Putting Evolution on the Defensive: John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody, William B. Riley
and the Rise of Fundamentalism in America

by Douglas O. Linder (2005)

 As Charles Darwin noted in his autobiography, rationalism and skepticism flourished in the latter half of the 1800s among the educated elites. The theory of evolution continued to win new converts, and by the end of the 1800s was accepted dogma at most institutions of higher learning.  Natural causes seemed in; supernatural causes seemed out. A showdown over the theory’s validity and place in education seemed unlikely.  Evolution appeared destined to triumph without another major battle—at least not as to the fact of evolution, as opposed to the mechanism by which it occurs, which remained a topic of debate. In theological circles, the rage was “higher criticism,” an approach to determining scriptural meaning by looking at the socio-historical setting of its writers.  The Bible contained important messages, these theologians said, but no serious person can any longer pretend that the Bible, for example, provided an accurate guide to world history.  Literalism seemed headed for virtual extinction. 

The anti-evolution campaign of the 1920s might never have happened without the leadership of an austere, upright Baptist minister in Minneapolis, William B. Riley.  In a state far north of the Bible Belt and short on Baptists, Kentucky-born Riley built a 3,000-member downtown congregation based and emerged as the dominant figure in American fundamentalism.  But before getting to his story, two other prominent ministers who refused to jump on the modern bandwagon, and can be said to have planted the seed that grew into Riley’s fundamentalist movement need to be mentioned.

 The first is John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren Movement.  Darby insisted biblical prophesies provided “a sure guide to human history—past, present, and future.”  (GE, 27)   After having founded the movement three decades earlier in England, Darby traveled across the Atlantic six times between 1859 and 1874 to spread his doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the imminent return of Christ to establish the millennial kingdom. Everywhere he went, and in his fifty-three volumes of writings, Darby broadcast his message that the Bible represented the inspired, authoritative, faithfully transmitted, and infallible word of God.  If  “the word of God alone remained as an invisible thread over the abyss,” Darby declared, “my soul would trust in it.”

 Darby’s writings became the primary source of inspiration for the second theologian to figure prominently in the birth of the fundamentalist movement, Dwight L. Moody.  Moody is remembered as the first prominent American theologian to raise the banner of biblical inerrancy.  Dwight L. Moody said he “would rather part with my entire library, excepting my Bible” than Darby’s works.  “They have been to me,” he said, “the very key to the Scriptures.” 

To say Moody took the Bible seriously is an understatement.  He rose at five o’clock every morning to engage in several hours of prayerful study of the book.  He was especially interested in Genesis, offering the advice: “Spend six months studying Genesis; it is the key to the whole book.”  Although a careful study of the Bible, no one could call Moody a well-rounded reader.  His choice of books followed a simple rule.  “I do not read any book,” he said, “unless it helps me understand
the Book.”

 In the 1870s, Moody began an evangelical crusade on a scale never seen before in American history. “There was a time when I wanted to see my little vineyard blessed, and I could not get out of it,” he declared.  “But I could work for the whole world now; I would like to go round the world and tell the perishing millions of a Saviour’s love.”  He preached his ardent pre-millennialist message to large crowds in the British Isles for two years beginning in 1873, before re-crossing the Atlantic to launch his religious campaign in the United States.  Thousands were turned away at gates and doors as Moody traveled across the North, from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago to Boston.  On January 19, 1876, President Grant attended a revival in Philadelphia along with 12,000 others at the unused Pennsylvania freight depot.  In New York, about 60,000 people a day filled halls at the Great Roman Hippodrome on Madison Avenue for the three to five rallies a day, held from February 7 to April 19.  Over the next years, Moody’s conversion caravan moved on to places such as the West Coast and middle-sized cities across America.  His last crusade started in Kansas City in November 1899.  Moody fell seriously ill after delivering a sermon on “Excuses” and died a few weeks later.

 As Moody’s crusading career neared its end, the career of William B. Riley—inevitably labeled in the press as “a second Dwight L. Moody”—was just taking off.  (GE, 24) Riley called Moody his “hero” and adopted much of his evangelical predecessor’s message.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  (GE, 27, 25)  Stressing his fundamental premise of Biblical inerrancy, the young Baptist preacher insisted that “every book, chapter, sentence, and even word” came straight from God and was absolute authority.  The Bible’s integrity, he declared, “extends to history as well as to morals and religion, and involves expression as well as thought.” (GE, 26) His simple and forceful message, delivered without rants or raves or Billy Sunday-style showmanship, resonated especially with persons on the bottom rungs of the middle class who filled his rallies.

Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”  (EL, 35-36)

 Riley threw himself into politics.  Seeing liquor as the source of most urban problems, he became an outspoken advocate for prohibition.  Following the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, Riley devoted full attention to another threat to Christian life: “the new infidelity, known as modernism.” Opposition to modernism, both in the form of liberal theology and trends in modern culture, became the core of his new movement.  The cultural clashes of World War II had intensified tensions between theological liberals and conservatives, and the time seemed right for a national anti-modernist crusade.  Riley deeply resented the frequent suggestion that only modernists were “men who really think,” and his bitterness left him itching for a fight. (GE, 35)

Riley invented the label “fundamentalist” and became the prime mover in the movement that took that name.  Riley, in May 1919, brought together in Philadelphia 6,000 conservative Christians for the first conference of an organization he founded, the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA).  In his opening speech to delegates, Riley called the gathering of like-minded Biblical literalists “an event of more historic moment than the nailing up, at Wittenberg, of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.” Riley warned delegates that mainline Protestant denominations were coming increasingly under the sway of modernism and what Riley called its “awful harvest of skepticism.”  (EL, 36) (GE, 31) The only true path to salvation, he insisted, was to follow his hyperliteral approach to the Bible and accept that supernatural forces have shaped history.  Riley urged delegates to stand by their traditional faith in the face of the modernist threat: “God forbid that we should fail him in the hour when the battle is heavy.” 

For his part, Riley led the effort to purge the Northern Baptist denomination of liberals and headed out on an eighteen-city crusade financed, in large part, by wealthy donors such as J. C. Penney. (PC, 67-68)  Everywhere, it seemed, ministers heaped praise the restrained and dignified crusader.  An Indiana pastor, for example, announced, “I regard Dr. William B. Riley as the Apostle Paul of our American ministry.”  (GE, 40)

 Although his Fundamentalist movement began as a reaction to the growing popularity of “higher criticism” (the view that the Bible is best understood in the distinct historical and cultural context which produced it), Riley soon identified the growing acceptance by modernist religious leaders of evolution as the infidelity most threatening to Christian values.  Riley made the teaching of evolution in the public schools his number one target.  Evolution, he declared, was the “propaganda of infidelity, palmed off in the name of science.”  (GMT, 52-53)  He believed the theory lacked substantiating evidence and said so repeatedly: “Do no do violence to the splendid attainments of human speech by calling [proofs of evolution] ‘scientific.’” Science, for Riley, consisted of observable facts and demonstrable laws; it allowed for no speculation.  Beyond its threat to the faith and its questionable veracity, Riley had another objection to evolution: he worried, as did many progressives of his day, that Darwinism with its notion of “survival of the fittest” offered support for self-centered economic policies and insensitive treatment of the disabled and mentally infirm.  If the theory of evolution triumphs, Riley warned, the foundations of civilizations will “be swept out their places, gnarled, twisted, torn, and finally flung on the banks of time’s tide.”  (GE, 46)  He demanded to know, “Is there any longer any doubt as to the relation between Evolution and Anarchy?” (GE, 46)

 The focus on evolution allowed Riley to go after his modernist enemies in the halls of academia.  In his 1917 book, Menace of Modernism, Riley lashed out more at academic experts—whose authority had largely supplanted that of ministers—than liberal theologians.  “Conservative ministers have about as good a chance to be heard in a Turkish harem,” he declared in the book, “as to be invited to speak within the precincts of a modern state university.”  (GE, 35)  Some historians prefer to see the rise of fundamentalism primarily as a reaction by conservative ministers to their loss of prestige at the hands of intellectuals, and Riley’s Menace of Modernism might be seen as Exhibit A for that position. 

 So confident was Riley is the rightness of his views that he offered “to travel any reasonable distance” to debate an evolutionist—so long as his opponent had credentials sufficiently worthy to justify the trip and the audience—not judges—was allowed to determine the winner.  I’m unafraid, he said, to go on college campuses and “meet our opponent on his own ground.”  More than two dozen evolutionists did indeed take Riley up on his offer, including Maynard Shipley, president of the Science League of America, and high officials of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Radio, in its infancy, carried some of the debates live.  Riley later claimed to have compiled a 28–0 record in his debates (with the help of active recruitment of fundamentalists to fill seats), but newspaper reports indicate that he narrowly lost one debate in Chicago. 

 By 1922, the WFCA was actively promoting its anti-evolution agenda around the country.  Riley sounded the battle cry: “We increasingly realize that the whole menace in modernism exists in its having accepted Darwinism against Moses, and the evolutionary hypothesis against the inspired word of God.”  (GE, 48) He suggested targeting public education, where evolution had gained a foothold in biology classes around the country.  “There are hundreds of teachers,” he complained, pushing evolution on students and their “teachings take root in the garden of the Lord.”  (GE, 48) It was high time, he said, for Christian taxpayers to stand up and object. 

 The debates moved into legislative halls.  In Kentucky, Baptists pushed an anti-evolution law that lost by only a single vote in the House of Representatives.  The WFCA began lobbying for similar legislation in several other states.  Using the four months each year his congregation granted his to devote to evangelism, William Riley continued to roam the country campaigning against evolution in public speeches and debating evolutionists wherever he could find them.  By the beginning of 1923, Riley could report in a letter to William Jennings Bryan, “The whole country is seething on the evolution question.”  (EL, 43)  Riley debated a science writer Maynard Shipley before large crowds up and down the West Coast.  Bryan cheered his efforts, observing in a letter, “He seemed to have the audience overwhelmingly with him in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Portland.  This is very encouraging; it shows that the ape-man hypothesis is not very strong outside the colleges and [modernist] pulpits.”  (EL, 123)

 The WFCA--in editorials probably written by Riley--attacked evolution in vituperative terms.  The editorials denounced evolution as inconsistent with the Bible, bad science, and as a threat to peace and morality.  Teachers who pushed this theory on “the rising generation” were called evil.  By 1923, Riley in an article linked evolution to “anarchistic socialistic propaganda” and labeled those who would teach it “atheists.”  (By the 1930s, Riley’s attacks became even more over-the-top, as when he warned of an “international Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy” and congratulated Adolf Hitler on his attempts to confront such a conspiracy in Germany.) (EL, 44-45)

 In the period 1923 to 1924, Riley spent a great deal of time crusading against evolution in Tennessee, which he viewed as especially fertile ground for anti-evolution legislation.  Memphis was a hotbed of Fundamentalism and a Baptist “stronghold.” The leading paper was stridently anti-evolutionist.  Across the state, Baptists accounted for half of the population. (EL, 48)  Riley’s efforts made evolution one of the hot issues of the 1924 state election.

 When the fate of Tennessee’s anti-evolution bill hung in doubt, William Riley and his major allies, Billy Sunday, Frank Norris, and William Jennings Bryan, roused the faithful to write letters and send telegrams to undecided legislators.  Without them, the fundamentalist victory would never have happened.  (EL, 53-55)

 When evolution proponents orchestrated their challenge to the new Tennessee law in the spring of 1925, Riley plotted the law’s defense.  By chance, the WFCA held its 1925 annual meeting in Memphis and its featured speaker was Bryan.  Bryan commented on the upcoming trial in his address:  “I notice that a case is on the docket for trial involving the evolution statute of your state.  I certainly hope it will be upheld.”  (EL, 98-99)  Staying on in Memphis after the conference, Riley and other WFCA leaders decided to invite William Jennings Bryan, thirty years removed from courtroom action but widely perceived as the fundamentalist movement’s greatest orator, to join the prosecution team on the association’s behalf.  “We name as our attorney for this trial William Jennings Bryan and pledge him whatever support is needful to secure equity and justice and to conserve the righteous law of the Commonwealth of Tennessee,” read the resolution. (GE, 49) On May 13, Riley telegrammed Bryan asking him to go to Dayton (WJB, 98-100) Bryan, on a speaking tour, wired his acceptance back from Pittsburgh. (GMT, 72) 

Riley reported on the trial in the WFCA newsletter.  Both reporters and defense lawyers earned Riley’s wrath. In his attacks, he referred to “blood-sucking journalists” and called Clarence Darrow’s methods “unfair” and his questioning of Bryan “conscienceless.” (GE, 50)  Nonetheless, when the battle in Dayton ended, Riley proclaimed it a “significant conquest.” Byan, he wrote, “not only won his cause in the judgment of the Judge; in the judgment of the jurors; in the judgment of the Tennessee populace attending; he won it in the judgment of an intelligent world.”  (GE, 50)(EL, 205)  He confidently predicted that “every state in the Union” would join a growing anti-evolution bandwagon.  (GMT, 459)

 Time proved Riley wrong, and the WFCA’s obsession with the evolution eventually doomed the organization.  In 1927, despite a furious effort by Riley and his followers, the legislature of his home state of Minnesota rejected a bill to ban the teaching of evolution by an eight-to-one margin.  The blow devastated Riley and “signaled the end of William Bell Riley’s efforts to secure anti-evolution legislation.”  (EL, 230)

 By 1928, Riley became a fringe figure within his own denomination.  In early 1930s, he preached a virulent form of anti-Semitism and became a fascist sympathizer.  World War II finally softened his anti-Semitism.  In his last years, Riley persuaded evangelist Billy Graham to replace him as head of three educational institutions—a seminary, a Bible institute, and a college—he had established in Minneapolis.  (PC, 68-71)  Graham, in his ministry, chose to ignore the Scopes trial.  (EL, 261)


 Riley listens on July 13, 1925 as the enemy, in the person of defense attorney Clarence Darrow, defends modernism and argues that evolution and religion can stand together.

Darrow tells the courtroom crowd that the Constitution protects “even the despised modernist, who dares to be intelligent.”  (T, 83)  Roaming the courtroom in his white shirt and suspenders, he paints a picture of a blissful Tennessee happily doing what it knew to be best—until Riley and his fundamentalist followers made the state a target of their anti-evolution agenda.

 “Here is the state of Tennessee going along in its own business, teaching evolution for years, state boards handing out books on evolution, professors in colleges, teachers in schools, lawyers at the bar, physicians, ministers, a great percentage of the intelligent citizens of the state of Tennessee [are] evolutionists. [They] have not even thought it was necessary to leave their church.  They believed that they could appreciate and understand their own simple doctrine of the Nazarine, to love thy neighbor, be kindly to them, not to place a fine on and not try to send to jail some man who did not believe at they believed—and got along all right with it too, until something happened….”

 “They believed that all that was here was not made on the first six days of creation, [but that] it had come by a slow process…extending over the ages, that one thing grew out another.  There are people who believed that organic life and the plants and the animals and man and the mind of man, and the religion of man, are the subjects of evolution….[T]hey believed [that God]…is still working to make something better and higher still out of human beings,…and that evolution had been working forever and will work forever—they believe it.”

“And along comes somebody who says we all have got to believe it as I believe it. It is a crime to know more than I know.”


  FN: The prosecution originally slated Riley to testify at Dayton as a witness for the prosecution.  As the case developed, however, the prosecution recognized that a theological battle royal was not in its interests.  (EL, 131)  If the prosecution could convince Judge Raulston to exclude scientific experts, they would be more than happy to leave Riley and other fundamentalist leaders on the sidelines.  Riley never took the stand.

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