"The Old Rugged Cross" has appeared in countless hymnals since it was first published in 1915. This is "The Radio Hymnal," compiled by the Henry Field Seed Co. for Radio Station KFNF in Shenandoah and first printed in 1927.
It’s amazing what you can forget during a busy week.
Like there I was Saturday morning seated in a comfortably padded pew at the Albia Baptist Temple anticipating, after half an hour or so, the end of the funeral of a distant cousin who also was the mother of a friend.
The preacher had just completed an eloquent and moving tribute to the deceased, a good and much-loved soul whose eternal destination was not in question, and the gospel quartet had finished up a credible rendition of George Bennard’s classic, “The Old Rugged Cross.”
What I’d not anticipated, however, was the fact the song, rather than summation, was just a break in the preaching and that the main event lay ahead.
So it seemed like a good time to read the funeral program --- not that I intended to ignore the second half of the sermon. But the truth is that only one sermon (with slight variations) is delivered at all Baptist funerals when the preacher decides to pull out the stops. I’d been down the road that stops just short of altar call before and figured my attention could be elsewhere for a while without losing the theme.
I glanced down at the program and after trying to figure out which grandchild went with which daughter noted that the service was being held on Saturday, March 27, a date that seemed familiar. As well it should. It was my birthday. Hmmm.
Like nearly everyone else born in Lucas County from the 1930s through the 1950s, I was delivered at Yocom Hospital by Dr. Albert Yocom himself. Since it had been an early spring in 1946, my paternal grandfather appeared shortly thereafter with a bouquet of violets and other wildflowers he had gathered in the woods. Wouldn’t have happened this year.
After getting home, there were phone calls and other pleasantries and I didn’t feel neglected at all, only mildly sheepish about going through the week without thinking once of the impending anniversary.
Speaking of “The Old Rugged Cross,” there’s a big sign at the south entrance of Albia --- noted again as I drove into town Saturday morning --- that makes a big deal out of the fact its composer, George Bennard, once lived there.
When it comes right down to it, however, Lucas County probably has the better claim to Bennard as a native son, but you’ve got to hand it to Albia for putting up the sign while Lucas County just kind of ignores the whole thing (although George is noted briefly on the Web site of the John L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining and Labor at Lucas).
So here’s the deal.
Bennard (left), whose father was George Bennard Sr., was born Feb. 4, 1873, in Ohio. His mother’s name frequently is given as Margaret Russell, but she appears in the 1870, 1880 and 1885 census records of Ohio and Iowa as Christina, also a native of Scotland.
George Sr., who was a miner, is listed as a steerage passenger from Glasgow to New York aboard the good ship Iowa, arriving on the 7th of June 1869. It seems likely his family arrived a few months later since the reunited Bennards, George, Christina, and daughters Christina, 10, and Jane, 2, both born in Scotland, were living in Weathersfield, Trumbull County, Ohio, when the 1870 federal census was taken. George’s occupation was given as coal miner. George Jr.’s birthplace, when he came along three years later, usually is given as Youngstown.
By 1880, the family had arrived in Albia after apparently following the mining trade first into Pennsylvania for a few years and then west. Their daughters Agnes, born ca. 1875, and Margaret, born ca. 1877, both were born in Pennsylvania. While living in Albia, the final Bennard child, a daughter named Mary, was born ca. 1880-81.
The 1880 census of Monroe County gives George Sr.’s occupation as grocer, however, so he apparently had been able to work his way out of mines and into a less taxing and less dangerous line of work.
Very soon after 1880, the Bennard family came west to Lucas in Lucas County, then with its adjacent twin Cleveland jewels in the crown of Iowa’s coal mining industry. George opened a saloon in Lucas and moved his family into a house adjacent to it. He was in business in Lucas by the 22nd of February 1882 when The Chariton Patriot reported his arrest for providing liquor to an habitual drunkard.
Disaster struck the Bennards a year later, during February of 1883, when a fire destroyed both the family saloon and home in Lucas.
That fire forced George Sr. back into the mines and led to his death seven years later, during Feburary of 1890, of injuries sustained in a mining accident. The Chariton Herald of Feb. 13, 1890, reported that George Sr. had been buried in the Cleveland Cemetery, now known as Fry Hill and high above the ghost town of Cleveland, but there is no marked grave for him there. It seems unlikely the Bennards could afford a tombstone.
The death of George Bennard Sr. left George Jr., whose occupation in 1885 when he was 12 or 13 was given as trapper, as the sole support of his mother and younger sister and he reportedly went into the mines to provide income for them. He would have been 17 at the time.
At some point, and there are differing versions of the story, young George became aware of his calling to the ministry during a Salvation Army revival meeting. By some accounts this happened in Lucas.
It may also have happened, however, at Canton in Fulton County, Illinois (not in Canton, Iowa, as sometimes is stated), where the family moved not long after George Sr. died. The Bennards apparently located in the little Fulton County mining town of Dumfermline, named after a counterpart in Scotland.
George met Araminta Beeler in Fulton County and they were married there on Feb. 25, 1894. Both enlisted in and served for a time in the Salvation Army, then resigned so that George could enter a different sort of evangelistic ministry. He was ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church and devoted the remainder of his life to evangelism, music and the composing of gospel songs.
George wrote the first verse of “The Old Rugged Cross” in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912 and completed it in time for its first public performance in Pokagon, Michigan, during June of 1913. Although Bennard wrote both the tune and the words, the renowned Charles H. Gabriel helped out with the harmonies.
First published in 1915, the song became widely known and wildly popular in large part because of another Iowa native son, the evangelist Billy Sunday.
Bennard, who died at 85 in 1958, wrote hundreds of other hymns, but “The Old Rugged Cross” is the one that stuck. It’s probably the most widely known and perhaps the best-loved hymn out there.
That doesn’t mean it’s universally admired. It’s often dismissed as hokey and overly-sentimental, won’t be found in high-church hymnals including that of The Episcopal Church and is frequently called theologically naïve or unsound by those who fuss about such things.
But my Lord that song has power --- and has been known to move grownups, including me, to tears without even trying.
John L. Lewis of United Mine Workers fame and a god in the organized labor pantheon, gets most of the glory out at Lucas and deservedly so. He was, after all, a true native son --- born in that ghost town Cleveland --- and of great historical significance. But I think George Bennard deserves a sign, too.