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 today.

The earliest influences on the development of gospel hymnody (before about 1860) were:

1. Folk and Camp Meeting hymnody of the early 1800's.
2. Shaped-note hymnodies of the early to mid-1800's
3. Sunday School Songs of the mid-1800's.
4. 19th century American popular secular music.
5. The overall 19th century American aesthetic ideal of Romanticism.

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 by A. 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 (see Form 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 eighth notes.
- The harmonic movement is more complex, using some chromatic chords.
- 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 song.

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, ca. 1900):

- 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 theology.

The two texts are at opposite poles in terms of content: simple vs. complex; uncomplicated emotion vs. theological and social agenda.

So, here we have the differences between a gospel hymn and other hymns:

Gospel Hymns
Ordinary Hymns
Musically (harmonically) simple Musically (harmonically) complicated
Often rhythmically complex Usually rhythmically simple
Textually simple Textually complicated
Little or no espoused theology Theologically charged

Further observations:

Gospel Hymns
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 be consistent:

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.

2. Theologically, gospel hymnody 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 hymnody have always gone hand-in-hand. Indeed, gospel music is the popular religious music and hymnody of Christian Fundamentalism.

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.]

© 2001 Smith Creek Music

Site last updated: February 15, 2007