In the 1920s, Chicago’s first African American congregations were at a crossroads. After decades of investment, the churches and their musicians were proud of their accomplishments as they had “lifted the Negro race” to a position of separate but equal status with their white peers in worship. Worship in these churches largely mirrored worship in white churches in song and liturgy. Black Methodist and Baptist congregations often sang from the same hymnals as their white counterparts. Trained singers in the choirs led the less-literate congregants in the proper rendition of hymns. European anthems were prominent in the senior choir’s repertoire. Restraint was the rule in worship.

This was all about to change. As the Great Migration drew thousands of African Americans to the North, many new residents had little interest in the music of these congregations. Instead, they brought their own songs with lyrics that often drew from the hardships of slavery and Jim Crow and rhythms inspired by African chants and medleys. The metered songs of English composer Isaac Watts, which had served as the inspiration for the revival songs of the Great Awakening, were sung without instrumental accompaniment by Southern emigrants seeking worship in smaller storefront churches where more emotion and common language were welcome.

Gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer summarized this dilemma in the PBS documentary We’ve Come This Far by Faith:

There was the feeling that the more white you acted, the more you would be accepted by white people. There was not that kind of pride about having lived through slavery. … The whole emphasis was ridding every Negro of everything that was Negroid … including the church service ritual. So all of a sudden, now, we get Brahms and Handel. … And here we begin to get a whole conflict between the ways people are going to worship. And many preachers said, “Don’t sing those slave songs altogether.”

19th-century African American Music

Outside of the church, the creative musical expression of the African American population was flourishing. African Americans began arriving in Chicago as early as 1840, and over the next 75 years, they established orchestras and created instrument clubs that trained their children in piano and string instruments. Much of this talent was first cultivated in the church. On Sundays, musicians and singers were directors, pianists, organists, and members of church choirs at established Chicago African American congregations like Olivet Baptist Church or Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. During the week, they performed in the Chicago Loop, on concert stages, and in musical extravaganzas and pageants.

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Over the years, these mainline black churches that served as the church homes for these professional singers, composers, and musicians had developed a robust musical infrastructure. The senior choir led the congregation in hymns included in Gospel Pearls, 1921, the first African American publication of songs for worship services, and concertized spirituals (also known as “Jubilee Songs”) to a pipe organ background.

Some songs even dated back to the beginning of the 19th century. Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the AME church, published a book of hymns expressly for African Americans. Allen saw a need for a separate established body of sacred songs in worship that spoke to the existence and survival of people of African ancestry in America to document and preserve their religious heritage.

At the end of the century, AME pastor and theologian Charles Tindley wrote a number of hymns, many of which complemented the sermons he delivered to his congregation. Later known as the “Father of African American Hymnody,” Tindley gained a reputation for his generosity and freely shared his music with other musicians and composers. One of his best-known songs, “I’ll Overcome,” later was the basis for “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement, and his lyrics often spoke of deliverance through change and suffering. But despite Allen and Tindley’s contributions, the performance and style of Northern black churches continued to be influenced by Anglo norms. It would take two historical events to change that.

Musical Culture Shock

The 1906 Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival changed the worship practices for many black people. The event initially resulted (temporarily) in an interracial church and became the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, the third major religious denomination of African Americans. The movement encouraged ecstatic worship along with drums, tambourines, and guitars, and as it grew, its upbeat style spread across the country. Those worship practices became embedded in the praise and worship style of the Holiness churches.

The beginning of the 20th century also marked a significant geographic shift for African Americans. Nearly half a million African Americans fed up with Jim Crow atrocities and in search of new opportunities immigrated to the North between 1910 and 1930. They arrived with their religious worship practices intact, an experience characterized by singing, dancing, clapping, and amens. Worship involved the whole body in movement and song.

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But as the black population swelled, tensions began to grow between rural and city African Americans, who didn’t always share the same musical tastes. While Southern blacks wanted emotion and feeling in the worship experience, Northern blacks were content with the Eurocentric worship style of hymns and anthems at their wealthier, larger, and better-organized congregations, as L. H. Whelchel notes in TheHistory and Heritage of African-American Churches. Some longtime members—many of whom were doctors, lawyers, and teachers—were embarrassed not only by the music but also by the appearance of their “Southern relatives” who lacked the sophistication of those who were city bred.

Consequently, many Southern transplants began attending storefront churches—mostly Pentecostal and Baptist—buildings where worshipers gathered to sing, dance, speak in tongues, and engage in praise with their entire body, mind, and soul. “Black worship lifts us toward God, from whatever our condition may be, and provides for us the wisdom and the power, the courage and the fortitude to endure, and to run without getting weary, and to walk without fainting,” said theologian Samuel Proctor, as noted in James Abbington and John D. Witvliet’s Readings in African American Church Music and Worship. Attending these churches allowed migrants to hold onto their cultural identities, primarily expressed through “shouting” and the holy dance.

The future “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey, was a Southern transplant who soon realized his music wasn’t welcome at these mainline churches. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, the blues and jazz singer and composer joined Pilgrim Baptist Church. But like many of its fellow “silk-stocking” churches, it rejected gospel blues as unworthy of inclusion as church worship with hymns and cantatas. Dorsey tried for 10 years to bring his jazz and blues to mainline black churches without success.

Unlike the Anglo cultural references that influenced many of the hymns sung in mainline churches, Dorsey, who was raised by an itinerant Baptist minister and a musician mother, wrote about experiences everyday African Americans related to and understood. He used his extensive background and skill as a jazz and blues musician to compose songs for worship and his music was often characterized by rhythmic patterns, thrills, choruses, and repetitions.

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Dorsey insisted that the purpose of his music wasn’t to tear down the traditional churches but to dedicate his musical gifts to God. “I wasn’t trying to change it [church music], but I was just struck with something that would change it over, something that God gave me,” said Dorsey, as documented in The Rise of Gospel Blues. “He accepted it; I got my authority from God.”

Eventually, Dorsey’s style of worship took hold. The declining membership in the large churches prompted two pastors of large Baptist congregations to include gospel music in their worship service. In 1931, the established, well-to-do congregation Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago organized the first modern gospel choir, marking the beginning of gospel music’s acceptance by mainline churches. Ironically, it was this choir that first gave this genre of music its name.

In many ways, gospel music began a “religious revival” in African American worship in the 1930s. “Just as the spiritual was a development of the camp meeting phenomenon … so did the Protestant City Revival Movement create gospel hymnody, a new song genre more relevant to the needs of the common people in the rapidly growing cities,” wrote African American musicologist Eileen Southern, according to C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s The Black Church in the African American Experience.

Despite its growing popularity, this new musical religious movement also had its critics, among them religion scholar Joseph R. Washington:

The joy expressed in meetings ([ghetto religious services] was sealed within) giving birth to the most degenerate form of Negro religion, gospel music. Gospel music is the creation of a disengaged people. Shorn from the roots of the folk religion, gospel music has turned the freedom theme in Negro spirituals into licentiousness. Ministers who urge their people to seek their amusement in gospel music and the hordes of singers who profit from it lead the masses down the road of religious frenzy and escapism.

But gospel music spoke to the conditions of black people as they survived in a racist society. During the Great Depression, the lyrics gave hope to many facing economic hardships that “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow.”

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Eventually gospel music’s popularity grew so large, it spread beyond the church. Mahalia Jackson became nationally known for her gospel music career, and she and singer Sallie Martin traveled the country singing and selling Dorsey’s music. James Cleveland, another protégé of Dorsey, became known as the “king of gospel music” during the heyday of “classic” gospel. Chicago’s mainline black churches all started their own gospel choirs. In 1933, Dorsey also organized the first gospel music convention—the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses—with his music colleagues Theodore Frye and Magnolia Butts.

The “worship wars” eventually gave way to the widespread acceptance of gospel music across the country and different parts of the US developed their own style of the genre. Decades later, in 2008, Congress designated September as Gospel Music Heritage Month. A National Museum of Gospel Music is currently in the works in Chicago. And the music genre has even gone global: Gospel music was performed during the 2018 royal wedding in London.

A Gift to the Church

The child of the spirituals, gospel music conveys the heart and soul of the people through its lyrics, tone, rhythm, and ability to tell the story of the African American experience. It encompasses the range of human emotions and conditions. Its lyrics speak of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and a better life in some future state. Wyatt Tee Walker calls it “religious folk music that is clearly identifiable with the social circumstances of the Black community in America.”

Gospel music, Dorsey said, is something African Americans needed to give them joy and hope during bad times.

In the first place [the songs] had a beat. Some of them had a tempo. Some had simple good news. They weren’t written in flowery English that was so high that the ignorant people couldn’t understand. It was just time for change (Turner, 2010, 53).

In the Handbook of Gospel Music, scholar Charles Clency writes of the “hypnotic effect of gospel music” through the words of noted African American writer James Baldwin, a preacher’s son and a teenage preacher himself. Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, shares the impact and power of the gospel song:

There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes without warning, fill a church, causing the church … to rock.

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Kathryn B. Kemp is an associate minister at Memorial Baptist Church, member of the Pastoral Alliance of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and the academic faculty of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Her music ministry spans more than 50 years of service. She has written two books on gospel music, including Sacred Song Survival: Salvation in the African American Religious Experience (Covenant Books).