“The Old Rugged Cross” is a popular hymn written in 1912 by evangelist and song-leader George Bennard (1873–1958).
George Bennard was a native of Youngstown, Ohio, but was reared in Iowa. After his conversion in a Salvation Army meeting, he and his wife became brigade leaders before leaving the organization for the Methodist Church.
DID YOU KNOW? As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard wrote the first verse of “The Old Rugged Cross” in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912 as a response to ridicule that he had received at a revival meeting.
Bennard traveled with Ed E. Mieras from Chicago to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin where they held evangelistic meetings at the Friends Church from December 29, 1912 to January 12, 1913. During the meetings Rev. George Bennard finished “The Old Rugged Cross” and on the last night of the meeting Bennard and Mieras performed it as a duet before a full house with Pearl Torstensen Berg, organist for the meeting, as accompanist. Charles H. Gabriel, a well-known gospel-song composer helped Bennard with the harmonies. The completed version was then performed on June 7, 1913, by a choir of five, accompanied by a guitar in Pokagon, Michigan, at the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon. Published in 1915, the song was popularized during Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns by two members of his campaign staff, Homer Rodeheaver (who bought rights to the song for $50 or $500) and Virginia Asher, who were perhaps also the first to record it in 1921. The Old Rugged Cross uses a sentimental popular song form with a verse/chorus pattern in 6
8 time, and it speaks of the writer’s adoration of Christ and His sacrifice at Calvary. Bennard retired to Reed City, Michigan, and the town maintains a museum dedicated to his life and ministry. A memorial has also been created in Youngstown at Lake Park Cemetery. A plaque commemorating the first performance of the song stands in front of the Friend’s Church in Sturgeon Bay.
“The Old Rugged Cross” has been a country gospel favorite ever since it became the title song of Ernest Tubb’s 1952 gospel album; it has been performed by some of the twentieth century’s most important recording artists, including Al Green, Andy Griffith, Anne Murray, Brad Paisley, Chet Atkins, John Berry, Floyd Cramer, George Jones, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kevin Max, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Ricky Van Shelton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Statler Brothers, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, George Beverly Shea and John Prine on the 2007 CD “Standard Songs for Average People” with Mac Wiseman. British television dramatist Dennis Potter used the gospel song prominently in several of his plays, most notably Pennies from Heaven (1978); and the song also played a major part in “Gridlock” (2007), an episode of the long-running sci-fi drama series Doctor Who. In early 2009, the song was covered by Ronnie Milsap on his gospel album Then Sings My Soul.