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.
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. It reads, in part:
Birthplace of “Old Rugged Cross”
…. one of the world’s best-loved hymns, was composed here in 1912…..
“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.”
George Bennard lived his retirement years in Reed City, Michigan, and passed away there in 1958.
“And he, bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of the skull, which is called in the Hebrew Galgotha: Where they crucified him.” — John 19:17-18
To contact Lindsay Terry, email firstname.lastname@example.org.