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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.

Helpful Links:

  • 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

Discussion Questions:

  • 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?
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