My song today is the hymn, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. This popular hymn was written in 1912 by evangelist and song-leader, George Bennard (1873– 1958). 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. Bennard was a Methodist evangelist when he wrote the first verse of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912, as a response to ridicule that he had received at a revival meeting.
Published in 1915, the song was popularized during evangelistic campaigns by two members of his campaign staff, Homer Rodeheaver (who bought rights to the song) and Virginia Asher, who was perhaps also the first to record it in 1921. ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ speaks of the writer's adoration of Christ and His sacrifice at Calvary. 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’. A plaque commemorating the first performance of the song stands in front of the ‘Friend's Church’ in Sturgeon Bay, WI.
Some of my earliest memories involve hearing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ in Irish Catholic Churches and during celebrations on St Patrick Days. Until I researched its background for this post, I would most certainly have assumed the song to have been Irish in origin as opposed to American, and Roman Catholic in composition instead of a mixture of Evangelical and Methodist.
My wife Sheila is the organist at the Catholic church we attend weekly in Keighley. Like all organists, it makes for good practice to introduce a new hymn to the congregation from time to time. Behind the front pew where I sit weekly is an older couple in their eighties called Michael and Teresa, and when Sheila introduces a new hymn to the singing congregation, I frequently joke with Michael and Teresa that “Sheila is ‘going off message again’ and is playing Methodist hymns instead of Catholic ones!” The simple fact is that many hymns sung in churches, chapels and places of prayer today are American Gospel and Methodist in origin. I’m afraid that the Roman Catholic religion has always been way behind the Evangelists and the American Gospel Churches when it came to ‘singing out the Lord’s praises loud and clear’ on a Sunday morning.
Let’s face it, folks, if today’s places of reverence want to attract larger Sunday congregations, then making their weekly services raise the rafters with singing is one way of putting more bums on seats.
We should never forget, however, that all prayers are powerful and meaningful, and praise to the Lord is just as welcome by Him when it is sung out loud as well as being spoken or whispered in silent reflection. Attend any Church or chapel service and where one has a rousing choir and enthusiastic singing congregation, I’ll guarantee that when the congregation leaves the church building, will feel like they’ve been to church, and will feel happier and more cheerful as a consequence!
Love and peace Bill xxx