The Old Rugged Cross
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. As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard wrote the first verse of "The Old Rugged Cross" in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912[a] as a response to ridicule which he 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 before a full house, Bernard and Ed Mieras it as a duet 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 7th, 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 3
4 time, and it speaks of the writer's Christian experience rather than his adoration of God. 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.
"The Old Rugged Cross" has been an enormous 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, 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 has 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.
In his art parody volume Art Afterpieces, Ward Kimball created a variation on the painting Expulsion from Paradise by the 15th-century artist Giovanni di Paolo, which shows God pointing at a large circle below him. Kimball centered the record label of The Old Rugged Cross, as published by Victor, on the circle in the picture, complete with the trademark of Nipper (His Master's Voice). "The Old Rugged Cross" was one of a number of Christian hymns co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and sung at cross burnings.
- Bennard himself said that it was 1913.
- Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982), 255.
- Mumford, Lou (2013-09-14). "Famous Hymn Still Resonates". South Bend Tribune. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- The Story of the Old Rugged Cross at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (Sturgeon Bay: John H. Baxter, 1947), 6.
- William J. Reynolds, Songs of Glory: Stories of 300 Great Hymns and Gospel Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 219-20.
- Thurl Ravenscroft, Great Hymns in Story and Song (Light Records, 1970)
- Reed City Museum
- "Old Rugged Cross Part of Youngstown History". The Vindicator. 2009-03-29. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, with vocal quartet and orchestra, recorded it in Hollywood on March 3, 1950. The song was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 21-0344 (in USA) and by EMI on the His Master's Voice label as catalog numbers IP 875 and JD 393.
- Michael Jacobs, "Co-Opting Christian Chorales: Songs of the Ku Klux Klan," 28 American Music 3 (Fall 2010), 368.
- "'The Old Rugged Cross' Written in Albion" Albion Recorder, 13 April 1998.
- Short biography of Bennard from Famous Iowans.
- "Bennard, George" in W. K. McNeil, ed., Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music (Routledge, 2005), 34.
- The Old Rugged Cross Historic Site