Sheila O’Kelly recalls the background to one of the most popular Gospel songs of all time
On a hill far away stood an old
The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the
dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was
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 someday for a
George Bennard, American evangelist and songwriter, composed one of the world’s best-loved hymns, The Old Rugged Cross. Bennard was born in Youngstown, Ohio on the 4th February, 1873. His parents moved the family to Iowa where George worked with his father in the coalmines.
Although George had aspired to become a Christian Evangelist, he was compelled to take care of his mother and his sisters after the sudden death of his father.
In 1894, at the age of 21, George married Araminta Statler Beeler. The couple resided in Albion, Michigan and had two sons. George and Araminta served as officers for the Salvation Army for a number of years before George was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He travelled throughout Michigan, New York and the mid-west preaching at meetings.
The first verse and chorus of The Old Rugged Cross was written in Michigan in the autumn of 1912.
Whilst travelling home from a gospel meeting through Michigan one evening, George was heckled by several youths. Troubled by the youths disregard for the gospels, George turned to the Scriptures to reflect on Christ’s Passion on the cross and what Saint Paul meant when he spoke of entering the Suffering of Christ.
George later recalled: “I had a vision… “I saw the Christ and the cross inseparable.”
After this profound experience, the rest of the words to the hymn came freely. In 1913, George completed the hymn. He said: “The inspiration came to me one day when I was staying in Albion, Michigan. I began to write The Old Rugged Cross. I composed the melody first. The words that I first wrote were imperfect. The words of the finished hymn were put into my heart in answer to my own need.”
George travelled with Reverend Edward Mieras to Winconsin where they held evangelistic meetings from 29th December, 1912, to 12th January, 1913. On the last night of the meetings, George and Edward performed the song as a duet before a full house, accompanied by organist, Pearl Torstensen Berg. On the 7th June, 1913, a choir of five sang the hymn in Pokagon Methodist Church, Michigan.
The Old Rugged Cross was first published as sheet music in 1915 in the book, Heart and Life Songs for the Church, Sunday School, Home and Campmeeting. George edited the song with editors Joseph Smith and Iva Durham Vennard.