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Gospel music is music that is written to express either personal or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles) to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music.

Like other forms of Christian music the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. However, a common theme of most gospel music is praise, worship or thanks to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit.


Contemporary gospel music in general is characterized by dominant vocals (often with strong use of harmony) referencing lyrics of a religious nature, particularly Christian. Subgenres include contemporary gospel, urban contemporary gospel (sometimes referred to as "black gospel"), Southern gospel, and modern gospel music (now more commonly known as praise and worship music or contemporary Christian music). Several forms of gospel music utilize choirs, use piano and/or Hammond organ, drums, bass guitar and, increasingly, electric guitar. In comparison with hymns, which are generally of a statelier measure, the gospel song is expected to have a refrain and often a more syncopated rhythm.

Many attempts have been made to describe the “style” of late 19th and early 20th century gospel songs in general. Christ-Janer, et. al. said “the music was tuneful and easy to grasp . . . rudimentary harmonies . . . use of the chorus . . . varied metric schemes . . . motor rhythms were characteristic. . . . The device of letting the lower parts echo rhythmically a motive announced by the sopranos became a mannerism . . .” Patrick and Sydnor emphasize the notion that gospel music is “sentimental,” quoting Sankey as saying, “Before I sing I must feel,” and they call attention to the comparison of the original version of Rowley’s “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” with Sankey’s version. Gold said, “Essentially the gospel songs are songs of testimony, persuasion, religious exhortation, or warning. Usually the chorus or refrain technique is found.”


One can pursue the “roots” of gospel music through the academic discipline of ethno-musicology (going back to Europe and Africa), through a study of the 2,000-year history of church music, and through a study of rural folk music traditions, but for practical purposes, gospel music as we know it began in the late 19th century. Its two roots were the mass revival movement (starting with Dwight L. Moody, whose musician was Ira D. Sankey) and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. Prior to the meeting of Moody and Sankey in 1870, there was an American rural/frontier history of revival and camp meeting songs, but the gospel hymn was of a different character, and it served the needs of mass revivals in the great cities.

The revival movement employed popular singers and song leaders (starting with Ira Sankey) who used songs by writers such as George F. Root, P. P. Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, W. H. Doane, and Fanny Crosby. The first published use of the term “gospel” to describe this kind of music was apparently in the 1870s. In 1874, P. P. Bliss edited a collection titled Gospel Songs, and in 1875 P. P. Bliss and Ira Sankey issued Gospel Hymns, no’s. 1 to 6, an extension of the 1874 Gospel Songs. Sankey and Bliss’s collection can be found in many libraries today.

The popularity of revival singers and the openness of rural churches to this type of music (in spite of its initial use in city revivals) led to the late 19th and early 20th century establishment of gospel music publishing houses such as those of Homer Rodeheaver, E. O. Excell, Charlie Tillman, and Charles Tindley. These publishers were in the market for large quantities of new music, providing an outlet for the creative work of many songwriters and composers

The holiness-pentecostal movement, or sanctified movement, appealed to people who were not attuned to sophisticated church music, and holiness worship has used any type of instrumentation that congregation members might bring in, from tambourines to electric guitars. Pentecostal churches readily adopted and contributed to the gospel music publications of the early 20th century. Late 20th century musicians such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch, and the Blackwood Brothers either were raised in a Pentecostal environment, or have acknowledged the influence of that tradition.

The advent of radio in the 1920’s greatly increased the audience for gospel music, and James D. Vaughan used radio as an integral part of his business model, which also included traveling quartets to publicize the gospel music books he published several times a year. Virgil O. Stamps and Jesse R. Baxter studied Vaughan’s business model and by the late 1920s were running a heavy competition for Vaughan. The 1920s also saw the marketing of gospel records by groups such as the Carter Family.

In African-American music, gospel quartets developed an a cappella style following the earlier success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The 1930s saw the Fairfield Four, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys, the Swan Silvertones, the Charioteers, and the Golden Gate Quartet. Racism divided the nation, and these groups were best known in the African-American community, but some in the white community began to follow them. In addition to these high profile quartets, there were many black gospel musicians performing in the 1920s and 30s.

In the 1930s, in Chicago, Thomas A. Dorsey (best known as author of the song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), who had spent the 1920s writing secular music, turned full time to gospel music, established a publishing house, and “invented” the black gospel style of piano music. It has been said that 1930 was the year when African-American gospel music began, because the National Baptist Convention first publicly endorsed the music at its 1930 meeting. Dorsey was responsible for developing the musical careers of many African-American artists, such as Mahalia Jackson.

Meanwhile, the radio continued to develop an audience for gospel music, a fact that was commomerated in Albert E. Brumley’s 1937 song, “Turn Your Radio On” (which is still being published in gospel song books). In 1972, a recording of "Turn Your Radio On" by the Lewis Family was nominated for "Gospel Song of the Year" in the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards.

Following the Second World War, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, and gospel music concerts became quite elaborate. In 1950, black gospel was featured at Carnegie Hallmarker when Joe Bostic produced the “Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival.” He repeated it the next year with an expanded list of performing artists, and in 1959 moved to Madison Square Gardenmarker. Today, black gospel and white gospel are distinct genres, with distinct audiences. In white gospel, there is a large Gospel Music Association and a Gospel Music Hall of Fame, which includes a few black artists, such as Mahalia Jackson, but which ignores most black artists. In the black community, James Cleveland established the Gospel Music Workshop of America in 1969.

Gospel music subgenres

Urban contemporary gospel

Urban contemporary gospel (sometimes marketed as "Black gospel" to help distinguish it from other forms of Christian music, such as contemporary Christian music or Christian rock and Southern gospel) is a subgenre of gospel music.

Christian country music

Christian country music, sometimes referred to as country gospel music, is a subgenre of gospel music with a country flair, is also known as inspirational country. Christian country over the years has progressed into a mainstream country sound with inspirational or positive country lyrics. In the middle 90's, Christian country hit its highest popularity. So much so that mainstream artists like Larry Gatlin, Charlie Daniels and Barbara Mandrell just to name a few, began recording music that had this positive Christian country flair. These mainstream artists have now become award winners in this genre. In the late 90's Christian country declined in popularity because of misappropriations of funding within the Christian Country Music Association. The CCMA has over the years had many problems within its leadership. Many artists, record labels and radio stations were hurt during the 90's scandal and finally the Country Music Association sued the CCMA in 2002 for infringement.

Southern gospel

Southern gospel, is sometimes called "quartet music" by fans due to the original all male, tenor-lead-baritone-bass quartet make-up. this type of music deals with the everyday problems of life and how God answers those problems. Southern gospel depends on strong harmonies, often with extremely wide ranges (i.e. extremely low bass, falsetto tenor.) Flavors in Southern gospel range from ultra-traditional early quartet music (i.e. the Statesmen Quartet, circa 1940-50) to very cutting edge sounds (i.e. current Signature Sound quartet discography).

Progressive Southern gospel

Progressive Southern gospel is an American music genre that has grown out of Southern gospel over the past couple of decades.

Bluegrass gospel

Bluegrass gospel music is rooted in American mountain music.

Gospel blues

Gospel blues is a blues-based form of gospel music (a combination of blues guitar and evangelistic lyrics).


The proponents of “standard” hymns generally dislike gospel music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Patrick and Syndor complain that commercial success led to a proliferation of such music, and “deterioration, even in a standard which to begin with was not high, resulted.” They went on to say, “there is no doubt that a deterioration in taste follows the use of this type of hymn and tune; it fosters an attachment to the trivial and sensational which dulls and often destroys sense of the dignity and beauty which best befit the song that is used in the service of God.”

Gold reviewed the issue in 1958, and collected a number of quotations similar to the complaints of Patrick and Syndor. However, he also provided this quotation: “Gospel hymnody has the distinction of being America’s most typical contribution to Christian song. As such, it is valid in its inspiration and in its employment.” (Robert Stevenson, Religion in Life, Winter, 1950-51.)

Today, with historical distance, there is a greater acceptance of such gospel songs into official denominational hymnals. For example, the United Methodist Church made this acceptance explicit in The Faith We Sing, a supplement to the official denominational hymnal. In the preface, the editors say, “Experience has shown that some older treasures were missed when the current hymnals were compiled,” a diplomatic way of saying, “It’s all right to sing these songs in church.”

Further reading

A selection of gospel music collected

by the Library of Congress in 1943

  • Blackwell, Lois. The Wings of a Dove: The Story of Gospel Music in America. Norfolk: Donning, 1978.
  • Boyer, Horace Clarence, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel Elliott and Clark, 1995, ISBN 0-252-06877-7.
  • Broughton, Viv, Too Close To Heaven - The Illustrated History Of Gospel Music, Midnight Books, 1996, ISBN 1-900516-00-4
  • Albert E Brumley & Sons, The Best of Albert E Brumley, Gospel Songs, 1966, ISBN na-paperback Amazing Grace
  • Cleall, Charles. Sixty Songs From Sankey. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., 1960.
  • Darden, Robert, People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, ISBN 0-8264-1752-3.
  • Downey, James C. The Gospel Hymn 1875-1930. University of Southern Mississippi, MA, 1963.
  • Eskew, Harry. “Gospel Music, I” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), VII, 549-554.
  • Goff, James R. “The Rise of Southern Gospel Music,” Church History, v. 67, no. 4, Dec. 1998, pp. 722ff.
  • Hanson, Kenneth, The Hymnody and Hymnals of the Restoration Movement. Butler University, BD, 1951.
  • Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times Limelight Editions, 1997, ISBN 0-87910-034-6.
  • McNeil, W. K., Ed. Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415941792.
  • Stevenson, Arthur L. The Story of Southern Hymnology. Roanoke, VA: Stone Printing and Manufacturing, 1931.
  • Zolten, Jerry, Great God A' Mighty!:The Dixie Hummingbirds - Celebrating The Rise Of Soul Gospel Music, Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-19-515272-7.

Professional organizations

Firebird Arts Alliance - Encourages all races and religions to join
Gospel Music Association - Acknowledges all forms of Gospel Music
Pacific Gospel Music Association - Known for Southern Gospel
Southern Gospel Music Association - Known for Southern Gospel
Gospel Wire - Primarily urban contemporary gospel
Gospel News Today - Primarily Gospel News

Media outlets

Black Family Channel
Bobby Jones Gospel
Gospel Music Channel
The Inspirational Network
Christian Broadcasting Network
Trinity Broadcasting Network
Entertain Your Belief
Christian Music Daily
Information on Contemporary Gospel Music

See also


  1. Christ-Janer, et. al., op. cit., p. 365.
  2. Patrick, Millar (revised by James Rawlings Sydnor). The Story of the Church’s Song. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1962, pp. 171-172.
  3. Gold, Charles E. “The Gospel Song: Contemporary Opinion,” The Hymn. v. 9, no. 3 (July 1958), p. 70.
  4. Malone, Bill C. “Music, Religious, of the Protestant South,” in Hill, Samuel S. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. N.P.: Mercer University Press, 1984, p. 520.
  5. Christ-Janer, Albert, Charles W. Hughes, and Carleton Sprague Smith. American Hymns Old and New. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. p. 364.
  6. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 520.
  7. Benson, Louis F. The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1915, p. 486.[1] Several sources cite the Bliss and Sankey 1875 publication as the first to use the word "gospel" in this sense. For example, Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 520.
  8. Hall, Jacob Henry. Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1914, provides contemporary information about songwriters, composers and publishers.
  9. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 521.
  10. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 521.
  11. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 522.
  12. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 523.
  13. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History (3rd ed). New York: W. W. Norton, 1997, p. 484.
  14. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 523.
  15. "The Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards Nominations for the Gospel Song of 1972," Canaan Records (Waco, TX) CAS-9732-LP Stereo.
  16. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 523.
  17. Southern, Eileen, op. cit., p. 485.
  18. Malone, Bill C., op.cit., p. 524.
  19. Patrick, op. cit., p. 171.
  20. Patrick, op.cit., p. 172.
  21. Gold, op.cit., p. 70
  22. Hickman, Hoyt L. (ed). “Introduction,” The Faith We Sing. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000.
  23. [2]

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