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Gospel in Kansas

The African American Church in Kansas

As slaves, African Americans in the United States were denied access to established institutions. The one black institution that slaveowners sometimes permitted was the church. For this reason the church offered not only spiritual guidance for the black community but also suggestions of hope. The black church also celebrates the African American heritage of its members.

Before the Civil War two black churches already existed in what would become Kansas City, Kansas. Both the First Baptist and the First African Methodist Episcopal (AME) were organized in 1859. The two congregations met together for several years until the groups grew too large. Within seven years each congregation built its own church. The Independent Baptist Church of Leavenworth is also believed to be one of the earliest black churches in Kansas.

As more former slaves migrated to Kansas from the South, additional churches were established to serve black communities. St. Luke AME Church in Lawrence was founded in 1862. In 1865 the Second Baptist, Topeka's first African American church, was established. In Emporia, Mount Olive AME was organized in 1870, and St. James Baptist was founded in 1873. Begun in 1878 Calvary Baptist Church was established to serve Wichita's African American community. Well before the turn of the century, black churches were established in Salina, Nicodemus, and Manhattan.

The History of Gospel

Traditional gospel music has its roots in the slave songs, field hollers, and spirituals which express confidence in a power beyond mortal comprehension. In part, gospel music can be characterized as troubled music, because it expresses the fear, frustrations, and anxieties created by the struggles African Americans have faced. Yet it is also viewed as happy music of hope, joy, and possibilities. Gospel music is a combination of art, music, literature, dance, poetry, and biography. It is one of the strongest forms of expression among black Americans in the United States.

Some scholars believe the roots of gospel can be traced back to 1619. A Dutch freighter landed in Jamestown, Virginia, with 20 captured Africans. The African slaves were met by a small group of Europeans, and with this meeting a fusion of cultures began. Gospel music would eventually follow a particular pattern that combined European melodies with African rhythms.

By 1895 traditional gospel music was performed in churches and at camp meetings in a traveling format.  It was prominent in the founding of Black Pentecostal-Holiness groups.  During worship the entire congregation was expected to join in by "lifting their voices to sing" in an unrehearsed manner.  However, when gospel music was performed in a traveling format by evangelist singers, it was well-rehearsed and considered more of a performance.

By the 1920s the Baptist churches had adopted gospel music as part of their worship experience.  A network of gospel groups and quartettes was developed that performed at many Pentecostal churches and other churches throughout the African American communities.  Gospel conventions were a large part of this networking and are still part of Black church activities.

During the 1920s-1940s, gospel music continued to spread.  Songs were written and recorded, and tours to Black communities across the United States helped to make these songs popular.  Gospel singers and groups as well as concert artists brought their music to Black Kansans who considered these performances moments of great celebration.  Although they were allowed to express themselves through their music, African Americans faced racial prejudice in many areas.  When the legendary gospel singer Marian Anderson appeared in concert at Fort Riley in 1950, lodging for her was arranged with a Black Manhattan family because hotels that accommodated African Americans at that time received unfavorable telephone calls from townspeople.

Gospel music in the African American tradition has spanned many lifetimes.  Selections such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Amazing Grace," "Precious Lord," and "The Old Ship of Zion" are almost universally known by Black Kansans.  While these songs were not all composed by African Americans, they were adopted, improvised, and shaped to fit the social, religious, and emotional needs of the people.

The Nature of Gospel

According to the noted African American poet Langston Hughes, "Gospel singers do not rehearse songs.  They listen and absorb; then improvise."  Traditional Black churches use gospel music on a weekly basis to elevate the mind from daily responsibilities, economic limitations, and social disapproval.  During worship, gospel songs are performed, and members of the congregation express themselves with responses.  The music communicates like no other factor of the worship experience.

Gospel is usually accompanied by hand-clapping, foot-tapping, and sometimes by shouting.  The text of many gospel songs is often taken from the Bible, while others are drawn directly from personal experiences.  Many gospel songs are testimonies of inspiration and declarations of faith.  Some are slow and solemn, while many are rhythmic and spirited.

Unlike earlier spirituals and field hollers, the gospel song is a composed piece, although singers often do not use sheet music while singing or performing.  This reflects the oral nature of African American culture.  Gospel music is a way of expressing what one feels without having to follow too closely to written lyrics.  One can hear a song once or twice and be able to sing or perform it with remarkable accuracy.  With gospel music, however, accuracy is not as important as involvement, intensity, and personal identification.

Another important factor within gospel music is the freedom to improvise.  It is a relaxed form of music.  Each song is interpreted and adapted by the individual who sings it.  Therefore, many different versions of the same song can be heard.  A characteristic of gospel singing is the adding of extra words to the original text of a song.  These words may complement the text or may be completely unrelated and used to fill spaces in the melody.  The practice of dividing and subdividing the beat provides more pulses and a greater opportunity to add words.  As singers become emotionally involved in their performances, they are apt to express personal involvement by adding words and phrases.


Currently, gospel music is enjoying a wider audience.  This causes it to be influenced by popular forms of entertainment and has resulted in numerous changes.  The lyrics of traditional gospel music reflect the experiences of hope, joy and difficulties overcome.  In more recent times, however, those lyrics have become less focused on a supreme being's involvement in our lives.  Lyrics now often refer to relationships with other human beings.  Major American music festivals now include gospel music, which makes it necessary for performers to adhere to specific formats found more often in secular music.  Historically, gospel music was usually accompanied by only a piano.  Today it is common to find synthesizers, organs, drums, full orchestras, single saxophones, and rhythm sections supported by tambourines and bongos accompanying gospel.  While many changes have taken place in the performance of gospel music, the basic characteristics of unison singing and call and response remain. 


Gospel music is performed primarily by those who share the ultimate meaning of the lyrics.  Many African Americans have experienced at some time inhuman treatment.  Gospel music embraces these realities.  The music is the combination of many things, and it represents the essence of Black America's need to communicate both with each other and with the world.  It is a music designed more for inspiration than for entertainment.  Like the blues, it is a Black art form, but unlike the blues, it is the music of hope.

Although gospel music is available on sheet music, the vast majority of gospel interpretations remain in oral tradition.  Within the African American community, gospel music serves as a vehicle to communicate a cultural connectedness.  While some may view it as American music, it remains the purest combination of European melodies and African rhythms.


Traditions  1993 © KSHS

Entry: Gospel in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2012

Date Modified: June 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.