The Old Rugged Cross




Origins. Evangelist George Bennard (1873–1958) gave this first-person account of the composition of his most famous hymn to a publishing acquaintance, George W. Sanville, some time before 1943:

I was praying for a full understanding of the cross, and its plan in Christianity. I read and studied and prayed. I saw Christ and the Cross inseparably. The Christ of the Cross became more than a symbol. The scene pictured a method, outlined a process, and revealed the consummation of a spiritual experience. It was like seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form, and act out the meaning of redemption. While watching this scene with my mind’s eye, the theme of the song came to me, and with it the melody; but only words of the theme, “The Old Rugged Cross,” came. An inner voice seemed to say, “Wait”!

I was holding evangelistic meetings in Michigan, but could not continue with the poem. After a series of meetings in New York state, the following week, I tried again to compose the poem, but could not. It was only after I had completed the New York meeting, and returned to Michigan for further evangelistic work, that the flood-gates were loosed.

Many experiences of the redeeming grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ during those meetings had broken down all barriers. I was enabled to complete the poem with facility and dispatch. A friend aided in putting it into manuscript form. Charles H. Gabriel, to whom the manuscript was sent, returned it with a prophetic statement: “You will hear from this song.” Likewise, when I strummed my guitar and sang it to Reverend and Mrs. Bostwick, upon my return to Michigan, they felt as had Mr. Gabriel, for they said: “God has given you a song that will never die. It has moved us as no other song has ever moved us.”[1]

In his own Story of the Old Rugged Cross (1930), Bennard provided another version of the story with some additional details:

In the year 1913, Rev. George Bennard, then living at Albion, Michigan, and making a special study of the Cross in God’s plan of redemption, seemed strangely moved to compose this song. Soon after he began to write it he went to New York state to conduct some special evangelistic services, and after getting settled continued to work on it, but seemed to make but little headway, so for the time-being laid it aside.

He returned to Michigan to conduct another series of meetings and it was during this time that he was called to pass through a rather trying experience at which time he caught a new vision of the Cross and began to see its deeper meaning. As he visualized the Saviour of men going outside the City he loved so well, bearing the Cross on which He was to give His matchless life on the skull-shaped hill for a sin-cursed and ruined world, he was able to finish the song that was destined to bless humanity around the world.

While the song was still in manuscript form, the author sang it to Rev. and Mrs. L.O. Bostwick, personal friends of his, and so delighted and thrilled were they that they asked for the privilege of paying for having the plate made and the first copies printed.

The first public rendition of this song was at Chicago, Illinois. A large convention, being held at Chicago Evangelistic Institute, was sensibly moved by its wonderful message of simple gospel truth … [2]

Bennard’s residence at Albion and conception of the hymn there is commemorated by a historical sign posted at the intersection of E. Michigan Ave. and College Ct. The sign reads:

“The Old Rugged Cross,” one of the world’s best-loved hymns, was composed here in 1912 by the Rev. George Bennard (1873–1958). The son of an Ohio coal miner, Bennard was a lifelong servant of God, chiefly in the Methodist ministry. He wrote the words and music of over 300 other hymns. None achieved the fame of “The Old Rugged Cross,” the moving summation of his faith.[3]

Michigan Ave. & College Ct., Albion, MI. Google Maps (Oct. 2012).

The historical site, now vacant, marks the location of the home of Professor Delos Fall, across the street from Albion College. By one account, “Dr. Fall rented portions of his home as apartments, and Bennard, a renter, penned the first verse and chorus in the little room off the kitchen in his apartment … Rev. Bennard, a Methodist minister, often conducted evangelistic services in Albion during his long years of ministry, and operated a music company and tract society at 108 W. Porter St. in downtown Albion for many years.”[4]

According to Bennard’s testimony, the song was completed after returning to Michigan from New York. The place of completion is claimed by the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon, Michigan. A historical marker at the Pokagon site reads in part:

In January 1913, the Reverend Leroy O. Bostwick, assisted by the Reverend George Bennard of Albion, held a series of religious revivals at the Pokagon Methodist Episcopal Church. Before the event, the Dowagiac Daily News predicted a large attendance, announcing “Mr. Bennard is a sweet singer and a splendid gospel preacher.” Bennard had begun composing the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” while in Albion the previous year. He completed the hymn here in preparation for the revival services.

61041 Vermont St., Pokagon, MI. Google Maps (Sept. 2007).

The place of completion is also claimed by the Friends Community Church of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. According to the church, Bennard had participated in evangelistic services from 29 Dec. 1912 to 12 Jan. 1913, and while he was there, several church members witnessed him working on the hymn, and it was debuted in its completion on the final night of the campaign.[5] Testimonies from the event were compiled and published by John H. Baxter in 1947.

204 W. Maple St, Sturgeon Bay, WI. Google Maps (Nov. 2015).

Although Bennard did not mention traveling to Wisconsin in either of the accounts above, his presence there is well attested by the Sturgeon Bay church. Various accounts of the revival appeared in the Door County Democrat and the Advocate between 27 Dec. 1912 and 17 Jan. 1913. On this latter date, the paper recounted:

The revival conducted by the evangelists, Bennard and Mieras, closed Sabbath evening about the midnight hour in a blaze of glory. One hundred and forty came to the altar as seekers for that which would satisfy the longings of the soul, and found Christ as the lifegiver, a refuge, a helper, and a divine strength-giver.[6]

John H. Baxter, who was pastor of the church in 1947, wrote to Bennard in search of acknowledgment of his work on the hymn while in Sturgeon Bay. Bennard replied, “I do recall, however, that I was working on my song ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ while there, and what you say about its being sung there in its entirety for the first time may be true.”[7]

It would seem from the available evidence that Bennard did continue to work on the hymn, minimally while in New York, more substantially while in Wisconsin, then formally committing a version to print in Pokagon in January of 1913. Some time soon after, the hymn was premiered more broadly in a convention in Chicago.


Publications.

The hymn was first published as sheet music. The sheet music editions are difficult to date, because although they carry the 1913 copyright, the actual date of printing could be any time within the initial copyright term of 28 years (through 1941). One of the oldest surviving examples was printed in Melbourne by Allan & Co. and is held in the National Library of Australia.

Fig. 1. “The Old Rugged Cross” (Melbourne: Allen & Co., 1913).

 

In the United States, some time before 1920, Bennard’s copyright was purchased by the Rodeheaver Company. One of the Rodeheaver editions is preserved among the holdings of Reading Area Community College, Pennsylvania (Fig. 2). The musical score is identical to the Melbourne edition shown in Fig. 1. Under Bennard’s copyright is the ascription “Homer A. Rodeheaver, owner.” On the back page, the publisher had listed several other songs, each with its own copyright date. The latest of those dates is 1922 for “Pulling Hard Against the Stream” and some others, meaning this particular printing of “The Old Rugged Cross” is not older than 1922.

Fig. 2. “The Old Rugged Cross” (Chicago: Rodeheaver Company, 1913 [1922]).

 

Another example of the sheet music is held at Brigham Young University, Utah (Fig. 3). This one carries the 1913 copyright date, but it was printed later than the Reading copy, as evidenced by the higher price (40¢) and the added boast (“The world’s most popular gospel song”). The accompaniment has also been slightly simplified.

Fig. 3. “The Old Rugged Cross” (Chicago: Rodeheaver Company, 1913).

 

The oldest appearance of “The Old Rugged Cross” in a hymnal or songbook was in Heart and Life Songs (Chicago: Institute Press, 1915 | Fig. 4), of which Bennard was co-editor. Notice the lack of credit to Rodeheaver, which would seem to indicate Bennard made his business deal with Rodeheaver after 1915.

 

Fig. 4. Heart and Life Songs (Chicago: Institute Press, 1915).

 
 

Analysis.

Bennard’s song is like Isaac Watts’ revered hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” in the way it approaches the cross from the position of an observer, gazing in wonder, and meditating upon the act of sacrifice performed there. The refrain speaks of exchanging the cross for a crown, an idea reflected in James 1:12 (“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him,” ESV) and Revelation 2:10 (“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”). In the original printing from Heart and Life Songs (1915), the song was headed by Galatians 6:14 (“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”).

Hymn commentator Robert Cottrill was drawn to the second stanza, especially the notion of the cross being “so despised by the world.” He observed how the cross is a common symbol in our culture, seemingly embraced:

Yet the Bible does speak of “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11). So, where is the offense? Two things. There is a certain ignominy in being executed as a criminal. Yes, it was “an emblem of suffering and shame.” To be crucified was a “shame” (Heb. 12:2), and when we identify ourselves with Christ, we bear His “reproach” [His shame and disgrace] (Heb. 13:13). But it is more than that. The offense lies not so much in the object, as in the message behind it. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (I Cor. 1:18).[8]

Hymnologist C. Michael Hawn has noted how Bennard’s text contains a series of contradistinctions:

In stanza one, though the cross is an “emblem of suffering and shame,” the singer still “loves that old cross.” In stanza two, though the cross is “despised by the world,” it still “has a wondrous attraction to me.” In stanza three, though the cross is “stained with blood,” for the singer, it still has a “wondrous beauty.”[9]

While Bennard’s text emphasizes the cross itself, especially in the refrain, he was careful to recognize the divine personhood who became the ultimate sacrifice there. Each stanza includes a distinctive name for that Saviour: in stanza one, he is “the dearest and best,” in stanza two, “the dear Lamb of God,” in stanza three he is named more clearly, “Jesus,” and in stanza four, he is simply identified by pronouns (“He’ll,” “His”).

Musically, the melody is often performed differently from how it appears on the page, owing mainly to the awkward combination of the textual syllabic stresses against the written pulses of the melody. The textual stresses can be accommodated by adjusting the rhythm of the melody.

Legacy.

Not all have embraced Bennard’s hymn. Some worshipers believe Bennard placed too much emphasis on the object and not enough on the person. In 1924, composer Frank C. Huston (1871–1959) crafted a rebuttal for those who felt Bennard had placed the cross over the Christ. In his hymn “The Christ of the cross,” in stanza three, he unabashedly called out Bennard’s text:

Let others who will praise the cross of the Christ,
The Christ of the cross is my theme;
For though we must cherish the old rugged cross,
’Tis only the Christ can redeem.[10]

Esteemed hymnologist Erik Routley (1917–1982) was also not a fan, expressing this rather candid opinion while attempting to recommend a charitable approach to church music:

The judgment that any normal person makes about music is not necessarily to be discounted when that person is in church. Therefore if a man likes “Onward, Christian soldiers,” my duty as a church musician is, if I do not like it, to find out just why he does, and to see whether he is not in possession of something which I could learn from. I am bound to say that there are not nearly so many hymns which I should nowadays write off as unusable as there were when I was twenty years younger. There are certainly some.

I think that “The old rugged cross” is a monstrous blasphemy, but I can give my reason, which is theological. I believe it is wrong, misleading, and spiritually wicked to treat the cross as affectionately as that lyric does. I believe there is all the difference in the world between that lyric and the old Latin hymn, “Faithful cross, above all other, one and only noble tree,” and that the difference is fatal. But even so, I do not regard myself as having come to the end of the evidence; I may yet learn that with all its unspeakable vulgarity it has said something authentic to somebody. I mention it as an extreme case—you will have to work mighty hard to convince me that I am wrong about it. But you may do it yet.[11]

In spite of some vocal detractors, the overwhelming response to Bennard’s hymn has been praise. George W. Sanville, an executive in the Homer Rodeheaver publishing company who had published Bennard’s story in 1943, also furnished this earlier account of the explosive popularity of the song in just under twenty years of being in print:

When I was making the Cokesbury Hymnal [1923] for the Southern Methodist Church, they sent out a questionnaire, and Mr. Whitmore told me that “The Old Rugged Cross” received more requests than any other song in the book. I was talking with Arthur Billings Hunt, who puts on the Hymn Sing over the National Broadcasting chain and he told me that of all the requests that come to them, “The Old Rugged Cross” always stood four-to-one of any other selection.[12]

In a survey conducted by Southern Baptists in 1938, “The old rugged cross” was reported to be the fifth most popular hymn, the most popular being “What a friend we have in Jesus.”[11] The song was initially popularized in part by the evangelistic music ministry of Homer Rodeheaver. Rodeheaver recorded the song on 78-rpm discs in 1920, in a duet with Virginia Asher.[12] The song has since been recorded hundreds of times by various artists. Just as it was quoted in Huston’s hymnic rebuttal of 1924, it has also been quoted lovingly in other songs, such as Bill Gaither’s “The old rugged cross made the difference,” illustrating how the phrase “The old rugged cross” has become a ubiquitous part of American Christian parlance.

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
21 August 2019
rev. 27 August 2019


Footnotes:

  1. George W. Sanville, “The Old Rugged Cross,” Forty Gospel Hymn Stories (Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver-Hall Mack, 1943), p. 16.

  2. George Bennard, The Story of “The Old Rugged Cross” (Albion, MI: Bennard Music Co., 1930), pp. 5-6.

  3. “Birthplace of ‘Old Rugged Cross,’” Historical Marker Project: https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HMIGC_birthplace-of-old-rugged-cross_Albion-MI.html

  4. “The Old Rugged Cross,” Albion Morning Star (5 April 1993), p. 4, cited by Frank Passic, Historical Albion Michigan:
    http://www.albionmich.com/history/histor_notebook/930405.shtml

  5. “Our History,” Friends Community Church (Sturgeon Bay, WI): https://www.friendschurchdoorcounty.com/our-history.html

  6. John H. Baxter, The Story of the Old Rugged Cross at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (1947), p. 7, citing the Door County Democrat (Sturgeon Bay, WI), 17 Jan. 1913.

  7. John H. Baxter, The Story of the Old Rugged Cross at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (1947), p. 5.

  8. Robert Cottrill, “The Old Rugged Cross,” WordWise Hymns (11 July 2011): https://wordwisehymns.com/2011/07/11/the-old-rugged-cross/

  9. C. Michael Hawn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” History of Hymns, Discipleship Ministries, United Methodist Church: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-the-old-rugged-cross

  10. “On Calvary’s brow there was planted a cross,” Hymnary.org: https://hymnary.org/text/on_calvarys_brow_there_was_planted_a_cro

  11. Erik Routley, Music Leadership in the Church (Carol Stream, IL: Agape, 1984), p. 96. Routley cites the Latin hymn “Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis,” as translated by J.M. Neale, “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle.”

  12. George Bennard, The Story of “The Old Rugged Cross” (Albion, MI: Bennard Music Co., 1930), p. 59.

  13. E.P. Alldredge, Southern Baptist Handbook (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1939), p. 16.

  14. Homer A. Rodeheaver & Mrs. Wm. [Virginia] Asher, “The old rugged cross,” 78-rpm disc, Chicago: Rainbow, 1920: WorldCat

Related Resources:

Homer A. Rodeheaver & Mrs. Wm. [Virginia] Asher, “The old rugged cross,” 78-rpm disc, Chicago: Rainbow, 1920: WorldCat

George Bennard, The Story of “The Old Rugged Cross,” (Albion, MI: Bennard Music Co., 1930): WorldCat

Homer A. Rodeheaver, “On a hill far away,” Hymnal Handbook for Standard Hymns and Gospel Songs (Chicago: The Rodeheaver Company, 1931), p. 166.

L.H. Couch, The Old Rugged Cross (Dowagiac, MI: Old Rugged Cross Association, 1940): WorldCat

John H. Baxter, The Story of the Old Rugged Cross at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (Sturgeon Bay, WI: J.H. Baxter, 1947): WorldCat

William J. Reynolds, “On a hill far away,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1992), pp. 213-214.

Carlton R. Young, “The old rugged cross,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 642-643.

Robert L. Anderson, “On a hill far away (The old rugged cross),” New Century Hymnal Companion (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1998), p. 309.

Marta K. Dodd, “The Old Rugged Cross: Historic Site Restored,” The Hymn, vol. 54, no. 2 (April 2003), pp. 8-10: HathiTrust

Molly Tate Shaffer, The Old Rugged Cross Lives On (Dowagiac, MI: Mary E. Shaffer Publishing).

Ken Wyatt, “Peek Through Time: The Christian hymn ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ was written in Albion a century ago,” Jackson Citizen Patriot (23 April 2011): https://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/2011/04/post_106.html

Robert Cottrill, “The Old Rugged Cross,” WordWise Hymns (11 July 2011): https://wordwisehymns.com/2011/07/11/the-old-rugged-cross/

C. Michael Hawn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” History of Hymns, Discipleship Ministries, United Methodist Church: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-the-old-rugged-cross

The Old Rugged Cross Church & Museum (Pokagon, MI):
http://www.the-oldruggedcross.org/index.php

“Our History,” Friends Community Church (Sturgeon Bay, WI):
https://www.friendschurchdoorcounty.com/our-history.html

“The old rugged cross,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/on_a_hill_far_away_stood_an_old_rugged