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The Story Behind ‘The Old Rugged Cross’

Saturday evening worship at 5 pm is time treasured by many who gather in the sanctuary of LCM to share Christ’s peace, to pray, to hear the gospel, to celebrate Holy Communion and to hear favorite hymns played on the banjo by Mark Skipworth.

This past Saturday, Mark played “The Old Rugged Cross.” All present, I suspect, were singing softly the words to this favorite hymn. Mark told us of the hymn’s critics, who dismiss the hymn because the words honor the cross instead of the one who died on the cross, Jesus. Some hymnals exclude this hymn, reasoning it speaks of the author’s personal experience rather than adoration of God.

George Bennard, the hymn’s author, was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1873. His father moved the family to Iowa where he owned a tavern; after the tavern burned, his father worked in the coal mines. George was 16 when his father died and George began work in the coal mines to provide for the family. George experienced a religious conversion at a revival meeting in Rock Island, sponsored by the Salvation Army. Later he moved to Chicago, married and began a ministry with the Salvation Army. In 1910 he resigned from the Salvation Army, and with his wife Araminta settled in Albion, Michigan, becoming an itinerant Methodist preacher traveling throughout the midwest. In Albion he opened a hymn publishing company.

George and his first wife Araminta moved to California, for health reasons, where she died in 1941. George remarried Hannah Dahlstrom after Araminta’s death  and the two retired to Ashton, Michigan. George Bennard died on October 9, 1958 in Reed City, Michigan and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

The “Old Rugged Cross” was written in response to ridicule George received at a revival meeting. Shortly after that experience, he traveled to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin with his friend Edward Mieras where the two held a series of evangelistic revival meetings at the Friends Church. Church members remember George walking up and down the hall of the parsonage as George completed the words to the hymn. An historic marker stands on the church property claiming the song was first sung on January 12, 1912, as a quartet in the Friends’ Church Parlor and then as a duet from penciled words and notes at the final revival service.

The completed version of the hymn was first heard on June 7, 1913 at the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon, Michigan, where it was accompanied by guitar, then a five voice choir with organ and violin. The church (pictured above), originally a hops barn, was sold in 1914 after the congregation moved to a newly purchased nearby Baptist Church. In 1998, the original church was purchased and restored by The Old Rugged Cross Foundation.

George Bennard wrote more than 300 gospel songs and hymns; “The Old Rugged Cross” was his most popular. It was first popularized by Billy Sunday and since 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 and many more.

Regrettably, this hymn is one of several hymns co-opted and sung by the Ku Klux Klan at cross burnings.