016-6.
  5. ^ W. B. Riley, Christian Fundamentals in School and Church 4, 5 (April-June 1922)
  6. ^ William Trollinger, The Anti-evolution Pamphlets of William Bell Riley (New York: Garland Pub, 1995), xix.
  7. ^ Riley, William Bell. The Jew and Communism. Minneapolis: University of Northwestern: William Bell Riley Collection online. 1
  8. ^ Doom of World Governments. Minneapolis: University of Northwestern: William Bell Riley Collection online. 5
  9. ^ Trollinger, William Vance. God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. 72
  10. ^ Shivering at the Sight of a Shirt. [Minneapolis: L.W. Camp], 1936
  11. ^ Lundin, R. Christ across the disciplines past, present, future. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.
  12. ^ Yeadon, Glen The Nazi Hydra in America: Suppressed History of a Century. (California: Progressive Press, 2008.),109.
  13. ^ Trollinger, William Vance.God's empire : William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Madison, Wisconsin. : University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
  14. ^ Berman, Hyman. anti-Semitism in Minnesota during the great depression New York : 1979.
  15. ^ Dinnerstein, L. Antisemitism in America. New York : Oxford University Press. 1994.
  16. ^ Jerusalem and the Jew. Minneapolis: University of Northwestern: William Bell Riley Collection online.

Works by W.B. Riley[edit]

Books and pamphlets[edit]

Works on W.B. Riley[edit]

Historical works on the political and social history of the era[edit]

External links[edit]