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ADRIAN GREENE Wake Forest University Church within a Church: Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio and the Middle Way within the National Baptist Convention NEITHER BELTON PIEDMONT NOR BERNARD BELGRAVE,THE PROTAGONISTS in African American Texan minister Sutton E. Griggs’s 1899 novel Imperium in Imperio, represents the definitive African American equal rights movement in the South during and following Reconstruction. Rather, they symbolize tensions within that movement: the desire for cooperation with sympathetic white institutions (Belton) as opposed to the inclination to avoid collaboration in order to pursue African American interests independently (Bernard). Nevertheless, the poor, dark-skinned African American Belton shows the potential ability to translate an ethical ideal into a practical reality, whereas the militant Bernard achieves only dissent and destruction in his spurning of Belton. Belton’s communitarian ideal is, translated theologically, the kingdom of God on Earth. To achieve this end, Belton puts his Christian university education to pragmatic use. Imperium in Imperio is believed to have had a larger audience than did works by Paul Laurence Dunbar or Charles Chesnutt even though Griggs often published and sold his works himself (Verdelle xii). When considering this widespread appeal, one should understand that Griggs, without openly declaring Belton as such, presents his protagonist as a Southern (specifically Virginian) preacher working within the white Baptist denomination’s African American offshoot, the National Baptist Convention (NBC), which had two million members by 1900 and 2.5 million by 1915 (Smith 549). A striking element of Griggs’s life, his work as a pastor within the NBC as it relates to his fiction, has not yet been fully examined by American literature scholars. For instance, Larry Frazier’s 2000 article “Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio as Evidence of Black Baptist Radicalism” introduces Bernard’s radicalism as an anomaly in a work by an African American Baptist preacher. Thus, it does not fully admit the simmering tensions within the National 234 Adrian Greene Baptist Convention related to separatism versus cooperatism during this period, especially as they contribute to splits within the NBC. Additionally, John Gruesser’s essay “Empire at Home and Abroad in Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio” astutely notes “the tendency of critics to read [Griggs’s works] in binary terms” (50). Gruesser productively uses the tertium quid to examine Griggs’s interest in the Spanish-Cuban-AmericanandPhilippine-AmericanWars(49-62),while I will employ it to study the NBC’s more propinquitous conflict. Finally, Robert S. Levine’s chapter “Edward Everett Hale’s and Sutton E. Griggs’s Men without a Country” speaks to the notions of “traitor” and “patriot,” considering Griggs’s works as implying that “exile from one’s country in the service of a deeper patriotism might not be such a ‘terrible . . . mistake’” (85), an intriguing interpretation but one which does not consider the equally profound possibility for Griggs of ostracism from his religious denomination. Griggs’s ministerial work with the NBC serves as the basis for many of the novel’s intra-group conflicts between the increasingly separatist Bernard, representative of the turn-of-the-century NBC, established in 1895, and the more conciliatory Belton, standing in for the more pacific NBC faction, the Lott Carey Baptist Home and Foreign Mission Convention (LCC), founded in 1897. The LCC split from the larger NBC because it “feared that the NBC was too separatist in its sentiments” and wanted to rely exclusively on northern white Baptists for forwardthinking Christian publications rather than to establish an African American publishing house, as championed by the NBC (Leonard, Baptist Ways 274). The employment of literature from the white American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) and overall support from white Baptists became of signal importance to the LCC while the National Baptist Convention looked to forge its own path for African American Christian instruction and Christian literature that specifically addressed African Americans’ lives (Fitts 85). A list of demands delivered by the LCC president Calvin S. Brown to the NBC even included “the adoption of a cooperation policy” with the ABHMS and an “agreement to permit our Sunday Schools to use the literature of either publishing house without considering them loyal or disloyal” (Fitts 88...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 233-250
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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