History of Hymns: “The Old Rugged Cross”
By C. Michael Hawn
The Old Rugged Cross
by George Bennard
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 504
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,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it some day for a crown.
What do the gospel hymns “The Old Rugged Cross” and “I Come to the Garden Alone” have in common? Both compositions were completed virtually at the same time (1913) by American Methodists. Each reflects on key symbols of Holy Week – the cross of Good Friday and the garden of the Resurrection. Both songs speak from a first-person perspective, composed in a ballad style (6/8 meter) with refrains. Both songs place the singer in the biblical scene, one at the foot of the cross where Jesus hung, and the other in the garden walking with the risen Christ following the Resurrection. The composers composed both the words and the music. Perhaps most of all, both George Bennard and C. Austin Miles wrote songs that many parishioners deeply love, and others love to hate.
George Bennard (1873-1958) was born in Ohio, but raised in Iowa. Converted at a Salvation Army meeting, he later became a Methodist evangelist. The composition of the song began in Albion, Michigan, late in 1912 and 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.
The completed song was first published in Heart and Life Songs for the Church, Sunday School, Home, and Campmeeting (1915), edited by Bennard and two other colleagues. From this point, it became a staple of Billy Sunday’s evangelistic crusades, promoted by his chief musician Homer Rodeheaver (1880-1955), who eventually bought the rights to the song.
The composer employs the poetic device of hypotyposis – painting a scene – in his text. In stanza one, he describes the cross “on a hill far away,” though one may still picture the scene as if kneeling at the foot of the cross. Stanzas two and three refer to Christ on the cross. In stanza two, Christ is called the “dear Lamb of God” (John 1:29). The reference to Jesus is more direct in stanza three. Furthermore, he adds to the hypotyposis by noting that the cross is “stained with blood.”
Another poetic technique employed effectively by the composer is that of paradox. In stanza one, though the cross is an “emblem of suffering and shame,” the singer still “loves that old cross.” In stanza two, though the cross is “despised by the world,” it still “has a wondrous attraction to me.” In stanza three, though the cross is “stained with blood,” for the singer, it still has a “wondrous beauty.”
In many ways, this hymn stands in a long line of devotional poetry that venerates the cross in some way. The refrain begins, “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross.” One finds some similar sentiments in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” by Elizabeth Clephane (1830-1869). Let us look even further back in time for a similar theme.
The famous Latin hymn “Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium” (“Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory,/Of his flesh, the mystery sing;”) by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (b. c. 530–d. c. 609) is a traditional Good Friday hymn. A stanza displaying veneration for the cross was included in the translation by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the English translator of many Latin and Greek hymns:
Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
be for all the noblest tree;
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit your equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
for your burden makes us free.
Both hymns, though 1500 years apart, emphasize that the cross stands for something deeper: for Bennard, it was an “emblem of suffering and shame”; for Neale’s translation, the cross was a “symbol of the world’s redemption.”
While on the surface the theology may appear similar, actually there are significant differences. In Fortunatus’s hymn, the context points toward the mystery of the sacrament. Furthermore, the tradition of this era would have placed extreme value on the mysterious power of actually having in one’s possession a holy relic, a piece, even a sliver, of Christ’s actual cross. Bennard, on the other hand, venerated the cross as a devotional object that one may eventually “exchange it some day for a crown.” Both are a means of redemption, but viewed through very different forms of piety.
“The Old Rugged Cross” has proven to be extremely popular as a country gospel solo recorded by numerous artists: Ernest Tubb, Andy Griffith, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Willie Nelson, and many more. Mahalia Jackson made a notable recording of the song on her album, Mahalia Jackson Sings the Best-Loved Hymns of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). It was also a staple of George Beverly Shea’s repertoire during the Billy Graham evangelistic campaigns.
To borrow a variation of a word from the hymn, one knows that a song becomes emblematic of a genre or era when it is used in a movie. “The Old Rugged Cross” has this distinction in several films, including Pennies from Heaven (1978) and Gridlock (2007). It even appears in an episode of the popular and long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who.
Returning to the initial comment that many love this gospel song, and many love to hate it, this may be the result of the hymn’s emblematic nature. For some, this hymn stands for an era in American religious life that represents a personal faith at the exclusion of social holiness and an unredeemable sentimentalism. British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) offered his opinion of this hymn in a text published in 1967. In true Routley style, he was candid and somewhat acerbic. He felt that it is a hymn of “unspeakable vulgarity,” though allowing that “it has said something authentic to somebody” (Routley, 1967, 96). United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton Young, a jazz lover (and player) and close friend of Routley’s who was with him in Nashville at the time of Routley’s death, notes that he appreciated its attraction as a “compelling witness for the gospel in this hymn, despite its perceived theological and musical shortcomings” (Young, 1993, 643).
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.
For further reference:
Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Routley, Erik. Music Leadership in the Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press. Reprint. Carol Stream, IL: Agape, 1984.