Today’s hymn has been a favorite through the years, sung by recording artists like Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Alan Jackson, The Statler Brothers and many more. It was also a favorite hymn of evangelist Billy Sunday and his team soon after it was written in 1912 by another evangelist, George Bennard.
George Bennard was born on February 4, 1873 in Youngstown, Ohio to parents George and Margaret (Russell) Bennard. His father was a coal miner, and in the late 1870’s moved his family to Iowa where he worked first in a tavern and later in a coal mine. George became a Christian after attending a Salvation Army meeting in Lucas, Iowa. He soon decided to become a minister and began to make educational plans. However, his father died in 1889 in a mining accident, leaving sixteen year-old George as the sole provider for his mother and four sisters. Instead of pursuing his theological education, George went to work in the coal mines for a time.
In 1890 he moved his family to Illinois where he met his first wife. They married, joined the Salvation Army and George served as a brigade leader. After several years of service the couple left the Salvation Army and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, where George was ordained. He became an evangelist and traveled extensively throughout Michigan and New York to minister.
One day, after returning home to Michigan, he experienced a trying time which caused him to begin to seriously reflect on the significance of the cross and Christ’s suffering. He became convinced that the cross was the centerpiece of the gospel and not just a religious symbol. He would later give the following account of the hymn he composed as a result of his contemplations:
The inspiration came to me one day in 1913, when I was staying in Albion, Michigan. I began to write “The Old Rugged Cross.” I composed the melody first. The words that I first wrote were imperfect. The words of the finished hymn were put into my heart in answer to my own need. Shortly thereafter it was introduced at special meetings in Pokagon, Michigan on June 7, 1913. The first occasion where it was heard outside of the church at Pokagon was at the Chicago Evangelistic Institute. There it was introduced before a large convention and soon it became extremely popular throughout the country. (101 Hymn Stories, p. 255)
This hymn was a bit unusual in that the melody was written first, and it took several weeks to complete the hymn before it was sung for the first time in Pokagon, Michigan. Although the song was well received, it wasn’t published until two years later in Heart and Life Songs, for the Church, Sunday School, Home and Campmeeting (1915).
Homer Rodeheaver, song leader for Billy Sunday, paid Bennard $500 for the rights to the song. Rodeheaver published the song in several different hymnals and collections, and many artists later recorded it, making it one of the most popular hymns over the years.
George Bennard wrote over 300 gospel songs and hymns, but The Old Rugged Cross is the one he is remembered by. He once quipped, “I’ve been introduced as the author of ‘The Old Gray Mare’, ‘The Old Oaken Bucket’, and even ‘Rock of Ages’, and even introduced as George Bennard Shaw, the English philosopher.”
While he was still living, Reed City, Michigan erected a twelve-foot-high wooden cross with the words “Old Rugged Cross” and “Home of Living Author, Rev. George Bennard”. After his death the cross was replaced with another one from a local museum, and in 1990 a museum to honor George Bennard and his hymn opened in Reed City’s Rambardt Park.
Bennard and his first wife, Araminta, moved to California, perhaps for health reasons. She died in 1941 and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery. George remarried Hannah Dahlstrom after Araminta’s death. On October 9, 1958 George Bennard passed away at the age of eighty-five and is buried next to his first wife.
Without a doubt, this hymn has had a significant and positive impact throughout the years. There was, however, one disturbing and sad fact I ran across – according to Co-Opting Christian Chorales: Songs of the Ku Klux Klan by Michael Jacobs, “The Old Rugged Cross” was one of several Christian hymns co-opted and sung by the Ku Klux Klan at cross burnings.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.