William Bell Riley was born to a devout Baptist family, in Indiana on March 22, 1861, just before the start of the American Civil War. He grew up on his parents’ tobacco farms, was converted at the age of 17, and cherished dreams of going to law school. But the call to preach was inescapable.
After many sleepless nights, he tells us, he knelt between two rows of tobacco on a Kentucky hillside and cried: “I will! I will preach! I can do nothing else!”
He entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. From 1888 to 1897 he pastored in Lafayette and Bloomington in Indiana, and Chicago Illinois. In Chicago he met and befriended YMCA worker Billy Sunday. In 1897 Riley commenced a 45-year pastorate at the downtown Minneapolis’ First Baptist Church. During those years membership rose from 585 to 3,600.
Riley married Lillian Howard on December 31, 1890, and they had six children. Lillian died in 1931 and two years later Riley married Marie Acomb.
Riley believed that Christians should be ready to engage in political issues if need be. “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”
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Riley championed the cause of evangelicalism and held many revival campaigns. His first social campaign targeted alcohol, and then modernism and liberals. He invented the label “fundamentalist” and became the prime mover, along with A C Dixon, and R A Torrey, in the movement that took that name, founding the World Christian Fundamentals Association.
In the 1920’s Riley targeted evolution as the underpinning belief behind modernism and its various expressions. He vigorously debated with evolutionists on university campuses. Riley’s efforts helped to bring about the Scope’s Monkey Trial, which his side won, but which turned out to be a hollow victory. His efforts to ban evolution failed and he became sidelined among Baptists in the years that followed.
Over 60 books came from his pen. Evangelistic campaigns took him around the world.
His Northwestern Bible Training School, founded in 1902, saw hundreds of ministers and missionaries trained in its classrooms.
For his successor as President of Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School he chose a young man named Billy Graham. Thus it was, for three and half years after Riley’s death, Billy Graham headed up the work.
Riley died in Golden Valley, Minnesota, in 1947.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com