by Bernard R. DeRemer
William Bell Riley (1861-1947), who was to become a leader in the church struggle against the inroads of liberal debasement of the Bible, was born in Indiana but grew up in a Kentucky log cabin, where he did his share of chores. At the age of 9, he often "plowed and worked the fields from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m." School attendance, as a result, was irregular.
His early education included normal school at Valparaiso, Ind., where he earned a teacher's certificate. Then he attended Hanover College and later Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Riley was a personal worker during D. L. Moody's Louisville campaign. His first pastorate was the First Baptist Church of Lafayette, Ind. There he met and married Lillian Howard; their marriage was blessed with six children.
Following other posts he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, where he remained until retirement in 1942. Influential in the city, he advocated various civic reforms and built up his church from 585 to about 3,500 members.
Riley is credited with inventing the term "fundamentalist." In 1919 he brought together 6,000 conservative Christians for the first conference of the World Christian Fundamentalist Association, which he founded. Riley warned that mainline Protestant denominations "were coming increasingly under the sway of modernism" and led the effort to purge the Northern Baptist Convention of liberals.
He became a leader in the fight against the teaching of evolution, which he called the "propaganda of infidelity, palmed off in the name of science." With Billy Sunday, Frank Norris, and William Jennings Bryan, he helped to secure passage of Tennessee's anti-evolution law, which led to the famous Scopes Trial of 1925.
Riley founded the Northwestern Bible Training School, later adding a seminary and college (Billy Graham briefly served as president of Northwestern Schools after Riley's death). Central Baptist Seminary and Northwestern College are descended from these institutions.
Riley helped prepare The Fundamentals. Nearly 3 million copies of these remarkable volumes went out to laymen, ministers, and others around the world. Conferences in major cities followed, and the movement spread overseas. Riley also debated liberals on many occasions. In addition, he held citywide evangelistic crusades from Worcester, Mass., to Seattle, Wash., where hundreds came to know the Lord.
He wrote some 90 books and pamphlets, including the monumental 40-volume The Bible of the Expositor and Evangelist. Other titles include The Perennial Revival, The Preacher and His Preaching, and Rethinking the Church. Nearly a million copies of his books were circulated.
Riley helped to popularize the Daily Vacation Bible School movement, in which he was an early pioneer. After his first wife died, he married Marie Acomb, dean of women at the Bible school.
Horses, dogs, and fishing were Riley's avid hobbies, and for many years, he hunted annually. While he was visiting in Maysville, Ky., a youngster asked, "When you were a boy, did you ever go coon hunting?" "Did I! Many, many times, and how I would like to go again!" Soon he was in a group of ten tramping over the hills until 2 a.m.
Riley spent several months of every year away from his pulpit for other meetings. At home he taught classes in the morning, devoted the afternoon to pastoral duties, attended church meetings and social gatherings in the evening, and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. did his prolific writing.
One of his deacons declared, "His success as a pastor is due to his remarkable ability in handling people and in helping in their problems. He can reprove you for a fault and make you like it. He has the most gracious spirit...I have ever met."
One of his students who had fallen into sin told the Bible school, "If any of you students ever get in trouble, you may be sure that Dr. Riley will be the first one who is eager to help you."
William Bell Riley is remembered as one of the most stalwart defenders of the faith in his century.
Bernard R. DeRemer, in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps, has
chronicled the lives of dozens of God's choice leaders across recent centuries.