A horde of more than 3,000 University of Minnesota students piled into the Armory to see the rock star of their era.
It was in the fall of 1926, and the students came to hear a brilliant orator — a Baptist pastor — who had emerged as a national voice on one side of the day’s burning debate: Whether Darwin’s theories of evolution should be taught in public schools.
The pastor wasn’t some Bible Belt firebrand from the Deep South. His name was William Bell Riley. A native of Indiana raised in Kentucky, Riley spent 45 years leading his national anti-evolution crusade from his pulpit at the First Baptist Church at 10th Street and Harmon Place in Minneapolis.
This was decades before television evangelists, when Riley’s groups — the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association and the Anti-Evolution League of Minnesota — became the prototype for organizations such as Moral Majority and others that rallied religious conservatives to push for political change.
“The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s was organized here in Minneapolis,” said Randy Moore, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota who just co-wrote a story about the forgotten but influential Riley for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.
Two reporters who covered Riley at his peak of popularity provide helpful descriptions of the austere preacher.
“A tall, strikingly handsome man with a lionesque mane of white hair, a resonant voice and commanding presence,” wrote Howard Haycraft, a former editor at the Minnesota Daily.
A decade earlier, in 1913, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer said that Riley “upsets all the notions of an evangelist. He dresses like a prosperous banker and when he steps to the platform, he looks a bank director about to address a meeting of the board of directors. He doesn’t rave and he doesn’t rant. He doesn’t wail and he doesn’t weep.”
Yet Riley could pack ’em in. More than 5,000 showed up March 7, 1926, at the Kenwood Armory to hear him oppose “state atheism” in a speech titled: “Evolution: Shall we tolerate its teaching?”
He’d focus on evolution’s speculative nature, lack of evidence and his belief that society was going to hell by straying from scripture. He did not deny development and improvement among the species — Darwin’s survival of the fittest ideas. But Riley considered evolution “infidelity palmed off in the name of science” and was determined to sweep the concept of species developing from one another right out of every tax-supported school in the country.
He went head-to-head in debates with leading scientists more than 25 times across the nation, usually to jammed, paying crowds. Audiences would vote on who won the argument. Invariably, it was “the indomitable Baptist preacher,” thanks to his impeccable oration. Of course, Riley freely admitted he’d plant fellow zealots and friends in each crowd. Records show he lost only one such debate.
Big-name allies spanned Riley’s long career. He befriended William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate who was, by Riley’s lights, “the greatest and most godly layman that America has produced.”
When substitute teacher John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee in 1925 for violating a state law prohibiting evolution lessons, fabled attorney Clarence Darrow signed up to represent the teacher. Riley wired Bryan and convinced him to take on Darrow. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. Bryan, 75, died in his sleep five days after the trial.
More than 20 years later, shortly before his own death in Golden Valley at 86, Riley met with the Rev. Billy Graham, then 28. Pointing a bony finger at Graham, Riley recalled how Samuel had appointed David as king of Israel. He then named Graham to run the Northwestern Schools that he had founded.
Graham later downplayed Riley’s influence on his own career, but said: “…W.B. Riley was a man of great integrity, high principles and deep religious convictions. He was head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries in the fundamentalist movement.”
While Riley’s church membership and basket offerings mushroomed in the early 1920s, his cause started losing steam by 1927, when he introduced an anti-evolution bill barring the study of Darwinism in Minnesota schools — including the University of Minnesota. The bill sought to prohibit teaching “that mankind either descended or ascended from a lower order of animals in all public schools.”
Riley delivered sermons in 65 Minnesota towns to whip up support, arguing to big crowds that teaching evolution “would destroy the faith of their children.”
University of Minnesota administrators, professors and students joined the fray, calling emergency meetings to fight the “Riley Bill.”
When half the school’s undergraduates rallied, it was called one of the school’s “greatest protests against a legislative measure ever felt at the University.” School President Lotus Coffman testified at the Capitol that the bill would “stifle learning, cripple research, and destroy intellectual integrity.” More than 6,500 students signed a petition opposing the legislation.
When the bill died in the Minnesota Senate, 55 to 7, Riley blamed lawmakers who were frightened by “Darwinized, Germanized and faithless professors and scholars.” He vowed the legislative loss was merely a “skirmish and a skirmish never determines a war.”
Except for an Arkansas anti-evolution referendum, Riley’s defeat in Minnesota spelled the winding down of the national anti-evolution crusade. Oklahoma repealed its evolution ban in 1927, and bills in Florida, California, Delaware, New Hampshire and West Virginia also were roundly defeated.
Riley chalked it up to a worldwide “Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy” that had driven the Bible out of schools. He later blamed Darwinism for the rise of Hitler.
After his retirement in 1942, dwindling membership and basket offerings at his Minneapolis church began to pick up.
Curt Brown’s tales on Minnesota history appear Sundays. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. He will be discussing his new book on the Marvy family of St. Paul, the nation’s last makers of barber poles, Feb. 17 at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7 p.m.