Griggs was born Elbert Sutton Griggs (he later changed the order of his given names) in 1872 in Chatfield, Texas, to the Rev. Allen R. and Emma Hodge Griggs. His father, a former Georgia slave, became a prominent Baptist minister and founder of the first black newspaper and high school in Texas. Sutton worked closely with his father on the National Baptist Convention's Education Committee. He wrote frequently later in life of his deep respect for his parents' characters and accomplishments.
Sutton Griggs attended Bishop College in Marshall, Texas and Richmond Theological Seminary. Upon graduation, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Berkley, Virginia. There he married Emma Williams, a teacher, in 1897. In 1899, he became pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Nashville and corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Convention.
Griggs was a prolific author, writing more than thirty books and pamphlets in his lifetime and selling them door-to-door or at the revival meetings at which he preached. His first novel, Imperium in Imperio, published in 1899, is his most famous. In 1901, Griggs founded the Orion Publishing Company to sell books to the African American market. None of his four subsequent novels achieved the success of Imperium in Imperio, but he produced a steady stream of social and religious tracts, as well as an autobiography.
An admirer of W. E. B. Du Bois and a supporter of the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Griggs was strongly influenced by contemporary social theory. He believed that the practice of social virtues alone could advance a culture and lead to economic success. The more radical ideas expressed in his novels, particularly Imperium in Imperio, have led him to be sometimes characterized as a militant separatist in the mold of Marcus Garvey. During his lifetime, however, his integrationist philosophy and courting of white philanthropy earned him the scorn of self-help advocates.
Griggs's careers in both the church and social welfare sphere were active and itinerant. In Houston, he helped establish the National Civil and Religious Institute. In 1914, he founded the National Public Welfare League. From 1925 to 1926, he served as president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, which his father helped found. His longest tenure—19 years as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis—saw him act on his belief in the social mission of churches, providing the only swimming pool and gymnasium then available to African Americans in the city.
Death and legacy
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 stripped the Tabernacle of investment funds and led to its bankruptcy. Griggs returned to Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas, then to a brief pastorship in Houston. Shortly after resigning that post in 1933, he died in Houston, and was buried in Dallas.