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Two Roads Diverged

The dethroning of the Church by Reason and the creation of pop culture left the Church in an awkward position. Its cultural influence was non-existent. As the culture around it plunged into sanitized paganism, the Church’s traditional forms became foreign. The Church was in Babylon, yet it was free to worship as it pleased. So the question became, do we continue cultivating the Judeo-Christian tradition and become progressively more and more alienated from our surrounding culture, or do we “contextualize” and abandon our tradition for a new one that follows the lead of pop culture? The Church ultimately chose the latter path.

The leader to blaze the trail along that new path was 19th century Revivalist Charles G. Finney (1792—1875). Because Finney believed that conversion could be produced by human means,1 he sought to create certain experiences in his services that would lead people to accept the claims of Christianity. In his Revival Lectures, Finney insisted that “there must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers.”2 This desire for “excitement” was a significant break from Christian leaders before him.

Finney found pop music as the perfect tool for creating such experiences because it was immediate and it stimulated excitement. Finney urged those writing and leading music in his meetings to look to the advertisers of the day for inspiration. Those earliest forms of pop music may seem innocuous to contemporary ears, but that philosophy began a trend to use pop music to create emotional experiences in the Church that continues to this day.

At this stage making distinctions between kinds of sacred songs may be helpful. Up to this point I have been using “hymn” to describe any sacred song, yet we have already seen a need to distinguish between “psalms” and “hymns.” From now on, I will use the term “hymn” to describe only those sacred songs that were written within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The congregational songs written in this new tradition that followed the lead of pop culture are what have come to be called “gospel songs.”

The gospel song movement began with the camp meeting revivals of the early 1800s.3 These meetings used this genre of music to create excitement and interest in the meetings:

The tunes of camp-meeting songs were simple and folk-like in character. The improvisatory nature of these songs and the need for teaching them by rote demanded that the tunes be easy, singable, and instantly contagious. Under these circumstances, a popular, “catchy” repetitious refrain or chorus was invaluable.4

Soon thereafter, the Sunday School movement adopted these songs for use with children.5 As these children grew to adulthood, they carried these same songs into the worship service. Hustad goes on to explain how this naturally led to this genre’s use by adults as well:

The same style of music appeared with somewhat more adult, vernacular texts 20 years later and came to be known as “gospel hymns” or “gospel songs.” It is impossible to overestimate the influence of these simple experience songs written by theological and music amateurs and the grips they had on the general public.6

Because the initial purpose of these songs was to create excitement and interest for those who were physically and/or spiritually immature, the use of popular music in the development of the gospel song was invaluable, and pop music’s influence is unmistakable:

The new gospel songs picked up the style of the popular songs of the Civil War era. Simple major-mode melodies, with the ever-popular refrain, were added to the older, still-useful, camp-meeting texts. . . . Whereas the older songs were largely sung in unison, the gospel songs had simple harmonies and rhythms that could be sung by quartets and choirs. Later, the use of some ragtime and jazz rhythms added more interest for young people. Save for the words, popular sacred music was hard to distinguish from the secular.7

Finney’s influence was kept alive in the revivalist tradition in the years to come. D. L. Moody and his famous song leader, Ira Sankey, were widely known for their emotional, experience-oriented preaching and music and helped to further ingrain this kind of music into the church’s worship.8 “Moody and Sankey could be counted on to create those ‘feelings of spirituality.’”((Ibid.)) Moody said, “It makes no difference how you get a man to God, provided you get him there.” Their criteria for good music was that it produced results:

Dwight L. Moody was musically ignorant as far as theoretical knowledge is concerned, but he did recognize the value of music in evangelism that resulted in a stirred congregation. Any song that did not produce a response was not good music to Moody’s way of thinking.9

This idea of a “stirred congregation” spread further with the revivalists to come:

The two men [Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver] brought a new level of secularism and entertainment to evangelistic crusades with crowd-pleasing and crowd-attracting mannerisms.10

This revivalist tradition slowly seeped into the churches, so that every service became an evangelistic revival meeting. This new way of thinking affected not only the content and style of worship and music, but it totally transformed the view of the church. This is not to say that nothing written in the gospel song tradition is good; some of it is. Yet the entire philosophy of hymnody shifted so that much of what comes out this tradition was a radical departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Instead of text-driven hymns, we now had hymns centered around a catchy refrain and tune. Instead of modest hymns, we now had hymns whose purpose was to create excitement and energy. And instead of hymns that were distinct from the pagan culture, pagan culture was supplying the musical forms.

Like Israel, the Church was now in Babylonian captivity; but unlike Israel, the Church was allowing the culture of Babylon to drive its worship forms.

At certain points along the way various groups believed that lines were being crossed with the newer music. Especially with Jazz and Rock, Fundamentalists rightly refused to follow the trend. We might insert a new designation here to describe sacred songs written with Rock forms: “Praise and Worship songs.” Praise and Worship music took the choruses of gospel songs, set them to more upbeat music, and developed a new form. But this left many Fundamentalists holding onto a tradition that was certainly better than the worse forms of pop culture, but yet was still far from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This leaves us with essentially three distinct Christian traditions: (1) The Judeo-Christian tradition that essentially halted with the Enlightenment, (2) the Fundamentalist tradition which split from the Judeo-Christian tradition with the rest of Evangelicalism but refused to go any further with Jazz, and (3) the New-Evangelical tradition which has progressively adopted virtually every form of pop music that has come along.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. “A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means.” Revivals of Religion (CBN University Press, 1978), 4. []
  2. Charles Finney, Revival Lectures, (reprint, Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4. []
  3. Carlton R. Young, “Gospel Song” in Key Words in Church Music (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978), p. 174. []
  4. William J. Reynolds, A Survey of Christian Hymnody (Carol Stream: Hope, 1999), p.104. []
  5. Hustad, pp. 455-456. []
  6. Ibid., p. 456. []
  7. Leonard Ellinwood, “Hymnody, American” in Key Words, p. 221. Emphasis mine. []
  8. Hustad, p. 138. []
  9. William Loyd Hooper, Church Music in Transition (Nashville: Broadman, 1963), p. 97. []
  10. Hustad, p. 250. []