What Is a Gospel Hymn (Song)?
Gospel hymnody is one of the
most important, truly AMERICAN musical creations. Having its roots
in American folk and popular music of the early 1800's, gospel
hymnody achieved a fully developed and independent identity by
the 1890's and continues to exert a major influence on congregational
song (as well as all of Western popular music) throughout the world
The earliest influences on the development of gospel
hymnody (before about 1860) were:
What is a "gospel hymn" exactly, and what
distinguishes it from other hymns? The easiest way to answer this
question is to examine specific stereotypical hymns and compare their
characteristics. Here are two hymns from approximately the same period
(please see the United Methodist Hymnal (UMH), 1989 for reference):
1. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms - UMH #133 (music
J. Showalter 1887; text by E.
A. Hoffman, 1887)
2. Rise Up, O Men of God - UMH # 576 (music by W.
H. Walter, 1894; text by W.
P. Merrill, 1911)
Comparing the two hymns, one can observe the following
musical characteristics for the gospel hymn, Leaning
on the Everlasting Arms:
- There is a refrain (chorus).
- The dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythm is pervasive.
- The harmonic movement is simple, depending mainly on primary
chords (I, IV, and V(7).
- The chords are mostly in root position. For chords in inversion,
the one-six-four is mainly used.
- There are static repeated chords.
- There is an obbligato part for tenors and basses in the refrain.
- The verse section of the stanza is a parallel period
in Tonal Music by Douglass Green for an explanation).
Here are the musical characteristics for Rise
Up, O Men of God:
- There is no refrain (chorus).
- Rhythmic values consist mainly of quarter notes with some passing
- The harmonic movement is more complex, using some chromatic
- More chords in inversion are used. Out of 21 chords used, 9
are in inversion.
- The tune is a contrasting period (see Form
in Tonal Music by Douglass Green for an explanation).
Making use of repeated chords and parallel periods is not unusual
in a hymn. For example, Beethoven's "Hymn (Ode) to Joy"
consists of 4 phrases with the 1st two phrases forming a parallel
period. In addition, there are several instances of repeated
chords. For fun, try singing the 1st two lines (systems) of
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (UMH # 89) followed
by the refrain of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. This
would make a great "gospel hymn!" In reality, however,
the final 2 phrases of Joyful, Joyful, We Adore is much
more complex harmonically than the typical 19th century gospel
It's relatively easy to thumb through the United Methodist
Hymnal (or any standard hymnal) and pick out the gospel hymns
by simply looking for patterns of dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythms
along with a refrain. A hymn with a refrain does not a gospel
song make -- many "mainline-hymns" have refrains (see
UMH #90). However, the majority of gospel songs DO have refrains.
Looking through a collection of hymns published by the A.
J. Showalter Co., Dalton, GA (Tidings of Blessings,
- There are 211 entries. 197 have refrains (the remaining
14 are hymns by Watts, Newton, Cowper, Kieffer, et al).
- 105 hymns make extensive use of the dotted eighth/sixteenth
rhythm (about half).
- 143 have obbligato parts in the refrains.
- Many of the hymns have static repeated chords.
- Compound meter is common (6/8, 9/8, 6/4). 39 hymns are in
compound meter. [For comparison, in the UMH, 41 hymns out
of a total of 734 are in compound meter. Of those 41, 16 are
gospel songs, 6 are Latin American, 2 are Chinese, 6 are Christmas
carols, 3 are antiphon choruses.]
Text comparison reveals some interesting theological observations:
The primary theme of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is
simple JOY -- joy in the knowledge of feeling "safe and secure"
from whatever adversity life may present. This JOY emanates from
a "fellowship" with Jesus. Consequently, there is no
fear -- only "peace of mind." The text is simple, straight
forward and easy to understand. There is no subtle underlying
theological baggage -- just simple JOY. "Praise God,
for I feel safe in the arms of Jesus." If there is an underlying
theological message, it has to do with the "pilgrim way"
and walking in "the path."*
The message of Rise Up, O Men of God is much more theologically
charged. If the music is more complex, then the theology is EXTREMELY
complex. Here we will sidestep the problem of inclusive language
and just look at the text in terms of its inherent meaning. This
hymn as much as any espouses the tenets of
Liberal Theology. Here are its main points:
1. There is a desire to adapt religious ideas to modern culture
[world-view] and modes of thinking.
2. There is a rejection of religious belief based on authority
alone [i.e., the Bible]. All beliefs must pass the tests of
reason and experience.
3. The Bible must be open to textual criticism (the Bible is
the work of writers who were limited by their times [and their
world-view], it is neither supernatural nor an infallible record
of divine revelation and thus does not possess absolute authority).
4. God is seen as present and dwelling within the world, not
apart from or elevated above the world as a transcendent being.
5. God enables humankind to integrate his/her personality and
thus achieve perfection.
6. Sin or evil is seen as imperfection, ignorance, maladjustment,
and immaturity, not the fundamental flaw in the universe.
7. Liberalism manifests a humanistic optimism. Society is moving
toward the realization of the kingdom of God, which will be
an ethical state of human perfection.
In this hymn, Merrill is calling men to "rise up" and
be done with the trivial pursuits of life. He wants them to "get
on with it" -- that is, "bring in the day of brotherhood
and end the night of wrong." Furthermore, "God's kingdom
tarries long." That is, the event of Christ's second coming
is delayed too long. The Church is waiting -- and cannot wait
any longer. In addition, the Church is "unequal to her task"
(a bold statement). Consequently, it is up to US to establish
the Kingdom of God on earth ("bring in the day of brotherhood").
These are COMPLEX theological ideas and the text of the hymn
is infused with the tenants of Liberal
The two texts are at opposite poles in terms of content: simple
vs. complex; uncomplicated emotion vs. theological and social
So, here we have the differences between a gospel hymn and other
|Musically (harmonically) simple
||Musically (harmonically) complicated
|Often rhythmically complex
||Usually rhythmically simple
|Little or no espoused theology
|The last stanza is often about heaven.
|Compound meter (6/8; 9/8 etc.) is common.
|When theology is explicit, it is often the theology of Fundamentalism.
Today, "gospel hymn" (music)
means MANY things, covers many different styles of music, and is very
difficult to simply categorize. However, two constants do seem to
1. Musically, gospel hymnody has always utilized the current
popular musical styles of the day. In late 19th century America
that meant: (a) the style of the 19th century "parlor song"
such as those of Steven foster and others. (b) the style of popular
ballads such as, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and
"When Johnny Comes Marching Home." [See Music
of the War Between the States, especially Popular
Songs of the Day. (c) the rhythms and textures of popular
concert band music such as John
Philip Susa and his predecessors.
Today gospel hymnody means (a) utilizing electronic
media such as audio amplifiers, electronic instruments such as
guitars and keyboards, and ESPECIALLY drums.
See The Best of Gospel Hymnody.
[* A interesting concept that is reminiscent of ZEN or the TAO.
But this meaning should definitely NOT be read into the hymn.]