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Child of the Gospel

A Brief History Of Gospel Music

Gospel music has its roots in the African American spirituals that were sung by slaves beginning in the 1700s. Slaves were brought from Africa to America by force, and were converted to Christianity by their slave owners. Often the owners required slaves to attend church, usually in separate services that were held only for slaves. During the eighteenth century it was common for a preacher to lead a congregation in a hymn by singing the song one line at a time—the congregation would sing each line back to the preacher. This was known as lining out or raising a hymn.

As the slaves performed backbreaking and monotonous work day in and day out, they began to raise their voices in song. Some slave spirituals began as variations on Christian hymns, but over the years many original compositions were created. Most of these songs were passed down orally, or by word of mouth, since very few slaves had access to methods of writing music. The American slaves were living lives of hopelessness, extreme physical pain, and brutality. Singing was a way of coping with awful circumstances. Their spirituals sang of a beautiful life after death as a way to inspire and uplift each other.

Following the Civil War, many slaves moved north, and their songs and traditions moved with them. Some African American churches, like the Pentecostal and Holiness denominations, incorporated lining out with “holy dances” in which churchgoers would wave their arms, stomp their feet, or even faint with excitement when they “got the spirit.” Other denominations, like the Baptists, were more conservative and did not think this behavior was appropriate.

In 1921, however, many of these divisions were blurred by the publication of Gospel Pearls. Gospel Pearls was a collection of hymns and spirituals that was adopted by many different denominations. The popularity of the music grew throughout countless African American churches, and touring gospel vocalists continued to spread this unique musical tradition.

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