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Gospel Music

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the cultural history of biblical texts, themes, characters, images, and the Bible itself in the literary, visual, and musical arts.

Gospel Music

“The Battle Is Not Yours, It’s the Lord’s” sang Yolanda Adams on her 1988 album Save the World. The recording went on to become one of Adams’s “signature songs” as it quickly moved into the standard repertoire of gospel choirs across the nation. Adams’s career eventually catapulted to the top of the gospel music charts, reflecting her subsequent multiplatinum sales and Grammy awards. The song title and refrain “The Battle Is Not Yours” was scriptural, referencing the Old Testament text of 2 Chronicles 20:15, which cautions King Jehosophat and the people of Jerusalem to stand firm in facing the looming enemy, despite what promised to be an encounter against formidable odds. The battle, according to the prophecy, could only be won in the spiritual realm; God’s way represented the ultimate winning strategy.

Such was the battle of Thomas A. Dorsey, who was to become known as the Father of Gospel Music, and his entrepreneurial colleagues, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts when they took a leap of faith in 1932 to form the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in Chicago. Gospel music was in its nascent phase. It represented a new sound, which had already proved its ability to revitalize the worship experience. The Chicago-based collective, which also included Willie Mae Ford Smith of St. Louis, shared a vision of developing and spreading this dynamic new brand of music to a broad public; they agreed upon a strategy to move into and conquer this wholly uncharted terrain. Although they represented an ecumenical perspective, as members of Baptist, Methodist, and Spiritualist denominations, no precedent for a body of such scope and mission existed, and the effort to formalize the vision and bring it to fruition was not without its detractors.

In a July 1974 interview by the journalist Alfred Duckett in Black World, Thomas Dorsey recalls the objection some ministers expressed regarding the validity of this genre called gospel. “There was a great deal of opposition. Especially from ministers. They became quite disturbed at the thought of gospel music. ‘You can’t sing no gospel,’ they would say. ‘You can only preach it.’ ” Embedded in the term “gospel,” which Dorsey, in the same interview, credits himself as coining, was, for some, its presumed representation of the texts of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In another interview with Jim and Amy O’Neal published in Living Blues the following year, Dorsey expands and clarifies his definition of gospel, emphatically declaring “Gospel—it’s good news, that’s what the book says, that’s what the Bible tells you.” The pioneers of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses moved forward with a message of spiritual uplift, confident that the message of good news could and would be enhanced, rather than unobstructed through musical delivery.

The biblically inspired gospel music of Thomas Dorsey and the many artists—solo, choir, ensemble, and quartet—who continue to follow the path he helped to forge sprang in part from the eighteenth-century Negro spiritual tradition. Both gospel music and spirituals are forms of indigenous expression created by African Americans for African Americans. The ethnomusicologist George Robinson Ricks, author of the first dissertation devoted exclusively to the topic of gospel music, completed at Northwestern University in 1960, contends that “the gospel tradition was influenced by the older styles of Negro religious music” (Ricks, 1977, p. 132). Ricks’s thesis is echoed by other seminal voices who advanced critiques of the evolution of gospel music, including that of the African American composer John Work III. Writing in 1949, Work identifies the music of “southern Negro folk churches” as including nonindigenous genres of standard hymns and the unaccompanied “Dr. Watts” tradition of metered hymns as well as “traditional spirituals” and “some exciting, new music.” The new music clearly referenced gospel, distinguished particularly by its piano accompaniment, which he described as “just as integral a part of the performance as is the singing.” Most importantly, Work documents the fact that gospel music has secured a place of acceptance in African American churches alongside that of the spiritual. Speaking with the confidence of one who had engaged intimately with the black church throughout his life, Work views gospel music as a creative evolution or reinvention of the spiritual. Unlike those who feared the erasure of the spiritual in the face of the advent of gospel music, Work argues instead that through gospel music, spirituals simply “passed over into another type of singing and song.” He solidifies his argument by aligning the creative impulse of African Americans who produced both spirituals and gospel music, asserting that “ this ‘Dorsey’ song [read: gospel] is composed by the identical people who formerly created the spiritual and is composed for the same people who used to worship by the spiritual—the Negro folk” (Work, 1983, p. 288).

Work’s assessment is borne out in the repertoire of pioneering gospel music recording artists and in the worship services of African American churches. To be interpreted accurately, gospel music must be understood both as a distinct, independent genre composed of original compositions and as a performance style. As performance style, it is governed by its own unique set of aesthetic parameters, which are often superimposed on spirituals and on such nonindigenous genres as spirituals. Through a transformation of performance style, other genres can be rendered sonically as gospel. At the same time, the texts themselves, often rendered verbatim, identify the origin of the source material and establish the desired continuity of spiritual messaging, which prompts gospel artists to incorporate musical examples from other genres into their repertoires.

The repertoire of Lifetime Grammy award–winning contralto Mahalia Jackson (1912–1972) is a case in point. Included in her repertoire were many gospel arrangements of Negro spirituals—among them, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “Were You There?,” “Soon I Will Be Done with the Troubles of the World,” and “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The iconic Mahalia Jackson chose to embrace the literature of the spiritual because of the poignancy of its lyrics, which transcend time. From the publication of the first collection of Negro spirituals, Slave Songs in the United States, in 1867 to the advent of hip-hop gospel in the 1990s, the Bible has been the mainstay of the textual imagery as well as the aesthetic underpinning of musical performance representative of African American worship in the United States. Analyzed by musicologists, anthropologists, historians, theologians, ethnomusicologists, as well as music theorists, the story of music in African American worship is a complex narrative that embodies the cultural history of a people. Spiritual song texts reveal a strong and important lens to understanding the integral relationship that exists between gospel music and the Bible.

A review of any collection of Negro spirituals will reveal the extent to which the textual content—both subject matter and imagery—is biblically inspired. Wallace McKenzie, in his study of E. A. McIlhenny’s 1933 collection of 120 “befo’ de war” spirituals from Louisiana (1990), indicates that “Biblical phrases, characters and events completely dominate the texts.” His analysis continues:

"No fewer than thirty-one biblical characters appear in these texts, most of them more than once. As might be expected, the name of “Jesus” is the most prominent; his name appears twenty-three times, and there are other references to “the Lamb” and “the Son of God.” But it may be surprising to learn that the next most prominent name in these spirituals is “Satan,” with twelve appearances (plus another two for the “devil”). Other popular characters are “angels” (11, excluding “Archangel”), “Mary” (6), “John,” writer of the Revelation (6) and “Joshua” (5) and two pairs, “Adam-Eve” and “David-Goliath” (each appearing in four songs)." (McKenzie, 1990, p. 101)

Although McKenzie points out that only one fourth (28) of the songs in Befo’ de War Spirituals can be found in whole or in part in other collections, his analysis clearly establishes the centrality of scripture in the Negro spiritual repertoire, even within a body of songs representative of a restricted locale.

Negro spirituals chronicled the Word of God, as set forth in the Bible, functioning to reconstruct biblical events and condense and distill the embedded scriptural message. The distinguished concert tenor Roland Hayes included the spiritual “Witness” in his repertoire during his 1918 transcontinental tour, referencing it as “a sung sermon” he had learned during his childhood. The song text recounts the biblical narratives of the Old Testament figures Samson, Methusaleh, Joshua, and Daniel, who individually and collectively witness to God’s power in their lives. The text begins:

We read in the Bible and we understan’That Samson was the strongest man.Samson went out at one timeAnd killed about a thousand Philistines.Delilah fooled Samson, this we knowBecause the Holy Bible tells us so.She shaved off his head just as clean as your han’,And his strength became as any other man.

(Work, 1940, p. 22)

As long as these gifted spiritual songsters were able to maintain the overarching principle of the biblical teaching, specific facts could be altered to accommodate the musical line or rhythmic phrase. For example, a different verse of “Witness” chronicles the biblical figure Methuselah.

We read in the Bible an’ we understan’Methuselah was the oldes’ man,He lived nine hundred and ninety-nineHe died an’ went to heaven, Lord, in-a due time.

(Work, 1940, p. 21)

According to Genesis 5:25–26, Methuselah lived to be only 969, rather than the 999 years indicated in the spiritual song text. By adding 30 years to Methuselah’s age, the singers created an alliteration which, according to Work, results in a “more pleasing” poetic line (1940, p. 21). The 30-year difference in the representations of Methusaleh’s age does not alter the message that he had been blessed by God with long life. This type of artistic license is closely akin to the gospel music performance aesthetic, which both allows and expects artists to create and recreate song texts as a way of personalizing or bringing a work to life for the listening audience.

As the historical sequence of “Witness” advances into the New Testament, the experience of Nicodemus and his spiritual rebirth is introduced. Roland Hayes recounts having sung this powerful biblical narrative during a concert before a “well-groomed white audience” in Santa Monica in 1918. As a child, Hayes had been introduced to “Witness” through a “Negro preacher who had a knack of putting whole chapters of the Bible into memorable poetic form.” He recalls having been captivated by the engaging and instructive song text as well as by the demonstrative delivery style of the preacher, an experience which he had relived again and again when presenting “Witness” to African American congregations as a professional artist. But his experience in sharing this highly rhythmic and compelling narrative with the white California audience did not generate the audience response he had so often experienced in the past. Only his mother, who was present at the event, “under the compulsion of deep religious feeling … had called out, in a clear and ringing voice, ‘Hallelujah! I’m a witness, too.’ ” The white congregation responded only with applause at the end (Helm, 1942, pp. 121–123). Hayes’s experience strongly suggests that while scriptural song texts embodied power and meaning in and of themselves, for African American congregations, textual meanings were enhanced and enriched through the demonstrative engagement of the body—hands, facial expression, and eyes. Only then did the word truly become flesh.

As a folk form created among the slave populace, the Negro spiritual had existed exclusively within the boundaries of the African American community. With the influx of northern soldiers, journalists, missionaries, and teachers (among others) to the South following the Civil War, the audience for this genre began to expand well beyond the confines of blacks on the southern plantation. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were instrumental in the creation and development of this new, predominantly nonblack audience.

Fisk University was founded in 1866 by the American Missionary Association for the purpose of “training teachers and ministers for the freedmen from among their own number.” As a fledgling institution, initially serving more than a thousand students daily, Fisk was fraught with financial troubles from its beginning. The founding of the Fisk Jubilee Singers represented a novel solution to the institution’s fiscal crisis. The idea was “talked over and prayed over for a year or two” before a mixed ensemble of 11 students initiated its first fund-raising tour in 1871 (Marsh, 1876).

The 1876 account of the Fisk campaign by J. B. T. Marsh underscores the deep and abiding spiritual motivation that White and each member of the Jubilee Singers held. White felt commanded by the Lord “to go forward” with this mission by faith. Accordingly, the name that he assigned to the group was inspired by the Old Testament (Lev 25) reference to the “year of Jubilee”—a figure of speech that appears frequently in the songs and prayers of slaves. According to the Bible, the year of Jubilee, a time when slaves were set free and properties were returned to their original owners, occurred only every 50 years. Marsh, among others, viewing this moniker as divinely appointed by God, attributes some degree of the success of the group to its name.

As was their director, all of the members of the original Jubilee Singers were Christians, who collectively saw themselves as evangelists “singing for Jesus” (Marsh, 1876, p. 71). Whether performing in the concert hall, choir loft, or public sidewalk, the missive of this group transcended boundaries of race, class, religious denomination, and culture. Even the most musically critical were disarmed by the commanding spiritual presence of the Jubilee Singers, frequently proclaiming the group’s “holy cause,” “truth, piety and talent,” as well as “moral and religious power.”

During their European tours, the Jubilee Singers were invited to assist the famed evangelists Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey in conducting revivals. The singers ministered before crowds of as many as 12,000, sometimes even declining potential concert dates to engage in this “holy cause.” In response to their music, described at one London service as carrying the audience “heavenward on angels’ wings,” the Jubilee Singers were offered “prayers and hospitality” and showered with praise from prominent supporters who desired to “do as Joseph did to his brethren, send them back loaded with all the good things of Egypt” (Marsh, 1876, p. 83). Among the many valued gifts they received were personal copies of Bagster’s Bible used in Moody and Sankey meetings.

The repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers included many songs that have become a part of the standard Negro spiritual literature. From “Go Down, Moses,” which the group performed at the White House, to “Steal Away to Jesus,” which riveted London audiences, the messages of faith and hope were rooted and grounded in the scripture, just as the folk spiritual had been. The 21 spirituals included in both the 1876 Fisk collection and the 1874 Hampton University collection refer to the biblical figures of Jesus, Moses, Ezekiel, Peter, Daniel, and Paul and Silas. These songs advance themes of deliverance (“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”), praise (“He’s the King of Kings”), resistance (“Many Thousand Gone”), faith (“Keep a Inchin’ Along”), and heavenly solace (“In Bright Mansions Above”), among others. Observers of the commanding influence of the Jubilee Singers’ mission proclaimed their work as sermons in song, a recurrent trope in self-appraisals by artists who perform gospel.

The form of religious music most pervasive in contemporary African American worship is known as gospel, a song form that reflects the evolution of the Negro spiritual into a genre representative of the black urban dweller newly arrived from the South during the great migrations surrounding World Wars I and II. An acknowledged pioneer in the development of African American gospel music, the composer Charles Albert Tindley (1851–1933), a Methodist minister steeped in the doctrines of the Holiness movement, is credited with having penned 53 “gospel hymns.” Notably, Tindley’s songs were written “to enhance his ability to convey points in his sermons” (Reagon, 1992, p. 44). One minister who grew up in Tindley’s church in Philadelphia recalls:

"[Tindley] did not write gospel music just to write gospel music. His music came out of experience, … some type of personal experience or some scriptural experience led to his seeking to put to music—for those who would not get it in the sermon—the gospel message." (Reagon, 1992, p. 44)

As a lyricist, Tindley effectively communicated simplicity and passion, often restating scripture in a language that transcended barriers of denomination, race, and social class. The scholar Horace Boyer (1992) cites Tindley’s interpretation of Isaiah 6:8 as an example:

Also, I heard the voice of the Lord, sayingWhom shall I send, and who will go for us?Then said I, here am I; send me. (KJV)

Under Tindley’s pen, this straightforward biblical text is skillfully and paraphrased into rhyming couplets:

If the Savior wants somebody just to fill a humble place,And to show that to the lowly God will give sufficient  grace,I am ready now to offer all I am, what-e’er it beAnd to say to Him this moment, “Here am I, send me.”

(quoted in Boyer, 1992, p. 61)

Boyer commends Tindley’s masterful ability to project the imagery and symbolism of those biblical characters with which African Americans identified most. The poignancy of such song texts as his “Stand by Me” and “We Will Understand It Better By and By” prompts ministers today to quote Tindley songs as part of their sermons, for as poetry, his texts serve to bring the preached word to life (Boyer, 1992, pp. 61).

Whereas the gospel hymns of Charles Albert Tindley are strongly grounded in scriptural reference as foundation for conveying Christian belief, performers associated with Holiness/Pentecostal churches during their infancy often cite the Bible as both inspiration for and validation of their demonstrative worship style. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) preachers-performers Elder Curry and Rev. F. W. McGee forthrightly proclaimed texts from the Psalms as justification for “their belief in music and dance as vehicles for praise.” Paul Oliver cites one of Curry’s recorded sermons, entitled “Prove All Things,” in which he vehemently confronts negative appraisals of COGIC worship practices. The sermon reads:

"Thank God, Jesus, he come to prove all things—and we are his people—Saints. People try to condemn us everywhere; they all say we are wrong. We dance you know, in service, we can talk in service. We praise God on stringed inst’ments in service, now it got to be proven tonight." (1984, p. 174)

Oliver notes that, in continuing his sermon, Curry draws his proof from Psalm 149 and Mark 16:16: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Now some people, they don’t like that noise.” According to Oliver, the congregation vociferously responds with the gospel song which proclaims “When the Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong” (Oliver, 1984, p. 174).

Not infrequently, the traditional gospel music pioneer Mahalia Jackson was also derided for her overtly expressive performance style. Unlike the aforementioned Curry and McGee, however, Jackson was not a member of the Church of God in Christ. Raised as a Baptist during her formative years in New Orleans, she died a Baptist in Chicago in 1972. Yet Jackson recalled growing up next to a Sanctified Church that “had no choir or organ,” using instead the drum, cymbal, tambourine, and steel triangle as accompaniment. Her attraction to the overtly demonstrative worship style was palpable, as evident in her comment that “everyone in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring the tears to my eyes” (Jackson with Wylie, 1966, p. 32).

Jackson typifies Baptist singing as “sweet” in contrast to the “powerful beat” that characterized the “jubilation” of the Holiness-Pentecostal song style. It is not surprising that she experienced derision from preachers who saw the handclapping and stomping she incorporated into her music as undignified and, therefore, inappropriate for worship. But, in one specific instance, just as leaders of Holiness congregations had countered unfavorable commentary on their worship style, Jackson reacted with equal vehemence to the derision she faced, using the scriptures as authoritative defense.

"I told him I was born to sing gospel music. Nobody had to teach me. I was serving God. I told him I had been reading the Bible every day most of my life and there was a Psalm that said: “O clap your hands all ye people! Shout unto the Lord with the voice of a trumpet!” If it was undignified, it was what the Bible told me to do." (Jackson with Wylie, 1966, p. 63)

Just as so many artists who followed her chosen path into gospel music, Jackson’s was driven by her belief that she had been led by God to minister to those in need—to spread the gospel through song. In Jackson’s heart and soul, her music-making was much more than a profession driven by material necessity; it was a divine calling directed by God.

Referencing the pioneering gospel composer/performer Roberta Martin (1907–1969), leader of the renowned Roberta Martin Singers, the ethnomusicologist Pearl Williams-Jones outlines the background and drive that fueled Martin’s approach to singing.

"Long before gospel singing became a performance medium for the concert stage, the basic function of the gospel singer was evangelistic. … The singers were “singing evangelists” whose purpose was to save souls by declaring the gospel in song. … They saw themselves as ministers, as carriers of the gospel message through the singing of songs." (Williams-Jones, 1992, p. 271)

Following a successful concert at Carnegie Hall in 1973, the multiple Grammy award–winner Andraé Crouch (1942–2015) declared, “Gospel [music] is the word of God,” echoing Thomas Dorsey’s description of the genre in its nascence some 40 years earlier (“Andraé Crouch Brings His Brand of Gospel to Atlanta,” 1982). The Grammy, Stellar, and Dove award winner Shirley Caesar (b. 1938) was long known throughout the gospel world as an evangelist whose songs are “messages” in which she is “just talking about Jesus, telling how he helps, how he saves” (“First Lady of Gospel,” 1977, p. 102). As pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church, in Raleigh, North Carolina, she asserts that gospel music is God’s music, that it speaks for him. “I believe that preaching and singing go together like ham and eggs,” she quips (Jones, 1998, p. 144).

The perception of music as ministry repeatedly proclaimed by gospel music performers echoes that of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, suggesting that African American musicians, since the nineteenth century, have historically celebrated black religious music both for its distinct sonic dimensions as well as its spiritual message. For example, the gospel composers Carol Antrom, whose works include “Sovereign” and “He’s Preparing Me,” and Margaret Douroux, who penned the gospel standard “Give Me a Clean Heart,” commonly include scriptural references for their compositions on the title page of their musical scores. Douroux expands the concept of music-as-ministry by teaching classes at the 30,000-member gospel trade industry convention, the Gospel Music Workshop of America, founded by James Cleveland in 1968 for the purpose of instructing workshop participants concerning references to music in the Bible. Even at eight o’clock in the morning, Douroux’s classes are filled to overflow capacity.

According to Boyer, “The incorporation of scriptural quotes or paraphrases of the Scriptures constitute one of three primary categories of gospel music lyrics” (Boyer, 1985, p. 131). Examples of gospel music that utilize spiritual quotes abound in both traditional and contemporary gospel music repertoires. The title cut of John P. Kee’s 1992 Tyscot album is “We Walk by Faith” (2 Cor 5:7); “Twinkie” Elbertina Clark released the album Power in 1981 with text on the album cover that read: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In 1989 the New Jersey Mass Choir album Heroes included the song title “These Are the Promises,” with references to the Beatitudes and other scriptures. Gospel music literature is replete with such examples.

Undaunted by the unrelenting criticism that his 1997 God’s Property (B-Rite) release and its crossover hit “Stomp,” which featured Cheryl “Salt” James of the female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa, had crossed the boundaries into secular music, Kirk Franklin seized the opportunity to resoundingly refute his critics with his subsequent 1998 release Nu Nation. Beginning with the lead track “Do You Want a Revolution?” Franklin symbolically faces judgment in a Dallas County court of law for (1) “trying to take the gospel to the world,” (2) “making gospel music too secular,” and (3) “tearing down the walls of religion.” The scenario lightheartedly but pointedly presents supporters who praise Franklin for his combination of creativity and courage in translating gospel into hip-hop language, which generated millions of new listeners. In virtually the same breath, however, other fans are overheard covertly condemning Franklin for having “gone too far.” The jury verdict boldly cites Revelation 7:16–17 in support of its finding, which condemns the religious status quo rather than Franklin’s musical innovation: “They shall hunger no more, neither shall they thirst any more. For God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Franklin then screams triumphantly, “Do You Want a Revolution?” in assertion of his ultimate objective to “reach nonbelievers in nontraditional ways.” Prior to the Nu Nation release, Franklin had publicly profferred his deep sense of personal disappointment and hurt toward members of the Christian community whom he felt had unfairly assessed his commitment to music ministry. During his acceptance speech at the 1997 Stellar Awards, where “Stomp” had been named Song of the Year, Franklin reminded those critics who “decry him from pulpits of virtually every denomination across the nation” that his mission of saving souls intentionally did not follow a traditional path. In seeking to reach youth who had become distant and disengaged from the church and from God, Franklin forged uncharted musical terrain, prompted by the way the scriptures had spoken to him personally.

"This has been a very painful song. This song has brought me a lot of pain. I have had a chance to be the topic of discussion at almost every church in this country, and I understand and respect that. And it has not been easy for people to question your integrity and to say that you’re not saved and that God is not in what you’re doing. That hurts. It hurts. But yet and still I realize that there are some sixteen and seventeen and eighteen year old kids … [Audience applause]. This song is not for grandmamma; this song is really not even for the church. But it’s about “go ye into the highways and byways.”" (Franklin, 1997)

A seminary-trained Baptist minister, Franklin cites the biblical command in Luke 14:23: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in that my house may be filled”—as his directive for creating music that totally reconfigured the traditional boundaries of acceptance in many Christian communities. Continuing this line of reasoning in his 1998 autobiography Church Boy, he asserts further:

"I don’t believe in a particular musical sound, but I do believe in a particular message. Regardless of the beat or the groove, the music has to draw us to the cross. That’s the real reason for the existence of gospel music in the first place. If it doesn’t do that, then I’d say it’s a failure, regardless of the sound." (Franklin, 1998a, p. 21)

In conclusion, as I have argued previously:

"When music is understood as culture, one can view gospel music as an outgrowth of the spiritual rather than its replacement. … Negro spirituals are incorporated into the gospel tradition because they hold meaning that transcends the historical date of their origin. Through the text of a song, a performer communicates personal knowledge of the meaning of Black survival in America, and the contribution that religion has made to that survival." (Burnim, 1988, p. 14)

Both Negro spirituals and gospel songs communicate hope and affirmation. From the creation of the eighteenth-century spiritual through the continued development of gospel music, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is depicted in African American religious music as one who can be trusted to do what he promised to do. No matter what the musical, spiritual, or cultural test, the Bible has always served to guide, reinforce, encourage, and even chastise performers as well as listeners of black religious music. The same dogged faith and unwavering scriptural certitude that sustained and delivered an African people out of slavery armed with a song tradition that spoke to nations across the globe continues to fuel and drive the creative impulse and expression of African American gospel music and musicians in the twenty-first century.



  • An earlier version of this article appears as “Biblical Inspiration, Cultural Affirmation: The African American Gift of Song” in African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Texture, edited by Vincent Wimbush (New York: Continuum, 2000), pp. 603–615.
  • “Andraé Crouch Brings His Brand of Gospel to Atlanta.” Atlanta Daily World, 24 August 1982.
  • Boyer, Horace. “A Comparative Analysis of Traditional and Contemporary Gospel Music.” In More Than Dancing, edited by Irene V. Jackson, pp. 127–145. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.
  • Boyer, Horace. “Charles Albert Tindley: Progenitor of African American Gospel Music.” In We’ll Understand It Better By and By, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, pp. 53–78. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
  • Burnim, Mellonee V. “Functional Dimensions of Gospel Music Performance.” Western Journal of Black Studies 12, no. 2 (1988): 112–121.
  • “First Lady of Gospel: Shirley Caesar.” Ebony, September 1977, pp. 98–104.
  • Franklin, Kirk. Acceptance speech for “Stomp” as Song of the Year, Stellar Awards. Chicago: Central City Productions, WGN-TV, February 1997.
  • Franklin, Kirk. Church Boy: My Music & My Life. Nashville, Tenn.: Word Publishing, 1998a.
  • Franklin, Kirk. The Nu Nation Project. GospoCentric Records INDT-90178, 1998b.
  • Helm, McKinley. Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942.
  • Jackson, Mahalia, with Evan McCleod Wylie. Movin’ On Up. New York: Hawthorne, 1966.
  • Jones, Bobby. Touched by God: Black Gospel Greats Share Their Stories of Finding God. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.
  • Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876.
  • McKenzie, Wallace. “E. A. McIlhenny’s Black Spiritual Collection from Avery Island, Louisiana.” American Music 8, no. 1 (1990): 95–110.
  • Oliver, Paul. Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “Searching for Tindley.” In We’ll Understand It Better By and By, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, pp. 37–52. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
  • Ricks, George Robinson. Some Aspects of the Religious Music of the United States Negro. New York: Arno, 1977. Originally published 1960 as PhD dissertation.
  • Williams-Jones, Pearl. “Roberta Martin: Spirit of an Era.” In We’ll Understand It Better By and By, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, pp. 255–274. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
  • Work, John. American Negro Songs and Spirituals. New York: Bonanza, 1940.
  • Work, John Wesley, III. “Changing Patterns in Negro Folk Songs.” In Readings in Black American Music, 2d ed., edited by Eileen Southern, pp. 281–290. New York: Norton, 1983. Originally published 1949.

Mellonee Burnim

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