1913 : Old Rugged Cross Hymn Linked to Michigan Revivals

June 7, 2024 all-day

The year was 1912 and George Bennard, a Methodist Episcopal evangelist traveling throughout the Midwest, was heckled incessantly by several youth at a revival meeting in Michigan.

A Vision, a Melody and the Completion of the First Verse

Troubled by their disregard for the gospel, Bennard turned to Scripture to reflect on the work of Christ on the cross. He later recalled, “I seemed to have a vision … . I saw the Christ and the cross inseparable.”

The melody came easily, and the first verse was completed by Bennard during a series of revival meetings in Albion, Michigan.

A historical marker can be found in Albion.

Several months later, the remaining three verses were completed during another series of  revival meetings at the Friends Church in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin  (December 29, 1912January 12, 1913).  On the last night of the revival Bennard and Ed. E. 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.

Shortly thereafter, Bennard performed the song in its entirety for a  pastor and his wife, Rev. Leroy and Ruby Bostwick, in the living room of their parsonage in Pokagon, Michigan.  The Bostwicks were moved to tears and asked him to perform the song at a revival service  going on in the little town.  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 hymn quickly spread throughout the region and came to the attention of the evangelist Billy Sunday, who frequently utilized it in his meetings. Two years later, Bennard sold the copyright to the song for a payment of $500, forgoing future royalties.  Upon the renewal of the copyright 28 years later, he received a final payment of $5,000.

Lyrics to “The Old Rugged Cross”

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.

*Refrain: 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. (*Refrain)

In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine / Such a wonderful beauty I see / For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died / To pardon and sanctify me. (*Refrain)

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true / Its shame and reproach gladly bear / Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away / Where His glory forever I’ll share. (*Refrain)

The Old Rugged Cross

Loved for its lilting melody and words of personal trust in the cross of Christ, “The Old Rugged Cross” remains one of the most cherished hymns of the Christian faith. It has since been included in numerous hymnals and recordings by contemporary artists, and has been a standby for country gospel singers for generations, starting with Ernest Tubb in 1952.

According to wikipedia, 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, 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

More about George Bennard, Evangelist

Bennard was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1873 and spent his childhood in Iowa. His father was a tavern owner and later, a coal miner. Bennard’s conversion at the age of 22 through the evangelistic ministry of the Salvation Army in Canton, Iowa, led to his ordination and commissioning as a traveling evangelist in 1898. He would later affiliate with the Methodist Episcopal Church and travel throughout the Midwest, holding revivals until his retirement in Reed City, Michigan, more than 30 years later.

Reed City maintains a museum dedicated to his life and ministry.   The Reed City Chamber of Commerce erected a twenty foot cross on US 131 bearing the words “The Old Rugged Cross” and Home of Living Author, Reverend George Bennard.

The Old Rugged Cross Church through the years

The Church as it appeared in 1913.With the passage of time, Pokago, Michigan lost population and the church was converted into a hops barn. The church in 1968 after many years of use as a hops barn.

Years later, the building was purchased by the non-profit Old Rugged Cross Foundation, restored,  and now welcomes thousands of visitors annually.

Sources :

Eric Wyse, The History Behind “The Old Rugged Cross”, Lifeway, September 22, 2015.

C. Michael Hawn, History of Hymns: “The Old Rugged Cross”, United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries.   Hawn agrees that the hymn began in Albion, Michigan,  late in 1912 but was finished during a revival in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where Bennard and his revival partner, Chicagoan Ed E. Mieras, premiered it as a duet on the last evening of the meeting, January 12, 1913. The famous gospel song composer Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932) assisted Bennard with the harmony and, as is often said, the rest is history.  A plaque commemorating the first performance of the song stands in front of the Friend’s Church in Sturgeon Bay, WI.

Old Rugged Cross wikipedia entry

The Old Rugged Cross Historic Site : Church and Garden