The American Gospel Hymn (Song):
A Quick Overview

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, it achieved a fully developed and independent identity by the 1890's and continues to exert a major influence on congregational song throughout the world today as well as all of Western popular music.

See What Is a Gospel Hymn?

See The Best of Gospel Hymnody.

Here is a summary of the early influences on the development of Gospel Hymnody in the 19th century:

1. Folk and Camp Meeting Hymnody of the early 1800's
2. Shaped-note hymndoy of the early to mid-1800's
3. Sunday School Songs of the mid-1800's
4. 19th century American popular secular music, particularly:

- the songs of Steven Foster and other Parlor Songs from the mid- to late 1800's
- the rhythms and textures of popular Band Music from the mid- to late 1800's (see Bands in America)

5. The overall 19th century American aesthetic ideal of Romanticism.

Here are some categories or types of gospel hymns which show how gospel music evolved from the mid-1800's to the present.

- mid-19th century Sunday School songs
- late-19th century Gospel Songs
- late 19th century Shaped-note Gospel Songs
- early 20th century Gospel Songs
- early 20th century Afro-American Gospel Songs
- Afro-American Gospel Music after 1930
- Shaped-note Gospel Songs after about 1930 ("Southern gospel" or "Stamps/Baxter" gospel songs)
- Bluegrass Gospel Music after about 1940
- mid-20th century Gospel Songs (1950's) - Singspiration
- early "contemporary-Christian"(CCM) gospel music (late 1960 - 1980)
- fully developed CCM gospel music and "praise-and-worship music" (PWM) (1980 - present)
- fully developed Southern Gospel and Quartet Music (the Stamps/Baxter tradition 1960 - present)

After about 1930 gospel music as a distinct genre evolved into three separate streams and each stream needs to be studied separately:

1. Afro-American gospel music
2. White "mainline" gospel music, which for the most part became identified with Southern Baptists, who (along with Billy Graham) were the leaders of Evangelicalism and Revivalism in the non-Pentecostal tradition in America before about 1975.
3. Southern Gospel Music in the 7 Shaped-note Singing School tradition.

After about 1980, these three streams came together and continue to intermingle and influence each other. Nevertheless, Southern Gospel continues to value and teach its tradition and there is no hint that it will eventually become an historic footnote. Bluegrass Gospel is essentially an outgrowth of the 7 Shaped-note tradition of Southern Gospel. With the success of professional Bluegrass musicians of the 1940's and '50's (Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, etc.), Bluegrass Gospel achieved somewhat of an independence from Southern Gospel. The overall popularity of Bluegrass Music has waxed and waned since the 1960's and currently (2002) is enjoying a new renaissance thanks to the successful movie, Brother, Where Art Thou? After about 1980, white mainline Gospel Music evolved into Contemporary-Christian Music, which has evolved hymnically after about 1990 into Praise-and-Worship Music.

Today, Gospel Music means MANY things, covers many different styles of music, and is very difficult to simply categorize. However, one constant does seem to be pervasive. Theologically, Gospel Music 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 Music have always gone hand-in-hand. Indeed, Gospel Music is the popular religious music and hymnody of Christian Fundamentalism.

© 2001 Smith Creek Music

Site last updated: February 15, 2007