The Differences Between Hymns and Gospel Songs

Hymns and Gospel Songs

by Don Chapman

I’ll occasionally get asked to arrange a song like Victory In Jesus for hymncharts. The reason I can’t arrange it is because it’s a “gospel song” that was written in 1939 and is still under copyright. I can only arrange public domain hymns at hymncharts (publishers don’t like my policy of allowing people to make unlimited copies of my music and they won’t give me permission.) That got me thinking, what exactly is a gospel song? Compare Victory In Jesus with, say, Holy, Holy, Holy. These are two very different types of songs with very different styles of lyrics and music!

Other terms for gospel songs include country gospel and southern gospel. Here are some examples of gospel songs I get requests for. Some are old enough (in the public domain) that I have been able to arrange them:

  • The Old Rugged Cross | LISTEN
  • Victory In Jesus
  • Church in the Wildwood
  • Power In the Blood
  • Farther Along
  • In the Sweet By and By | LISTEN
  • Any song by Fanny Crosby

Let’s analyze the differences!

Defining Hymns vs. Gospel Songs

When it comes to church music, hymns and gospel songs represent two distinct genres that worship leaders should understand. On a basic level, hymns tend to be more formal, structured and complex. They come from an older European tradition rooted in the early church. Gospel songs are more rhythmic, repetitive and personal. They emerged from 19th century American evangelicalism.

Both styles have unique origins, musical qualities, and lyrical focuses that set them apart. But they share a common purpose of glorifying God and enabling the congregation to connect with Him. By incorporating both hymns and gospel songs, worship leaders can provide depth and variety to their worship sets.

Musical Differences

The musical origins of hymns lie in the classical church music of composers like Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. The classic hymns only have verses, no contrasting choruses or refrains (think of Holy, Holy, Holy and Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.)

In contrast, gospel songs grew out of the folk music roots of revival movements. They have simple, repetitive melodies and basic harmonies using I, IV and V chords. The most defining musical element of gospel songs is the chorus or refrain that repeats after each verse with the same lyrics and melody. This makes gospel songs easy for a congregation to quickly learn and participate in (much like modern worship songs!)

Lyrical Differences

Hymns focus on theological truths and express corporate worship. They’re “horizontal” – talking about God and His attributes. Lyrics are more formal and structured. Many hymns paraphrase Scripture or feature stanzas directly from the Bible.

Gospel song lyrics are personal and tell a story. They are also “horizontal” – talking about our personal experience. They often speak about conversion, grace, heaven and victory in an evangelistic way, with the goal of reaching the lost.

As a side note, this why, in my opinion, contemporary worship music burst on the scene in the 60’s and 70’s as a direct result of all this talking “about” God and our experiences. People were longing for a personal relationship with Jesus, no longer content to merely list His attributes or sing doctrine (as important as these things are.) Worship music, especially in those early days, helped us sing directly “to” God! Songs like I Love You Lord, As the Deer, Open Our Eyes Lord essentially function as musical prayers! But this needs to be another article 🙂

History and Origins

The hymn has ancient roots that reach back to the early church. Hymns grew out of Greek odes and psalms sung during services, and evolved into diverse styles in the Byzantine church tradition. Early church fathers like Ambrose penned Latin hymns for monastic prayer services, sometimes defending doctrine against heresy. Later on, Reformers like Luther recognized the power of congregational singing and wrote timeless hymns that conveyed theology and rallied the faithful. So while gospel songs are relative latecomers on the church music scene, hymns have an ancient pedigree stretching to the very beginnings of corporate Christian worship!

Gospel songs emerged in the late 19th century, influenced by the revival movements of Moody and Sankey. They were sung in tent revivals and camp meetings, which were part of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the US from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. The Salvation Army was a Christian movement that started in England in 1865 and used gospel songs in its ministry to the poor and marginalized.

Bottom Line: Now that you hopefully have a clearer distinction between hymns and gospel songs, you can better categorize songs for your worship sets and pick the right styles for your church. Mixing the two keeps services fresh. Try a gospel song after communion or use an upbeat hymn to open a service. Whether leading hymns or gospel songs, the goal is the same: to glorify God and draw the congregation into worship!

Visit the listing of all the hymns I’ve arranged here at hymncharts. Which would you categorize as gospel songs?

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Super helpful. I was looking for an explanation of such distinctions. I never would have known Crosby’s, Sankey’s, fit into gospel. Thank you.


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