That Gospel music thing

For the longest time, I didn’t really understand what people meant by “gospel hymns” or “gospel songs.” I blame my Yankee roots 🙂 but even when I moved to Virginia after undergrad, I didn’t know what made gospel hymns different from the other hymns in our hymnal, and why it’s important to understand the roots of gospel music in the church. So today, let’s talk about gospel music.

Gospel hymnody is a truly American style of music, with its roots in American folk and popular music of the early 1800’s. It was heavily influenced by camp meeting music, shape-note hymnody, and 19th century popular secular music, and is a style very distinct from mainline hymnody, which comprises the hymns that have their musical roots in European classical music, that is, many of the chorale-style hymns in the standard Protestant denominations.

There are three main categories of differences between the gospel and the mainline hymn traditions: musical, textual, and theological (contextual).

The musical differences largely stem from the contemporary music that influenced the gospel style. Folk music, camp meeting songs, and the popular secular music of the day were, in general, harmonically simpler and rhythmically more complex than mainline hymnody, and gospel hymnody reflects these characteristics. Most hymns from this time period are in a simple meter with dotted eighth/sixteenth note rhythms, and the harmonic movement typically depends on primary chords (I, IV, V), mostly found in root position. Another frequent characteristic of gospel hymnody is a common refrain after each verse. These refrains were often used during revivals to support an altar call. One of the most interesting things I discovered about gospel hymns was why so many of them are in keys with numerous flats, such as E-flat, A-flat, or D-flat: it’s often because these keys are more accessible to untrained or minimally-trained pianists; they just aimed for the black keys, and the chords fell easily in their hands, more so than in sharp-based keys.

Take a look at these two hymns as an example. The first, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” (UMH #133) is a quintessential example of a gospel hymn. It was written in 1887 by Elisha Hoffman, a Congregationalist preacher in Ohio who wrote over 2,000 gospel songs in his lifetime. The composer of the melody, A.J. Showalter, was an American gospel music composer, teacher and publisher from Virginia.

The second, “Rejoice, the Lord Is King,” (UMH #715), is one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, and serves as an example of mainline Western hymnody. It was written in 1744, and the music was written by John Darwall, an English hymnwriter and clergyman who originally wrote the tune as a musical setting of Psalm 148, hence the tune’s name DARWALL 148, or DARWALL’S 148th.

Compare the music of these two hymns. How are the rhythmic styles different? What about the harmonic complexity between the two? Key signatures– flats vs. sharps?

gospel hymns

These two hymns will serve as great examples for the next two categories as well. There is a significant textual difference between gospel and mainline hymns, stemming from the same places and for the same reasons as the musical differences: that is, accessibility. Gospel hymns typically used the vernacular of the time, and the intentional simplification of the text allowed the unschooled and unchurched to learn and understand the text with minimal difficulties.

Scroll back up to those two hymns. Do you notice a difference in the style of text between the two hymns, one written in 19th century America, and the other in 18th century England?

Finally, there is a substantial theological difference between the two styles. Along with the simplification of the music and the text, the theology espoused in gospel hymns is simplified as well. Gospel hymnody evolved during, and likely because of, the revival movement of the 19th century, and its first home was in the evangelical Christian world. Its simplicity was useful for the evangelicals and was well-suited to the energy and spirit of 19th century Revivalism. The attendees of revivals may never have been to church, they may not ever have heard of Christ, or read the Scriptures. Gospel music was oriented toward explaining the basics of the Christian faith in an accessible fashion. A parallel to today’s Christian music would be a large part of what’s considered “contemporary Christian music”. It’s intended to be engaging for seekers, for whom Scriptural references or complex theological concepts in a hymn or song’s text would be more or less meaningless. This is in contrast, of course, to mainline hymnody, which typically addresses more complex theological concepts that would be less appropriate for seekers.

Scroll up one last time to the hymn examples. Both are about finding and experiencing joy through knowing Jesus Christ, but both are vastly different expressions of that joy. Charles Wesley was remarkable among hymnists for his ability to adapt complex theological ideas into singable, understandable texts, and he does so here. However, someone without a background in the Scriptures likely wouldn’t know who “Jesus the Judge” is, or the reference to “th’archangel’s voice.” In this hymn, he covers Jesus as King in the first stanza, in the second Christ’s death, descent to Hell, resurrection, and ascension, in the third stanza Jesus’ place sitting at the right hand of God the Father and the fourth stanza Christ’s second coming. By contrast, how does “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” convey the experience of joy through faith? Three stanzas can be boiled down to the blessed peace of not having anything to fear while walking with Jesus, which is indeed a wonderful part of faith to contemplate.

It’s easy to see that while these two styles are often set side by side in our denominational hymnals, there are significant differences between them that affect how they are used in worship. I’ve attended services with nothing but gospel hymns, and it felt like I had a bowl of ice cream for dinner: it tasted good, but didn’t satisfy my hunger. And if I were a seeker in a service with nothing but dense mainline hymnody, it’d be the opposite: a diet of all lettuce and broccoli, without anything that actually tasted good 🙂 The church needs hymns that spend several stanzas on the comfort and peace of knowing Jesus, like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”; it also needs hymns that set more complex theological concepts to music, like the hymns of Charles Wesley. A church with a diet of one or the other would stagnate.

The next time you have a few minutes before church, flip through the hymnal to one of your favorite hymns and check it out. When was it written, and by whom? If it was from the 19th- early 20th-century, it was probably part of the American revival movement, even if it’s not one of the standard “gospel” hymns. If it was in the 18th century and came from England, it was probably part of the Great Awakening, perhaps written by contemporaries of John and Charles Wesley. See what you can tell about the hymn from these musical and textual indicators we’ve discussed: you can learn so much about a hymn just by looking a bit more closely. Happy hunting!


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