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?
How do we keep ministries accountable?
After the evangelist D.L. Moody died at the end of the 1800s, he left behind a series of lieutenants, guys who carried on the work of sharing the gospel and shaping culture. It was these men who went on to set the foundation of the fundamentalist movement in the United States. James Gray, Arthur Pierson, A.J. Gordon, Charles Blanchard, and William Erdman, C.I. Scofield, and William Bell Riley. These guys went on to found schools, start radio ministries, spearhead publications, and amass large followings. They wrote the influential (if under-read) pamphlet series “The Fundamentals” and would fight the rise of Darwinism in schools and liberal theology in denominations.
In this episode, we’ll explore the emergence of fiefdoms in evangelicalism—ministries with little or no denominational oversight. This method of ministry was crucial in landing us where we are today. Could the evangelicals Church of today use a Magna Carta of sorts to keep ministries under accountability?
The value of creeds
How do we keep ministries accountable? One option would be to return to creeds. Creeds are short professions of the faith and are often used to anchor our theology. If you were to write a creed for evangelical ministries, what would it look like?
Helpful Sources and Links:
- Do you think that ministry leaders should be held accountable?
- Should accountability be external or is it okay to limit it to internal accountability?
- Are there steps that Truce can take as a show to introduce accountability without bogging Chris down with too many requirements?
- Do you live in a Christian “bubble”? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the bubble?
- Would you let your kids go to a secular school? Why or why not?
- It’s interesting that Reuben Torrey was seen as snooty. Do you think that attitude is compatible with humble Christian service?