Rich Theology in Southern Gospel songs

Why did I start the Songs from the Books of the Bible series?

Several years ago, I was listening to a message where a very well-known preacher, for whom I have the highest respect, said that Southern Gospel songs were theologically shallow, all about streets of Gold and not about God.

While I knew that Southern Gospel’s songs dealt with a broader range of topics, I also knew that many songs would not come to my own mind. In November 2011, I started looking at one book of the Bible each week, asking for your input on suggesting songs drawn from these passages. This series can serve as a resource for addressing criticisms of this nature.

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This genre’s roots lie in the American South during and before the Great Depression. The worse things get around us, the more vivid and real Heaven becomes, and the more meaningful the promises of Heaven are to us. So, yes, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. But equating Heaven songs with weak theology is a false dichotomy. Just because a song is about Heaven doesn’t mean it has weak theology! We could name examples of Heaven songs with deep theology all day; I’ll just mention two comparatively recent songs recorded by Southern Gospel artists, “A Pile of Crowns” and “A Higher Throne.” Granted, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. Provided the focus is where it needs to be—on Heaven’s King—that’s hardly a bad thing.

Perhaps the preacher’s only exposure to our genre was the Southern Gospel of the 1950s and 1960s. It would be a fair self-critique of our genre’s history to admit that our genre’s songwriters’ attempts to employ the popular idioms and catch-phrases of those decades did produce a fair number of shallow “man-in-the-sky” songs. (If some of them seem absurdly dated now, let that stand as a warning to any of today’s Christian songwriters who are trying a little too hard to be cool!) Of course, numerous richly theological classics also came from those decades and endure to this day.

I believe a major shift in Southern Gospel songwriting occurred after the rise of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1970s and 1980s. While I will try to avoid committing the same error that prompted this post, painting other genres with inaccurate overgeneralizations, it would be fair to say that there have been some repetitive praise choruses and some double entendré CCM songs that could be taken either about human love or God’s love. I believe that Southern Gospel artists and songwriters reacted to these trends by steadily moving in the direction of deeper and more solid theology.

From a standpoint of theology in lyrics, I believe that Southern Gospel is now the strongest it has ever been. There are still theologically shallow songs; I collect hymnals, and have several hundred from over the last several hundred years, and regrettably, every generation of Christian music has had its weak songs. But a rising number of writers and artists care deeply about rich theology in their lyrics. 

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I would make the case that the crux of our genre lies in understanding life today, with its blessings and its trials, through two lenses—looking back to Calvary to understand life today in light of the Cross, and looking forward to understand today’s trials in the light of Heaven.

As with every other genre of Christian music, Southern Gospel has its weaknesses. It has its songs with bad theology and its hypocrites. Yet, today more than ever, it has songs with rich theology. In fact, I grew up on CCM and Praise & Worship; it Southern Gospel’s richly theological songs that drew me into becoming a fan of the genre nine years ago.

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28 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. I find very rich meaning in the words of the Southern Gospel songs. I do admit that I also love the style of music,but the messages in the songs are ‘right on’.

  2. I fully agree with you on all you have said in this post.
    I find it rather sad that one can complain about an over-abundance of songs about heaven in southern gospel. After all, earth is not our home, we are but pilgrims in this land. Home is were the heart is, heaven, the goodly land where life’s pure river runs. If anything, heaven should be on every Christian’s mind, it should be our, song and theme.

    Quite alright praise and worship is important (that’s what we’re gonna do throughout eternity, we better start practicing) and we should sing His praises while here below, but, like the children of Israel in Babylon’s bondage lamented, “how can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” The more we sing His praises, the more homesick we get. Excuse me if I oft tend to break forth into songs of the land that floweth with milk and honey, the tsunamis and hurricanes here are really making me do it.

    In some way, songs about heaven are also praises. Surely it pleases the Lord when His children who would have been without hope, express their hope and love for Him through songs that tell of His goodness to them, how He has built mansions for them so that where He is, there they may be also. Is not even this “the joy that was set before Him,” that He “endured the cross and despised the shame.”? To finally be with His children, ne’er to part in that happy eden home, that was the joy set before Him. I’m sure when we finally get there, songs about heaven will be retired, but in the mean time they are still very useful. In fact more of them are needed, for there’s nothing quite like a good song about heaven, to cheer the weary pilgrim on his way, to mock the devil who seeks to threaten God’s faithful few with homelessness, to say to him, “enjoy threatening us while you can, for tomorrow we fly.” It makes the devil mad whenever we sing about our heavenly home, for then he knows our hearts are not here, and if our hearts are not here his chances of succeeding in wooing us with earthly things are slim.

    I therefore pity those who moan the over-abundance of heaven songs in southern gospel, for I wish there were more. CCM lacks these songs, if you’re looking for a good heaven song, chances are that you are not likely to find one in CCM, and that’s a pity.

  3. I believe that general Southern Gospel music leans more concentrated towards encouragement, evangelism, and retelling bible (or gospel narratives) portions in song.
    It seems that Praise and Worship is more concentrated toward focused, direct praise to God in purpose and intent
    New/Old Hymns (no matter what style) seem to be more focused on biblical theology.
    CCM does seem to be more about the here and now OR slant toward a praise and worship train of thought.

    I was talking to a friend of mine who really does not like southern gospel, but can tolerate some. The above statements were what we came to a consensus on. For my friend, he felt that Southern Gospel doesn’t have alot of “meat” to it in general. I remember one time he heard a song and said “okay that really says something” The next song was pretty much fluff and theologically inaccurate. It appears that he focuses on consistency.
    Of course, he feels the same way about some of the P&W going on now, which it is just repetitive jargon. His church is geared toward more CCM style. Admittedly, they do sing some good, modern theologically sound songs.

    Of course, I do not agree that all southern gospel is lacking rich theology. I believe it is honestly packaged in a different way to reach a broader audience. I love my SGM

    • It is inaccurate to say that all SG is theologically shallow, just like it is inaccurate to say that all CCM is theologically shallow. I just happen to think that SG has less theological shallowness than any other genre except hymns and modern hymns.

      • Agreed! It sure made an entertaining debate though!

    • “It seems that Praise and Worship is more concentrated toward focused, direct praise to God in purpose and intent”

      Isn’t that why its called Praise and Worship? lol

  4. This is the thing that has drawn me to southern gospel, and kept me. I had once supposed that it was all a bunch of heaven cheers, and so I was dis-interested. Then I heard two Inspirations songs from a dorm friend’s CD that really spoke to me, and thus began my love of SG.

    Here’s a thought. I’m currently 22 years old. I graduated from Bible college last year, I’m getting married in about two months, and I’m looking forward to a life in the ministry. Heaven holds little interest to me. I know I’m going there when I die, and I’m eternally secure. But the part of that security that I love is my Lord’s part in it. My favorite type of southern gospel is those songs which uplift Christ, the cross, or talk about salvation. I like a some heaven songs, but those are few in my playlists, and mainly there because I love their harmonies and vocal performances. I have no problem with music about heaven, It’s doctrinal and encouraging. I’m sure as I grow older and the “evil days come” as Solomon talks about in Ecclesiastes 12:1, I’ll enjoy singing about heaven more and more. But right now I’m a youth looking forward to a lifetime of service. I don’t want to go to heaven yet!

    I think that the perception that SG is all about heaven is sometimes a turn away for young folks. It’s just a pity that music which caters to those young folks has become so shallow. Southern Gospel can draw a tear, or get me shouting, but it’s the words and the harmony that has that effect. I’ve studied music, and it can be used to manipulate emotions. Much praise and worship music I’ve heard is musically manipulative. It draws out emotion through a variety of musical techniques, and bypasses the moving of the Holy Spirit. Mind you I’m not saying its all like that, and I’ve known skilled manipulators to achieve the same result with old fashioned hymns. But it does seem to be a trend I’ve noticed in modernized churches.

    Note: I’ve been to a couple old fashioned churches in my travels that liked to sing southern gospel songs from time to time, and had quality musicians to accompany singers for special music or congregationals. It was great! Too bad I don’t live near those churches. 🙂

    • I would have to agree that Christ / cross songs tend to be the most meaningful parts of the genre for me, too. But one thing that I love about Southern Gospel songs is that so many tell the whole story – sin, the Cross, the empty tomb, today, and the Second Coming! That’s definitely one good thing that many of our songwriters get from the hymn tradition.

      And just to be fair on all counts, I’ve seen people manipulate a crowd’s emotions with a Southern Gospel song, too. Anyone can do it. But, thankfully, in SG, there are a number of songs (and artists singing them) that can lean on the power of the lyric alone to successfully connect with their audiences.

  5. Let me say, in regards to musical genres or styles, this post, as well as the comments left, are the most fair, balanced, un-biased, honest, and expresses “almost” all my thoughts & opinions on the matter. So Daniel, John, Jonathan, Steven…I’ve enjoyed reading the remarks and am glad tI’m not the only one who sees much of this.

    It has been easy for me to “critique” lyrics so much, that I don’t take time to feast on the meat. I’ve found myself complaining at lyrics of SG, CCM, P&W…you name the genre, I’ve criticized it. I repented several months ago. While I’m still careful & discerning in regards to the doctrinal premise of a song, I’ve focused less on my opinion of little matters and focused more on the writer’s context, could someone much different than me in either (race, sex, sin, background, current circumstance, etc..)be convicted or encouraged by it, and most importantly, could it legitimately exalt God?

    I’ve structured a few core non-negotiables to not only this, but ministry as a whole. Outside of that, I have no other agenda than to make much of Jesus, win the lost, & make disciples.

  6. Allow me to add another reason why I love SG.
    The bible says all scripture is “….profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16,17.
    I have found that there are numerous southern gospel songs that are, like scripture, profitable in the above mentioned ways. Scarcely can one find a CCM song profitable for reproof, correction, e.t.c. Southern gospel as a genre does not heavily lean on one specific theme, unlike CCM which heavily leans on the theme of praise. Two thirds of CCM songs are the kind that make you wanna raise your hands and proclaim, “Our God is an Awesome God.” There is a place in southern gospel for such songs, songs like “I’ll Worship Only At The Feet Of Jesus,” are southern gospel worship songs that SG crowds enjoy. But is there a place for songs like “Practice What You Preach”?

    • Sorry I didn’t complete my comment. It should have ended like this

      …….in CCM?

    • It’s interesting that SG fans look on CCM and P&W as being theologically failures…when both CCM and P&W comes straight from the book of Psalms. While it may not talk about the cross or heaven a lot of it scriptural.

      Also, the bible does talk about psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This indicates that there can be different kinds of music is ok with God.

      To be honest, I listen to CCM, P&W, and even Christian Rap as well as SG. The people on here who complain about other religious genres of music having no scriptural backing are just as wrong as the people who say all SG is about heaven. It all comes from being uninformed. We’ve basically taken a post about someone being uninformed about SG and committed the same error about other genres. I’m not attacking anyone at all, but hopefully we’ll all at least be informed before we make judgements about ot music. If you don’t like the sound of CCM enough to give it a try, I understand, but be honest and say you don’t like distorted guitars.

      • These days, there are plenty of distorted guitars in SG, too. 🙂

        Both in the original post and in a number of comments, I’ve been trying to steer the discussion away from making over-generalizations about CCM’s weaknesses.

      • Daniel, you are correct on both assertions 🙂

  7. Is that Paul Washer? I remember hearing that sermon too, your right it seems a bit harsh…. anyway I enjoyed the post and discussion, in general I don’t really like the CCM I hear right now either. Though P&W I can forgive being somewhat shallow cuz it’s supposed to be simple.

    • No comment. 🙂 I don’t want this to be about a particular preacher or sermon – just about the correct response to the overall objection. 🙂

      • Haha, I think we all understand you weren’t giving Paul a super hard time, I really like him myself. Plus I think you have to be kind of a die-hard fan to know how much good stuff there is in SG so it’s an understandable mistake. 🙂

  8. For me, SG requires a mature Christian to appreciate because it’s so deep. There are so many obscure Bible stories embedded in some of the songs that “baby” Christians will never understand them. Just listen to some of Rodney Griffen’s songs or Tracy Dartts music – they take stories right out of the Bible that you’d have to have been raised in Sunday School to ever understand or make the connection. I guarantee you’ll never hear that stuff on KLOVE. It’s too cerebral.

    • That’s cuz they’re written by GOOD, OLD BAPTISTS who really know their BIBLE! 😀

  9. I love the music and the message that Southern Gospel (or Gospel depending of your postioning). 90% of the music I listen comes from the USA, which is too much considering that I’m not american. Someone asked me once the reason for this, saying that I was not patriot, something like that. And the reason is that the American Gospel Music is a whole lot richer in message than Brazilian. Unfortunately we live a crisis on the Gospel field here. Songs with poor or even no theology. And when it has something, it’s a corrupted theology. When it’s not a worship song (which I’m not saying it’s bad, I just don’t like all those repetitions), it’s a neo-pentecostal song (which I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m pentecostal) with a revenge feeling. Most of these songs say something like: “God will turn the tide, you’ll be on the top, you’ll be the winner, you’ll defeat your enemies and show them that God chose you.” Yes, God can do it. But people are forgetting the whole point down here: the great love of Jesus Christ shown to men through his sacrifice on the cross. They’re making like Heaven is here. But I always remember a Martins song called “The Promise” that says: “Don’t make this world your home.” So, I think that Southern Gospel Music is the most rich kind of music when we talk about message. I’ll never forget a moment in my life, when I was going through a rough time, needing forgiveness, and listening “Child, You’re Forgiven” by the Gaither Vocal Band made me feel the amazing love of God, whose reaches pass the highest star and covers all the world. Praise The Lord!

    • Oh, that every language and people group would have its own Fanny Crosby, its own Isaac Watts, its own John Newton, its own Dianne Wilkinson!

      • Totally agree.

  10. Oh, Daniel…you put me in stellar company today…all heroes of mine. Aren’t you kind! I have read this thread with interest, because for me, my greatest objective in writing songs is to get doctrinal truth to the people who hear them. I’ve found that it’s possible to do that even with a flying, toe-tapping quartet song, or even a song like “The Old White Flag” which is really about bringing people to Christ. As for the person who said SG music is theologically shallow, I’m reminded of what someone thought of a song of mine once. The song was on hold for a certain artist, and didn’t make the record. I was told later that someone involved in the business side of the process had said, “this song doesn’t really say anything”. The song was about the Crucifixion…and about Who Jesus Christ is, why He came, and what He did to make redemption possible. So there are going to be times when we do miss the mark for some folks. Obviously, there are some SG songs with more Bible content than others. But we do strive to bring the grand themes of the Gospel to the hearts and minds of the people who listen over and over again…the Cross, the blood, the resurrection, the second coming, our eternal Home, and the love, mercy and grace of our Heavenly Father, manifested in His dear Son and our Savior. As for Heaven? The older I get, the dearer it becomes, and the more I want to write about it! James Elliott and I have addressed the idea of whether there are too many Heaven songs in one that Legacy Five is holding, and I love the title: “Here Comes Another Song About Heaven”. Well, Amen!!!!!

    • Ha! Sounds great!

    • Mrs. Wilkinson, I simply LOVE your songs. I can really feel the Lord so near to me through your songs. And also I have a special love with “We Shall See Jesus”. I had heard it with the Cats, but never gave the right attention to it. Few months ago I bought Ernie Haase & Signature Sound Tribute Video to the Cathedrals, and wooow… Cryied like a little baby watching that. I had a brother who passed away before I even was born, and I always wanted to meet him, but I know that I’ll meet him only in glory. And your song strenghened my hope to meet him, and also George, Glen, Roger, and all my other heroes who I never met before. You’re truly a blessing in my life. God bless you and keep bringing God to the heart of the people through your songs. God bless you.

  11. That’s why I named you here – because that is your objective in writing songs!

    I hope L5 cuts that song. 🙂

  12. Daniel,
    I read your article with interest and I agree that SG music is closer to theology than any other “popular” Christian music today. I’m going to show my age but some think they invented praise songs but they have been around for centuries (just look at some old song books). Now my age comes out again in that I believe there are some spiritually solid praise song but most are so repetitive and long I want to stand up and scream “Would you please finish!”

  13. Enjoyed reading the comments on this subject, especially by those who write the music we love so much. To Dianne Wilkinson as a Cathedrals fan from way back thank you and thanks to the Lord for the great music you have written and your ability to write pure Southern Gospel songs that touch people. Just like preaching it would seem to take a good deal of giftedness to take theological thought and make it understandable and singable. God doesnt give all songwriters the same gift. Some seem to be able to tell a story that reaches you in your spirit. I think you begin to realize the uniqueness of a Dottie Rambo, Rusty Goodman, or Bill And Gloria Gaither.