Methodist evangelist George Bennard wrote this classic hymn over a long period of time as he traveled to revival meetings. "I seemed to have a vision... I saw the Christ and the cross inseparable," he wrote in his memoirs.
The melody came easily to Bennard, but the words took him longer. The evangelist wrote the first verse in Albion, Michigan, in the fall of 1912 as a response to ridicule that he had received at a revival meeting. He completed the refrain and other three verses in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin where he was holding some evangelistic gatherings between December 29, 1912 to January 12, 1913.
Published in 1915, the gospel song was popularized by Billy Sunday during his evangelistic campaigns and nationally broadcast radio show. Two members of his campaign staff, Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher, are thought to be the first to record the tune in 1921.
The hymn has been a country gospel favorite ever since it became the title song of Ernest Tubb's 1952 gospel album. Johnny Cash was such a fan, he recorded four different versions on the albums: Sings Precious Memories, Sings with the BC Goodpasture Christian School, Believe in Him (as a duet with Jessi Colter) and Return to the Promised Land (as a duet with June Carter Cash).
Other artists that have recorded this gospel song include (takes a deep breath) Al Green, Anne Murray, Brad Paisley, Chet Atkins, George Jones, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Alan Jackson.
British television dramatist Dennis Potter has used the gospel song prominently in several of his plays, most notably in his 1978 production Pennies from Heaven.