William Bell Riley
by Doug Linder (2004)

The anti-evolution campaign of the 1920s might never have happened without the leadership of an austere, upright Baptist minister from 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.  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 turned his attention to another threat to Christian life: “the new infidelity, known as modernism.”

Riley invented the label “fundamentalist” and became the prime mover in the movement that took that name.  That year Riley brought together 6,000 conservative Christians for the first conference of an organization he founded, the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA).  Riley warned delegates that mainline Protestant denominations were coming increasingly under the sway of modernism.  (EL, 36)  Riley urged them 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 own part, Riley led the effort to purge the Northern Baptist denomination of liberals. (PC, 67-68)

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)

 By 1922, the WFCA was actively promoting its anti-evolution agenda around the country.  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 roamed the country campaigning against evolution in public speeches and offering to debate 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.  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)

 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. 


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.”


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)


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