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What is Gospel Music?

In the mid-1800s two men developed a new kind of religious music that was to become today's Gospel music. The two men were famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody and his music director and soloist, Ira D. Sankey, known as the "Sweet Singer."
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(Gospel enthusiasts from all over the United States will gather in Lebanon, Missouri, this weekend for the Gospel Spectacular and next weekend for the Brumley Gospel Sing. Lebanon, a town of 14,000+ in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, also happens to be my hometown. The following is a column written by me and published in today's edition of The Lebanon Daily, the area's local newspaper.)

Recently I was asked, "What is Gospel music?" That would have been very easy to answer prior to the mid-1800s. Prior to then, the term "Gospel music" was not used. Instead, people referred to "Gospel hymns" -- stately, dignified religious songs with definite references to the Gospel message of the New Testament. One of the earliest of these Gospel hymns goes back to 1529, when Martin Luther wrote the words and composed the music of the stately and much sung A Mighty Fortress is our God. The theme of the hymn is "relying on Jesus Christ to overcome the Devil," with specific references to Psalm 46, Galatians 5:22, and Philippians 2:9-10. This is not, however, the kind of music we think of today as Gospel music.

In the mid-1800s two men developed a new kind of religious music that was to become today's Gospel music. The two men were famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody and his music director and soloist, Ira D. Sankey, known as the "Sweet Singer."

Moody believed that hymn singing was one of the most important elements of a church service, an ideal way for worshippers to participate individually and as a community. Moody believed it was necessary for the words of hymns to be understandable and pertinent to the lives of the people singing -- that is, in the vernacular of the people--which at that time most hymns were not. He also believed that the music of hymns needed to be easy to sing, that the melodies should be of a nature that people would leave the service humming the tunes and remembering them for several days.

Moody knew what he wanted from the music in his revival services, but he was not a musician and was unable to come up with the music he wanted. In 1870, Moody heard Ira Sankey sing at a YMCA convention, and Moody immediately knew Sankey was the man who could provide what he wanted. Sankey had a secure position with the IRS office in Indianapolis and only sang as a hobby. After several months of persuasion from Moody, Sankey resigned his government job and joined Moody's revival team. Sankey served as Moody's music director, soloist, and song writer, and played a reed organ at most services.

It was Sankey's job to come up with the kind of music Moody believed was necessary for his services. Sankey had the unique talent for hearing words and sitting down at the piano or organ and playing a tune for the words he just heard. In all, he wrote over 1,200 tunes, and furnished the words as well for many of them.

Sankey's music has several special characteristics that set his music apart from other hymns and tradition church music. His singing always reached out to the people in a way that caused them to respond in one way or another. His music had a special rhythm that prompted people to keep time by clapping their hands or stomping their feet. Sankey's tunes had many of the same qualities of the music played by cowboys gathered around the campfire at night and of the African-American spirituals or work songs. It had mixed tones of loneliness, desire, searching, dread, excitement, expectation, and the joy of victory. Moody never knew what to expect from Sankey when it came time for him to sing, but whatever Sankey sang was always just what was needed in words, tone, and rhythm, sometimes causing such emotion that Moody himself broke down in tears.

Sankey's music provided Moody with what he had wanted. During the singing, people got personally involved--participating by singing, clapping hands, and tapping feet. The music was meaningful, always speaking to the needs of the people in their own vernacular. And his music was easy to sing. Sankey used repetition in his songs, especially in refrains, making them easy to remember. And the people left humming the tunes they had heard and sung. Sankey's music was definitely different from traditional church music, and today's classic Gospel music has these same qualities as his music. The term "Gospel Music" first appeared in print in 1874 in a songbook named Gospel Songs: A Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes.

Dwight Moody preached his last sermon on November 16, 1899, in Kansas City, Missouri. Ira Sankey was his "Sweet Singer" until the end.

Moody and Sankey's development, refinement, and promotion of Gospel music were carried on by Billy Sunday and his soloist Homer Rodeheaver in the early 1900s. Rodeheaver had a beautiful baritone voice, and he played a trombone as well. When leading singing in Billy Sunday's services, he always had his trombone in his hand, playing when appropriate. Rodeheaver was a natural showman who could warm his audiences with jokes, songs, and his trombone. He understood and appreciated classical sacred music, and even used the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah at times, but his real talent was promoting the lively new Gospel songs of his era.

Sunday and Rodeheaver were followed in further development of Gospel music by Billy Graham and baritone George Beverly Shea in the last half of the twentieth century. Shea was not the director of music for Graham, but was "America's beloved Gospel singer" and composer of Gospel hymns for the Billy Graham crusades. He wanted to major in voice training in college, but not having the needed money dropped out of college before completing his degree. Because of the attendance at Graham's Crusades, Shea sang live before more people than anyone else in history.

Moody and Sankey, Sunday and Rodeheaver, and Graham and Shea were responsible for setting a very high standard for Gospel music. There is still a very real need for the beauty, glory, and depth of traditional church music. But there is also a place for classic Gospel music in our Christian experiences.

(Sources of information: personal knowledge and various religious encyclopedias, church history books, and worship books.)