I may have mentioned this before, but I love hymns. The texts possess a richness that is, in my opinion, difficult to find in any other genre, with the exception of the art song. This holds true for “The Old Rugged Cross.”
To be honest, I’ve never heard “The Old Rugged Cross” sung in an Episcopal church…or in any church other than the tiny Baptist church I attended as a very young child. And when we sang it, my friend, it didn’t have to be Easter. “The Old Rugged Cross” was appropriate on Christmas Eve, the Fourth of July, Mother’s Day, and any other day you can think of. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.
So, given my early acquaintance with the hymn, I’ve never really given much thought as to who wrote it or why, but I’m glad that I started doing a little digging. It is difficult to get solid information on the hymn because most of the stories are passed down by word of mouth or presented on personal websites. However, here’s what I’ve found: The hymn was written by an itinerant Methodist minister named George Bennard (1873-1958) in 1913.
While on his route through the northern states, he began meditating on Christ’s suffering on the cross. He is reputed to have written, “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.” (1)
When he arrived home to his apartment in Albion, Michigan, he began setting text to a tune he had already composed. One story goes that he only had the phrase “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross” until he was harassed by some teens during a service. According to the story, after that incident, the rest of the words came to him. The composition process did not happen quickly, and he spent the next few months revising the text and asking for input from friends and colleagues.
In 1913, the hymn was debuted at the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon, Michigan. Four members of the choir sang, accompanied by piano and violin. His friends, Rev. and Mrs. Leroy Bostwick, paid to have the hymn printed.
The song grew in popularity and became well-loved throughout the northern states. In 1915, two years after its debut, evangelist Billy Sunday and his song leader Homer Rodeheaver bought the rights to the song for $500, and its popularity grew nation-wide thanks to Billy Sunday’s tent revivals.
Bennard died in 1958 after writing several more hymns and spending his adult life ministering to others. Because he sold the rights to “The Old Rugged Cross” so soon after its composition, he never became wealthy from the song.
The melody and the style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the words truly are timeless. And, like I learned at that little Baptist church, appropriate all year long.
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
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
‘Til my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it someday for a crown
Oh, that old rugged cross so despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction for me
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine
A wondrous beauty I see
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died
To pardon and sanctify me
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true
Its shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me someday to His home far away
Where His glory forever I’ll share.