You don’t have to be religious to be affected by the power of gospel music. After all, gospel music influenced soul and R&B music – along with rock’n’roll legends such as Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones. Even Bob Dylan tried his hand at writing bona fide gospel songs. What follows is a list of what we think are the best gospel songs of all time, perfect for taking you to musical heaven…
While you’re reading, check out our Gospel Hits playlist here.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There
Elvis Presley, himself a fine gospel performer, named Sister Rosetta Tharpe as one of his favorite singers and guitar players. Tharpe, who was born in Arkansas in 1915, was singing gospel tunes from the 1930s and recording regularly for Decca Records. She was a true inspiration. All you need to hear is the guitar introduction to her 1947 hit “The Lord Followed Me” to recognize Chuck Berry’s musical debt to her. In 1948, Tharp released a 78rpm record for Decca of Lee Roy Abernathy’s song “Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There,” which was described as “a gospel boogie.”
Hank Williams: I Saw the Light
Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light” is one of the finest examples of country gospel. He reportedly penned the song on the journey home from a dance in Fort Deposit, Alabama, when his mother Lilly saw a beacon light near Dannelly Field Airport and roused her son with the words, ”Hank, wake up, we’re nearly home. I just saw the light.” Although the song initially had little commercial success, it subsequently becomes one of his best-known songs. To wit, the 2015 Williams biopic, starring Tom Hiddleston, was called I Saw the Light.
Sidney Bechet: When The Saints Go Marching In
This celebrated feel-good song (with lyrics that take much of their inspiration from the Book Of Revelations) became something of a jazz-gospel standard after Louis Armstrong’s impressive 1938 version. However, “When The Saints Go Marching In” also features in a brilliant instrumental version by the New Orleans legend Sidney Bechet.
Sam Cooke: Peace in the Valley
Sam Cooke grew up listening to “Peace in the Valley,” a song written in 1937 for Mahalia Jackson by Thomas A. Dorsey, and which was later recorded by hundreds of musicians, including Presley and Little Richard. In 1950, it was one of the first songs recorded by 19-year-old Cooke, during his time as lead singer of gospel group the Soul Stirrers. Cooke, who went on to be one of the best soul singers in popular music, showed he was also a natural interpreter of gospel in this period of his career.
Marian Anderson: Move On Up A Little Higher
“Move On Up A Little Higher” was another seminal hit for Mahalia Jackson. However, there is a striking version of the song, written by the Baptist minister William Herbert Brewster in the 40s, which was recorded by Marian Anderson, the celebrated contralto singer from Philadelphia.
Dinah Washington: The Lord’s Prayer
Dinah Washington, one of the most popular singers of the 1950s, grew up singing church music. She sang lead with the first female gospel singers formed by Sallie Martin, who was co-founder of the Gospel Singers Convention. In 1952, Washington recorded a singing version of “The Lord’s Prayer” – the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked him how they should pray – for Mercury Records, the label for which she recorded so many jazz classics. Washington’s voice soars and swells on these momentous words.
Aretha Franklin: There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood
Aretha Franklin was only 14 when she recorded the 1956 album Songs Of Faith (later reissued in 1983 as Aretha Gospel) at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was the reverend. Among the remarkable performances is her version of this hymn by the English 18th-century hymn writer and poet William Cowper.
The Kossoy Sisters: I’ll Fly Away
Written by noted gospel songwriter Albert E Brumley, “I’ll Fly Away” was recorded by close-harmony specialists and identical twins The Kossoy Sisters in 1956. A sublime version by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss was later used by the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Kanye West has even recorded a version.
Sam Cooke: Touch The Hem Of His Garment
This 1956 modern gospel gem easily makes this list of Best Gospel Songs Of All Time, and was penned speedily while soul singer Sam Cooke was on his way to a recording session with his group The Soul Stirrers. Their majestic harmonizing on “Touch The Hem Of His Garment” is a lovely example of male quartet singing from that period in American music when vocal groups were so popular.
Thelonious Monk: Abide With Me
Doris Day cut a sweet version of this song for her 1962 album You’ll Never Walk Alone, but there is a very striking interpretation of the gospel classic by Thelonious Monk. His jazz instrumental take, for his 1957 album Monk’s Music, features jazz giants John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and drummer Art Blakey.
Mahalia Jackson: He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands
Mahalia Jackson, a singer with one of the finest voices in this history of gospel music, did full justice to this joyous spiritual from 1927. Her moving version even reached the 1958 Billboard charts, a strong showing for a gospel single at the time when Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis were dominating the rankings. You could fill a whole list of the best gospel songs just with Mahalia Jackson’s music, so a special mention also goes for her 1958 version of “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho,” sung with such feeling and gusto.
Tennessee Ernie Ford: What A Friend We Have
This gospel standard, which was written by the influential gospel composer Thomas Andrew Dorsey, has been covered by numerous leading musicians, including Little Richard and Elvis Presley. In 1960, country music singer Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit with it for Capitol Records.
Nat King Cole: Down By The Riverside
Many of the best gospel songs lent themselves to jazz interpretations. This famous spiritual – also known as “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” and “Gonna Lay Down My Burden” – has its origins in the American Civil War (1861-65), though it was not actually published until 1918, when it appeared in Plantation Melodies: A Collection of Modern, Popular And Old-Time Negro-Songs Of The Southland, Chicago. The song, which is full of searing Biblical imagery, has been recorded by hundreds of leading musicians, including Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash, and Van Morrison. Nat King Cole sang it regularly at concerts.
Big Bill Broonzy: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
A favorite of vocal groups since The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ version in 1909, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is sung regularly in churches and has also become a favorite at sporting venues around the globe. There is a remarkably affecting version by blues legend Big Bill Broonzy on his Last Sessions album, recorded in 1961, shortly before his death.
Louis Armstrong: Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen
Louis Armstrong brought emotion and depth to this powerful spiritual song, written during the period of slavery and published in 1867. The song has been popular with other jazz musicians, and among noted cover versions are those by Harry James and, more recently, Dr. John, in his tribute album to Satchmo.
Johnny Cash: My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real)
This gospel classic is from Johnny Cash’s 1962 album Hymns From The Heart. Arkansas-born Cash said that when he was 16, he came in from working in the fields where he used to sing gospel songs he had heard on the radio. He recalled: “I sang those old gospel songs for my mother, and she said, ‘Is that you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And she came over and put her arms around me and said, ‘God’s got his hands on you.’”
Grant Green: Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho
Some gospel songs are so well known for their melody as well as their words that they are covered purely as instrumental tunes. In 1963, for the iconic Blue Note label, guitar great Grant Green recorded a version of “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho” – about the battle in which Joshua led the Israelites against Canaan – for his album Feelin’ the Spirit. The pianist was Herbie Hancock.
Nina Simone: Sinnerman
Some of what we think of as the best gospel songs actually began life outside of the church. “Sinnerman” was based on a traditional African-American spiritual, which started life as a Scottish folk song. It was a tune Nina Simone would have heard at her local church, where she was the pianist from an early age. She would sometimes perform live versions of the song that lasted nearly 15 minutes.
Edwin Hawkins Singers: Oh, Happy Day
“Oh Happy Day” is a 1967 gospel arrangement of an 18th-century hymn, and it was another song to reach the mainstream charts. The version by Edwin Hawkins Singers reached No.4 on the US singles charts, No.2 in Britain and Ireland, and was No.1 in France and Germany. The band won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance in 1970.
Ella Fitzgerald: What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” – for her 1967 Capitol Records album Brighten the Corner – more than a century after the hymn was written by preacher Joseph M. Scriven as a poem to comfort his mother, who was still living in Ireland after he had emigrated to Canada. Fitzgerald’s haunting version features backing from the Ralph Carmichael Choir.
Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water
“God’s not into pop music,” joked Paul Simon recently, “he likes the gospel shows.” This modern classic was written by Simon and recorded in 1970 by the acclaimed duo. A year later, Aretha Franklin noted its potential to stand alongside some of the best gospel songs, and released a more overtly gospel version. In June 2017, an all-star charity version was released to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London.
Cat Stevens: Morning Has Broken
“Morning Has Broken” is a hymn written by the English children’s author Eleanor Farjeon in 1931. Cat Stevens’ almost reverential arrangement of the song – featuring the expressive piano playing of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman – was recorded in 1971 for his album Teaser and the Firecat. The single reached No.6 in the charts. Stevens later admitted: “I accidentally fell upon the song when I was going through a slightly dry period. I came across this hymnbook, found this one song, and thought, ‘This is good.’ I put the chords to it and then it started becoming associated with me.”
Ry Cooder: Jesus On The Mainline
Robert Plant and Randy Travis have both sung versions of this traditional spiritual, but the finest version is the tour-de-force live one by Ry Cooder And The Chicken Skin Band. A haunting example of roots music gospel.
Shirley Caesar: Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name
Shirley Caesar, who was born in 1938, has established a deserved reputation as one of the most important gospel singers of modern times. Caesar, who began recording at the age of 12, preaches at the Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina. “I am called to be a preacher-evangelist first, and a singer second,” she said. Her version of her own composition “Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name” shows off her rich, soulful voice.
Yolanda Adams: The Battle Is The Lord’s
Yolanda Adams, who was born in Houston, Texas, in 1961, is one of the most influential gospel singers around – partly down to the 10 million record sales she has racked up around the world, but also because she hosts a nationally syndicated television show. In 1983, for the album Save the World, she delivered a rousing version of “The Battle is the Lord’s.” A later live version of the track, from the album Yolanda… Live In Washington, was named Song of the Year at the 1994 Stellar Awards. “The Battle is the Lord’s” was composed by the talented gospel songwriter V. Michael McKay.
Etta James: Give Me That Old Time Religion
This traditional gospel song from 1873 is thought to have its roots in English folk music. It has proved popular with country music singers – Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, and Charlie Rich have covered it – but perhaps the pick is a vibrant version by Etta James.
Van Morrison: Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Van Morrison, who wrote his own gospel song called “(Lord) If I Ever Needed Someone” in 1967, included two gospel hymns on his 1991 album Hymns to the Silence. As well as “Be Thou My Vision,” the Belfast-born musician recorded a powerful version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the title and lyrics of which come from passages in the Bible. Morrison, who also references Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in the additional words, is backed by the excellent singers Carol Kenyon and Katie Kissoon.
Alison Krauss And The Cox Family: I’d Rather Have Jesus
Proving that the best gospel songs truly span genres, in 1994, country singer Alison Krauss teamed up with The Cox Family (who later appeared in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to record the album I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Among the range of fine songs on the album is the gorgeous “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” written by the gospel star George Beverly Shea. Shea appeared live in front of hundreds of millions of people in his career as a singer with preacher Billy Graham. Krauss and The Cox Family won a Grammy for Best Southern, Country Or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
Fred Hammond: We’re Blessed
Fred Hammond has carved out a reputation as the king of the urban gospel groove. The Detroit-born singer, who is also a talented bass player, recorded a version of “We’re Blessed” for his album The Inner Court. The song, co-written with regular collaborator Tommie Walker, has a pulsating funky melody and features his musical backing group Radical For Christ.
Bob Dylan: Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour
Fanny Crosby, who was known as the Queen Of Gospel Song Writers, wrote this song in 1868. More than a century later, it was recorded by Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, who is thought to have learned his version from The Stanley Brothers. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dylan also released a so-called “Christian Trilogy” of albums, including Saved, which features his own songs, such as “Precious Angel.”
CeCe Winans: Alabaster Box
Detroit-born CeCe Winans has won 12 Grammy awards and recorded five platinum and gold-certified gospel albums. Her gorgeous 1999 hit “Alabaster Box” was written by Dr. Janice Sjostrand, an academic and musician who once opened for Ray Charles. The heartfelt religious lyrics (“I’ve come to pour my praise on Him/like oil from Mary’s Alabaster Box”) suited the silky heartfelt delivery from Winans.
Donnie McClurkin: Great Is Your Mercy – Live
The famous Fairfield Halls in Croydon, England, was a regular stopping point for American jazz and blues stars in the 1960s. Gospel giant Donnie McClurkin picked the venue for his 2000 album Live in London and More. McClurkin delivers a sweeping version of “Great Is Your Mercy,” which features some haunting solo vocals by the members of his backing choir. “It was something inspired by Andraé Crouch, who did his own live album from London in 1978. London was one of my favorite cities,” said McClurkin.
Ray Charles: Amazing Grace
This may be one of the most beloved hymns/spiritual songs of the past two centuries. The soaring words and melody, describing profound religious joy, strike a chord around the world, and “Amazing Grace” is estimated to have appeared on more than 11,000 albums, including one featuring a version by Ray Charles with the London Symphony Orchestra. There are also terrific versions by Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, and Willie Nelson.
Donald Lawrence: The Best Is Yet to Come
Donald Lawrence, a former Minister of Music at the Southern Baptist Church on Cincinnati’s Reading Road, took on music full-time as musical director of The Tri-City Singers. With them, Lawrence recorded the funky, inspirational track “The Best Is Yet to Come,” the lead single of his 2002 album Go Get Your Life Back. Lawrence’s lyrics, “Hold on, my brother, don’t give up/Hold on, my sister, just look up,” have subsequently been regularly quoted in Christian inspirational literature and social media.
Bruce Springsteen: O Mary Don’t You Weep
This haunting gospel spiritual tells the biblical story of Mary Of Bethany and her pleas to Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. Springsteen said that the challenge of singing gospel music is that “you have to find your individual place in it.” “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” which was an inspiration for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” is a song that has also been widely recorded, including versions by Pete Seeger and Burl Ives.
Marvin Sapp: Never Would Have Made It
When Marvin Sapp’s father Henry died in September 2006, the 39-year-old singer said he was struggling to find the words to preach a few days later. Then divine inspiration hit him and comforting words came into his head. “I started singing, ‘Never would have made it, never could have made it without you, I would have lost my mind.’ The Lord told me that He would always be there for me,” Sapp later recalled. He finished writing the song with arranger Matthew Brownie and recorded a version for his 2007 album Thirsty. The single release of “Never Would Have Made It” topped the gospel chart for 46 weeks.
Patty Griffin: Up To The Mountain (MLK Song)
Country singer Patty Griffin has written two fine modern gospel songs, “Heavenly Day” and “Up To The Mountain (MLK Song),” the latter of which is a song celebrating religion and the inspirational power of the sermons of Martin Luther King. (“Up To” was later covered by Susan Boyle.) Griffin, who also sang a duet with Mavis Staples on “Waiting for My Child to Come Home,” admitted she did not have a background in gospel music before recording her 2007 album Downtown Church, which was recorded in the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
The Clark Sisters: Blessed & Highly Favored – Live
After a long period apart, the Clark Sisters (Twinkie, Karen Clark-Sheard, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Jacky Clark-Chisholm) got back together for the special Live – One Last Time album. The Karen-penned song “Blessed & Highly Favored,” a sumptuous example of the siblings’ natural gift for harmony, was given some highly polished production values by Donald Lawrence. The track went on to the 2008 Grammy for Best Gospel Song. The record stands as one of gospel’s greatest reunion tracks.
Andraé Crouch: Let The Church Say Amen
Andraé Crouch is one of the most influential gospel arrangers in modern music – he’s worked with Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Madonna – and his song “Let The Church Say Amen” featured the vocals of pastor Marvin Winans (brother of CeCe), a harmonic backing choir and the deft organ playing of Carl Wheeler. “All I want in life is to be remembered as a guy that really loved God. I want God to use me,” said Crouch.
Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago: Awesome
Charles Jenkins had some big shoes to fill when in 2010, aged just 34, he succeeded the Reverend Dr. Clay Evans, an acclaimed civil rights leader, as Pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. Two years later he teamed up with Fellowship’s celebrated radio choir to record the album The Best of Both Worlds, from which the ebullient single “Awesome” made it to the number one position on the Billboard Top Gospel Album and Singles Charts.
Whitney Houston: His Eye Is On the Sparrow
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” written in 1905, is a true gospel classic. It became a signature tune for Ethel Waters and has been recorded by Mahalia Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross – and was used in the sequel to Sister Act. In 2011 Whitney Houston recorded her own stirring version for the soundtrack of the musical Sparkle. Houston’s single was released in June 2012, just four months after her tragic death at the age of 48.
Kierra Sheard: 2nd Win
Kierra Sheard, granddaughter of gospel pioneer Mattie Moss Clark and daughter of Karen Clark Sheard, is at the forefront of progressive modern gospel, redefining the music in a way she described as “urban” and “relevant” to a young audience. Her 2014 album Graceland, contained the hit song “2nd Win” – co-composed by Sheard, her producer brother J. Drew Sheard II, and Justin Brooks – which includes contemporary R&B, pop, gospel, and hip-hop musical settings with traditional gospel sentiments about using God’s power to find strength.
Beyoncé: Take My Hand, Precious Lord
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is another gospel classic from the pen of Thomas A. Dorsey and is one of the most covered songs in the canon. There are stunning versions by Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Al Green. The song continues to have relevance, demonstrated by Beyoncé’s performance at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Following the outrage over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Beyoncé hand-picked a group of black men to join her for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (the gospel classic featured in the 2014 civil rights movie Selma) “to show the strength and vulnerability in black men”.
Hezekiah Walker: Grateful
Pastor Shawn Brown, who died in 2010, penned a number of gospel hits including Hezekiah Walker’s “Grateful.” Walker, a New York preacher, delivered his slow, soulful version for his album Better: Azusa The Next Generation 2. He was joined by actress and singer Antonique Smith. Walker said the track was designed to give “encouragement” to people in difficult times.
Chance The Rapper: Blessings
The best gospel songs continue to enthrall, as Chance The Rapper shows with his 2016 song “Blessings.” This intense and moving song features gospel singer Byron Cage and is built on the sound of a full gospel choir.
Kirk Franklin: Wanna Be Happy?
“It’s my goal to try to lead people to the manufacturer of their souls,” said Kirk Franklin, who won the 12th and 13th Grammy awards of his career in 2017 for his comeback album Losing My Religion. The track “Wanna Be Happy?” includes a portion of “Tired Of Being Alone” sung with Al Green, the veteran soul singer who also has a distinguished gospel pedigree, winning eight Best Soul Gospel Performance Grammy Awards.
Tasha Cobbs Leonard: I’m Getting Ready
Natasha Cobbs Leonard, who is always known as “Tasha,” was born in Jesup, Georgia in 1981, and has taken the gospel world by storm since bursting on the scene with her 2013 album Grace. Her 2017 album Heart. Passion. Pursuit. includes the eight-minute tour-de-force “I’m Getting Ready.” The album was produced by her husband Kenneth Leonard Jr. and the soaring track includes vocals from rapper Nicki Minaj. This is energetic, modern gospel at its most passionate.
Passion & Travis Greene: God, You’re So Good
Growing up with a mother who was a minister and choir director, Travis Greene said that gospel music “was like oxygen in our house, always part of my life.” In 2018, for the Capitol Christian Music Group, he recorded a moving live version of “God, You’re So Good” with gospel vocal group Passion, led by Kristian Stanfill, at Passion City Church in Atlanta.
Ricky Dillard: More Abundantly Medley (Live)
In 2020, Grammy-nominated choirmaster Ricky Dillard made his Motown Gospel debut with a multi-track single “Release,” featuring Tiff Joy, which included the track “More Abundantly Medley.” The spirited music video for the song, filmed at Haven of Rest Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, was viewed more than 1.7 million times on YouTube in its first year.
Tramaine Hawkins: Goin’ Up Yonder
Tramaine Hawkins, who began singing with the Edwin Hawkins Group, pursued a solo career after 1968, becoming a gospel legend. One of her most celebrated songs, “Goin’ Up Yonder,” was written by her husband, gospel singer Walter Hawkins. Although they divorced in 1994, the song she had first sung in 1975 – on the album Love Alive: Walter Hawkins and The Love Center Choir – remained a firm favorite. In June 2020 she released a new version of “Goin’ Up Yonder” on the soundtrack for the fifth season of the television series Greenleaf. She said she had re-recorded the song “to comfort and lift up all those who have been so devastated by COVID-19 and police violence. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Looking for more? Discover how the best gospel songs influenced soul and rock’n’roll.