Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Albion Recorder, 13 April 1998, pg. 4-A
With yesterday being Easter Sunday, we are reminded of our religious heritage here in Albion. The historical influence of the Methodist Church and Albion College have left its mark on our community. Numerous prominent Methodist clergymen have lived here during our history.
One such person was Rev. George Bennard (1873-1958), a traveling Methodist evangelist during the early 20th century. In 1912 Rev. Bennard lived in an apartment at the home of Professor Delos Fall (formerly the Andrew Mason Fitch house), 1101 E. Michigan Avenue. It was here in the kitchen are that Bennard penned the first verse and chorus of one of the greatest hymns of the Christian church-- "The Old Rugged Cross." The house later became the Delta Tau Delta fraternity for many years. But alas, as was the case with a number of prominent historic structures in the vicinity of a nearby educational institution, the house was demolished in the 1960s.
The hymn was first sung publicly at revival meetings Bennard was conducting in Pokagon, Michigan (near Niles). It was picked up by evangelist Billy Sunday and his song leader Homer Rodeheaver and became a hit nationwide. The hymn did not make Rev. Bennard rich, however. He sold the rights to the Rodeheaver Company of Winona Lake, Indiana for $500, and the copyright was renewed years later for $5,000. Bennard also wrote numerous other gospel songs, but none matched the success of "The Old Rugged Cross."
Bennard once 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."
Bennard conducted evangelistic services throughout the country during his lifetime, including here in Albion. While not traveling, Rev. Bennard made his home in Albion during the 1930s and 1940s, living at such places as the Parker Inn, and at 412 N. Superior St. He operated his Bennard Music Company and gospel tract company in downtown Albion at 108 W. Porter St. in the rear of the Art Craft Press, presently the location of the Moose Lodge.
Rev. Bennard lived his retirement years in Reed City, Michigan, and died there in 1958. His last trip to Albion occurred in June 1958 just a few months before his death in October. He wrote a letter dated June 2 in which he again declared that "The Old Rugged Cross" had indeed had its beginnings in Albion (i.e. first verse and chorus), although he finished the rest of it up elsewhere during his travels. The original letter is now in the Local History Room at the Albion Public Library.
A "folksy" family yarn style story run by the Associated Press on May 9, 1994 claimed that a Seth Palmer, "a mother’s second cousin" wrote the words to the hymn during the summer of 1912 up at a Wesleyan Church campgrounds in Osceola County at meetings where Bennard was the evangelist. The story, which did not mention Albion, was published in numerous Michigan newspapers, including the Albion Recorder. The implication of the story was that Rev. Bennard stole the words to the hymn from Palmer, the latter of whom was supposedly inspired by "a cross on a hill later known as Pisgah Heights where a campground was located," southwest of Marion.
Rev. Bennard wrote in his 1958 letter, "Two or three places have erected a cross claiming that the song was written there, which of course is incorrect." The circumstances surrounding the writing of the hymn occurred here in Albion during a revival service Bennard was conducting. The hymn was written that same evening in the evangelist’s kitchen, and Rev. Bennard played it on his guitar off of his handwritten pencil copy. Later that same week he sang it to some friends in Pokagon.
In 1988, three crosses made of telephone poles were erected on the site of the old Delta house by Rev. Bernard Coffindaffer (1925-1993) of West Virginia, who erected numerous "Crosses of Mercy" throughout the United States. While it was an honorable thought to erect crosses on the site where "The Old Rugged Cross" was written, "The Old Rugged Telephone Pole" just doesn’t seem appropriate, does it? Two of the crosses were pained yellow, the center one being blue. Historically speaking, I don’t think the very original crosses were stained with anything, except by blood, and surely not with yellow and blue latex paint. Anyway, our local "crosses" were removed after being sawn down once, replaced, and then permanently removed after being up for about a year.
A well-weathered and faded State of Michigan Historic Site marker (could it be repainted?) sits in front of 1101 E. Michigan Avenue today, declaring that it was indeed here that "The Old Rugged Cross" was written. This week we present a photograph of Rev. George Bennard, and the house where this great hymn of the church was written. This internet version also contains a photograph of the marker.
Perhaps it would be fitting for our Albion churches to sing this great hymn this Sunday: "On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross: The emblem of suffering 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 old 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."
Rev. Bennard lived a life that today most of us couldn't comprehend. He chose to travel and evangalize as his calling. Today you'll find businessmen and women travelling staying in luxury accommodations with fine linens and luxury bath accessories. The Good Reverend was put up in homes around the country and in an apartment in Albion he penned the beginning of this hymn of significance. His story is inspiring on many levels and his connection with the area is a true source of pride for Albion.
Rev. George Bennard
All text copyright, 2013 © all rights reserved Frank Passic