The American Gospel Song

See What is a Gospel Hymn?

With some exceptions (mostly Germanic: Lutherans, Moravians and Anabaptists), the history of Protestant theology and hymnody in America until around 1740 is essentially the history of Calvinism and metrical psalmody. Evangelicalism took hold in America during the period between 1730 and about 1780 and resulted in an event referred to as The Great Awakening and a consequent movement known as Revivalism. [Also see, The Great Awakening.]

Musically this led to the first singing of hymns, especially those of Isaac Watts. After about 1820 there was a Second Great Awakening which resulted (for our purposes) in even more hymn singing activity, particularly the hymns of Charles Wesley. [Also see, The Second Great Awakening.] It was during this period of time (1820 and following) that the first shaped-note tunebooks were published and distributed throughout what was then the frontier of America.

An important development from this second religious revival was the institution of the "protracted meeting" (see Revivalism) led by professional evangelists whose beliefs were those of American Evangelicalism (later to evolve into Fundamentalism). This was typified by an amalgamation of strict Calvinist and Arminian theology, which at first seems contradictory. Nevertheless, when one combines the Calvinist ideas about the wrath of God, the conviction of sin, the sinner as "filthy rags" -- with the Arminian idea of faith and forgiveness, IT WILL PREACH! And preach it did, pervading all facets of American culture throughout the 19th century. Consequently, Evangelicalism was not just a religious phenomenon but pervaded all aspects of American culture during the early and mid-19th century. See Evangelicalism as a Social Movement.

A major tenet of this evangelical viewpoint was "free grace to all," the theological equivalent to American democracy. The hymnic counterpart of American Evangelicalism as it grew out of revivalist activities in the northern urban areas (New York, Boston -- later Chicago) was the Gospel Song. [See: Music in Urban Revivalism in the Northern United States, 1800-1835. D.M.A. dissertation, Paul Hammond, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1974.]

The gospel song is the first truly American hymnic development and has these origins: (1) Sunday School songs, (2) Camp Meeting songs, (3) popular American secular vocal and instrumental music, particularly "parlor songs" (like those of Steven Foster), (4) Concert Band music (like that of John Philip Sousa and his predecessors), and (5) the aesthetic of mid-19th century American Romanticism, particularly of the more sentimental variety.

By the 1880's, Sunday School songs became strongly identified with the revival meetings of Dwight Moody (1837-1899). In this new setting the Sunday School song became known as the Gospel Song, so named after P. P. Bliss’, Gospel Songs (1874) and Bliss and Ira Sankey’s, Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, (1875). The Gospel Song became so closely associated with Ira Sankey (1840-1908), who was Dwight Moody’s "song leader" that in England, even today, a gospel song is referred to as a "Sankey."

One of the leading poets of gospel hymnody was the blind hymn writer Fanny Jane Crosby (1820-1915). Famous as a secular poet, she turned to hymn writing and eventually produced some 9000 hymn texts which were set to music by such people as Robert Lowry (1826-1899), William Doane (1832-1915), and George C. Stebbins (1846-1945).

After Dwight Moody’s death (for whom the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago is named), Revivalism continued to flourish with the idea of the revivalist having a song leader who would use and teach gospel songs/ Famous song leaders included Charles Alexander and Homer Rodeheaver, who gained popularity as Billy Sunday’s song leader. The Sunday-Rodeheaver meetings were held mostly in specially constructed tabernacles (temporary buildings with the ground covered in sawdust -- hence the term, "hitting the sawdust trail" for walking the isle to make a public decision). Rodeheaver eventually started a successful publishing company, the Rodeheaver Company (Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Company) in Winona Lake, Indiana which later became the successful Word Publishing Company (now WordMusic).

The 20th century inheritor of the 19th century Urban Revival movement is Billy Graham. [Check out the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.]

[From Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath (Nashville: Church Street Press, 2nd edition, 1995.]

Specifics of the 19th and early 20th century Gospel Song

Gospel songs appealed to common and ordinary people because they were simple both textually and musically and were fun to sing in large crowds. After 1900, with the rise of ragtime and other popular musical styles (jazz, blues, etc.), the music of many gospel songs tended to become more rhythmical in character. The texts of gospel songs are characterized by an absence of the elements of adoration or worship. The main emphasis is on personal experience with an exhortation to fellow human beings to turn from a life of sin and sorrow, -- the counterpart of the revival sermon.

Many texts were extremely sentimental, paralleling the aesthetic ideals of American Romanticism:

My mother's hand is on my brow,
Her gentle voice is pleading now;
Accross the years so marred with sin
What memories of love steal in!

O mother when I think of thee,
'Tis but a step to Calvary;
Thy gentle hand upon my brow
Is leading me to Jesus now.

-- Fred P. Morris, 1910

Other texts of a higher quality can be compared favorably with the great hymn texts of the past:

To God be the glory, great things he had done!
So loved he the world that he have us his Son,
Who yielded his life an atonement for sing,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father through Jesus the Son,
And give hime the glory, great things he hath done!

-- Fanny J. Crosby, 1875.

However, even the best gospel songs texts did not contain the depth of complex ideas or personal experience common to the great hymns of the past. Nor was that their intention. The intention of gospel hymnody is synonymous with Evangelicalism: to present the gospel simply and to exhort people to make a public confession of faith toward the goal of accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior. Complex theology, liturgical and poetic symbolism, and emotional depth associated with complex methaphor is not the intention of gospel hymnody. Consequently, it should not be evaluated by the same criteria. Donald Hustad has given guidelines for making value judgements regarding church music in the Evangelical (Revivalist) tradition (including hymnody):

Evangelical Standards for Church Music

The church music that is used should:

1. communicate and express the gospel in a text language and a music language that are richly understandable by the culture for which they are intended.

2. offer a worthy "sacrifice of praise" for the individual and for the corporate body in the worship experience. It should be "our best" -- our best performance of the most meaningful text and music that is shared by all. It should be offered in love, humility, gratitude and grace, without arrogance or shame in comparing it to the offering of other persons in the same culture or in other cultures.

3. express and enhance the best Christian theology of each particular culture or subculture, supporting all tenants of that faith in proper balance.

4. express and support the best Christian activities related to the group's beliefs -- worship, fellowship and outreach -- with due considerations for the musical needs of each.

5. spread from the "whole person" to the "whole person," carefully balancing the physical, intellectual and emotional, while avoiding the sentimental.

6. It should be genuinely creative, shunning the hackneyed and trite as well as the elitist and abstruse.

[From Jubilate: Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition, by Donald P. Hustad. Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL, 1981. The new edition of this book is entitled: Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (Carol Stream, IL, Hope Publishing Company), 1989.]

[The following topics have yet to be developed. Please check back periodically. Also, please check out the links at the bottom of the page.]

The Late 19th century Shaped-note Gospel Song

The Early 20th Century Gospel Song

The Early 20th century Afro-American Gospel Song

After about 1930 gospel music as a distinct genre evolved into three separate streams and each stream needs to be studied separately:

1. Afro-American gospel music after 1930

2. White "mainline" gospel music after 1930

For the most part this type of gospel hymnody became identified with Southern Baptists, who (along with Billy Graham) were the leaders of Evangelicalism and Revivalism in the non-Pentecostal tradition in America before about 1975.

See these hymnals: The Modern Hymnal (1923); The Broadman Hymnal (1940). These hymnals represent the epitome of white "mainline" gospel hymnody from about 1930 - 1956.

3. Southern Gospel Music in the 7 Shaped-note Singing School tradition after 1930 ("Stamps/Baxter" gospel songs)

Bluegrass Gospel Music after about 1940

Mid-20th century Gospel Songs (1950's) - Singspiration

Early "contemporary-Christian"(CCM) gospel music (late 1960 - 1980)

Fully Developed CCM gospel music and "praise-and-worship music" (PWM) (1980 - present)

Fully Developed Southern Gospel and Quartet Music (the Stamps/Baxter tradition 1960 - present)

After about 1980, these three streams came together and continue to intermingle and influence each other. Nevertheless, Southern Gospel continues to value and teach its tradition and there is no hint that it will eventually become an historic footnote. Bluegrass Gospel is essentially an outgrowth of the 7 Shaped-note tradition of Southern Gospel. With the success of professional Bluegrass musicians of the 1940's and '50's (Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, etc.), Bluegrass Gospel achieved somewhat of an independence from Southern Gospel. The overall popularity of Bluegrass Music has waxed and waned since the 1960's and currently (2002) is enjoying a new renaissance thanks to the successful movie, Brother, Where Art Thou? After about 1980, white mainline Gospel Music evolved into Contemporary-Christian Music, which has evolved hymnically after about 1990 into Praise-and-Worship Music.

Today, Gospel Music means MANY things, covers many different styles of music, and is very difficult to simply categorize. However, one constant does seem to be pervasive. Theologically, Gospel Music evolved within the milieu of 19th century American Evangelicalism and Revivalism. Evangelicalism was not just a religious phenomenon, but pervaded all aspects of American society throughout the 19th century (see Evangelicalism as a Social Movement) . Evangelicalism evolved into Fundamentalism after about 1920 and throughout the 20th century (and continuing today) Fundamentalism and Gospel Music have always gone hand-in-hand. Indeed, Gospel Music is the popular religious music and hymnody of Christian Fundamentalism.

Singers Glen

Southern Gospel

Ruebush-Kieffer Publishing Co.

James D. Vaughan Publishing Co.

Stamps-Baxter Publishing Co.

See Vernacular Religious Music in Tennessee -- from Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture

See Best of Gospel

(more to follow soon)

Some Interesting Sites: (I've just 'thrown' these on here. I'll go back later and review them more critically. -- DL 9/26/2001)

Gospel Music Association

Christian Music Association

Southern Gospel Music Association

Southern Gospel Music Online

Bluegrass Gospel


Canadian Gospel Music Association

Women Hymn Writers of the 19th Century Wesleyan Holiness Movement

American Holiness Hymnody

The Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelicalism

Key Figures in [gospel] Church Music in the 20th Century

Gospel Timeline

Moody and Sankey Songs

Toward Singing with the Understanding

The Emergence of Gospel

20th Century Gospel Music

Some Library Resources

My life and the story of the Gospel hymns and of sacred songs and solos, by Ira D. Sankey ( 1840-1908) with an introd. by Theodore L. Cuyler. Sankey, Ira David, New York : Red label reprints, 1907. [The Divinity School Library at Vanderbilt University[ BV 315 .S227

George C. Stebbins: reminiscences and gospel hymn stories, with an introduction by Charles H. Gabriel. by Stebbins, George C. Stebbins (1846-1945), New York, George H. Doran company, 1924. [The Divinity School Library at Vanderbilt University] BV325 .S7

Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss. Edited by D.W. Whittle, contributions by Rev. E.P. Goodwin, Ira D. Sankey, and Geo. F. Root. Introd. by D.L. Moody. New York, A.S. Barnes, 1877. [The Divinity School Library at Vanderbilt University] BV325 .S7

Song stories of the sawdust trail, by Homer Rodeheaver, with a foreword by the Rev. William A. Sunday. Rodeheaver, Homer A. (Homer Alvan), 1880-1955. New York, Moffat, Yard and Co., 1917. [The Divinity School Library at Vanderbilt University] BV340 .R6

Gospel singers and their songs, by F. D. Hemenway, and Chas. M. Stuart. New York, Hunt & Eaton, 1892. [The Divinity School Library at Vanderbilt University] BV340 .H4

© 2001 Smith Creek Music

Site last updated: February 15, 2007