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The Midweek Hymn: The Old Rugged Cross


I AM beginning to suspect that the more popular a hymn is, the more it is disliked by the self-appointed ‘hymn police’. A case in point is The Old Rugged Cross, one of America’s favourites and much loved in Britain too.

British hymnologist Erik Routley offered his opinion of this hymn in 1967. Not mincing his words, he described it as of ‘unspeakable vulgarity’ and called it ‘a monstrous blasphemy’. Routley, who was also a composer and minister, explained his comment thus: ‘I believe it to be wrong, misleading and spiritually wicked to treat the Cross as affectionately as that lyric does.’

These are the words:

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.

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 the 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.

The hymn was written by George Bennard (pronounced Benn-ARD) who was born in Ohio in 1873 and grew up in Iowa. He was one of six children of George and Margaret Bennard, and he was of Scottish descent. George Senior ran a tavern in Albia, Iowa, but it burned down, so the family moved to Lucas, Iowa, so that George Senior could work in a coalmine. However he was killed in 1889 in a mining accident, aged 49, leaving his son George at just 16 to support his mother and siblings. So he too became a miner. At some point he was married, to Ariminda.

In 1895, when he was 22, he heard about Salvation Army meetings in Canton, Iowa. He walked five miles into town to see what it was all about. According to the Canton Daily Ledger: ‘Meetings at that time often lasted until 11pm, but after walking the five miles home after the meeting, the young man decided he wanted to hear more and returned. At one of those meetings, he answered the invitation to accept Christ and knelt at the old wooden bench which was the Canton Salvation Army’s penitent form. That was how George Bennard began his life as a Christian.’

George became a minister with the Salvation Army at the age of 24. He resigned from the Salvation Army in 1910 to go out on his own as an evangelist ordained within the Methodist Episcopal denomination. It was around this time that he began composing hymns. George and Ariminda settled in Albion, Michigan, and there he opened his own hymn publishing company.

The Canton Daily Ledger reports an account from the Salvation Army news-sheet War Cry from 1936 in which Mrs Brigadier Margaret Troutt shared Bennard’s story of how The Old Rugged Cross came into being.

‘For months I had been meditating upon the Cross, my thoughts filled with its vital importance,’ Bennard was quoted as saying. ‘And one day, quite suddenly there came to me the words I used as the title: The Old Rugged Cross. I stopped what I was doing and prepared to write the song, but inspiration would not come. After some hours spent in futile effort, a voice said, “Wait, wait.”

‘In the weeks that followed, I gained a deeper understanding of the Cross. I became acquainted with despair and the song grew on me continually, developing until at last, when the dark clouds of trouble had rolled away, the words and music were complete.’

In 1913 Bennard was holding Methodist revival meetings in the small Michigan town of Pokagon. He gave the first performance of his song for the meetings’ sponsor, Rev Leroy Bostwick, and his wife Ruby, at their parsonage.

‘So I first sang it in the kitchen of that little parsonage, strumming an accompaniment on a guitar. I well remember the electrical effect the simple little song had upon Brother and Sister Bostwick. Never in my experience, I think, have I seen anyone so genuinely moved.

‘After I finished playing the song, the three of us were wrapped for a few moments in comforting silence. Then Sister Bostwick said to me in a voice that was husky with emotion, “Brother Bennard, that song will never die”.’

Evangelist Billy Sunday popularised the hymn with his nationally broadcast radio show. By 1939, more than 15million copies of the sheet music had been sold and numerous recordings made.

Bennard composed about 350 hymns, but none was nearly as successful as The Old Rugged Cross.

He and Ariminda moved to California because she was in poor health. She died in 1941 and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Bennard returned to Michigan and in July 1944 he was married for the second time, to his accompanist Hannah Dahlstrom.

Bennard died in Reed City, Michigan, in 1958, at the age of 85. His funeral service, naturally, included The Old Rugged Cross. He was buried beside Ariminda.

Theologians have raised issues about the central part played in the hymn by the cross rather than God as well as the suggestion in the line ‘His glory forever I’ll share’, the word ‘share’ particularly, that we are on God’s level.

However even the curmudgeonly Erik Routley was forced to concede that he appreciated the hymn’s attraction as a ‘compelling witness for the gospel . . . despite its perceived theological and musical shortcomings’.

This would not be a complete account without mentioning that The Old Rugged Cross was a favourite of the Ku Klux Klan. However it is not fair to blame the song because as Michael Jacobs of Marquette University, Milwaukee, has pointed out, the Klan appropriated all sorts of music – hymns, patriotic songs, folksongs, contemporary popular music, and nursery rhymes – to make songs that seemed to connect the Klan with American traditions and patriotism.

America can be found in at least a dozen different Klan songbooks and the national anthem in almost as many. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was included in at least nine Klan songbooks.

The Old Rugged Cross was reworked into several different versions, such as The Bright Fiery Cross.

Onward Christian Soldiers demonstrated even greater versatility for the Klan, with versions including Onward Christian Klansmen, Onward, Christian Klanswomen, Onward Ku Klux Klansmen, and Onward, Valiant Klansmen

Thankfully The Old Rugged Cross has proved to be much more enduring than the KKK.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions on YouTube so it was hard to choose a few.

Here is a lovely performance by the choir of Liverpool Cathedral:

This is a homely version:

This is the Elite Steel Band but I cannot find any details about them.

Here is the immortal Tennessee Ernie Ford. I am guessing this was broadcast on The Ford Show which ran on NBC from 1965 to 1961.

Chris Rice (this one’s for you, Audre)

I love this one by three young men.

Jo Stafford recorded this in 1962:

There is a Schubert feel about this lovely arrangement for two violins and piano, apparently being given in an old folks’ home.

And my favourite: probably the first recording of the hymn, by Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher in 1921:

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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