Once every year, billions of people on every continent of the globe stop whatever they are doing and remember the mystery of Easter. At the heart of that mystery is the old rugged cross. For those of us who have a soft spot for Western movies, the ‘Old Rugged Cross’ song invariably turns up somewhere, often by a windblown graveside.
“On a hill far away stood an Old Rugged Cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.”
‘The Old Rugged Cross’ song was written by George Bennard, who lived from 1873-1958. “The Old Rugged Cross” is still the most frequently requested hymn; and the most popular spiritual song of the past 100 years. Within thirty years of its original publication in 1913, more than twenty million copies of “The Old Rugged Cross” had been sold, outselling every other musical composition of any kind! What is it that makes this gospel song so popular?
‘The Old Rugged Cross’ was written in response to a deep personal need in Bennard’s own life. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, on February 4, 1873, George Bennard was raised in a loving coalminer family, the only son among four daughters. When George was only sixteen years old, his father died, leaving George to care for his mother and four sisters. After a period of time with the Salvation Army, George became a traveling speaker for the Methodist church, holding meetings in Canada and in the northern and central United States.
After a very painful time in New York, Bennard went back home in 1913 to Michigan. His mind returned again and again to Christ’s agony on the cross. During this time, Bennard read Galatians 6:14 in which the Apostle Paul states: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Bennard became convinced that the cross was not merely a symbol of Christianity, but the very heart of it. He realized that the cross was not gold-covered, but rather a rough, splintery thing, stained with gore.
The words, “the old rugged cross,” came into his mind and then the notes of a melody ran through his head. Several weeks later, after a period of prayer, the poetry of the verses began to flow from his pen almost unbidden. “I saw the Christ of the Cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption,” he said later.
After writing this hymn, George Bennard went on to travel and preach for another forty years.. Thanks to being chosen by Billy Sunday (the Billy Graham of those days), everyone began singing this unforgettable song. Years later, Johny Cash himself recorded this song. Although Bennard wrote 300 other hymns, none of them became as popular as his first.
Dr. Alistair McGrath of Oxford comments, “Those great old hymns — such as Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross and When I survey — remain wonderful statements of the centrality of the cross…They express the power of the cross so much better than I can ever hope to do. As George Bennard put it in 1913:
“To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then he’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where his glory forever I’ll share.”
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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