From John MacArthur:
Around the start of the twentieth century, however, church music took a different direction. Musicians and singers without formal pastoral or theological training (such as Ira Sankey and Philip Bliss) became the dominant songwriters in the church. Choruses with lighter, simpler subject matter proliferated. Popular Christian music became more subjective. Songs focused on personal experience and the feelings of the worshiper. The newer compositions were often called “gospel songs” to distinguish them from “hymns.”
Consider this familiar chorus, written in 1912 by C. Austin Miles:
In the Garden
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
Aside from an oblique reference to “the Son of God” in the last line of the first stanza, there’s no distinctly Christian content to that song at all.
“In the Garden” is by no means the only wretched favorite from the gospel-song era, either. “Love Lifted Me” (1912) and “Count Your Blessings” (1897) are two more “gospel songs” without much actual gospel content. If you want to see what thin gruel some of the “oldies” offer by way of actual biblical or doctrinal substance, review almost any random list of favorite old “gospel songs.”