Gospel Music: Evangelists and their Song Leaders

This is a continuation of last week’s blog: “What is Gospel Music?”  

The origin and development of Gospel music goes hand in hand with the history of evangelism in the United States.  Dwight L. Moody, an evangelist of the mid-to-late 1800s, was the primary “architect” of a new kind of church music that has become what we now call Gospel Music.  Moody’s song leader and soloist, Ira D. Sankey, was the “craftsman” who composed the music that fulfilled the architect’s vision.  

The initial thrust of Colonial America’s “Great Awakening” (1730-1740s) focused on “reviving” the religious fervor of church members, and was immediately followed by the trail of itinerate evangelists who went from town to town pitching their tents and preaching “hellfire and damnation” to the unchurched.  It was then that Dwight Moody came to the fore with a new approach to evangelism that was utilized later by evangelist Billy Sunday and refined to its greatest use by Billy Graham. 


Moody believed that music played an integral role in revival services, and he wanted a new kind of music—different from traditional hymns.  He called on Ira D. Sankey to come up with this new kind of church music. 

Sankey turned to unusual sources for the rhythms, moods, and sounds he wanted: to cowboy melodies, secular blues, and African-American spirituals and work songs.  Sankey was able to replicate their mixed tones of loneliness, gloom, weariness, depression, fear, dread, and searching, as well as their expressions of love, excitement, joy, celebration, expectation, and victory.   

Sankey got people personally involved with his music by using words that they understood and composing melodies that were easy to sing, attributes missing from traditional church music at that time.  He wrote music that was especially suited for small, simple musical instruments—like the harmonica, fiddle, and guitar—reminiscent of the typical instruments used by cowboys in their bunkhouses or while sitting around their campfires at night.  He replicated their use of repeated refrains, a characteristic that made it easy to memorize the words.  He created music that people kept time with by clapping their hand and tapping their feet, making it attractive for small vocal ensembles to sing using no instruments.         

More than being a composer, Sankey had a special kind of voice that people were deeply moved by.  He was known as the “Sweet Singer.”  By his singing, always accompanied by his reed organ, Sankey could create any kind of mood needed in a service.  Moody said that he never knew what to expect from Sankey when it came time for him to sing, but whatever he sang was always just what was needed in words, tone, and rhythm, sometimes causing such emotion that Moody himself broke down in tears.   

Moody and Sankey worked as a team from 1870 until Moody died 1899.  Sankey composed the music for such hymns as Faith Is the Victory, Trusting Jesus, Under His Wings, and The Ninety and Nine. 

Moody and Sankey were followed in the early 1900s by evangelist Billy Sunday and his music director and soloist Homer Rodeheaver.  Sunday was a flamboyant showman, and he offered entertainment as a bait to lure the unsaved.  He enlisted the equally flamboyant Rodeheaver as an important partner of his entertainment/evangelistic team.   

Rodeheaver had a genial, extroverted personality, and was a natural showman with a beautiful baritone voice.  He warmed the audiences with jokes, songs, and his trombone.  When leading singing in Billy Sunday’s services, he always carried his trombone, playing it when appropriate.  He repeatedly got a big laugh when he told the people that his instrument was a “Methodist trombone” that would occasionally “backslide.”  He understood and appreciated classical sacred music, but his real talent was promoting the lively new Gospel songs of his era, and he did it extremely well. 

Sunday entwined his Gospel message with the popular social issues of the day, such as patriotism during World War I and prohibition, making him very popular.  The problem was that when the war was over and prohibition was enacted he no longer had a cause to crusade and found himself without a message to preach.  By the late 1920s his popularity diminished. 

In the last half of the 1900s Sunday and Rodeheaver were followed by Billy Graham and Graham’s Gospel singer and composer, George Beverly Shea.  Initially Graham was eyed with skepticism by non-evangelicals, including the press.  Eventually, however, he became one of the most respected Christian clergymen in history, being on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women fifty-five times.    

Shea, who was Graham’s soloist and composer of Gospel hymns, was recruited by Graham in 1947 for the first Billy Graham Crusade and served with Graham until the beloved Gospel singer’s death at age 104 in April 3013.  Shea jokingly said Mr. Graham would not let him retire, since nowhere in Scripture is the concept of retirement overtly addressed. 

Shea had a beautiful baritone voice, and sang with the greatest of sincerity.  As a consequence of singing at Graham’s more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents, Shea sang live before more people than anyone else in history.  He recorded more than 500 vocal solos on over seventy albums, being accompanied by small musical ensembles and large orchestras.  He sang on all the shows during the fifty-year run of Graham’s radio and TV program the “Hour of Decision.”  It is said that Shea was the first international “star” of Gospel music and was responsible for introducing Gospel music to many remote parts of the world. 

He will be especially remembered for singing How Great Thou Art. 

These renowned evangelists and Gospel singers have given us the foundation for the continued development of Gospel music. 

(Sources of information: Personal knowledge; Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Harper & Brothers, 1953; Ilion T. Jones, A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship, Abingdon Press, 1954; Encyclopedia Britannica.)






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