Re-produced in part from "Baptist Theologians", Timothy George and David S. Dockery
William Bell Riley was one of the most diligent evangelists of his day, and like the late George Truett, served in one pastorate for more than forty years - that of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His service to his public was twofold, for he was both a preacher of sermons and a writer of books. William Riley's authorship included a number of texts on Christian Evangelism; a subject in which he excelled as both a scholar and a teacher. His favorite narration was always entertaining, often amusing, and was based on the element of human interest. Not content with being a successful evangelist himself, William Riley was also interested in training others in carrying on evangelistic work. To this end, he founded the Northwestern Bible Training School and an Evangelical Seminary ... truly a man to be remembered for his sincere and tireless endeavor in the field of Evangelism.
Theologically, in many respects Riley was a typical Baptist traditionalist. He never stopped believing in the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, the most popular Baptist "creed" of the nineteenth century. His first major book was an exposition of the Confession and in 1922 he tried to get the NBC (Northern Baptist Convention) to adopt it as its binding statement of faith.
As a fundamentalist, Riley stretched his Baptist theology between the poles of biblical inerrancy and dispensational premillennialism. Though it was hard for most people to arrive at dispensationalism on their own, Riley insisted that it stood with biblical inerrancy as a bulwark against modernism. Dispensational premillennialism came out of Great Britain in the 1830's, the brain child of John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren. It was essentially a complicated hermeneutic that sought to divide all of history into eras or "dispensations" and distinguish between the two separate peoples of God, Israel and the church, and their separate programs.
Dispensationalism came to the United States after the Civil War and spread through Bible and prophetic conferences, Bible institutes, and most importantly, the Scofield Reference Bible, whose textual notes helped people read the Scriptures "dispensationally".
In retrospect Riley's theology was a blend of Baptist orthodoxy and fundamentalism, which became more extreme over the years. It was built on a straight-forward reading of the Bible, which some have correctly called "proof-testing", and aimed at common people.
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