When Gospel Music Started a ‘Worship War’ in the 1920s and Changed Music in the Black Church Forever

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.

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.

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 The History 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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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Kathryn Kemp