The term refers to a body of songs associated with Christian evangelism, from the early 19th-century 'great awakenings' through to the urban revivalist campaigns of the period 1870-1920. Increasingly, beginning ca 1950, it has also referred to a style derived largely (but not exclusively) from Afro-American singing practices, further developed by the late 20th century into a sub-genre of popular music.

The characteristic 19th-century gospel song is a diatonic major-key melody whose homophonic arrangement uses only simple harmonies (tonic, subdominant, and dominant-seventh chords) or, at most, a few 'barbershop' chromaticisms, with infectious and repetitious rhythms, often featuring, in the refrain (or 'chorus'), an echoing of the main tune by the accompanying voices. Thus in a much-anthologized example by J.M. Whyte from Sing Out the Glad News (J.M. and D.A. Whyte eds, Toronto 1885), the main phrase of the chorus proclaims 'Jesus is calling you now,' to which the lower voices echo '(right now)'.

Gospel-song texts are subjective and personal, and sometimes even sentimental, reflecting the salvationist purpose of this music. Jubilation and militancy are frequent moods in the quicker-tempo songs; indeed, mid-19th-century march rhythms were among the idiom's strong formative influences. Given the close connection between revival meetings and the temperance movement, it is not surprising that the 'demon' of alcohol becomes an oft-evoked figure in turn-of-the-century examples. The catchy rhythms of gospel music were an effective tool in the temperance crusade, witness Whyte's grim moral ballad 'A Slave to Drink' or Lottie Moore's temperance version of 'The Maple Leaf For Ever', the latter from Prohibition Songs (Women's Christian Temperance Union of Ontario, Toronto 1909.

Beginning in the mid-1870s, the successive collections of Gospel Hymns edited in the USA by P.P. Bliss, Ira D. Sankey, and others, were published in Canada under Canadian imprint and sold widely. Notable Canadian evangelist-singers who followed the internationally successful model of Sankey include the brothers John M. and David Albert Whyte of Paris, Ont, J.H. Hathaway of Brantford, Ont, R.C. Horner of Ottawa, J. McD. Kerr of Toronto, T. Bowman Stephenson of Hamilton, Ont, and Crossley and Hunter of St Thomas, Ont. All wrote and composed original gospel songs, as did their 20th-century counterpart George Beverly Shea. J.M. Whyte was the most prolific, producing five volumes of songs between 1885 and 1901 either alone or with his brother, the largest (Battle Songs of the Cross, Toronto 1901) including 153 original songs.

Tunes found in some of the earliest tunebooks published in Canada occasionally foreshadow the gospel idiom. Examples are 'Scotland' from Colonial Harmonist, 1832, and 'The Gospel Banner' from Union Harmony, 1840. L.C. Rivard's 'Soldats du Christ', from the 1891 edition of his Chants évangéliques, is a vigorous francophone-protestant example of the militant type of gospel song.

The typical 19th-century gospel song was a vehicle for immediate religious feelings in a camp meeting or rally rather than for dignified church-worship services. This accounts for the early reluctance of compilers to include this music in denominational hymnals. Even when included, its relegation to a special section was a way of indicating acceptance was limited. The preface to the Anglican Book of Common Praise of 1908, defends the inclusion with a cautious note: 'It was felt that in railroad construction camps, in lumber camps, and in similar surroundings... these hymns would be found use and necessary. They are grouped together at the end of the book. They may not be found necessary in every parish, or under all circumstances...'. The interdenominational New Canadian Hymnal (Toronto 1916), on the other hand, boasts in its preface that tunes in the new 'rag-time' rhythm have been 'rigidly excluded'.

'Black gospel' denotes the style of exuberant physical and vocal expression that characterized not just songs but entire meetings and services among black congregations - Baptist, Pentecostal, and others. It was developed in the USA from spirituals, jubilation songs, and 'sorrow songs' of Afro-Americans in the 19th century and influenced Canadian life in areas settled by emancipated slaves in the Maritimes or in western Ontario. By the early 20th century the features of black gospel were established: a ringing vocal vibrato; accompaniment by clapping, stamping, and shouts; a solo-and-response or verse-and-chorus form (similar to most gospel music); and improvisation spilling over from formal songs to the prayers, the testimonials, and even the sermons that made up the rest of the service. Guitars and banjos were the accompanying instruments for early solo singers and close-harmony ensembles, but in the 1930s the piano, and then by the 1950s the Hammond organ, became more common: the latter is the instrument noted by Paul McIntyre in his study of Windsor's Mount Zion Pentecostal Church choir (Black Pentecostal Music in Windsor, 1976).

In the mid-l920s, a male quartet from the small town of Buxton, near Chatham, Ont, 'became widely known and in demand as entertainers throughout Southwestern Ontario and parts of Michigan' (Vivian M. Robbins: Musical Buxton, Buxton, Ont 1969), and in the 1930s was featured weekly on radio station CFCO, Chatham. A similar ensemble was the Radio Kings of Harmony, associated in the 1930s with the First Baptist Church, Toronto's oldest black congregation, and also active in broadcasting, as the name implies. In the 1980s noted performers of black-gospel music included the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir (predated 1974-81 by the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir), the Harris Family at Toronto's Gospel Lighthouse, the Johnson Family of Brantford, Ont, and several of Toronto's AGMM (Association of Gospel Music Ministries) groups, including the Trinity Singers and a 110-voice Mass Choir.

In contrast to both the early revivalist style and the fervent context of black-gospel worship, gospel music in the 1970s and 1980s became more elaborate and more commercialized, marked by its pop approach to vocal style, amplified instrumental accompaniment, and independence from specific religious viewpoints. Variants now embraced country, middle-of-the-road pop and 'Jesus-rock' styles.

Gospel hymnody had also merged with country music in the radio repertoire of the rural southern USA in the mid-20th century, and distinctions between sacred and secular were further blurred with the rise of radio (and later TV) evangelism. Canadians entertainers such as Don Messer and His Islanders and, later, Tommy Hunter found it natural to include a gospel hymn or two in their broadcasts. In turn various styles of pop music have been an integral element of Canadian Christian TV programs - eg, '100 Huntley Street'.

Gene MacLellan, Robbie McDougall, and Deanna Waters were among Canadian songwriters associated with gospel and 'Christian music' (to use a common music-industry designation) after 1970. Several mainstream country artists (eg, Hunter, Carroll Baker, Terry Carrise, Wilf Carter, the Family Brown, and Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain) have added gospel songs or albums to the Canadian gospel discography that also includes recordings by the Learnings (of Grassie, Ont), Norma-Jean Mainse, Dave Chapman, and many others.

Canadian recording companies listed in Music Directory Canada (Toronto 1990) with an interest in gospel music included EMO (Shediac, NB), Justin Time, Mainroads (Toronto), Micah (Scarborough, Ont), Newsflash Sounds (Grand Falls, Nfld), and Shotgun (Brantford, Ont). A Canadian Gospel Music Association, established in 1975 at Pickering, Ont, has published the quarterly Gospel Music News.