Americans have always placed a premium on individualism. But, in the Coronavirus pandemic, we have carried individualism to a new level. To avoid going out, some people are trying to get “off the grid” by generating their own power, planting their own gardens, or doing anything else imaginable. We see this same problem in our churches. Instead of meeting corporately, we have been forced to watch services online from the isolation of our homes. We know it is a necessary evil done out of love for each other. But our instincts also tell us this cannot be healthy in the long-term. Sure, we like individualism, but not many people like isolation.
The gospel song movement reached its high point with the publishing of Philip Paul Bliss’s (1838-1876) and Ira D. Sankey’s (1840-1908) Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875). Both men traveled as song-leaders with well-known revivalists, Bliss with D.W. Whittle and Sankey with D.L. Moody. Bliss and Sankey also affiliated with their own established publishing companies. Bliss even created the name for the gospel song genre when he published a song book entitled Gospel Songs (1874). As a result of their combined influence and capacities, Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs sold over 50 million copies by the turn of the 20th century.
What kind of currents in history could create this immense demand for gospel songs? Bliss’s teacher William Bradbury (1816-1868) had laid the foundation by furnishing an entire generation of children with Sunday school songs through the YMCA and American Sunday School Union. That generation grew up, got married, and began forming their own families, but they retained a hunger for songs of the Sunday school flavor. Bliss and Sankey filled that void.
Part of the success of the gospel song has to do with its individual character. “Gospel hymns served as direct purpose in giving a musical voice to the emotion and personal testimony of evangelical worship, conveying that emotion clearly and simply” (Ogasapian, 189). Gospel songs resonated with young believers who wanted to give expression to their faith, to tell of the good news. But the gospel song’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. Ogasapian continues, “As such, issues of musical quality and even substantive theological discourse are simply irrelevant. Sankey never thought of himself as performing music for his crowds, but rather of singing them the Gospel, as he himself put it. Such music accorded well with the spirit of the late-nineteenth-century revivals” (189). I purposefully quote Ogasapian on this point because he is much more charitable towards the gospel song than many of its critics who look down on the gospel song for its musically simple and sometimes overly-sentimental character. I want to gently address what others have, perhaps, harshly demeaned.
I think sugar is a good analogy in this case. Sugar is wonderful to taste and enjoyable in appropriate amounts. But too much of it can cause serious problems for your body. In the same way, the Bible gives room for individual expression, as we see in the Psalms. Our personal testimony can point others toward the gospel, which we have been commissioned by Christ to do. But too much individualism (and the wrong kind) can cause serious problems in the body of Christ. If we are accurate in our theology, we must recognize the New Testament emphasizes the “we” more than the “me” in gathered worship. I have not come to worship alone—we have gathered together to worship Christ as one church. Such mutual presence demonstrates an interdependence on each other’s gifts, a need for accountability, and an obligation to serve others rather than ourselves. If we are not very careful, a steady diet of gospel songs in our worship can tip the balance of our theology and practice in an unhealthy, self-serving direction.
I think many Americans did and still do gravitate towards this genre of music because it resonates with the individualistic values in our culture. Because of our cultural preferences, we may not always see the disadvantages associated with the gospel song. I am not saying the gospel song has no value or place in the Christian church. Even as I flipped through the titles in Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs I was saying, “Yes, I love that one. And that one. And that one.” What I am saying, however, is that we should be intentional about every song we choose to sing and when we choose to sing it. The gospel songs themselves had roots in the Sunday school movement, which created songs for use with children in Sunday school. We should ask ourselves, “Is this message appropriate for this setting? Have we exalted Christ in what we have sung? Have we sung the whole gospel, not just the parts of it I resonate with?” These kinds of questions will steer us in the right direction and help us appreciate the gospel song for what it is.
A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).
Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).
Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).
This series of blog posts on American Hymnody were originally written as a part of an online graduate class taught by Dr. Fred Coleman at Bob Jones University during the spring semester of 2020.