Revival Hymns

By David Hall

June 2020

Early in the morning on Thursday, January 27th 1898, hundreds of people gathered outside of East Liberty Presbyterian. The doors finally opened, and many rushed to the empty seats waiting to be filled. There were more people there than even the organizers expected, so many expectant observers moved to the overflow at Bethany Lutheran Church. Rev. John Wilbur Chapman, a Presbyterian minister and revivalist, was conducting one of his many “evangelistic services.” These “union evangelistic services” were part of a wider movement in the urban centers of a newly industrialized America. They were a united effort of urban churches who feared a perceived moral degradation within cities and wanted Protestantism to be reasserted. Chapman went on to lead many more services around Pittsburgh, not only in 1898, but eventually returning in 1904 with newer strategies. These services tended to be focused in the East End of Pittsburgh with East Liberty as a hub of revival activity.

All over America, but predominantly in the urban north, preachers and Christian organizations united in an effort to “revive” the faith of the dormant Protestant population with these kinds of services. One of the most famous and influential revivalists from this time, Dwight Moody, influenced Chapman to join him in holding revival services.

These revival services not only consisted of prayers, scripture readings, and sermons, but also singing hymns. While reports from Pittsburgh only mention the use of choirs, pianos and reed organs were also a common fixture in these revivals. Although the prayers and sermons were moving, the real emotional impact was in the music. The powerful emotions invoked in the music were a staple of the revivalists attempts to galvanize the latent Christian population, strengthen Protestant Christianity’s authority, and bolster church membership.

In 1898, revivals used the hymnal, Christian Endeavor Edition of Sacred Songs No. 1., which was published by the United Society of Christian Endeavor in 1897. Like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), this society sought to bring young people to Protestant Christianity. Ira Sankey, James McGranahan, and George Stebbins were the main composers of this hymnal, all of whom had strong connections to mass urban revivals that manifested in the hymns they composed.

The style of music that they wrote and drew from was simple, making it much easier for the masses to sing than other hymns. These gospel songs, along with African American spirituals, created and developed the Gospel music genre as a whole and represented a more urban outlet of gospel music compared to other rural gospel songs. This urban popularity later influenced the direction of rural church music over time. In Pittsburgh, each hymn performed a specific role in creating the appeal of the revival. For example, in McGarnahan’s, “Thy God Reigneth!”, he calls on the Church to “awake,” clearly indicating his goal to awaken the masses to become active in their faith. Similarly, Stebbins composed, “There Is Never a Day So Dreary,” a hymn which presents the belief that God can change things for the better even in someone’s darkest despair. This was especially evocative for despairing Pittsburgh workers.

A partial recording the hymn, “There’ll Be No Dark Valley”, from The Cyber Hymnal #6552 at hymnary.org.
Sheet music of the hymn, “There’ll Be No Dark Valley”, from Christian Endeavor Edition of Sacred Songs No. 1.
“There’ll Be No Dark Valley”, Christian Endeavor Edition of Sacred Songs No. 1.

Likewise, Sankey wrote, “There’ll Be No Dark Valley When Jesus Comes,” which not only uses the appeal of Christ’s return, but also the imagery of nature imagery to appeal to the urban masses who longed for greenery. The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette reported that the “rendition of this hymn was magnificent and emotion was expressed in all of the house.”

“The Ship of Temperance,” another one of Sankey’s, reveals the social aspect of the revivals. These revivals sought to “save” people in the “sinful” city environments, one such sin being alcoholism. Since the revivals coincided with the Social Gospel movement wherein Christians applied their faith to encourage social reform, revivals picked up the message of temperance and advocated against alcohol. This hymn is a compelling example of the growing call for prohibition among devout Christian groups in urban environments. “Some Sweet Morn” was another particularly impactful hymn, with the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette writing, “Tears showed the impression produced upon the audience by the familiar hymn.” Again, composed by Sankey, this hymn handles the coming of Christ and the dispelling of all present pain and struggle.

Pittsburgh’s revivalist hymns were characteristic of the wider movement of mass urban revivals. They demonstrated the simple melodies and themes that would come to shape Gospel music as a genre. Reports from the time also reveal that hymns were the emotional backbone of the revival’s appeal. Without this emerging style of hymns, the revivals of the late 19th century would not have had the same affect.

Featured Media

“Packed the Church,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 27 January 1898, 2, Web. http://pitt.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.pitt.idm.oclc.org/docview/1850090916?accountid=14709

Negley, Georgina. “East Liberty Presbyterian Church (1888-1931).” Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, 1919, Web. https://phlf.org/2008/03/21/henry-wynd-young-1874-1923-new-york/east-liberty-presbyterian-church-1888-1931-photograph-taken-from-georgina-g-negley-east-liberty-presbyterian-church-pittsburgh-1919-following-page-118/

Stebbins, Geo. C., Ira D. Sankey, James McGranahan. “Christian Endeavor Edition of Sacred Songs No. 1.” United Society of Christian Endeavor/Biglow & Main Co., Boston/New York, 1897, Hymnary.org, Web. https://hymnary.org/hymnal/CEES1897?page=0

Sankey, Ira David. “There’ll Be No Dark Valley”. Hymnary.org, Web. https://hymnary.org/hymn/CEES1897/106

Further Reading

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Holiness Movement.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica inc., 18 February 2020. Web. https://www.britannica.com/event/Holiness-movement

Shearon, Stephen, Harry Eskew, James C. Downey, and Robert Darden. “Gospel music.” Grove Music Online. 10 July 2012. Oxford University Press, Web. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002224388

How to Cite 

MLA: Hall, David. “Revival Hymns in Pittsburgh.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 29 June 2020, religyinz.pitt.edu/revival-hymns/

APA: Hall, D. (2020, 29 June). Revival hymns in pittsburgh. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/revival-hymns/

Chicago: Hall, David. “Revival Hymns in Pittsburgh.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, June 29, 2020.  https://religyinz.pitt.edu/revival-hymns/