Story Behind the Song: ‘The Old Rugged Cross’

If someone approached you, asking you to name America’s most popular hymn, no doubt many of you would respond with “The Old Rugged Cross.” It has been the most favored of the approximately 300 songs written by George Bennard.

George Bennard

Bennard was born into a very modest family in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1873. His father passed away during George’s teen years, leaving the youth with tremendous family responsibilities. To that end, he became a coal miner, as was his father before him. Later, and for a number of years, he and his wife worked with the Salvation Army.

George served for several years as an itinerant Method preacher and had a favorite scripture verse, John 3:16. When quoting the verse, he seemed to always have a vision of a cross — a crude Roman instrument of death. It was stained with the blood of Christ, who gave his life in order that we might become Christians.

On one occasion, as he was thinking of Christ’s crucifixion, an original melody ran through his mind. Although it was a complete melody, very few words came with it. He struggled to write some appropriate lyrics, but all that came was the passage, “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross.” The song seemed to take shape in bits and pieces.

He returned from several preaching engagements to his home — 1101 E. Michigan Ave., Albion, Michigan — with a renewed meaning of the cross etched in his mind and heart. He took the song manuscript and placed it on the kitchen table. In a very short span of time, he was able to rewrite the stanzas with each word falling perfectly into place. He asked his wife to join him in the kitchen. She did so and he joyfully sang his prized, new song. She was very pleased, expressing that the song was great.

He then sent the manuscript to Charles H. Gabriel, in Chicago, asking if he would write the proper chords with the melody line. Gabriel did so and returned the document with the message, “You will hear from this song.”

Bennard said what I have since heard countless other songwriters say, “I really didn’t write it. I was merely the instrument God used.”

A plaque, identifying a State of Michigan Historic Site, marks the location on Michigan Avenue in Albion, Michigan, where Bennard wrote the song.

The First Performance of the Hymn

After completing the hymn, he performed the song in its entirety for the sponsoring pastor and his wife, Rev. Leroy and Ruby Bostwick, in the living room of the parsonage. The Bostwicks were moved to tears and incorporated the song in the revival service on June 7, 1913.

First, Bennard sang his hymn with guitar accompaniment, and then a five-voice choir sang with organ and violin accompaniment.

Today, that same church building, originally a hops barn, is owned by the non-profit Old Rugged Cross Foundation and welcomes thousands of visitors annually.

The hymn quickly spread throughout the region and came to the attention of the evangelist Billy Sunday, who frequently utilized it in his meetings. Two years later, Bennard sold the copyright to the song for a payment of $500, forgoing future royalties. Upon the renewal of the copyright 28 years later, he received a final payment of $5,000.

Lyrics to “The Old Rugged Cross”

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross / The emblem of suff’ring and shame / And I love that old cross where the dearest and best / For a world of lost sinners was slain.

*Refrain: So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross / Till my trophies at last I lay down / I will cling to the old rugged cross / And exchange it some day for a crown.

Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world / Has a wondrous attraction for me / For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above / To bear it to dark Calvary. (*Refrain)

In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine / Such a wonderful beauty I see / For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died / To pardon and sanctify me. (*Refrain)

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true / Its shame and reproach gladly bear / Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away / Where His glory forever I’ll share. (*Refrain)

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