Thornleigh Seventh-day Adventist Church (Sydney, Australia)

Home > Church Family > Sermon Summaries > 26 Aug 2006, Dr Barry Wright - The Old Rugged Cross

The Old Rugged Cross

26 Aug 2006, Dr Barry Wright

(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)

Communion Service

The Old Rugged Cross

In 1913 composer George Bernard completed the words and music of a very special hymn. American pollsters have since declared it to be one of America's top favourites by a very wide margin (Temple, 1961: 142). Of all twentieth century hymns, 'The Old Rugged Cross', which is seen as a gospel hymn, has become very dear to the hearts and minds of both secular and Christian audiences alike (Osbeck, 1982: 255).

George Bernard was born in Youngstown, Ohio, shortly after the American Civil War. His father, who was a coalminer by trade, later moved the family to Albia, Iowa and then to the little town of Lucas in the same state (Morgan, 2003: 275). It was in this place, following the death of his father, that young George met his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Salvation Army. He felt impressed to train for the ministry, but his father's early death disrupted these plans and he took up the responsibility of caring for his mother and sisters. He was not yet 16 years of age when he entered the Salvationist ranks and after his marriage to his first wife, who he met in Chicago, they both served as officers of that organization. Instead of theological school, he worked by day and devoted his spare time to books (Ibid).

It was during this period with the Salvation Army that Bernard learnt the power of a good melody and chorus associated with words that could be easily memorised (Temple: 1961: 142).

His desire for full time ministry was later realised after being ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became a highly esteemed travelling evangelist. For a lot of this time, as a Methodist minister, he was involved in conducting revival services, especially throughout the states of Michigan and New York.

On one occasion, after a difficult season of ministry where he passed through a number of trying experiences, he stopped to reflect seriously about the significance of the cross. George realized he needed to better understand the power of the cross (Morgan, 2003: 275). He was reminded of the Apostle Paul's statements about entering into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings and as he contemplated, read studied and prayed, he became convinced that the cross was more than just a religious symbol, but rather the very heart of the gospel story (Osbeck 1982: 255).  He later said that '…it was like seeing John 3: 16 leave the printed page, take form, and act out the meaning of redemption (Morgan, 2003:  275). 'For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.' While watching this scene with my mind's eye, he says, the theme of the song came to me.'

George Bernard has left the following account regarding the writing of this hymn. In summary he says that the inspiration came to him one day in 1913, when he was staying in Albion, Michigan and it was there that he began to write. While composing the melody first, he says the words that he first wrote were imperfect, but the words of the finished hymn were put into his heart in answer to his own need.

As he continued to preach throughout the Midwest, George would carry the words with him, working on them, polishing them, and sometimes singing them in his meetings. Wherever he went this very special hymn, struck home with all his audiences.

Shortly after writing this hymn George Bernard sent a manuscript copy to Charles Gabriel, one of the leading gospel hymn composers of that era. Gabriel prophesied that this hymn would be become one of the most popular in America in both the sacred and secular fields of music. This belief was very soon realised, as it became one of the most widely published songs of that time.

Bernard continued his evangelistic ministry for another forty years after the writing of this hymn and while he wrote many others, none ever reached the popular response of 'The Old Rugged Cross'

On October 9, 1958, at the age of eighty-five, Bernard literally exchanged his 'cross for a crown'.  He spent the last years of his life by the 'side of the road', a few miles north of Reed City, Michigan. Near his home there still stands a twelve foot high cross with the words 'The Old Rugged Cross' - Home of George Bernard, composer of this beloved hymn.

While we do not worship the cross as such, but rather the Christ of the cross, we need to recognise that one cannot contemplate the truths of Christ's atonement without a keen awareness of the centrality of the cross in God's plan of redemption for lost mankind.

We are reminded of this event in 1 Peter 2: 24 where he says 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.'

Let me share the words of this old hymn, as we meditate on the sacrifice God has made on our behalf. Listen to them carefully.

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.

So I will cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it one day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In the 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.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true,
It's shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He'll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I'll share.

So I will cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it one day for a crown.

In this simple, evangelical theology that John Wesley believed had all the accents of 'believers believing, George Bernard was not far from the heart of sound emotional religion in The Old Rugged Cross.

Today we have before us the symbols of Christ's sacrifice on that cross.

The Lord's Supper was ordained to keep fresh in the mind of the believer, the memory of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary. The message of the Cross is the gospel that Christ commanded to be preached to all, the truth as it is in Jesus (Matt 28: 19). However, before we take part in this beautiful and meaningful service this morning we are admonished to wash each other's feet in preparation for this communion, laying aside all bitterness of spirit in the fellowship of forgiveness. 'This foot washing service demonstrated Christ's love for His followers 'to the end'' (Ministerial Association, 1988: 198)..


Ellen White once affirmed that: 'As we behold the Lamb of God upon the cross of Calvary, the mystery of redemption begins to unfold to our minds and the goodness of God leads us to repentance. In dying for sinners, Christ manifested a love that is incomprehensible; and as the sinner beholds this love, it softens the heart, impresses the mind, and inspires contrition in the soul (White, 1908: 26,27).

The cross stands alone, a great centrepiece in the world (Nichol, 1956: 1138). It was God's plan to keep alive the powerful influence of the message of the cross. His divine purpose was to point to the work of redemption involving Christ's death, resurrection and His second coming.

So I will cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it one day for a crown.



Ministerial Association  (1988)  Seventh-day Adventists Believe - A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines. USA: Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Morgan, Robert J.  (2003)  Then Sings My Soul. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Nichol, F. D.  (1956)  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 5. Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association

Osbeck, K. W. (1982)  101 Hymn Stories. Michigan: Kregel Publications.

Temple, A.  (1961)  Hymns We Love - Stories of the Hundred Most Popular Hymns. London: Lutterworth Press.

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