Denomination and style

A while back commenter Tom took me to task for misunderstanding the relationship of artists’ denominational affiliation to their work and its appeal. Specifically, he argued that I was “somehow conflating the holiness tradition and the pentecostal tradition in ways that make absolutely no sense to your argument.”

The comment goes on for some time in an attempt to correct my confusion, as Tom sees it, and I’ll let you read or reread it (or not) for yourself. There are some important bits of history and context there that are worth your time, and it’s pretty clear that I played too fast and loose with my terminology in that post. So thanks to Tom for taking the time to respond.

That said, his comment is a good example of a common mistake people make in discussing and analyzing southern gospel and its development: namely, assuming that artists aim for, and appeal to, roughly the same denominational background from which the artists themselves emerge. There are many reasons why this is not true – too many to get into here. It’s enough for now to note the problem and discuss it.

Because Bill Gaither was Tom’s main focus, let’s talk about Gaither (yeah, yeah, … I know. … it’s all Gaither all the time around here). A Nazarene church man himself, he has nevertheless moved progressively in his artistic career to the expressive left of the Nazarene holiness tradition (and even farther away from Pentecostalism, which is why I hypothesized in the original post Tom commented on that Jason Crabb may have been an attractive commodity to Gaither’s Spring Hill label, because Crabb has a big following among Pentecostals). Meanwhile, gospel music has tended rightward toward an increasingly charismatic and pentecostalized set of performance styles that might well describe as “pentecostal/holiness.”

One result of this movement is that at this late point in his career, Gaither finds himself stylistically somewhere between the more conservative spans of the CCM spectrum on his left (and progressive CCM on his FAR left), and mainstream southern gospel on his right (even though the latter looks and sounds more like the holiness tradition of which he himself is a product denominationally).

I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t any examples of artists who more or less adopt the practices of their denominational background. The McGruders, anyone?

But a folk historian casting about for a dissertation topic could do worse than to look at southern gospel music as the history of conservative Protestant musicians figuring out how to adapt and adopt themselves stylistically to the unmet needs or unexploited segments of the gospel music fanbase.

Call this the Denominational Paradox in southern gospel music history. And this leads directly to Harrison’s Corollary to the Denominational Paradox: namely, that southern gospel music is a primary way that certain parts of conservative evangelicalism maintain its theoretically absolutist ideology while informally and practically accommodating a plurality of worldviews and perspectives, since in order to optimally position themselves within the southern gospel music market, artists often have to decouple themselves from the narrow commitments and visions of their denominational backgrounds. But that will have to wait for another day, or dissertation.

To sum up, then: it’s dicey to assume that performers always already appeal to the denominational tradition with which they self-identify. Go forth and dissentify.

Update: First off, I’ve edited that final paragraph from the original so that it no longer reads as if it were written for aliens. Second, there seems to be some genuine confusion over Gaither’s denominational affiliation, and/but until I have time to go back and look at his autobiographies again, I’m going to leave it as is. With respect to the argument I’m making, the difference between Nazarene and Church of God is negligible. The point is that denomination seems to have played at best a secondary or indirect shaping role in Gaither’s musical style. Or, as Eddie Crook puts it, “denominations have little to do with SG careers and personal appearances.” Just so.

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  1. ecrook wrote:

    I thought BG was Church of God Anderson, not Nazarene.

    The HGF were Pentecostal Church of God but appealed to more Baptists than their own denomination.

    The McKameys are Baptist but appeal to the pentecostal/holiness denominations also.

    Other than some Apostolic/Oneness artists, denominations have little to do with SG careers and personal appearances.

  2. BUICK wrote:

    I, too, thought that BG was Church of God Anderson (not to be confused with the CoG Cleveland, TN) along with Sandy Patty, among others.

  3. RF wrote:

    I tend to agree with Mr. Crook. Demonination means nothing as you travel across the country.

    I was raised in a Baptist chuch in West Virginia that might appear to be a Pentacostal church most places. When attending Baptist churches in the south, i found them more reserved than my own Methodist church at home. I’ve been to Churches of God in Ohio and Nazarene Churches (as well as Baptist churches in the north) that reminde me of Episcopal. It’s a matter of style.

    I notice where these groups are performing and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Gold City, their members being mostly staunch Baptists, regularly perform in all kinds of churches and the same can be said for other groups.

    This genre is extremely conservative, and that’s the soil they trod. The labels make no difference. As it should be.

  4. joe wrote:

    Did anyone else’s brain implode upon reading the next-to-last paragraph? :)

  5. quartet-man wrote:

    EC< (Eddie Crook? :))my understanding is Gaither started as Nazarene and now is Church Of God.

  6. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Its all about worship styles these days.
    As far as for doctrinal teachings, that is what make the difference in the various denominations.
    Hopefully, most artists are aware of worship styles and teachings before they set foot on any platform or stage.

  7. Jenn wrote:

    I am a Nazarene- my dad is a Nazarene pastor. Gaither is a member of a Nazarene church in his home state, my dad knows his pastor. Gloria was raised Church of God Anderson and our differences are slim to none….whether they attend the Church of God Anderson or Nazarene Church primarily, I just know their membership is with the Nazarene church.

  8. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    In order to keep my thoughts separated in this thread, I offer the following:

    Here is a sampling of colleges from various denominations which we can call being the farm system of southern gospel music.
    You start out in college and develop friends with same interests.
    You start singing with the school’s traveling music groups.
    Now your friends start singing in a smaller group on their own.
    Over the years, many artists and group have started out singing anywhere and everywhere.
    Sure, I can list artists and groups from these colleges.
    Does it really matter?
    All that counts in my book they know and accepted the provisions of John 3:16.

    Starting with the Church of the Nazarene movement, you Eastern Nazarene, Trevecca Nazarene, Northwest Nazarene or Olivet Nazarene.
    Christian Missionary & Alliance have Nyack College and Toccoa Falls College.
    Some of the Assemblies of God’s collges are Valley Forge Christian College formerly Northeast, North Central, Southeastern, Southwestern, Northwest, Evangel and Central.
    We have Zion used to be independent but now with A/G have produced a lot of singers in USA and Canada.
    Two well known colleges from different Church of God denominations in Anderson Unversity in IN and Lee in Cleveland, TN.
    Sure, I might have missed some but for that I am sorry.
    Of, course we have to mention Liberty Unversity.

    An aspiring artist can choose by staying within the confines of their own denomination.
    There are criteria to be met to stay within the confines of a denominations but should be able to get locked in with the pastors and worship leaders of the churches.

  9. Videoguy wrote:

    You said, “artists often have to decouple themselves from the narrow commitments and visions of their denominational backgrounds”.

    You mean…tolerate ye one another?

  10. Bubba wrote:

    “You mean…tolerate ye one another?”

    Naw…..keep your beliefs to yourself untill you get their mone…..untill you minister to them.

  11. Grigs wrote:

    Bill said he was Church of God on one of the videos in response to a question from Mark Lowry.

    LOL…maybe he’s got a dual church membership.

  12. Al Locke wrote:

    With the popularity and acceptance of the Homecoming Videos, the Southern Baptist (in TX, OK) have “embraced” (may be too strong a word) the genre. Prior to that, they were not sure it was OK to like that kind of music. I know because we have and continue to sing in many First Baptist Churches, Small Town TX. Prior to BG, it was a pretty cold reception to SG many times.
    Plus Heavenly Highway Hyms, Stamps-Baxter (or World Wide Church Songs-Stamps Quartet) split many a small town or country church (Baptist) in the 40’s and 50’s out here.

  13. Leebob wrote:

    I officially have tired (tarred) head after reading that.

    I thought Anderson College (formerly Hyles- Anderson) was an independent Baptist College of the MOST CONSERVATIVE order.

  14. Nazarene-Ned wrote:

    Gaither was raised in the Nazarene church. After he and Gloria married he switched to the Church of God. Danny Gaither remained a member of the Nazarene Church in Alexandria, IN as well as Gaither’s parents. Gaither’s raising in the Nazarene church is what began his long standing relationship with the Speer Family, as well as many, many Nazarene evangelists such as Chuck Milhuff who wrote a verse in “The King is Coming” and a popular Speer song “The Brush”.

  15. mark forester wrote:

    Anderson University in IN is NOT THE SAME as Hyles Anderson College in Hammond, IN. Trust me HAC is every bit as crazy conservative as you thought.

    I grew up in that world. Recently the president of the college preached a sermon against the evils of Southern Gospel. Funy that the tour groups sing SG songs that are on the charts……minus the drums of course. I guess it is ok for the college music director to find those songs. He just has to cleanse them of the wicked drums.


    Again….not the same this as Anderson Unicersity in Anderson, IN. That is the School that Bill Gaither support with his donations.

  16. Robert wrote:

    As far as where we sing most of the time (SE) denominations don’t even come into play. We do 1st Baptist that never have SG to non-denominational churches that never have SG. All respond well.

  17. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    I can relate to Poster #13.
    Thery sure use big words on this blog.

  18. Tom wrote:

    Well, maybe I wasn’t as clear as I should have been in that long ago comment that seems to have instigated this new post. Maybe I should have written a longer comment so as to more carefully clarify what I meant to say (the temptation I always have to fight). Or maybe if I had written less it would have made more sense!

    At any rate, the thrust of my original comment on the Jason Crabb post was not to argue that you, as you say, “[misunderstood] the relationship of artists’ denominational affiliation to their work and its appeal.” The only reason I wrote that entire comment, quite frankly, was to try to correct the conflation of the holiness and pentecostal traditions in your original “Spring Hill and Jason Crabb” post–a conflation you have made before on other occasions over the last four years, and it finally got under my skin enough to try to point out the distinctions between the two traditions.

    Apparently either you still don’t quite get the distinction I was trying to make or you disagree with me (which is fine, I suppose, though as a church historian and historical theologian focused on American Christianity, and as a minister in the Church of the Nazarene, I’m pretty confident I’m correct in my interpretation of these distinctions). But you’re still conflating the holiness tradition and the pentecostal tradition [cf. the last line of your fourth paragraph in this current post on “Denomination and Style”].

    And for the record, since previous commenters seem to have raised questions about it, my original comment stated that Bill Gaither was raised in the Church of the Nazarene and has spent his adult life in the Church of God (Anderson)–though, as Jenn (#7) pointed out, the two denominations are closely related.

    But to the issue at hand: I’m not sure I would try to go very far in arguing that sg artists try to appeal to certain denominational or theological traditions. And I don’t believe that my original comment made the “common mistake” of “assuming that artists aim for, and appeal to, roughly the same denominational background from which the artists themselves emerge.”

    In your original post on Jason Crabb signing with Spring Hill, you wrote: “For Gaither and Co., Crabb brings with him an abiding popularity among a country/holiness demographic that Gaither could want to make inroads into. How Crabb’s Pentecostalism would play on the Homecoming stage is an open question, as I imagine it won’t be easy to control or contain the guy when he gets on a holy roll.”

    My original comment was primarily intended to point out that Gaither IS in the holiness tradition and has had that group among his fanbase from the beginning–and thus would have no need to try to “make inroads” into that tradition–and that what I thought you actually meant was that Gaither might be trying to make inroads into the “pentecostal demographic” (since, as I’ve said, I believe you are conflating the two). Examples of groups coming out of the holiness tradition would include Gaithers, Speers, Collingsworth Family, Pfeifers, etc. I don’t believe that any of these groups evoke the kind of “pentecostal / charismatic” stage presence to which you seem to be alluding.

    But here is the rub, given your current post: You yourself, in the excerpt from your “Spring Hill and Jason Crabb” post that I quoted above, seem to imply that there are “demographics” in the southern gospel community–and it seems, based on my interpretation of what you’ve said (replacing the word “holiness” with “pentecostal,” which is what I believe you mean) that you at least would delineate a demographic that is “pentecostal / charismatic” and a demographic that is a bit more reserved (i.e., Gaither crowd, lots of Baptists, the holiness tradition, and the few Methodists in the sg circuit, etc.). Not that there are clear lines of division between the two, nor to say that there aren’t an awful lot of sg groups that appeal to both demographics–but you do seem to suggest that there are [at least] two demographics out there. And I think you’re probably correct up to that point. I wouldn’t try to go any farther than that with it, nor do I believe that I went any farther than that in my original comment–so I don’t believe I’m guilty of the “common mistake” you’ve attributed to me. I actually think we’re on the same page in this regard (at least if I can get you to quit saying “holiness” and “pentecostal” are the same thing).

    Perhaps we could put it in terms of a Venn diagram: Let’s say there are two circles–the “pentecostal / charismatic demographic” circle and the “more reserved evangelical demographic” circle–that overlap. They overlap a lot–for the sake of argument, let’s say that 85% of southern gospel groups fall into the part of the circle where there’s overlap. But there are also a handful of groups that do appeal to the “pentecostal / charismatic” demographic but don’t appeal quite as much to the “more reserved” demographic. The example I used in my original comment was the McGruders, but I think one could make the argument that a lot of the resistance to the Crabbs from certain sectors of the sg fanbase stemmed from a perceived pentecostal / charismatic orientation to their performance style. (I know, there were lots of other issues ranging from attire and hairstyle to loudness to attempts at genre-bending to, in my opinion, jealousy at their quick success in the market. But it would be hard to deny that a reaction against a perceived charismatic / pentecostal orientation was NOT in the mix, and you seem to suggest the same yourself in the passage you wrote that I quoted above.) Perhaps some would add the Wilburns to that list as well. Whether or not there are many, or even any, groups in the circle representing the “more reserved” demographic that are NOT also in the “charismatic / pentecostal” demographic’s circle might be an interesting point for discussion.

    For the record, for the most part I’ve always enjoyed the McGruders and the Crabbs and the Wilburns, even though I’m in the holiness tradition and not in the pentecostal /charismatic tradition. So just because one is not pentecostal / charismatic oneself does not mean that one will not enjoy or appreciate groups that seem to evidence a more charismatic stage presence. But with regard to your implication that there is more than one demographic out there, I think I would agree. I’m simply trying to look at the evidence empirically, as I believe you were doing when you originally raised that issue. And, to be sure, Eddie Crook (#1) is equally correct in pointing out that there are some Baptist groups that seem to appeal more to the pentecostal / charismatic crowd.

    For the most part, I think I could substantially agree with everything else you wrote in this current post. We’re both trying to get a handle on this thing empirically, and I think your statement that southern gospel seems to be trending more charismatic / pentecostal in recent years has a lot of empirical support. And I believe your argument about the “Denominational Paradox” as well as your corollary to the same offer an interesting and fresh way of looking at this subject. I’ll have to digest it a bit more before jumping completely on board with you, but I don’t find anything in my initial reading of your argument with which I would immediately disagree.

  19. Tom wrote:

    I need to correct something I wrote in #18. I was in a hurry and had to leave for an appointment, and I didn’t proofread adequately before hitting “send.” I should not have referred to the Church of God (Anderson) as a denomination. That group has roots in the Restorationist movement that is opposed to the idea of “denominationalism,” and they studiously avoid using that term. More correct wording would be “Church of God Reformation Movement” (standard phrasing) or “Church of God Ministries” (a term used on their website). My apologies to the good folks in the Church of God Reformation Movement.

  20. Adam wrote:

    Bill and Gloria attend Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. Membership is not part of the Church of God, Anderson beliefs. “Salvation makes you a member.”

    Anderson University is the home-place of the Church of God movement - a reformation, non-pentecostal, “Back-to-the-Bible,” women-in-the-pulpit church. Anderson University’s music department is named after Bill and Gloria, who have funded the majority of the department.

    So many people have so many opinions and ideas of what church Gaither affiliates himself with. Strange.

  21. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    The following website has an excellent family concept description. Families are made of people united by birth of a common name. Time makes the involvement of family creates difference although held together by name.
    This website gives us a listing of denominations with some knowing about Christ and others knowing and accepting Christ. Differences in denomination is knowing what to do and how to do it with Christ. Educationally and spiritual, the differences is spelled out in the denomination’s doctrine and our beliefs.
    Artists and evangelists that cross denominational lines tend to be and should be focus on the common denominator of accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord & Saviour. Why was Billy Graham so successful over the long haul? He kept it simple on the common bond of Jesus Christ and John 3:16.
    Some groups show their denomination’s upbringings by some of their names of the group you see in the various artist directories or the focus of their songs.

  22. Vizzik wrote:

    To quote a line from “Princess Bride”

    “You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means”

  23. Cara wrote:

    I thought Bill and Gloria are born again Christians

  24. John W. Thabah wrote:

    It is true that Bill Gaither and his wife Gloria are members of the Church of God (Anderson). They both are great songwriters and Bill especially should be remembered in the pages of Christian history for his role in promoting Southern Gospel Music which I think is a real Christian music. I don’t understand why people keep raising unnecessary questions about his music and denomination.

  25. VF wrote:

    Phillips Craig & Dean are from strong Pentecostal backgrounds - both Phillips and Dean were raised and baptized in oneness Pentecostal churches. Enough said.

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