Gideon Wright Riggs, pioneer gospel preacher in one of the most difficult mission fields in the nation,California, was born March 18, 1867 about thirty miles South of Nashville,Tennessee in Williamson County. He was the oldest child of Gideon Wright and Nancy Allen Jordan Riggs. The Riggs family had been in that area for many years. His grandfather went there from North Carolina to take possession of a farm of eight hundred or a thousand acres of land in 1810. He had fought in the battle of New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson. A Turnpike ran North and South through his farm and a county road ran East and West through it. His grandfather built a nice two story brick house at the intersection of these roads, and it was in this house that the subject of this sketch was born and grew up. His grandfather kept a post office named, "Riggs Crossroads," near the town of College Grove. His grandfather died in 1871 and the big farm was divided among three heirs. His father inherited the brick house, with two hundred and fifty acres of land. After Gideon had become well established in California, he said of this place, ". . .no other place has felt exactly like home to me." His father operated the farm with three tenant farmers, and they might be either white or black. He grew up with black children, and said, "When I was a boy I had no race prejudice whatever."
The Civil War had ended only two years before his birth, and the Riggs family suffered the poverty brought on by that terrible event along with the population in general. When Gideon was only twelve years old, his father died, leaving a widow with seven children, of whom Gideon was the oldest. His mother's parents and one of her brothers came to live with them and they continued to operate the farm, still using tenant labor. Farm products were very cheap, but somehow she managed to care for her children, and provide them with the educational opportunities available. As each one grew up, she gave him/her a horse. Religious influence seems to have been rather scant, but when he was four years old a preacher named Davis came into the community, wanting to preach. There was no meeting house, so his grandfather gave him permission to preach in a beautiful beech grove fronting the turnpike. There was no Church of Christ in the community, but several people obeyed the gospel and a congregation was started. They built a good two story building on the ground where the meeting had been held. The upper story was used as a church house, and the lower floor was used as a school house. Brother Riggs said, "It was fortunate for me that the church was started or I might not have learned about the Church of Christ at all. Though no explanation was given for it, he attended a Methodist Sunday School until he was about fifteen years old. He was deeply impressed with the religious instruction he had there, and when he was thirteen years old he went to the mourner's bench every night for about a week, but he was unable to get the miraculous baptism of the Holy Spirit the Methodists claimed one would get. He joined the Methodist church anyway. Some of the tenants on his mother's farm convinced him that the mourner's bench system was wrong. The two most convincing passages they used were John 9:31 (We know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.) and Acts 2:38. (And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.) He said he then knew what one must do to be saved, but it was eight years before he had the courage to do it. On August 16, 1890 he was baptized in the Harpeth river. The following Sunday he was asked to lead a prayer in worship, and he did. From that time he was often used in a public way in the worship. At the time of his baptism he was still in school, and the teacher one day asked the students to write on a piece of paper what they wanted to be. He wrote: "I had rather be a preacher of the gospel than to possess the wealth of the Rothchild family." He continued, "Why did I want to preach?" "Not to make money, for preachers, as a rule, made but little money. Not for worldly fame, for preachers were not very famous in the eyes of the world, but because he believed human beings have an immortal soul that will spend eternity in heaven or hell, and he believed the gospel was the only power to save them."
When he was a young man he moved to Texas. I do not have the details on that move, but he must have stayed there for some time. When he was about thirty years old he returned to Nashville and entered the Nashville Bible College. (Now David Lipscomb College) He continued in school here for about five years, beginning in 1897. He had begun to preach and while in school preached somewhere nearly every Sunday and held many Evangelistic meetings in vacation time.
In 1900 Brother Michael Sanders, a Christian business man then living in Phoenix, Arizona, made a trip to the East to visit his family. He returned by way of Nashville where he spent a week or ten days, with much of the time being spent on the Nashville Bible School campus. He was a veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War and had been injured at Vicksburg. But he was now a successful business man and a faithful Christian who was interested in planting The Cause in the great West. He talked with Brother Riggs about it, and when he left they corresponded during the two years it took for Brother Riggs to complete his work there. In June of 1902 Brother Riggs and Brother J.H. Haines went to Phoenix, where Brother Sanders was living. He obtained a tent and the other things needed for meetings, and they went to work preaching the gospel. They worked through that summer in Arizona, and in November they took the tent to Los Angeles. This became "home" for the rest of his life. Of his association with Brother Sanders, he wrote: "I had no agreement with Brother Sanders about money matters as to how much I would receive for my efforts, but he treated me as a son, and when he died he remembered me in his will which has enabled me to live thus far without depending upon the church." (What a wonderful thing for a man of wealth to do with his money, or at least, some of it!)
In the summer of 1903 he returned to Nashville to marry Miss Agnes Jones on August 11 in Antioch, Tennessee. She was a faithful Christian, the daughter of David and Susan Nance Bush Jones. She shared his interest in preaching the gospel and faithfully walked by his side to the end of his long life. Six sons and a daughter were born to them. They are: Gideon Sanders Riggs, David Gillespie Riggs, Mary Lee Riggs Lantz, John Newton Riggs, Luke Fulton Riggs, Frank Oliver Riggs, who died when he was only eight years old, and Robert Larimore Riggs, the well known tennis player. After her children grew up, Sister Riggs became a member of the Wednesday Morning Women's Club, of Los Angeles and developed an interest in the study of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Society awarded her a certificate denoting the research and completion of a knowledgeable thesis. Their children gave them loving attention in their declining years, and strong family loyalty continues until this time.
Brother Riggs preached in Southern California, and within a relatively few years had established eighteen churches in the area. In 1904 a division came in the church, and those who remained faithful met in a tabernacle on Manitou Street. In 1910, with Brother Sanders still helping, they built the Sichel Street meeting house that has served faithful brethren for so many years. Brother Riggs held meetings in many places in the West, but his main area of work was in California, where he established The Cause in Colton, Riverside, San Diego, Dinuba, Bakersfield, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Fullerton, Alhambra, Yucaipa, and many others. In 1942 an article appeared in the West Coast Christian in which it was stated that about fifty churches had grown out of his work in Southern California. He was loved and respected by his brethren all through that area to the end of his long life. His birthplace in Tennessee was dear to him. and all through life he returned from time to time to the place of his birth to visit friends and relatives and to again preach the gospel to them in the little church at Riggs Crossroads. In the early years in California there was a strong bond of brotherly love among the California brethren. The Cause was so weak, the state was so large, and many of them had known one another "back East". Brother Riggs was close to his preaching brethren, including such men as L.D. Perkins at Armona and W. Haliday Trice in San Francisco. Brother Perkins had lived in Southern California, but later moved to Armona in the San Joaquin Valley where he operated a store and preached all over the area. Many of these early day preachers had been students together in the Nashville Bible School.
Brother Riggs suffered a broken hip in 1949, and from this he never recovered. He also lost his vision several years before the end. On March 8, 1952, the Lord took him home. In ten days he would have been eighty five years old. The funeral service was conducted in the Church of the Recessional in beautiful Forest lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Brother Hugh Tiner, then President of Pepperdine College, was in charge of the service. He was assisted by James H. Sewell, an elder of the Broadway and Walnut Street church in Santa Ana, and J. Emmett Wainwright, minister of the Central church in Long Beach, but once minister for the Sichel Street church. Sister Riggs continued until July 30, 1966, when she joined him in the better world. They sleep side by side in the Forest Lawn Park in Glendale. It is hard to evaluate such a life as Brother Riggs. As a young man he went to a very difficult mission field and gave his life to it. He saw The Church grow and prosper through the many years he worked there. It would be difficult to imagine a more productive life — one better lived. Surely he is among the redeemed "over there." -- Loyd W. Smith. Gospel Preachers of Yesteryear (1986), pp. 293-297.
Agnes Jones Riggs
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