As a style of Christian music, Gospel was naturally drawn from popular music traditions. It can derive from almost any ethnic style, but by definition, Black American gospel is where the genre first originated.

The beginnings of the gospel are set in the Black American church as the genre formed around and from traditional church hymns. But over time, the genre transferred to country music, ragtime, and blues, making secular music take on a religious tone.

From the church to the stage, many gospel artists shaped the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll music scene with the sound of the gospel.

History of Gospel Music

Gospel music has been influencing American popular culture since the eighteenth century:

  • Anglican Church: Gospel musical roots starts in the eighteenth-century Anglican Church, which can be seen by the creation of many hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages”. Centuries later, the hymns will change form but keep the gospel roots and become the most famous contemporary gospel songs.
  • “Gospel” as a Word: In 1874, the word “gospel music” first appeared when Philip Bliss, composer, and Baptist evangelist, published Gospel Songs: A Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes. The word referred to the message of Jesus Christ. What made this music extraordinary was the accessibility and catchy tune most other church hymns lacked.
  • Rural Gospel: From the 1870s to 1920s, gospel music was still very much present in white churches, centered around country music. Some of the era’s most prominent artists were George F. Root and Carter Family.
  • Praise Songs: In the 1920s and 1930s, black gospel music became popular thanks to the praise songs which were a part of the Black church. The biggest gospel artists of the era were Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Arizona Dranes, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from whose style rock ‘n’ roll originated.
  • Gospel Music Gets Published: Thomas A. Dorsey was the first who wanted to promote Black American gospel music by founding a publishing house in 1930. He was labeled the “Father of Gospel Music” and worked with Mahalia Jackson to introduce gospel into popular culture.
  • The Golden Age:

Around World War II, Black gospel music was at the peak of its popularity. The Green Migration ( of the Black Americans from the South to the North) allowed for many gospel communities in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The era’s major artists were Clara Ward, Pilgrim Travelers, Soul Stirrers, and Reverend James Cleveland.

  • A New Kind of Gospel: 1950s and 1960s marked the era when gospel artists dipped their toes into mainstream music and transformed the gospel into Soul, and R&B. Little Richard and Aretha Franklin were marked as the best artists of the time, laying the foundation for many modern-day genres like rock and R&B. Soul genre, influenced by gospel music, flourished in 1960.
  • Contemporary Gospel: Artists like Clark Sisters and Edwin Hawkins were able to merge popular genres and gospel in 1970. Today, gospel musicians fuse their style with contemporary R&B and even hip-hop.

Everything With the Side of Gospel

The general message of gospel music allowed the genre a great power of transformation and synergy with other genres—the message of love, freedom, and a spirit of hope. Originating from enslaved people striving toward freedom but never losing hope, the genre celebrates and worships God and helps people find their way through tough times.

Cynthia Angelica, a Maryland-based singer with deep roots in gospel music, explains the phenomenon that is gospel music,

“My biggest influences – Richard Smallwood, Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Kim Walker-Smith, and others that you’ve mentioned – all have the power to make you feel something when they perform. I’m grateful to have roots in gospel music since the genre is so unique. Emotion is palpable in the most powerful way – lyrics aside.”

She states when asked about how the gospel genre influenced her new album “Fears and Dreams”.

The Diversity of Gospel Music

There are several different forms of the gospel, and these styles still exist today:

Traditional Gospel: 

This form of gospel stays close to the Black church with the use of hymns like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Amazing Grace”. The style is recognizable by gospel choirs, call-and-response, hand-clapping, and its ties to social causes.

Urban Contemporary: 

Presently the most popular form, deeply intermixed with hip-hop and R&B, so much, so it created music hubs in Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta. The urban contemporary gospel artists are also regular on Billboard Hits List.

Country Gospel: 

Country music can also manifest as gospel, especially around Nashville and Tennessee artists who toggle between mainstream country music and spiritual music.