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Greatest Preachers

William Bell Riley

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 the schools.

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.


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