History Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Source

Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture


In the 1920s a loosely-united band of militant conservatives launched a crusade to capture control of the major Protestant denominations. These fundamentalists staunchly affirmed the supernaturalness and literal accuracy of the Bible, the supernatural character of Christ, and the necessity of Christians to separate themselves from the world.

Most often Baptists and Presbyterians, they struggled to re-establish their denominations as true and pure churches: true to the historic doctrines of the faith as they perceived them, and pure from what they saw as the polluting influences of an increasingly corrupt modern culture. But by the late 1920s the fundamentalists had lost the fight. Not only were they powerless minorities in the Northern Baptist and the Northern Presbyterian denominations, where the struggle for control had been the fiercest, but many perceived them as uneducated, intolerant rustics. The Scopes trial cemented this notion in the popular consciousness. According to conventional historical wisdom the collapse of the national crusade in the 1920s signaled the death of religious fundamentalism in America.

But in the past few years historians have examined more closely the place of fundamentalism in post-Scopes America. They have concluded that fundamentalists responded to their national defeats not by surrendering, but by focusing their considerable energies at the local level.

It has become almost commonplace among historians of fundamentalism to assert the central role played by Bible institutes in the survival and growth of this religious movement. But the thesis has not been tested, for there have been no case studies dealing with the work of Bible institutes at the grass-roots level. This article is a start toward filling this void. The focus here is Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School of Minneapolis and its role in the upper Midwest in the second quarter of the twentieth century. For the most part, this case study provides rich evidence confirming the standard interpretation of the role of Bible institutes in American fundamentalism. Northwestern did indeed serve as a denominational surrogate for a regional network of fundamentalist churches. Moreover, the school’s president, William Bell Riley, had enormous influence within this network. The focus of this article is on the structure and strength of Riley’s empire.

Inclusive pages




Document Version



This paper received the 1989 Christianity Today Best in Theology Award.

The article available for download, posted in compliance with publisher policies on self-archiving, is the author's accepted manuscript; some editorial differences may exist between this version and the published version. As such, it is suggested that researchers wishing to quote directly from the article consult with the version of record.

Permission documentation is on file.


Cambridge University Press





Peer Reviewed


Link to published version