One of the most popular hymns for Holy Week and Good Friday is the American hymn, The Old Rugged Cross. George Bennard wrote more than 300 hymns, but The Old Rugged Cross is probably his most well-known. Here is the story behind the writing of that hymn.
George Bennard’s father was born in Scotland in 1837 and immigrated into the United States. He settled in Youngstown, Ohio, where George was born in 1873. When George was very young, he and his family, including his five sisters, moved to the small town of Albia, Iowa, located sixty-eight miles southeast of Des Moines.
His father ran a tavern in Albia. When the tavern burned down, the family moved a few miles further west to Lucas. There his father worked as a coal miner until he was killed at the age of forty-nine in a mining accident.
George was just sixteen years old when the accident occurred. To support his mother and five sisters, George was forced to grow up fast. Like his father, he also became a coal miner.
In 1895 Bennard traveled across the state of Iowa, about a two-days horseback ride from Lucas. He attended a Salvation Army meeting, and it was there that he became a Christian. His conversion at the age of 22, through the evangelistic ministry of the Salvation Army in Canton, Iowa, led to his ordination and commissioning as a traveling evangelist in 1898.
He conducted revival meetings throughout the Midwest. He did this for nearly a decade (1898 to 1907). It was then that he resigned from the Salvation Army to become an itinerant Methodist minister. For the next thirty years he was a Methodist evangelist holding revivals in Canada and most extensively in the states of Michigan and New York.
At one of his revival meetings he was interrupted, ridiculed, harassed and heckled by some of those mocking the cross. This caused George to think deeply about the meaning of the cross. An original and complete melody for a hymn came easily to him, but the lyrics eluded him. He started with only six words — “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross”. He struggled to write additional and appropriate lyrics, but all that came was the phrase, “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross.” The hymn began to take shape, but only with a few words and phrases a little at a time. That began in 1912.
He and his wife, Araminta, settled in Albion, Michigan. George, who had been writing hymns during those years, opened his own hymn-publishing company. When he returned home after a series of revival meetings, a renewed meaning of the cross was etched into his mind and heart.
In a very short span of time it all came together, and he was able to write and complete the lyrics. He took the completed manuscript and spread it on the kitchen table. Then he asked Arminta to join him in the kitchen. As George could also play a guitar, he joyfully sang his prized new song for her to hear. She was very pleased and expressed that the song was great with her stamp of approval!
He then sent the manuscript to Charles H. Gabriel in Chicago, asking if he would write the proper chords for the melody line. Gabriel did so and returned the song with this message, “You will hear from this song.”
Bernard first performed the song in its entirety in the living room of the parsonage for his sponsoring pastor and his wife, Rev. Leroy and Ruby Bostwick. The song moved the Bostwicks to tears; they incorporated the song in a revival service in their church building in Pokagon, Michigan, on June 7, 1913.
Today that same church building, which was originally a hops barn, is owned by the non-profit Old Rugged Cross Foundation. It welcomes thousands of visitors annually.
The singing of the hymn spread quickly and soon came to the attention of the evangelist Billy Sunday, who popularized the hymn with his nationally-broadcast radio show. George also used it frequently during his own evangelistic meetings. He sold the copyright to the song for a payment of $500, foregoing future royalties. When the copyright was renewed 28 years later (according to the contract), he received a final payment of $5,000. By 1939 more than fifteen million copies of the hymn had been sold and numerous recordings made.
The hymn has been sung by many recording artists including: Al Green, Andy Griffith, Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ernest Tubb, June Carter, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and many more. George Beverly Shea even included it in his repertoire and sang it at Billy Graham evangelistic campaigns.
George Bennard continued his evangelistic preaching until health reasons required a retirement and a move to California. His wife, Arminta, died in 1941 after 47 years at George’s side. He returned to Michigan, and later married his accompanist, Hannah Dahlstrom. They were married for seventeen years. Bennard died in 1958 at the age of 85 and is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
George Bennard stood just a little over five feet tall and was described as a humble man and “common as an old shoe”. He agreed with countless other songwriters who gave the Lord credit for what they had written and created. Like them, George Bannard expressed that he also was “merely the instrument that God used.”
In one of GOD’S OTHER WAYS©, the Lord used ridicule of the Cross and its message to give us one of the most beloved of Christian hymns - The Old Rugged Cross.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 NLT
He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. 1 Peter 2:24 NLT