The Old Rugged Cross

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:17-19.


Cross (n): An upright post with a transverse piece near the top, on which condemned persons were executed in ancient times…

 A little while ago, my pastor preached a sermon about the cross. It stuck with me because she talked about how an instrument of torture has been made into a trinket. I own several cross necklaces and as a Lenten practice I have been wearing one of them daily as a reminder to me of Christ’s suffering on the cross. But really, would I wear a little gold electric chair? A silver guillotine? It’s a little weird, isn’t it?

The cross is a powerful symbol for Christians – whether it’s a crucifix, with Jesus nailed to it as you see in our blog’s banner, or an empty cross, reminding us that Jesus overcame death – that simple shape expresses a complex understanding of redemption, atonement, forgiveness, grace… all these things are wrapped up in that brutal instrument of torture.

So how did that become trivialized or sentimentalized? Wearing a cross in North America doesn’t even necessarily identify you as a Christian, it’s simply a fashion item (although I doubt that’s true of crufixes, which tend to have a strong Catholic identification.) Has pop culture hijacked this symbol and watered down its meaning?

I wonder if songs like “The Old Rugged Cross” contribute to that sentimentalization. My first reaction to us singing this song was “really?” – because, honestly, it’s not my favourite tune. And I do mean ‘tune’; it has that schmaltzy, old-time gospel feel to it, which is okay sometimes. I guess. I’ve been sitting with this text for a few weeks now and its background materials and I think I’ve come to appreciate it for what it is: a man’s sincere, heartfelt expression of what Jesus did for him personally. It’s a deeply personal song.


In that 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.


The author, George Bennard, became a Christian at a Salvation Army meeting. He and his wife served in the Salvation Army before he became a Methodist evangelist. He wrote the song in 1912 and it was sung during evangelistic campaigns all across America. It was recorded for the first time in June 1921. It’s been recorded by everyone from Tennesee Ernie Ford to Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash. Clearly, this song speaks to people’s experience of salvation and gives language to a very personal understanding of Jesus sacrifice. For George, it was less about the actual old, rugged cross and all about what transpired on it that turned the instrument of torture into something beautiful and precious.


You’ll hear echoes of the original tune when we perform it on Good Friday. It was originally written in ¾ time – a waltz, really – and we’ve remained true to its dance-like origins. The dance is just a little bluesier…

So how about you? What does the cross symbolizes for you, personally?


2 responses to “The Old Rugged Cross

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