William Bell Riley Establishes Fundamentalism

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

Amzi Dixon Establishes Fundamentalism

This is the day that … Amzi Clarence Dixon was born in North Carolina in 1854. His father was a Baptist preacher.

Converted at the age of 12, young Amzi “devoured the Bible, and the sermons of Spurgeon” (Dictionary of American Religious Biography, page 130).

At the age of 21 he was ordained to the Baptist ministry, and it was his aim to make each church he pastored “a soul-saving centre”. Among those churches were Chicago’s Moody Church (1906-11), and Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London (1911-19).

“He was not interested in social reform itself because only the gospel could meet the deepest needs of human problems. It was easier to reach the body, he argued, by curing the soul than vice versa, and to reform a person’s character was far more important an objective than effecting some change in the environment” (ibid, page 130).

He became a zealous opponent of modernism (a liberal theology), attacking Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s emasculated gospel. “The kind of unbelief which he did more than any other man to popularise has done much to weaken the power of the pulpit,” Dixon said.

In 1909 he became editor of a 12-volume set of booklets defending the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. These volumes were called Fundamentals and gave rise to the name “fundamentalist”. They were sent free – thanks to two Californian millionaire brothers – to 200,000 ministers and missionaries.

In 1922 his first wife died during their tour of China. Two years later he married the widow of Charles M. Alexander (of Alexander hymn book fame) (she was Helen Cadbury of the famous chocolate family).

In his latter years he became more ‘mellow’. He had fought a good fight against the inroads of modern theology, but now he “gave up the militant stance” (In Pursuit of Purity, by D. Beale, page 225).

On 14 June, 1925, A.C. Dixon suffered a heart attack, and died.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.