THE IMPACT OF GOSPEL SONGS
Although many other subcultures of American and English religious life have moved far away from the Gospel Song,1 they still prevail today in many American fundamentalist circles, and the form has mutated into different and newer decadence.
“Each of the evangelists who followed Moody felt that he too must have his personal songbook.”2 This was in part caused by the strict copyright held on Gospel Hymns, but was probably more a result of the shifting of musical tastes by the masses which became more and more pronounced and accelerated as American evangelicalism moved into the 20th century.3
Evangelistic and revival songleaders became more and more extravagant in their effort to have the people participate in the singing. Charles McCallon Alexander (1876-1920) and Homer Alvan Rodeheaver (1880-1955) “were more like masters of ceremonies or leaders of community songfests than was Sankey.”4 Some would use their trumpet or trombone in the song service, or have entire orchestras playing along with them. The songbooks began to include fewer and fewer hymns.
Further, more and more evangelical clergy were jumping on board the Moody bandwagon. As Joel A. Carpenter so aptly observed,
Moody’s partners in this new wave of popular outreach were a group of gifted and respectable urban pastors such as Presbyterians A. T. Pierson of Philadelphia and A. B. Simpson of New York, and Baptists A. J. Gordon of Boston and A. C. Dixon of Baltimore. These ministers mortified their own genteel tastes and values and revamped their congregations to reflect the popular revivalistic style of the urban evangelists.5
Long before the controversies of the 20’s, fundamentalists such as W. B. Riley were seeking “to transform his congregation, which had been a haven for the city’s elite, into a ‘city temple,’ a center for popular religious activity.”6
Today, many Gospel Songs are sung in fundamentalist worship services, as well as their college and seminary chapels. Fundamentalist musicians arrange the songs for choirs, and sometimes their texts are replaced with newer, more contemporary sounding melodies.
Probably more significant than all of these factors listed is the fact that fundamentalists have historically bought into the idea of Gospel Songs, that being that people cannot be reached without some kind of a populist appeal. In the end, there is little qualitative difference between the Gospel Songs of Sankey and structuring services less “liturgically” in order to reach the “un-churched.”
1For instance, Louis Benson observed in 1927 that “the Gospel Hymns occupy a far background now,” (267), and Routley had a similar view in 1959 that “enquiries have shown that nowadays these hymns are less used than they were in the Sunday worship even of the nonconformist missions in industrial areas” (Hymns, 241). Also see Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 483-484.
2Benson, Christian Hymnody, 268.
3Some groups have become uneasy with the progressiveness of this trend, and have tried to put an end to the trend, but in large part the line that they have determined they will not cross is (somewhat arbitrarily) drawn at the Gospel Hymns.
4Ellinwood, Religious Music, 329.
5Revive Us Again (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 35. Carpenter further links to Moody the fundamentalist impulse “to reach the masses and to communicate their message in a popularly attractive way”(35).