It can be difficult to define exactly what a gospel song is. But, if we are going to look at the best gospel songs, then it is useful to understand what we are looking at and where they came from.
Gospel songs and Gospel music are, of course, inextricably linked with Christianity. Yet, you could argue it has other roots. Christianity has been around for over 2000 years. Wherever there is some form of worship, there will usually be some form of music.
Would we refer to the music of 2000 years ago as Gospel music? No, we wouldn’t. The reason we wouldn’t is that the term “gospel music” is a fairly recent creation in comparison to the Christianity it is linked with.
- What Is Gospel Music?
- A Specific Folk Song
- The Earliest Songs
- Top 115 Best Gospel Songs
- 1 Wade In The Water
- 2 Go Tell It on the Mountain
- 3 Amazing Grace
- 4 Here Again by Elevation Worship
- 5 What A Friend We Have In Jesus by Tennessee Ernie Ford
- 6 Way Maker by Sinach
- 7 He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands by Laurie London
- 8 Here I Am To Worship by Hillsong Worship
- 9 Days of Elijah by Robin Mark
- 10 Forever by Kari Jobe
- 11 Breathe On Us by Kari Jobe
- 12 Gospel Train by Rosetta Tharpe
- 13 Mary Don’t You Weep by Aretha Franklin
- 14 Swing Low (Sweet Chariot) by Etta James
- 15 People Get Ready by The Impressions
- 16 Yes, He Lives
- 17 Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum
- 18 Oh Happy Day by The Edwin Hawkins Singers
- 19 We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger
- 20 Precious Lord, Take My Hand
- 21 I Saw the Light
- 22 His Eye Is on the Sparrow
- 23 Go Tell It on the Mountain
- 24 Victory in Jesus
- 25 It Is Well with My Soul
- 26 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
- 27 What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- 28 Holy, Holy, Holy
- 29 Lord, I Lift Your Name on High
- 30 Shout to the Lord
- 31 You Are So Beautiful to Me (To Jesus Christ My Lord)
- 32 There Is Power in the Blood
- 33 At Calvary
- 34 All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
- 35 O Happy Day
- 36 I Am Thine, O Lord
- 37 Stand By Me
- 38 I Love to Tell the Story
- 39 Love Lifted Me
- 40 Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow
- 41 Take My Life and Let It Be
- 42 Were You There
- 43 Mansion Over the Hilltop
- 44 Nothing Between
- 45 There Shall Be Showers of Blessing
- 46 He Leadeth Me
- 47 Onward Christian Soldiers
- 48 I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
- 49 I Stand Amazed in the Presence
- 50 Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
- More 65 Best Gospel Songs
- How We React To Gospel Music
- Looking for Inspirational Songs?
- Best Gospel Songs – Final Thoughts
What Is Gospel Music?
It is a genre that dates back probably as far as the 17th century. There are two elements you will usually find. First, plenty of very powerful vocals, along with harmonies. The vocals may encourage “call-back” answers from a congregation.
Second, there will usually be a rhythm created by clapping and sometimes stamping of feet. But, other genres use a similar song construction that you would not consider Gospel. So what is the difference?
A Specific Folk Song
Gospel music began to take the shape we know now in the 18th century, motivated by the slave trade. It was a form of a folk song within a community but with a religious slant. They evolved as a way for slaves to express their feelings, and for some, to keep their spirits up.
Christianity was a new concept to the vast majority of the slaves. It promised freedom and something better to come. And, with the mass conversions that were occurring, it was seen as a way of escaping slavery and oppression.
A way of motivating themselves that one day they would have their freedom. Of course, it was religious, and in particular, Christianity-based.
The roots of all American music…
But, it was the slaves and the later African-American communities that were responsible for the creation and perpetuation of what came to be known as gospel music. And, in many ways, for its very intense development.
From it came Blues, and eventually Jazz. Today, the term Gospel music is used by communities of all ethnic groups and bears little relation to the original music and ideals. Although, some of the earliest songs are still sung in certain communities.
The Earliest Songs
Most of the very early songs that were sung have long been confined to history and only exist in a handed-down form. Slaves were not given much encouragement to read and write. Let alone compose music.
However, there are still plenty of gospel songs and original music around. And they are mixed in with more recent compositions to form a formidable body of work. Some of them will go back a long way; others will be quite recent. And there may be one or two surprises along the way.
I am not one of these people who thinks that an electric guitar and a drum kit are going to send me “downstairs.” After all, as Cliff Richard sang, “Why should The Devil have all the good music?” So, let’s take a look at some, starting with one of the most respected and famous of the spiritualist slave songs…
Top 115 Best Gospel Songs
Wade In The Water
Let’s start with one of the most famous gospel and spiritual songs ever. It is not known who wrote the original song. There weren’t too many songwriting credits afforded to slaves.
It is known as a “sorrow song,” but it had another meaning. It was used on the Underground Railroad by slaves fleeing captivity. One of the heroes of the time, Harriet Tubman, used it as a code on the journey.
Often hunted by men with dogs, “Wade in the Water” meant just that. Get in the river where they can’t pick up your scent. It is a gospel song that still resonates today in the South, and will likely remain one of the best gospel songs ever.
Want to know more? Then check out my in-depth look at The Meanings Behind Wade in the Water.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
This is a very old African-American spiritual and gospel song that dates back to at least 1865. The music and lyrics were compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr. The Peter, Paul, and Mary version was reworked a little to fit closer to the story of The Exodus.
It was originally and still is considered a Christmas song. The original words refer to the Nativity. However, it has inherited a wider meaning and is a popular song both in the gospel and secular circles.
This has been one of the most popular religious songs over the last 200 years. The basic tune goes back a long way. However, we do know the words were written in 1772 by the English Anglican poet John Newton.
Ironically, Newton was a slave trader who worked the ships carrying to them their destinations. However, he reformed his ways around 1755 and became an abolitionist.
The song fell out of favor in British church services during his lifetime. It was later revived during the 19th century in America.
A song everyone knows…
It has been recorded more times than most other songs, and I have included the Judy Collins version. Her 1985 version was recorded for Christmas in the UK of that year on an album of the same name. It is available in America only as an import.
Two hundred years and still going strong. This is a song that forms an important part of many religious communities. And is easily one of the best gospel songs ever.
Here Again by Elevation Worship
Coming more up-to-date now with this song from Elevation Worship. They are a group formed in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the city’s Elevation Church. They perform at their church at weekends but also perform concerts and tours across America.
A simple song that is very much a more modern type of gospel song.
What A Friend We Have In Jesus by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Ernest Jennings Ford, or Tennessee Ernie Ford as he is better known, was a much-loved singer and TV personality. Perhaps best known for his song “Sixteen Tons,” he crossed the boundaries between Country music and Gospel with ease.
This is a song originally written in 1855 by Joseph Scriven. It is one of the most popular songs sung amongst Christians and has been recorded in a variety of languages. Ford’s version is often cited as the most popular.
Way Maker by Sinach
Gospel music covers the globe, and this is a song from Nigerian songwriter Osinachi Okoro. It also brought Nigerian gospel singer Sinach to the attention of mainstream gospel music.
Another of the more modern styles of gospel songs. Released in 2016 and quickly became a popular Christian song.
He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands by Laurie London
Often, when we think of traditional gospel songs and singers, we think of joyous occasions filled with music and handclaps. This is a song that seems to create that feeling.
First published in 1927, it is very much a traditional African-American song. At first, its popularity was limited to religious gatherings, but then a version was released as a single.
Laurie London was a young man from Bethnal Green in East London who achieved fame as a boy singer. He had a hit with this song in 1958 while still at school at the age of only 13. On its release, it was an instant success.
It was his only hit record, but it did set a record. It became the highest charting single by a British singer in the 50s in America.
Also, it was the only gospel song to reach #1 on the mainstream Billboard chart. That means it did better than “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins singers.
Here I Am To Worship by Hillsong Worship
Let’s pay a visit to gospel music “down under.” I say “down under,” but Hillsong Worship also has established offshoots in London and Kyiv. Established in Sydney, Australia, they have had several albums distributed by their own Hillsong Music label.
This gospel song was released in 2003 and has remained a popular song ever since. The group does not have what you might call the usual gospel sound.
Plenty of acoustic guitars you might expect. But add some heavyweight drums that come in during the song and some very powerful group vocals. It isn’t hard to see why they are so popular in some circles.
Days of Elijah by Robin Mark
This was first released in 1997. It is a simple enough song offering a prophetic warning about times to come. Another song that focuses on a key Christian principle – the Second Coming.
That is a message that is going to resonate at any Christian gathering. There was a cover version by Twila Paris that brought the song back to the attention of gospel audiences.
Forever by Kari Jobe
Let’s have a change of pace and style now and take in a couple of tracks from Kari Jobe. Born in Texas, she has developed into an important Christian singer and songwriter. This song is a return to a much more sedate type of gospel song.
If you prefer the more peaceful gospel songs, this is a track you’re going to like.
Breathe On Us by Kari Jobe
This track was released in 2004 and instantly became popular amongst the Christian community in America. It was taken from her album, Majestic (Live).
It is a song that especially suits those who might be going through hard times. If you need some support and help, this is going to be a good song to listen to.
Gospel Train by Rosetta Tharpe
Let’s go back in time to this track. Rosetta Tharpe, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe as she is sometimes known, was a gospel singer from the 50s who has largely disappeared from our music consciousness.
She might not be well-known today, but in her day, she was one of the most respected blues and gospel singers. She had a powerful, soulful voice and didn’t play a bad guitar either. Gospel Train is an album full of her own gospel and spiritual, Blues-based songs.
It is a jazz-influenced album that drew much attention at the time. It was one of the first gospel tracks to use musicians who were willing to give the song some creative drive.
Mary Don’t You Weep by Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin was known as the “Queen Of Soul.” And she was just about the most important female soul singer of her generation. But, she had another string to her bow that, for her, was just as important.
Aretha The Gospel Singer
Her father had been a minister at their local church in Detroit, and from a young age, she had been impressive in the gospel choir. At the age of 18, she got her first record deal, but she never forgot her gospel roots.
“Mary Don’t You Weep” was not a new song. It goes back probably to the late 1800s. The first recording we have of the song was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915. Aretha released her version in 1972, and the song suddenly became popular worldwide. Aretha’s natural, soulful voice fit the subject matter perfectly.
Swing Low (Sweet Chariot) by Etta James
This is one of the most popular and well-known gospel songs and Christian hymns. Its origins are found not in slavery but Native Americans. It was composed by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw Indian who established himself near modern-day Oklahoma.
It is thought that he wrote it sometime after 1865. The first recording of the song we have is from 1909 and the Fisk Singers. The first mention of the song comes in 1876, in a publication about the songs of the Jubilee Singers.
A Common Theme
The song uses themes that would have been common and very familiar to the people of the time. It uses death as a way of reminding listeners of better days that are to come. It also uses repetition to enforce its message, a common trait amongst gospel songs of the time.
The song was created to allow for improvisation and the ability to be able to use the “answer-back” practices.
It is not surprising we turn to Joan Baez for what might be the definitive live performance. She sang the song at Woodstock in 1969.
Along with others, it became an important song, not only for Christians but for members of the Civil Rights Movement.
People Get Ready by The Impressions
Let’s keep with the train imagery for this well-known song from The Impressions. Christians fervently believe in a Second Coming, a time when they will be vindicated by a returning Messiah. A time when all wrongs will be made right.
This song is about that and is effectively a warning to get yourself ready for that event to occur.
A Heavy Gospel Feel And Message And More…
The song was written by one of the greatest songwriters of the 60s, Curtis Mayfield. The single was taken from the album of the same name released in 1965.
On its release, it was considered a simple song with a gospel message, but it became much more than that. The reaction to “People Get Ready” was not unlike that of “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger. It kept its religious gospel feel, but it became a Civil Rights anthem.
The song reached #14 in America and was another in a long line of gospel and slave songs that used the train as imagery. It has been covered by some illustrious names. These include Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Bob Marley, Vanilla Fudge, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, and Seal.
A Song Borne Out Of Disillusionment
Composer Curtis Mayfield wrote the song amidst his growing sense of disillusionment with the social and political issues of the time. Many of his songs from this period reflected his deep feelings.
Yes, He Lives
Most people know these days of Cliff Richard’s religious leanings. If he has always been a Christian, he kept it very quiet during his Rock n Roll years. However, it has been a long time now since he professed his faith in Christianity.
He has made many religious recordings, but they were always a little pious for most people. He decided with his Small Corners album to use up-and-coming American writers with a gospel leaning. On the face of it, it worked musically.
Plenty Of Positives
“Yes, He Lives” was the lead song and a single released from the album. It had a lot of positives as a song. But, despite its excellent performance and production, it failed to chart.
I have included it here because of all the positive reasons I mentioned. And because it is a modern-day worship song for those that like that style. You could ask if it is strictly a gospel song. It does have a Soft Rock edge to it, and some might object to that.
But, it speaks of belief in Christianity, so what else do you need? I thought that was the idea of Gospel music.
Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum
Having introduced the idea of drums and electric guitar on the last track, let’s also include this one. This is what you could call “Gospel Rock,” a new genre. It is not really “new”; it is gospel music but just plugged in.
If you want to reach millions upon millions of people all around the world, there is no better way than a successful record. And this one was just that. Released in 1969, a time when religious music was not in fashion at all, Norman Greenbaum changed all that.
There were plenty of them, but he proved them all wrong. Number one in the UK, Canada, and Australia, #3 in America, and with over two million sales, it was a huge hit.
The skeptics were not confined to record company executives. Even some Christian groups and commentators were critical of its approach to considering itself a worship song. But, they are best forgotten as it seems they missed the point.
A great track, and as a prominent radio DJ in the UK said at the time, “If that is Gospel Rock, let’s have some more.”
Oh Happy Day by The Edwin Hawkins Singers
Just about everyone remembers this song from when it came out in 1967. Oddly enough, it is a hymn from 1755 written by Phillip Doddridge, an English clergyman. The Edwin Hawkins version broke down any barriers that existed about Gospel music in the mainstream charts.
It reached #2 in the UK and #4 in America and brought a whole new level of attention to the gospel sound. Some criticized it, of course. But, the reality was it was a great song and a great performance.
And the reality also was that a lot of people heard it and loved it. “Good news,” indeed.
We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger
Let’s return to a more formal gospel song to finish this list of the best gospel songs. This memorable song was written as a gospel hymn in 1900 by Charles Tindley, the son of a slave. Maybe a reason that it was picked to represent the Civil Rights Movement.
Pete Seeger sang it to Martin Luther King, Jr. But, perhaps the most touching version is by Joan Baez. An anthem for the oppressed, it is a fitting way to end this list of gospel songs and music.
Precious Lord, Take My Hand
I Saw the Light
His Eye Is on the Sparrow
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Victory in Jesus
It Is Well with My Soul
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Holy, Holy, Holy
Lord, I Lift Your Name on High
Shout to the Lord
You Are So Beautiful to Me (To Jesus Christ My Lord)
There Is Power in the Blood
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
O Happy Day
I Am Thine, O Lord
Stand By Me
I Love to Tell the Story
Love Lifted Me
Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow
Take My Life and Let It Be
Were You There
Mansion Over the Hilltop
There Shall Be Showers of Blessing
He Leadeth Me
Onward Christian Soldiers
I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
I Stand Amazed in the Presence
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
More 65 Best Gospel Songs
- Amazing Grace
- How Great Thou Art
- I’ll Fly Away
- Blessed Assurance
- The Old Rugged Cross
- When the Saints Go Marching In
- Just a Closer Walk with Thee
- He Touched Me
- In the Garden
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- Rock of Ages
- Jesus Loves Me
- Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
- Because He Lives
- Soon and Very Soon
- Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
- You Are My All in All
- The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power
- Just As I Am
- I Surrender All
- Great Is Thy Faithfulness
- I Need Thee Every Hour
- Jesus Paid It All
- Nothing But the Blood
- When We All Get to Heaven
- We’ll Understand It Better By and By
- Shall We Gather at the River
- O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
- Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
- There Is a Fountain
- Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross
- Sweet Hour of Prayer
- Fairest Lord Jesus
- Take the Name of Jesus with You
- My Faith Looks Up to Thee
- All the Way My Savior Leads Me
- We Are Marching in the Light of God
- Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
- O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
- When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
- I Sing the Mighty Power of God
- Are You Washed in the Blood?
- Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
- Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
- To God Be the Glory
- Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
- Revive Us Again
- The Church’s One Foundation
- He Lives
- Trust and Obey
- Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling
- Blessed Be the Name
- Jesus, Lover of My Soul
- Glory to His Name
- Amazing Love
- Standing on the Promises
- The Love of God
- In Christ Alone
- The Solid Rock
- Victory, Victory Shall Be Mine
- Brethren, We Have Met to Worship
- My Jesus, I Love Thee
- Grace Greater Than Our Sin
- In the Sweet By and By
How We React To Gospel Music
People react to gospel music in different ways. Those who do not believe in Christianity can take it or leave it. Mainly, of course, they leave it.
But, what is the purpose of gospel music in this century? Rather different from what it was in the 1800s in the plantations of the American South. I would have thought that the purpose of gospel music falls into two categories.
- As a method of worship.
- To excite and introduce people to Christianity.
Not all gospel songs on our list are suitable for the first. But, what about the second? Does a gospel song automatically become “evil” because it has drums or an electric guitar? Of course not, and the people who put forward those ideas do more damage to Christianity than any outsider could.
Looking for Inspirational Songs?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs About Silence, the Best Songs About Hope, the Best Songs About Having A Baby, the Best Songs About Breathing, and the Best Songs About Not Giving Up for more great song selections.
You’ll need to hear those songs. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones Under $200, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, the Best Bass Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds you can buy in 2023.
Best Gospel Songs – Final Thoughts
Like all music, gospel music can be found in many shapes and sizes. It forms a very important part of history, but it can also be modern in its approach. And, as long as they are doing what they are setting out to do, encourage Christianity, then surely that is good.
Until next time, happy listening.