The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music

The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music

The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music

The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music


Don Cusic presents gospel music as part of the history of contemporary Christianity. From the psalms of the early Puritans through the hymns of Isaac Watts and the social activism of the Wesleys, gospel music was established in eighteenth-century America. With the camp meetings songs of the Kentucky Revival and the spirituals and hymns that stemmed from the Civil War and beyond, gospel music grew through the nineteenth century and expanded through new technologies in the twentieth century.


The first question is "What is Gospel Music?" The twentieth century answer is that "there is no such thing as gospel music." There is such a thing as a gospel song, which depends primarily upon the lyric to express its Christian message. The song carries the gospel, or "good news" in music, which qualifies it as a gospel song. But the vehicle—the music itself—may be rock, country, r&b, folk, classical, jazz or any other kind of music. Because Christianity always seeks to be contemporary, it adapts its structure to the music of the day (today's being the music of the popular culture) to carry its message.

Since American Christianity is basically divided between black and white churches, gospel music reflects this major division within the confines of black and white gospel music. Black gospel may be either traditional, featuring the large choirs with soloists from black churches, or contemporary, akin to the music heard on black radio stations. Its heritage is linked to the slave culture in this country while other influences come from the white culture (from British broadside ballads and hymns), as well as the black experience movement.

White gospel music may be divided into three broad categories: southern gospel, the sound akin to country music usually dominated by the male quartet sound; inspirational or church music, geared for the church audience and generally sung by choirs in the sanctuary during a service; and contemporary Christian music, songs of the popular culture with Christian lyrics marketed to consumers through the network of Christian bookstores.

The primary difference between musicians in the pop world and gospel musicians is that pop musicians see themselves as entertainers while Christian musicians see themselves as ministers. Therefore, the songs of the gospel singers, musicians and songwriters must be functional, expressing the Christian faith to attract new believers or edify established believers. Music outside the Christian culture, on the other hand, is generally viewed as entertainment.

The music for Christian revivals generally comes from the secular culture as revivalists seek out popular tunes and contemporary styles of music to entice new converts and infuse traditional religion with new life and make it contemporary. As the revival turns into a movement, and then into an accepted part of established Christianity, the music turns inward, seeking to edify believers rather than convert non-believers. Thus, the music first comes from outside the church to the members, then from the congregation to the church, where it is incorporated into the worship. After this metamorphosis, the church shuts its doors to new music and develops another tradition. This tradition will become entrenched, then challenged by a new revival led by music, which will alter the music of the church again. This has been the history of music in religious revivals from Martin Luther's day to the Jesus Movement of the 1970s.

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