Gospel music is a product of the religion, culture, and history that constitute the African American experience. Below is a
representative, but by no means complete, historic timeline chronicling major events in the development of gospel music.
1619 – The first Africans are brought to the British colony of Jamestown as indentured servants. The African’s emphasis on musical elements such as call and response, improvisation, polyrhythms, and percussive affinities will form the basis of gospel and all other forms of African American musical expression.
1674 – Hymnist and theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is born in England. The writer of more than 750 hymns, his songs will become so popular among African Americans that they are simply referred to as “an old Dr. Watts.”
1730’s – The Great Awakening, a religious revival in British North America, signals the first major effort to Christianize enslaved Africans.
1777 – George Leile establishes the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, the oldest Black church in North America.
1780 – John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodist is published. Songs such as “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “Father I Stretch My Hands to Thee” quickly become standards of the African American sacred music tradition.
1787 – With the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent African American Christian denomination in the United States is created.
1800’s – African American innovation in Christian-centered sacred music begins to distinguish itself in the forms of spirituals, shouts, lined-hymns, and anthems.
1865 – Slavery legally abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
1871 – The Fisk Jubilee Singers set out on their inaugural tour to raise money to help save Fisk University from closure. Eventually becoming an international tour, the choir brings the sacred music of African Americans the attention of the world. The Jubilee Singers also provide a model a tight, four part harmony-centered, choral singing that will continue for generations within the African American community.
1901 – Songwriter and religious leader Charles Albert Tindley begins publishing songs in Philadelphia. Classic compositions by Tindley include “Stand By Me,” “We’ll Understand it Better By and By,” and “Some Day (Beams of Heaven).”
1906 – The Azusa Street Revival begins in Los Angeles under the direction of the African American religious pioneer William Seymour. In addition to giving rise to modern-day Pentecostalism, the music of the revival recaptures the energy of the pre-emancipation shouts and is one of the key events in the development of gospel music.
1920’s – American recording companies begin producing “race records” to market to the African American consumer. In addition to blues, ragtime, and early jazz, African American preachers and gospel artists such as Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie Johnson, and Washington Phillips will also be highlighted in part because of the fresh, raw sound. This music is also referred to as the gospel blues and the holy blues.
1921 – The National Baptist Convention publishes the songbook Gospel Pearls, the first hymnal from a major African American denomination to include selections of the new music that would become known as gospel.
1931 – Theodore Frye and Thomas A. Dorsey create the first gospel chorus. Dorsey would go on to co-found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Included among Dorsey’s more than 400 compositions are the gospel standards “Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Highway to Heaven.”
1938 – Sister Rosetta Tharpe scores the first million-selling gospel record with the hit single “This Train.” Tharpe was the dominant gospel music performer of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, mixing soulful guitar licks and big band accompaniment with sacred lyrics.
1945-1965 – The Golden Age of Gospel—due to its unprecedented popularity—was dominated by soloists such as Mahalia Jackson and groups like Swan Silvertones, the Caravans, and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. Perhaps the most important group to this expansion beyond the church walls was the Clara Ward Singers.
1967 – “Oh Happy Day” is recorded by the Northern California State Youth Choir (later dubbed the Edwin Hawkins Singers). This one song almost single-handedly creates the genre known as contemporary gospel. Key groups, soloists, and composers in this movement include Walter Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, the Winans, and the Clark Sisters. Reverend James Cleveland and Mattie Moss Clark helped give rise to the movement by their tireless work composing, arranging, and recording for large choirs.
1997 – “Stomp!!,” from “God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation,” is released, blowing open the doors of the church and demanded that it make room for urban culture.