Behind the Hymn Sunday: The Old Rugged Cross
The Old Rugged Cross is often requested during hymn sings. The message seems to be one that everyone can cling onto. Three
different sites claim to be the home of this well loved hymn.
The hymn was written by George Barnard, a minister ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Rev. Bernard began his ministry in the Salvation Army. While going through a difficult time in his own life, Rev. Bernard reflected on the significance of the cross. During the Christmas season of 1912 he began work on the melody that would become The Old Rugged Cross. Once he’d finished the melody, he began working on the lyrics in the kitchen of his rented home in Albion, Michigan.
He continued working on the lyrics when 1913 rolled around. He was still working on the lyrics when he preached a revival in Sturgeon Bay, Michigan. He said the “words were put on my heart in answer to my own special need.” The hymn was first performed at the final revival meeting on January 12, 1913. Upon completion of the Sturgeon Bay revival, Rev. Bernard immediately went to Pokagon, Michigan to preside over another revival. During this revival Rev. Bernard performed his newly written song. Later four members of First Methodist Episcopal Church performed song.
Rev. Bernard sent his new hymn to composer Charles Gabriel, who told him he’d definitely “hear from this song.” Charles Gabriel assisted Rev. Bernard with creating the melodies for the hymn. The Old Rugged Cross was first published in 1915. Homer Redeheaver and Virginia Asher were the first to record song in 1921.
Albion, Sturgeon Bay and Pokagon have all claimed to be the home of this song over the last one hundred years. In Albion, Michigan, the site near where Bernard’s lived is a historical marker that says “The Old Rugged Cross, one of the world’s best loved hymns, was composed here in 1912…” The Friends Community Church in Sturgeon Bay has a garden with a cross on it to commemorate the first singing of the hymn. Pokagon has a garden and historical marker claiming to be the birthplace.
Rev. Bernard retired to Reed City, Michigan where they have a museum dedicated to his life and ministry. Over the last century a number of artists have recorded the popular hymn.