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There is, in a church we've been attending, a fairly significant chunk of history in the pew, two versions of the denomination's Psalter Hymnal. I don't know why exactly. One could speculate a sweet answer, that the old one, the blue one, contains some favorites no one wanted to lose when the new one passed them by. But the truth, at least in the history of the denomination I'm a part of, is probably less generous and more plain stubborn--some people, doggone it, wanted no part of change.

Still, yesterday, when we sang "The Old Rugged Cross," a hymn that must rank among the most popular of the 20th century, the pastor had to import it into the bulletin because neither Psalter had it. Weird, I thought. I wonder why not?

To that question, there is an answer, I'm sure, and there may be a good one, even if it's not sweet. The denomination of which I'm a part has a powerful history of musical censorship. In fact, the Christian Reformed Church cut its teeth on policing church music, that penchant running all the way back, at least, to 1619 in the Netherlands at the Synod of Dort.

Now there are two views of history, of course. One belongs to Henry Ford ("history is more or less bunk") and the other to William Faulkner ("history is not was, it is"). Choose your weapon. But when the lyrics of "The Old Rugged Cross" got itself printed in the order of worship because that immensely beloved old favorite wasn't in a half century of CRC hymnody, I couldn't help wonder why.

Hang on. Pure speculation follows.

Theory One (theological): The hymn essentially worships the cross, worships the suffering of Jesus, worships the horror, not the ecstacy of the resurrection. That, some would say, is misplaced worship.

Theory Two (also theological): The hymn promises a species of work righteousness. Someday, we'll exchange this fetish-istic "old rugged cross" for a heavenly crown, which is to say, we'll cash in our chips for piece of our own salvation. Redemption seems somehow related to our treasuring a cross dearly enough to merit eventually exchanging our holy piety for salvation.

Theory Three (theological and historical): This old favorite offers a view of heaven and earth that is thoroughly "American evangelical," but not particularly Reformed (for better or for worse), a view encapsulated in the phrase "to a home far away," which is perfectly normal to some Christians but unsatisfactorily "other worldly" to others, Platonic in origins. You know--what goes on in this life is horror so let's all wish for heaven. That sort of thing. Unreformed.

Theory Four (historical): Something in the hymn's character feels, well, vaguely Roman Catholic, in that among the Roman Catholics, historically at least, there existed what some Protestants undoubtedly felt was a unnecessary and even somewhat masochistic desire to emulate Christ's suffering to, once again, earn salvation (think Luther down on his scraped and bloody knees). Somewhere along the line, early 20th century, among thorough-going Protestants such as those who created the earliest Psalter Hymnal, there existed an richly furnished anti-Papist vein. Clinging to the old rugged cross felt, well, unhealthily cultic , sort of, you know, Central American.

Theory Five (geographical): The man who composed the hymn did so just down the road from Holland and Grand Rapids, MI. In fact, the church where it was first performed in 1913 (you read that right--it's exactly a century old this June) stands there yet today, a west Michigan landmark, complete with museum. George Bennard was a Methodist preacher with a Salvation Army background, preaching the Word at miniscule revival in tiny frame church in a little town named Pokagon. I'm speculating here too, of course, but what I'm blindly asserting is that we may well save our deepest animosities for those with whom we live. Maybe if Bennard was from, say, southern Ohio, "The Old Rugged Cross" would be in the hymnals.

I don't know, but that's all I can come up with. If I was a real historian, I'd do the research and find out, but I'm retired and neither am I a theologian.

Anyway, the bottom line is, even though it wasn't in either Psalter, yesterday in morning worship that old classic hymn got sung and it got sung heartily. Somewhere, I'm sure, some highbrow theologian was wincing in his grave.

I can't speak for everyone who was there, but I honestly think I'm no worse for the wear.

Look, for that old hymn I can log some reservations myself, but this morning I'll offer morning thanks for a hymn that may well be more than a little sentimental but that has for exactly 100 years been a treasure for millions and millions of believers.  


From what I remember hearing from years past, the song "The Old Ruggest Cross" is simply unbiblical. Where is there even in a hint in the Bible that we will each exchange the cross of Christ for a crown in heaven? If the song said we will put aside the cross we all must bear (Mark 8:34) because our sufferings will be over, that would be biblical. And, yes, we will receive a crown of glory. But according to the words of the song, it is the old rugged cross of Christ that we will exchange. I personally am not even sure what the theology of that is. (I do love the concept, however, of focusing on the cross of Christ and what he has done for us.

Doctrines are important, but sometimes we over doctrinalize, and that prevents us from appreciating the nuances of various expressions.  In this song, I think it is simple... we presently cling to the cross as a symbol and reality of our need for forgiveness, and of God's love in forgiving.  But we will exchange that thought, that memory, that need, for the reality of victory and new life with Christ, the crown of new life that doesn't fade away, and that will make our forgiven sin a distant, vague, perhaps unremembered past.  As I see it, anyway.  

To begin with, the old Psalter, before 1936, was just that, only the Geneva Psalters. The CRC didn't sing hymns before that, or at least weren't supposed to. It was somewhere in this time period of the mid thirties that hymns were offically allowed in our churches. Also, because George Bennard was a Methodist preacher with a Salvation Army background this alone would automatically have raised all sorts of alarms in our Reformed movement no matter how great a hymn writer he may have been.


One thing seems clear from church history, namely, that more theology is taught by songs than by stuffy theology books. Think of the huge impact of the Wesley hymns. I am not sure we can ignore or downplay the potential doctrinal impact of the songs we sing. They bury themselves deep into our souls and shape the way we think about God, ourselves, and the world. Just a thought.

We pride ouselves on being facidious about our theology (sometimes more so in our hymns than in our sermons), but if the cook is so carefull about having only the purest and healthiest ingredients in the meal that half of the family members leave to eat at McDonalds, haven't we defeated the purpose? Those abandoned Psalters (in the pew rack next to a non-denomintional alternative, or worse -- stacked in the basement) ought to tell us something.

There is more to be gained from actually looking at a particular song, than there is from making broad generalizations about song selection for hymnals.   Some of the benefits of some songs depends on the attitude with which we sing them, and then realizing that some songs only express a small incomplete part of our theology.   Balancing songs with each other is as important as selecting an individual song by itself, I believe.   I always think of certain psalms of David for example, which if taken by themselves, would seem to directly contradict some of the statements and advice given to us by Christ himself.   If they had been written by someone else, we would have considered them to be theologically incorrect.   Yet, they are scripture, and true, in the right context. 

Great perspective. Worship through music, with a congregation, has often made me feel as though we are somehow tasting  a bit of what heaven might be like, especially with some of these old classic hymns. I like to believe that God is listening to our hearts, not to our imperfect human words.

My mother always said the the Christian Reformed version of the last line is: "And receive from him one day a crown." Only heathens would consider singing about exchanging the cross for the crown. A warning!! Do not argue with my mother.

John Zylstra on March 20, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not that I would argue with your mother, but heathens would not be singing.   They would not cling to the cross, and they will not be able to exchange it either. 

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