William Bell Riley was the real “Mr. Fundamentalist”. And few have heard of him.
So far this season I’ve covered William Jennings Bryan, a man who enjoyed the nickname “Mr. Fundamentalist”. But he wasn’t really a fundamentalist. Experts point to another man as the true face of fundamentalism. That man was William Bell Riley. He was a famous preacher in his day, bouncing around the midwest until he settled in Minnesota. He founded the Northwestern schools to spread his vision of Christianity and picked debates with modernists at the University of Chicago. He formed the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association to help deliver denominations from modernism.
But… he lost. A bunch.
In this episode we explore the life of William Bell Riley to discover why he and the fundamentalists burned brightly, only to fizzle out a few years later. William Bell Riley was the real “Mr. Fundamentalist”. And few have heard of him. That is for good reasons. Riley was popular in his circle and had a big impact. But his lasting legacy is now tied to his schools because he helped take the movement underground and out of the usual channels of public life.
- God’s Empire by William Vance Trollinger
- Minnesota History article about Riley
- New Hampshire Confession
- Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden
- The Evangelicals by Frances Fitzgerald
- How should we react to heresy?
- Do you look for strong leaders like William Bell Riley or do you prefer calm leaders? Why?
- Do you have a creed you live by? Does your church profess one? Why or why not?
- How do Bible schools shape our world? Have they impacted your life or the lives of friends?
- Riley and his friends lost in part because they were all trying to be leaders. Do you think you could submit to the leadership of others? If so, who?
The Fundamentals of the Christian faith
Between 1910 and 1915 a collection of 90 essays was distributed by two wealthy oil magnates. These essays attempted to nail down the basics of the Christian faith and counteract the growing modernist movement. “The Fundamentals” is often mentioned in history books about Christian fundamentalism, but it is rare for anyone to discuss the essays themselves. So I thought we should break down at least 6 of them together!
I’m joined this episode by some good friends to introduce you to “The Fundamentals”. This influential time capsule document takes us inside the proto-fundamentalist movement, just before it really took off.
- What would you include in your own list of fundamentals?
- Is creationism fundamental? What is the role of evolution in our modern theology?
- The fear of evolution wasn’t just about people thinking we’d come from chimps. It also revolved around concerns of people applying evolution to other areas of life. How have you seen evolution applied to other studies?
- Is the Bible inerrant? What does that mean?
- Have you read the full Bible yourself? Why or why not?
Essays we read:
- “My Experience With the Higher Criticism” by JJ Reeve
- “The Deity of Christ” by BB Warfield
- “The Certainty and Importance of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead” by Reuben Torrey
- “Science and Christian Faith” by James Orr
- “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” by “An Occupant of the Pew”
A socialist bestseller that got everything wrong
Now that we’ve read In His Steps together and discussed it, let’s talk about another work of fiction. Looking Backward was written by Edward Bellamy. That name may sound familiar! We talked about his cousin Frances Bellamy in the episode about the Pledge of Allegiance. Frances was a Christian socialist. Edward wrote his famous book looking forward to the year 2000. He predicted that the United States would be a socialist paradise. People would work hard, retire early, and equality would reign.
None of that came true.
We’re talking about it today in order to understand the zeitgeist in the late 1800s. This book sold over half a million copies in its first few years of publication. It is now over a million copies. That doesn’t happen without stirring something in society. As we’ll see, socialism was tied to the Social Gospel. The opposition to the Social Gospel is what would go on to create the Christian fundamentalist movement.
- How have fictional books you’ve read impacted your worldview?
- What do you think about Bellamy’s predictions?
- How does the fear of socialism and communism impact evangelicalism?
- What real threats were facing evangelicalism in the 1800s? How about now?
In His Steps free audiobook
This is part 3 of an audiobook presented on Truce. Please start at part 1!
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In His Steps by Charles Sheldon is a classic of Christian fiction. It is also one of the top-selling Christian books of all time. We’ve been running through the history of Christian fundamentalism this season. It’s worth noting that fundamentalism was a reaction to liberal theology, especially modernism. Another form of liberal theology was the “Social Gospel”. It was a movement led by people like Walter Rauschenbusch that emphasized the socially conscious aspects of Christianity, while simultaneously downplaying evangelism.
Christian fundamentalists did not like the Social Gospel. For one thing, it had a positive view of human progress. It said that the world could get better and better and then Jesus would return. Christian fundamentalists generally think that world history trends downward.
I’m presenting this original audio recording for many reasons. I think this book offers a great window into the era in which it was created (the late 1800s). It also represents the Social Gospel and a slice of the Holiness movement quite well. Finally, I think we need to hear this story in our modern context. Modern Christian churches are divided. What would happen if we dared to ask “What Would Jesus Do?”
Things to track as you listen:
- The role of women in this society
- Wealthy attitudes toward the poor
- The genesis of financial woes in this book is sometimes economic crisis (the late 1800s was full of panics and recessions) and sometimes sin based
- The Holiness movement and those who object to it
- Is this book evangelistic? If so, how is the gospel presented? If not, what does this book leave out?
- The overall positive view of human progress
- Social movements like the pure foods movement, temperance, suffrage, anti-gambling
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William Jennings Bryan was a Populist
Populism is a tricky subject. We use it these days as a slur, but populism can be a useful phenomenon. History professor and author Michael Kazin says that populism is an important tool when it comes to regulating power. In the late 1800s, railroads and banks were out of control. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller had uninhibited control of their markets. Rockefeller believed in social Darwinism and didn’t mind using dirty tactics to undermine his competition.
The origins of the Populist Party
The Populist Party sprouted out of frustrations women had with the political machines of their day. Republicans and Democrats were not yet willing to accept women and the issues they cared about. Women were slowly becoming a force within politics, but neither party had the guts to accept them. So women and others decided to form their own party. But in the election of 1896, the Populist Party was worried about a split vote. They worried that if they were to run a candidate of their own then they might split the vote. So the Populist Party backed Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan was a man of God. He quoted the Bible extensively, talked about the example of Jesus. But he was soundly defeated by the Republicans and William McKinley. He had only about 4% of the budget of his opponents. The story of Bryan is an interesting one because it contains the building blocks of fundamentalism.
- What is a populist?
- Can you name some populists?
- What are the advantages of populism? The drawbacks?
- How are Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders similar?
- William Jennings Bryan was one of the first presidential hopefuls from a major party to tour the country. How has this shaped American politics? Why do we like to see politicians in our home states?
- What do populism and fundamentalism have in common?
- Do you think that fundamentalism relies on strong figures as populism does? Why or why not?
- “A Godly Hero” and “What It Took to Win” by Michael Kazin
- Library of Congress collection of Chautauqua materials
- Bernie Sanders Clip from C-SPAN
- Elizabeth Warren Clip from C-SPAN
- Donald Trump clip from C-SPAN
- Article about Mary Lease
- “These Truths” by Jill Lepore
- Library of Congress collection of McKinley/Bryan campaign materials. It’s worth searching the site in general for images from both of them.