Gospel Song (19th century)

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The term Gospel Song, first used by Philip Bliss, was created in order to describe a new genre of spiritual songs that originated out of the church hymn singing tradition and was meant to support the preacher's message, the Gospel, at huge gatherings of faithless audiences during the Great Awakening of the Methodist Church in the U.S. during the late 19th century by finding new, easy to learn expressive melodies and using a repetitive structure of Verses and Choruses.

The original late 19th century Shaped-note Gospel Song founded the stylistic heritage and still lends its name to today's many different styles of Gospel music. In particular Traditional black gospel developed out of an style fusion between this ″white″ Gospel Song and the African American spiritual for example. Because of this modern understanding of the term Gospel in relation to music, the original Gospel songs today are often mistakenly referred to as hymns.


The second half of the 19th century saw the rise of a new form of Christian revival mostly in the urban North of the United States, so called camp meetings. Especially rapidly grown cities like New York, Boston and Chicago formed hot spots of this religious movement initiated by the Methodist Church and addressed to and carried by mostly simple workers of the Proletariat. In regards to this new audience, successful evangelists of those days like Dwight L. Moody were looking for musical accompaniment that would suit the needs of emotional disrupture of the working class. For this reason he partnered with singer Ira D. Sankey, whose soft voice soon made him famous as ″The Sweet Singer of Methodism″ in 1871. This, just being one example, illustrates what happened all across the United States to Christian music. It evolved from the hymn's and carol's straight rhythm, complicated melodies and non-contemporary lyrics to an easy-to-grasp song, that was supposed to be memorable and plain enough to make the Gospel understandable all by itself to its listeners.


Typically the original Gospel Song was composed using a dotted notes in an even measure, creating a swing rhythm. Harmonically often just the three main functions of a major scale were used. Melodically the Gospel Song restrained itself to triads, pentatonic scales and occasionally chromatic scales. Its verses are generated by repetition, sequences and inversion of just a few motives. Most of the songs feature a refrain.

The pursued aim of making the Gospel memorable and attractive as well is noticeable in the songs lyrics, which for the most part state lots of emotion like the joy of salvation or restlessness of a sinful life – always accompanied by an invitation to find peace by submitting your life to Jesus. Addressed to already born again listeners the songs call to participate in God's work with the church and challenge to mission the unbelievers in your personal environment in order to grow and be productive in your faith. Poetic details are not often to find as well as complex theological correlations.

Undeniably being to a huge extent responsible for the overwhelming success of the Great Awakening the new songs were published in songbooks to use during Sunday service. In 1874 Philip Bliss published his fifth songbook entitled Gospel Songs. This new expression became common use to describe the new genre.

Today the old Gospel songs are sung all across the world, still mainly in Protestant and evangelical churches.

Important writers and composers[edit]

Impact on further evolution of Gospel music[edit]

The term Gospel Song has been used to describe different styles of sacred music since the 19th century, which for the most part are either a further development of the original Shaped-note songs or result in mixture of other traditional heritage like most popular the creation of Black Gospel by mixing elements of the Gospel Songs with Afro American Spirituals. Different types of Gospel music are:

  • late 19th century Gospel Songs: first use of the term Gospel Songs for spiritual Shaped-note songs)
  • early 20th century Gospel Songs: further development
  • Traditional black gospel: early 20th century Afro-American Gospel Songs / Afro-American Gospel Music after 1930
  • Southern gospel: Shaped-note Gospel Songs after about 1930 ("Stamps/Baxter" gospel songs)
  • Bluegrass gospel: development after about 1940 by mixing elements of American mountain music with Gospel music
  • mid-20th century Gospel Songs: songs by "Singspiration" (1950s)
  • early CCM (late 1960–1980)
  • fully developed CCM Praise and worship music (1980−present)
  • fully developed Southern Gospel and Quartet Music in the Stamps/Baxter tradition (1960−present)

So generally speaking Gospel music as a distinct genre has evolved since the mid 20th century into the following three separate streams:

  • Afro-American gospel music, developing itself from the initial Traditional black gospel to today's Urban contemporary gospel
  • White "mainline" gospel music, which for the most part became identified with Southern Baptists and singers like Bill Gaither, who along with Billy Graham were the leaders of Evangelicalism and Revivalism in the non-Pentecostal tradition in America before about the mid-1970s. After about 1970 this stream finally evolved into CCM, which eventually brought forth Praise and worship music.
  • Southern Gospel Music in the 7 Shaped-note Singing School tradition, which has continued to value and teach its tradition even though black and white gospel music have come closer since the 1980s influencing one another and intermingling with each other.