This dissertation develops an analytical paradigm for African American gospel music. By examining the music of Richard Smallwood in relation to the work of sixteen other gospel composers, this project reveals the complex of belief, performance, and reception that I term “the gospel imagination.” This interdisciplinary study braids musical analysis—focused on issues of form, repetition, rhythm, meter, and groove—together with discourses from cognitive theory, anthropology, phenomenology, theology, and homiletics. Over the course of the dissertation’s four chapters, I use gospel’s relationship to black preaching and ecstatic movement to construct a formal theory of the gospel vamp. I argue that the vamp shares the formal logic of “tuning up” with musical styles of black preaching, and that the vamp functions as a sonic sacrament because of its persistent connection to holy dancing. The vamp’s emergence through the admixture of repetition and intensification enables performers, musicians, and auditors to use this music to process into the presence of God. Gospel music’s ritual power is realized in the vamp, for it is through the vamp that gospel compositions become sermons in song.