THE NATURE OF GOSPEL SONGS
Having seen the intense popularity of these songs, what was their nature? What made them different than their predecessors in the Christian musical tradition? Why did Moody and Sankey see in these forms that made them implement them so successfully?
“The revivalist hymn and tune was the refuge of the dispossessed people of industrialized America and England.”1 Troughton noted that “The music was useful for the purposes of evangelistic services, but was also popular in its own right. At one level, any music provided popular entertainment in small centres that provided few alternatives.”2 Both in its simple tunes and lyrics, the song hit “emotional buttons” and the popular arts common with the lower classes in the new industrialized world.
The Poetry of Gospel Songs
The Gospel Song is not a hymn. The poetry and text of the Gospel Song made several subtle changes from earlier sacred lyrics. New themes within the text started replacing older ones. For instance, instead of hymns about the atonement, Gospel Songs started using more themes concerned with emotional strength.
Consider, for instance, the following lines written by Mrs. Will L. Murphy:
There’s a peace in my heart that the world never gave,
A peace it can not take away;
Tho’ the trials of life may surround like a cloud,
I’ve a peace that has come there to stay!Constantly abiding, Jesus is mine;
Constantly abiding, rapture divine;
He never leaves me lonely, whispers, O so kind:
“I will never leave thee,” Jesus is mine.3
Many songs, like the one above, spoke of Jesus in a new way—a way he had rarely been spoken of before. Instead of themes about the depravity of man, seen so common in the hymns of Watts and Wesley, man was presented as someone “wandering” and affected from the outside by sin. For example, the song “Once For All,” said that man was “cursed by the law” and “bruised by the fall.” Contrast this with the transparent statement by Watts, “Would He devote that sacred Head for such a worm as I?”.4
Songs about evangelism were particularly interesting, as well. The songs spoke of “wandering,” assuming that the sinner, or “prodigal,” would eventually “come home.” Listening to the Gospel Songs, one assumed that nearly every sinner earnestly wanted to become saved. The following song, “Wishing, Hoping, Knowing,” by P. P. Bliss, illustrates this particular view of evangelism:
A long time I wandered in darkness and sin,
And wondered if ever the light would shine in;
I heard Christian friends tell of rapture divine,
And wish’d, how I wish’d that their Savior were mine.
I wish’d He were mine, yes, I wish’d He were mine;
I wish’d, how I wish’d, that their Savior were mine.5
Its use of repetition sometimes built the emotion of the song, and heightened its experience. Personal pronouns were almost exclusively first person singular: “I come to the garden alone,” “Each step I take the Savior goes before me,” “I think when I read that sweet story of old.” As Ellinwood observed, “How strange it would sound to hear ‘Jesus loves us, this we know.”6 Benson also noticed several distinct characteristics of the Gospel Song:
[A Gospel Song] makes use of solo effects, of repeats, of burdens, and climacteric catchwords, with of course a generous use of ‘that most sociable of musical devices,’ the chorus. It is, in other words, the conventional type of music appealing to the crowd as distinguished from more thoughtful and cultivated people.7
1Routley, Hymns, 238.
2“Moody and Sankey Down Under: A Case Study in Trans-Atlantic” Revivalism in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand” JRH 29 (2005): 155.
3Gospel Hymns, (Grabill, IN: Gospel Hymn Publishing Company, 1966), No. 40. Consider also “The Precious Name,” No. 47, or “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” No 42, etc.
4See Sizer, Gospel Hymns, 22-49 for a good discussion contrasting earlier hymns with the new Gospel Songs in Sankey’s hymnal.
5Gospel Hymns Consolidated Embracing Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 Without Duplicates, (Cincinnati: John Church Company, 1895), No. 66. For further examples, see “Where Hast Thou Gleaned Today?” No. 33; “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” No. 37; “I Love to Tell the Story,” No. 39; “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” No. 65, among others.
6Leonard Ellinwood, “Religious Music” in Religious Perspectives in American Culture (vol. 2 of Religion in American Life; ed. James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 328.
7Louis F. Benson, The Hymnody of the Christian Church (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927; repr., Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1956), 267.