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The Old Rugged Cross

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If you look inside any church, you are likely to find a Christian Cross. Typically it is made of stone, polished hardwood, some type of polymer or metal, and occasionally gilded with gold leaf. Very rarely is it a cross of roughly hewn timbers, which is odd because Jesus was not crucified on a cross of polished hardwood, polymer or metal, and certainly not a cross gilded with gold leaf.

Around a hundred years ago, an American called George Bennard (no, not George Bernard Shaw) spent quite a while contemplating this anomaly, and came up with a new hymn: The Old Rugged Cross.

Hymn writing was one of his passions - he wrote over 300 - and The Old Rugged Cross became one of the 20th century's most popular songs, with over 20 million copies sold in the first 30 years. The reason for this spectacular success is probably because of its catchy tune and words that are easy to learn. The music fits the lyrics so well because Bennard wrote the words and music together.

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The Old Rugged Cross

- one of the ten most popular songs of the last hundred years

Reverend George Bennard (1873-1958)

George Bennard, 1873-1958

The words and music for The Old Rugged Cross were written by George Bennard some time around 1912 or 1913 (depending on which hymn book you use).

George Bennard was born to a coal miner in Youngstown, Ohio, on February 4, 1873. After finding his faith through a revival meeting, George became a full-time minister as a Salvation Army officer. Later, he became a Methodist evangelist and was ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church. He preached all over Canada and the North America, in particular Michigan and New York. After a campaign in New York, George penned the words and music to The Old Rugged Cross.

He had been preaching around a passage in the Bible (Gal. 6:14-15) which says:

14. But may it never be that I should glory,
save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by whom the world is crucified to me,
and I to the world.

15. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision
nor uncircumcision avails anything,
but a new creation.

What did this mean to George? The words were written by Apostle Paul, who did not expect glory from power, fame or riches. For him true glory could only come from the atoning sacrifice of Christ's Crucifixion. By extension, this implies that if one does expect glory from material things (power, fame, riches) then that is discrediting, or even repudiating, the Crucifixion. And those who do that ("the world"), differ from Paul's beliefs. Therefore Paul uses the phrase "the world is crucified to me, and I to the world".

Verse 15 talks about circumcision, which was Mosaic law in those times. Gal. 5 lists some pretty sensible laws that morally, we should all obey. But in addition to that, and much more importantly, we can only find glory through God's grace - opening our hearts to God and becoming "a new creation".

If we manage to live a moral life (go on; check out Galatians 5), then that's fine. But without being "a new creation", there can be no glory.

George could see that the message from the cross was central to the whole Christian faith, and was moved to write the hymn.

But the cross in his mind was no gilded icon; it was coarse, cruel, blood-stained structure. Thus the title: 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.

(Chorus)
So I'll cherish the 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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true,
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then he'll call me some day to my home far away,
Where his glory forever I'll share.

(Chorus)

Score of The Old Rugged Cross
(Click on the music for a full score)

The Old Rugged Cross has not been restricted to Western cultures. Here's the Japanese version and the Korean version.

Listen to the melody

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