William Bell Riley was born in Green County, Indiana in March, 1861. When the American Civil War broke out shortly thereafter, his parents moved to the southern border of the Ohio River, in Boone County, Kentucky. His father Branson, was a proslavery Democrat. William was raised on a farm in Boone and later Owen County. His parents were devout Baptists and they were members of Big Bone Baptist Church, while living in Boone County, so he was reared in a very religious atmosphere. He was converted and baptized in 1878.
Riley worked on his father's farm and received an off-and-on education while he was growing up, but was able to get a teacher's certificate after a year at a normal school in Indiana when he was eighteen years of age. He graduated from Hanover College in southern Indiana with a B. A. degree and later with an M. A. He also graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in 1888. In 1890 he married Lillian Howard and they had six children.
Riley pastored small Baptist churches in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois before accepting the pastorate to the newly organized Calvary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1893. While there he became aware of the liberal theological teachings of the professors at the University of Chicago. In 1897 he was called to the First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota and remained there as pastor until he retired in 1942. The church had a membership of over 3,000 members by 1930.
He used his pulpit to not only preach the gospel, but to denounce corrupt politicians, persuade in behalf of prohibition and other social and moral issues. He was an early and often spokesman against the Darwinian theory of evolution, liberalism in theology in the Northern Baptist Convention and socialism in government.
In 1902 Riley began the Northwest Bible Training School that became a liberal arts college in 1944. He is usually referred to, along with J. Frank Norris and T. T. Shields, as the prime organizers of American Fundamentalism. He is believed to have secured William Jennings Bryan to prosecute in the Scopes Trial concerning the theory of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. In the 1930s and afterwards he stood opposed to communism and the political New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt.
W. B. Riley remained an opponent of theological modernism until his death in 1947. He was buried in Minneapolis.
Special notes: The 1886 Minutes of the North Bend Baptist (northern Kentucky) Association held at Big Bone Baptist Church (the church Riley attended as a young child) report that at their meeting there were five preachers assigned to speak at different locations nearby in that section of Boone County. Among them, "W. B. Riley at Beaver Lick" Baptist Church.
A large framed photograph of W. B. Riley is located at Big Bone Baptist Church, Union, KY.
[From Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Four, 1974; North Bend (KY) Baptist Association Minutes.]
Some writings of W. B. Riley:
"Signs of the Times"
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