George Bennard (1873-1958) was born in Youngstown, Ohio, but his family moved to Iowa, where he accepted Christ as his savior at a revival meeting sponsored by the Salvation Army.
George’s coal-miner father died when George was sixteen. George had hoped to become an evangelist, but instead went to work as a coal-miner to support his mother and sisters.
Some years later, Bennard moved to Chicago, married, and began an evangelistic ministry with the Salvation Army. Later still, he was ordained as an evangelist by the Methodist Church, and traveled through the northern states carrying out his ministry.
In December, 1912, he was struggling with some sort of personal problem, which led him to reflect on Christ’s suffering on the cross. He later wrote, “I saw the Christ of the cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form, and act out the meaning of redemption.”
Bennard had already composed a tune, and his reflections on the cross led him to pen words to go with the tune. This took place in Albion, Michigan, where Bennard kept an apartment as a home base while conducting his evangelistic work. The community of Albion later erected a brass plaque in honor of that occasion. The plaque is still there today (2008)—on Michigan Avenue at College Court.
After completing the words, Bennard went to the home of his friends, Rev. and Mrs. L.O. Bostwick, where he sang the song for them, accompanied by his guitar. The Bostwicks were so taken by the song that they offered to pay the costs of printing it.
“The Old Rugged Cross” soon came to the attention of Homer Rodeheaver, the song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday, and Rodeheaver began using it in their evangelistic meetings. As a result, the song quickly became a favorite. Rodeheaver also had a publishing company, and paid Bennard $500 for the rights to the song. ($500 in 1913 equates to more than $10,000 in 2007—see http://www.westegg.com/inflation).
“The Old Rugged Cross” became so well known that it was consistently ranked the number one favorite hymn for several decades.
Bennard wrote many other songs, but this was the only one that became well-known. At some point he quipped, “I’ve been introduced as the author of ‘The Old Gray Mare,’ ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ and even ‘Rock of Ages;’ and even introduced as George Bennard Shaw, the English philosopher.”
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan