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When the Sunday School Board was established in 1891, the American Baptist Publication Society (ABPS) of Philadelphia had been the primary supplier of Baptist Sunday school literature in the South for several decades. The Sunday School Board's campaign for Southern Baptist support, therefore, was in direct competition with the ABPS. The correspondence below took place between B. Griffith (ABPS) and J.M. Frost (Sunday School Board) in the first two years of the Board's existence. These letters reveal the ways in which the Sunday School Board did work "for the Kingdom" by showing prowess in the worldly realm of business. And underlying the business competition was a more fundamental regional conflict that pitted the Sunday School Board's sectionalism against the nationalism of the American Baptist Publication Society.
Significantly, no doctrinal disagreements emerge in these letters; both organizations clearly understood the fact that the Sunday School Board was not established to provide literature with alternative content but rather to provide literature that was Southern and to profit the Southern Baptist Convention rather than the Philadelphia-based ABPS. Rather than discussing theological issues, therefore, the letters primarily address the seemingly mundane details of prices and discounts. However, the details of the letters and the promises of fraternity and goodwill between the correspondents are thin veils over what was a bitter price war. This price war is made more complicated when we consider the similarities between the two organizations: the two competitors recognized that they were both doing work for the "Master," and both organizations channeled 100% of their profits to the work of their respective mission boards. But from the perspective of Sunday School Board leaders like J.M. Frost, these similarities paled in comparison to the fundamental difference between the two publishing houses: one was Northern and one was Southern. Even as the two publishing houses attempted to drive each other out of business in the South, the rhetoric of their letters did not indicate that they sensed any contradiction between Christianity and business enterprise: "I do not see why we may not be good friends and good Christian brethren, even if there be pretty sharp competition in business matters."
- Griffith to Frost, March 14, 1892
- The ABPS and the Sunday School Board jointly publish a catechism for Northern and Southern Baptists in 1892, and this is one of several letters that discusses the business details of the publication. Of interest here is Griffith's response to Frost's earlier suggestion regarding "the division of territory for sales." Griffith will not agree to Frost's desire for the Sunday School Board to be the sole supplier of the catechism in the South. At the heart of this contentious issue is the competition between the two Boards to win the support of Southern Baptists.
- Griffith to Frost, October 31, 1892
- Griffith informs Frost that the ABPS has recently established a branch house in Texas, perhaps the most contested region of the South in the price wars between the ABPS and the Sunday School Board. (See Letters from Pastors and Laity.) The ABPS "will naturally give preference to our own [Sunday School] series. For that you can hardly blame us." However, Griffith would also like Frost to agree to sell the Sunday School Board's literature in the Texas branch house "to all persons who may prefer them."
- Griffith to Frost, November 1, 1892
- Griffith suggests that the ABPS and the Sunday School Board come to "some brotherly understanding as to discounts on Sunday School periodicals." Evidently, the two organizations have been attempting to win Southern patronage by underselling each other. "I think it is likely we have been led to give 20% because we were informed by certain parties that you gave 20%, and it is not al all impossible that you have given 20% because you were informed that we gave it. Some of these people are very sharp and perhaps have worked us one against the other."
- Frost to Link (ABPS), November 8, 1892
- Frost opens this letter by responding to a charge made by Link that the Sunday School Board did not care about Texas until the ABPS opened a branch house there. This is one of several examples of Frost reacting to a perceived attack on his honor. Frost writes, "I sometimes think the most trying things to endure in this life, is when you are trying in the fear of God to advance his cause for his honor and his glory, for your own brethren to throw things in your face which are not atall [sic] in keeping with the spirit that prompts his work."
- Frost to Griffith, November 9, 1892
- Frost responds in this letter to the letters of Griffith from October 31 and November 1. He agrees with Griffith that they should come to some "brotherly understanding" about the discounts each will give on Sunday school periodicals, but "without forming anything in shape or spirit like a trust." As Frost writes in this letter, "It seems to me that two christian men conducting a business looking to the same end of furthering the cause of Christ, ought surely to be before the world, a model for business men to imitate. For the first it has been my determination to operate the business of this Board, on purely, christian, business principles . . ." A contradiction underlies this and similar letters between the two organizations: they are both doing work for "the kingdom of our Master," yet each organization would like to drive the other out of business in the South.
- Griffith to Frost, November 22, 1892
- This letter continues the series of correspondence between the two organizations about whether they can reach an agreement about uniform prices and discounts. Griffith argues that Frost is not doing what is best for business by offering higher discounts to state boards and certain other organizations. Clearly, in this second year of the Sunday School Board's existence, Frost is less interested in Griffith's advice about business principles than he is about building circulation in the Southern states, no matter what the cost. Griffith also sounds a personal note to his brother and adversary in this letter: "[H]owever you may have felt or still feel toward me personally, I have never cherished but the kindest of feelings toward you, both personally and officially."
- Frost to Griffith, December 5, 1892
- Frost answers Griffith's letter of November 22 in what appears to be a tongue-in-cheek manner: "[W]henever I have given as must as 20% [discount] it was not done for the purpose of meeting your rate as a matter or competition, but simply because I supposed that you being older in the business than I, knew better what rate should be given, and desiring to do the right thing toward the agents, I followed your example." Frost goes on to respond to Griffith's remarks of November 22: "I assure you that all the kindly feelings which you express are reciprocated on my part."
- Griffith to Frost, January 4, 1893
- Griffith again writes regarding the details of coming to a "brotherly understanding" about uniform prices and discounts between the two competitors. He argues that the money made on the publications of both societies "belongs to the Lord and goes to Missionary purposes in a better way than discounts to individuals." Both organizations turn all of their profits over to their respective mission boards, and therefore Griffith sees "no business reason [and] no moral or religious reason, why we should each give our profits away in discounts to the [book] trade." Apparently Frost offers discounts more freely in an attempt to win customer loyalty, while Griffith, leader of the more established American Baptist Publication Society, does not wish to give away potential missions money to book sellers with whom the ABPS already has a long-standing relationship.
- Frost to Griffith, January 12, 1893
- Frost responds to Griffith's letter of January 4 regarding an agreement between the two organizations about uniform prices and discounts. He has apparently taken offense at Griffith's insinuation that he is not communicating frankly. He also assures Griffith that "in all of my conduct of these affairs I have been influenced by 'strong competition', as little as any man could possibly be."
- Joint Agreement, February 4, 1893
- This is the Sunday School Board's copy of the agreement reached with the American Baptist Publication Society to offer uniform discounts to suppliers of Sunday School literature. The two organizations compete throughout the 1890s to win support from Southern Baptists' "gatekeepers": the statewide book distributors and state conventions who distribute Sunday school literature to the Southern Baptist churches.
- Blachall (ABPS) to Frost, December 7, 1893
- Blachall responds to a letter from Frost accusing the ABPS of acting dishonorably by creating advertisements that make "thrusts" at the Sunday School Board and at "the people of the South." (Apparently Frost sees the Sunday School Board as representing Southern Baptists, and an attack on the Board is a dishonorable attack on Southerners.) Blachall argues that this type of advertisement is "entirely in accord with the custom of publishers of both secular and religious papers" and is used in a "spirit of 'enterprise.'" Blachall sounds the same note as his colleague, B. Griffith, when he states, "I do not see why we may not be good friends and good Christian brethren, even if there be pretty sharp competition in business matters."