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George Bennard, was a native of Youngstown, Ohio but was reared in Iowa. After his conversion in a Salvation Army meeting, he and his wife became brigade leaders before leaving the organization for the Methodist Church. As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard wrote the first verse of the gospel song, "The Old Rugged Cross" in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912. Charles H. Gabriel, a well-known gospel-song composer helped Bennard with the harmonies. The completed version was first performed on June 7th, 1913, by a choir of five, accompanied by a guitar in Pokagon, Michigan. Published in 1915, the song was popularized during Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns by two members of his campaign staff, Homer Rodeheaver (who bought rights to the song for $500) and Virginia Asher, who were perhaps also the first to record it in 1921. The Old Rugged Cross uses a sentimental popular song form with a verse/chorus pattern in 3/4 time, and it speaks of the writer's Christian experience rather than his adoration of God. Bennard retired to Reed City, Michigan, and the town maintains a museum dedicated to his life and ministry.
"The Old Rugged Cross" remains enormously popular and has been performed by some of the twentieth century's most important recording artists, including: Al Green, Andy Griffith, Anne Murray, Brad Paisley, Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley, Floyd Cramer, George Jones, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kevin Max, Mahalia Jackson, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Ricky Van Shelton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Statler Brothers, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, and George Beverly Shea. British television dramatist Dennis Potter has used the gospel song prominently in several of his plays, most notably Pennies from Heaven (1978); and the song also played a major part in "Gridlock" (2007), an episode of the long-running sci-fi drama series Doctor Who. In early 2009, the song was covered by Ronnie Milsap on his gospel album Then Sings My Soul.
In his art parody volume Art Afterpieces, Ward Kimball created a variation on the painting Expulsion from Paradise by the 15th-century artist Giovanni di Paolo, which shows God pointing at a large circle below Him. Kimball centered the record label of The Old Rugged Cross, as published by Victor, on the circle in the picture, complete with the trademark of Nipper (His Master's Voice).