Examining the Legacy of the Gospel Song Part 1 of 2
From Jewish chants in the early church, to praise choruses in our day, the sound of singing in Christian assemblies has changed significantly. The changes have seldom gone smoothly. In some ways, Anabaptist groups have been less vulnerable to worship fads. They have historically kept a strong hold on their worship traditions. But the switch from German to English in the late 19th century broke that continuity and left the Anabaptists scrambling to borrow worship materials from the nearest Protestant sources. The Gospel song was one such acquirement that became surprisingly entrenched in Anabaptist worship.
We cannot resist all change, but we must always be willing to analyze all changes in light of the Scriptures and our historical theology. This article attempts to examine the shift that happened in Mennonite church singing in the past century. To some degree, Gospel songs have replaced hymns in many congregations. Has this change been beneficial or detrimental to our worship? Both or neither? Our answer to this question matters for our future. Let’s look for clues.
First Generation Gospel Songs: Sunday Schools and Revivalism (1860-1900)
The origins of the Gospel song are usually traced back to the camp meeting songs of the early 1800’s. Out of Appalachian folk traditions came “white spirituals” such as “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.” In this era blacks and whites often attended camp meetings together, and may have shared their heritage of simple praise songs. Black spirituals of that day included songs like “Go, Tell it on the Mountain,” “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” and “Were You There?”. 1
The Sunday school movement, which sprang to life in the mid-1800’s, created a demand for simple spiritual songs for children. William Bradbury led the way in the 1860’s with fresh tunes, many of which we still sing: “Jesus Loves Me,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” and “Just As I Am.”
During the same period, Robert Lowry composed lively tunes such as “Marching to Zion” and “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.” He wrote both words and music for “Shall We Gather at the River.” More memorably, the blind poetess Fanny Crosby supplied around 8,000 new song texts, frequently collaborating with the composer William Doane.2 Some of her best-known songs include “To God Be the Glory,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “I Am Thine, O Lord.” Other favorites born in this era were “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” and “He Hideth My Soul.” These examples represent the “gold” of the Gospel style; the “chaff,” or the 99%, has drifted away.
Although this type of song was first designed for Sunday Schools, it also proved to be the perfect tool for the mass urban revivalism that began in the 1870’s. Dwight L. Moody and his song leader Ira D. Sankey held dynamic evangelistic rallies in large urban venues, creating a new model for parachurch ministry. With solos and choir support Sankey could quickly teach these new repetitive songs to large crowds without songbooks.
Compared to singing hymns in the Lowell Mason style, this was heady stuff. It was a new sound for Christian worship, modeled closely on the popular music of the day—parlor tunes and folk ballads. The fresh personal testimony of the lyrics, the lively rhythms, and the easy tunes made these songs custom-tailored for the excitement of the whole revival project. Moody knew that mass evangelism depended heavily on the emotional momentum created by large crowds singing sensational songs together. He said, “I believe that music is one of the most powerful agents for good or evil.” 3
The spirit of revivalism awakened the Mennonites too. As they began borrowing both the methods and materials of the Protestant Awakening, the more cautious segment of brothers withdrew to form the Old Order groups. Today we forget how threatening these bouncy new English jingles must have sounded to ears accustomed to slow German hymns.
The first wave of these new Gospel songs entered the Mennonite churches through the Church and Sunday School Hymnal, 1902. A few decades later, the 1927 Church Hymnal (Mennonite) attempted to reign in the zeal for Gospel songs by limiting the number of Gospel songs to 20%. The book that has spread Gospel songs across a wide segment of conservative Anabaptist churches today is the 1959 Christian Hymnal, produced by the Churches of God in Christ, Mennonite.
Characteristics: Identifying Gospel Songs of the Sunday School Era
Classifying worship songs is always complicated by the exceptions. For example, the Gospel song “When Peace Like a River” is quite hymn-like. Compared to hymns, however, Gospel songs had a distinctly new flavor.
1. Song form. In the hymn tradition, tunes and texts were conceived independently. Hymn-writers wrote poems in standard meters that could be matched to any number of existing tunes—or interchanged for variety. The Gospel songwriters and composers collaborated to create a single work. Like the secular vocal songs of the day, the tunes were specifically composed for the lyrics or vice versa. This enabled a unified expression that often communicated effectively.
2. Spontaneity. Many pieces, both words, and music, were written hastily and put into circulation. From the romanticized folklore in some collections of “hymn stories,” one gets the impression that the average Gospel song flowed out on the back of an envelope in 20 minutes, in response to some personal crisis. The tunes were jaunty but not especially creative. The texts were not intended as studied theological statements. Often the language was only tangentially Scriptural and the Biblical allusions ambiguous. The spontaneous response of the songwriter’s experience made the songs at once intimate and ephemeral.
Consider these familiar lines:
I am trusting in my Saviour,
with a calm and steady light;
Hope is shining on my pathway,
making all things fair and bright.
I am trusting, trusting, trusting;
I am trusting day by day,
I am trusting in my Saviour
to go with me all the way.
This is a perfectly valid expression for the disciple of Jesus. But the poetry is fluffy; it uses a lot of syllables to say very little—a mark of hastily composed verse. Contrast this to the densely packed lines of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
3. Commercialism. The revivalism of the late 1800’s kicked off an overwhelmingly popular market for these new songs. Publishing houses sprang up to fill the demand. Millions of paperback collections of the latest songs were snapped up for use in Sunday Schools and urban ministries, as well for singing in the home. (In this pre-recording era, if people wanted music, they had to make it.)
1. The Refrain. The most obvious feature of Gospel songs was the repetition of a refrain, or chorus, after each verse. As everyone piled into the familiar repetitions, it lent a forward momentum to the singing, even if many singers did not know the song well.
2. Motor rhythms. Where hymns moved along sedately at a pace set by quarter and half notes, the Gospel tunes stepped along at a brisk eighth note trot. The net result was more syllables of text per minute. “I Am So Glad that our Father in Heaven” is a good example. One can almost hear in these staccato rhythms the steam engine dynamism of the Industrial Age in which the music was born. The social gospel reformers had progressive agendas, and this was their beat. Meditative music it was not; it was the Gospel on the move.
3. Dance rhythms. The skipping effect of a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note brought a toe-tapping exuberance into the church that shocked the hymn singers of that day no less than when Praise & Worship choruses are brought into our Anabaptist assemblies today. Sing to yourself the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” by Dykes [Hymns of the Church #113], and then sing Bradbury’s “Holy Is the Lord” [HOTC #119]. The first is meditative; the second is jaunty. Songs like “Standing on the Promises” are an odd choice of musical expression for people who have traditionally opposed clapping and dancing in worship.
4. Harmonic simplicity. The story of a song’s harmony is told in the bass line. Many Gospel tunes are “three-chord specials.” That is, the bass notes are primarily DO, FA, and SOL—corresponding the three primary chords I, IV, and V. A side-by-side comparison illustrates this readily. Compare “The Whole World Was Lost” to “In Heavenly Love Abiding” [HOTC # 625 and # 626]. In the first, the Gospel tune, the bass notes have little movement; in the second tune, the bass moves about constantly, in a melody of its own. This makes Gospel tunes great for singers learning to sing parts. It also makes them less interesting musically, which is why they wear out sooner.
5. Major key. Where are the minor key Gospel songs? Without exploring the psychology of taste and tonality, we should at least ponder the dislike for minor key music that seems to linger in the conservative Anabaptist ear. Perhaps a century of over-dependence on major key, “happy-clappy” praise songs has dulled our senses to the deeper expressiveness of minor key songs.
1. Focus on personal experience. This doesn’t mean that Gospel songs used “I” and “my” and hymns do not. But the Gospel song, almost by definition, majored on the personal testimony of salvation. A side-by-side comparison in the Christian Hymnal, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” and “Oh, Worship the King” [# 8 & 9], illustrates the general difference in tone and expression between Gospel songs and hymns.
2. Superficial content. As noted earlier, the very nature of spontaneity precludes a profound development of the theme. Gospel songwriters tended to pad their verses with trite repetitions of salvation lingo. Consider this popular refrain that was added to Isaac Watts’ timeless hymn “Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed”[CH # 311]:
At the cross, at the cross
where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.
This can certainly be the newborn believer’s genuine testimony. However, it has a breezy—almost flippant—air about it that seems to laugh at the serious words of Watts.
3. Easy grace. Unfortunately, too much of revivalism was founded on easy grace theology. Just pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re home free. Naturally, the songs used by revivalists reflect this thinking. A line from “Oh Why not Tonight?” captures it well: “Believe, obey, the work is done, be saved, oh, tonight.” Or consider the bouncy little chorus “I had so many sins, and he took them all away.”
4. Over-used metaphors. While the language of Gospel songs was often cast in fresh images from contemporary life, certain themes got more mileage than others. For example, seafaring images were popular. “Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me,” “Love Lifted Me,” and “The Haven of Rest’, are typical examples. (One has to wonder what “the billows cease to roll” meant to Mennonite farmers who couldn’t tell a billow from a hay bale.) “Roaming” is another common image, no doubt taken from the “lost sheep” figure. Many songs mention wandering out in the world and finding one’s way back home.
In general contrast to hymns, Gospel songs tend to be big on joy, salvation, personal experience, and spontaneity. They tend to be weak on Scriptural language and the wider scope of the Christian journey, as in themes of discipleship and suffering. The tunes are rhythmically more dance-like and melodically more up-beat and predictable.
In part two, we’ll take up the 1900-1950 era of Gospel songs, and conclude with questions for our day.
1. Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1993) p. 226.
2. Eskew and McElrath, Sing With Understanding (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980) p. 277.
3. Hustad, p. 240.
Examining the Legacy of the Gospel Song Part 2 of 2
In part one we examined the role of Gospel songs in the pre-1900 Sunday School movement, along with a nuts-and-bolts analysis of their characteristics—especially in contrast to the hymn form. From 1900 to 1950, the Gospel song became extremely popular in the show business, as electricity forever changed the nature of concerts and brought recordings into American homes. In general, the Mennonites bought deeply into this popular music fad, partly because it wasn’t that different from the Sunday School songs they already had.
Second-generation Gospel Songs: Concert Gospel (1900-1950)
The revivalists and singers that followed Moody and Sankey leaned even harder in the direction of popular music and shallow lyrics. Charles Alexander and Homer Rodeheaver were two gifted song leaders of the early 1900’s who borrowed entertainment tactics to get the crowds singing. With bold conducting, trombone solos, and showy vocals, they blurred the lines between an evangelistic meeting and a Gospel concert.1
Gospel songs written in this era are noticeably different from the Sunday School era Gospel songs. Rodeheaver himself admitted the shift toward show business: “It was never intended for a Sunday morning service, not for a devotional meeting—its purpose was to bridge the gap between the popular song of the day and the great hymns and gospel songs.”2
We could roughly illustrate the historical shift with three examples—all songs about going to heaven:
Hymn: “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.”
Sunday School song: “I Love to Think of My Home Above.”
Concert Gospel song: “I’ll Fly Away.”
Additional Characteristics of Concert Gospel Songs
1. Soloistic tunes. Vocal soloists with choir support became a standard feature in these days. A flood of new songs was written to provide soloistic material. “The Old Rugged Cross,” “I Come to the Garden Alone,” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus” are a few classic examples. Many in our older generation today still remember the voice of George Beverly Shea or Ernie Ford crackling from low-fi radios and LP records.
2. Syncopation. The Sunday school tunes brought a new bounce into Christian singing; the concert Gospel tunes upped the tension with syncopation. The fourth phrase of “Stepping in the Light” [CH #561] illustrates this daring new rhythmic technique. Today we scarcely notice it. Two other songs of the period that use extensive syncopation are “Living for Jesus” and “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.”
3. Call and response. An innovation in form was to have the upper and lower parts repeat phrases after each other, such as in “Send the Light” [Christian Hymnal #212]. This became a stock feature of 1940’s era Gospel, with whole songs composed on this model. “Each Day I’ll Do a Golden Deed” comes to mind. These Gospel hits were popularized by Gospel performers like the Chuckwagon Gang, the Blackwood Brothers, and the Happy Goodmans. In one of the history’s little ironies, these groups were later imitated by an amazing variety of aspiring Amish and Mennonite singing groups, minus the instruments.
4. Feel-good lyrics. The Gospel message gave way to general and sentimental references to salvation. Consider the song “Way Down”:
“I have a feeling in my soul since the Savior made me whole;
Way down, way down, way down, away down deep in my soul.”
The plaintive lament, as in “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through…” blurred the lines between Gospel and Country & Western. In fact, country music sprang directly from Gospel song model, blended with rural themes. One can still hear exactly these kinds of Gospel songs on country music radio, especially in the southern Bible Belt.
In conclusion, these features all pushed in the direction of concerts and away from congregational singing. It was “sanctified” entertainment. Mercifully, most of this genre has stayed out of Anabaptist songbook racks.
Should We Sing Gospel Songs in our Assemblies?
This is like asking, “Should we eat cookies?” A dietary fanatic might say no, but most of us feel life is richer with cookies and milk. Yet no one would advocate a total diet of cookies and milk. Paul speaks of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), which clearly implies variety in our expressions of praise. Think of hymns as steak and salad. Then gospel songs are the milk and cookies, and concert gospel songs—they might be Coke and Twinkies.
Junk food provides instant gratification, but not lasting satisfaction and good health. Only the immature eat it all the time. We have to help our children make good dietary choices because their instincts are not trustworthy. Just so, we ought to maintain a healthy distrust of our natural inclinations in music. Our taste must always be subject to the scrutiny of the Biblical standard.
Treats do have their time and place. whole bag of Snickers makes a poor dinner, but one Snickers bar is great on a cold afternoon. “I’ll Fly Away” is probably an ill fit on Sunday morning, but it can still brighten a laborer’s dull afternoon.
We should sing Gospel songs for the sake of the children. They love to chime in on the simple refrains. These songs were, after all, originally developed for Sunday school. The Apostle acknowledged the need for both milk and meat. “Sing Them Over Again to Me” is quality milk. Even adults need to sing simple things; Gospel songs are perfect for singing by memory.
Following the Davidic precedent, Gospel songs provide a needful outlet for singing our personal testimony. The basic theme of Gospel songs is “I will sing of my Redeemer.” Feel the deeply personal tone of these familiar lines:
Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long…
With the latent pietistic stream running through Anabaptist spirituality, it is not surprising that Anabaptists felt comfortable borrowing Gospel songs. On the other hand, “me-centered” expression runs contrary to the stronger Anabaptist emphases of brotherhood and self-effacement.
Finally, Gospel songs balance out what hymns do for our worship. Worship should engage the whole person—body, soul, and spirit. Too much rhythm appeals only to the body. Sentimental and personal lyrics primarily stir the soul. Theologically profound hymns may gratify only the intellect.
Challenges for our Day
Let’s be brave enough to be Scriptural. “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” indicate a variety of expressions that spring from the Word of God and the Work of God and the Person of Jesus. There must always be room for simple joy in our public worship. However, we may need to wean ourselves away from a sentimental attachment to a popular music fad that sprang out of 19th-century revivalism. There are, after all, other alternatives to hymns that have centuries of Christian tradition behind them. Where are the Scripture songs? What about chants, prayers, or antiphons? Are we singing any Psalms?
As with some of our mission models, the Anabaptist predilection for Gospel songs illustrates indiscriminate borrowing from Protestantism. “Indiscriminate” does not mean “bad”; it means not considering carefully enough before you accept. If we do not show Scriptural discrimination before we borrow, or if we are unwilling to examine our choices in the bright light of the Word, we are vulnerable to becoming neither Protestant nor Anabaptist.
Songs do not merely preach; they change our thinking in ways we do not realize. Gospel songs have probably done more to shape our concepts of salvation and conversion than all our preaching put together. The easy grace theology, the high-pressure altar calls, the once-and-done view of salvation—the ideas that once sounded so foreign to the Anabaptist mind, have lodged themselves within our subconscious to a degree that 21st century Anabaptism has yet to understand.
Cross-bearing, suffering, discipleship, yieldedness—the Gospel themes which defined Anabaptism—are ironically too dissonant for the chirpy tone of many Gospel songs. Shallow songs, even if they are old favorites, can function as “pacifiers”—comforting without being nutritious. Fred P. Green’s hymn “When the Church of Jesus” reminds us that church music must stir us to action: “lest our hymns should drug us to forget its [the world’s] needs.” Our song leaders and pastors must honestly evaluate the singing diet in our assemblies.
Gospel music eventually gave way to another worship fad—the Praise & Worship music of the 60’s and 70’s—the popular performance of which became known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). This music, which borrowed the sounds of rock music to carry a Christian message, has made overwhelming invasions into the musical tastes and values of Anabaptist youth in the past several decades. But until the hand-wringing parents deal honestly with their attachment to Gospel music, they have little foundation from which to direct their children. Gospel and CCM both came out of renewal movements in the church. Both borrowed the styles of contemporary pop music to re-energize worship, and both had close ties to show business. And both compromised a Biblical approach to worship because the showman’s song is not the people’s song. To our confusion, some of the current tension between the generations is simply a tension between yesterday’s fad and today’s fad. But the language of the debate is too often generalized as Christian music versus worldly music when neither side is honestly measuring the styles against a Biblical standard.
Now some have defended Gospel songs for their simplicity. They do fit us well, in the sense that conservative Anabaptists are generally simple concerning music. But our collective singing is a gift offered to God. This neglected concept must shape how and what we sing. Our “sacrifice of praise” is the New Testament answer to “the finest of the flock.” We do not preach shortcuts in the Christian journey otherwise; we preach about the cost of discipleship. How could we promote a whatever-is-easiest approach to worship?
This is not musical snobbishness; it is Biblical. The Law allowed the poor to bring turtledoves, and God certainly honors the saint who brings “Wonderful Story of Love.” At some level, we are all musically poor. Our finest hymns are humble little offerings compared to the music of heaven. Jesus taught a powerful lesson from the lady who gave two mites, but He did not teach that we should all give two mites so that no one feels left out.
Let the best Gospel songs continue to ring in our chapels and schools and homes. We need them. Which ones are the best? Just flip through a half dozen major denominational hymnals from recent years and see which ones have survived. You will find a consensus that looks familiar.
Eskew and McElrath, p. 180
Ibid., p. 180