Clouds gathered in dull, gray heaps around Burrington Combe and broke their silence. Rain slicked down the crevices of the gorge and pooled along the steep path. The man quickened his pace, slogging through water and mud, hoping to escape the ferocity of the storm. He slid his hand along the rough edge of the limestone slope and suddenly found it – a deep crevice. Here he turned and squeezed himself between the narrow walls away from the raging wind and rain. He would wait out the storm, sheltered by the rock.
As the elements lashed around the man, he called to mind the greatness of the God he served, how like a rock He protected His people throughout their sojourn in a barren and hostile wilderness. Thought followed thought, and words heaped up like the clouds until the young man could no longer contain himself.
Finding the only thing he could to write on – an old playing card – Augustus Toplady scribbled “Rock of Ages,” and one of the church’s most beloved hymns was born. Or so the legend goes.
Augustus Toplady was born in 1740 in Surrey to Francis Toplady, an army officer, and Catherine Bates, the daughter of a clergyman. When Augustus was a small child, his father died overseas while fighting in the War of Jenkins’s Ear, leaving the young widow to care for her only child.
In 1756, Toplady found himself in a County Cork barn, listening to a Methodist lay preacher. The text was Ephesians 2:13, “Ye who were sometimes afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”
Toplady marks that day as the day of his conversion writing, “Under that sermon, I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ in August 1756. Strange that I, who had so long sat under means of grace in England, should be brought nigh unto God in an obscure part of Ireland, amid a handful of God’s people met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name!”
Toplady never married. Rather, he spent the early years of his ministry in rural Devonshire parishes. Much of his time was consumed in the seemingly mundane work of preparing sermons, visiting the sick and infirm and performing other pastoral duties.
Toplady’s journals and letters offer readers a further glimpse into the heart and life of a pastor. He candidly shares both moments of great discouragement and great spiritual blessing, often breaking out into sighs over his sins or praise for God’s comfort and mercy.
Many entries intertwine Toplady’s great love for the attributes of God with the events of his daily life. On one occasion, Toplady and a friend were walking along a country lane when they saw a grey wisp of smoke rising in the distance – it was Toplady’s home, his large collection of books and sermons, the tools and delights of his ministry, dissolved into ashen heaps.
Toplady, normally a self-admittedly nervous wreck, was not shaken. He was so confident in God’s “providence and grace” that he spent the night in a friend’s home “not only in a comfortable, but even in a rejoicing frame of mind” and confessed that he’d never slept better!
Toplady is almost as famous for being a bitter opponent of John Wesley and his Methodism as he is for “Rock of Ages.”
In 1768, six students were expelled from St. Edmunds Hall at Oxford College for a host of formal charges ranging from being low born to “holding the doctrines of Election, Perseverance, Justification by Faith alone without works, and that we can do nothing without the Spirit of God.”
The expulsion caused somewhat of a scandal in the ecclesiastical community, and finger pointing abounded. When Dr. Nowell, a Church of England minister, defended the university’s decision, claiming that the church was more in line with Methodism than many would like to admit, Toplady couldn’t let such an accusation stand against the church. In 1769, he set out to defend the Church of England’s Calvinistic history and doctrine, publishing an open letter to Dr. Nowell titled “The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism.” Five years later Toplady followed up with his more exhaustive work, “Historical Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England,” a work which some say “has never been refuted.” And with that, Toplady placed himself squarely in the middle of one of the biggest doctrinal disputes of the latter half of the 18th century.
Ten years earlier, however, Toplady had unwittingly begun his trek into controversial territory by translating Jerome Zanchius’s “The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted” into English, but refrained from publishing until after his involvement with the Arminian debate erupted.
Wesley, a staunch opponent of the Calvinistic doctrines of grace, latched onto Toplady’s translation of Zanchius’s work and wrote his own truncated version of it – complete with misquotes and snide parenthetical comments meant to disparage the doctrines of predestination and reprobation – and signed the cheaply produced pamphlet with Augustus Toplady’s initials.
Toplady was offended. There ensued a bitter, public debate over Wesley’s methods and Toplady’s harshness. Toplady fired multiple volleys at Wesley, asking him to publicly admit his quasi-plagiarism, and made it one of his chief missions to inform the church at large about the doctrines of grace he held so dear.
Wesley was, at least on the surface of things, a surprisingly mute target. When a friend asked Wesley if he was planning to respond to Toplady’s accusations, Wesley replied that he would “not fight with chimney sweeps.”
Later biographers of Toplady, including Bishop J.C. Ryle, recognize that while Toplady’s cause was commendable, his methods (his harsh name-calling, for instance) were perhaps to be questioned.
Ryle writes: “While, however, I claim for Toplady’s controversial writings the merit of soundness and ability, I must with sorrow admit that I cannot praise his spirit and language when speaking of his opponents. I am obliged to confess that he often uses expressions about them so violent and so bitter, that one feels perfectly ashamed. Never, I regret to say, did an advocate of truth appear to me so entirely to forget the text, ‘In meekness instructing that oppose themselves,’ as the vicar of Broad Hembury. Arminianism seems to have precisely the same effect on him that a scarlet cloak seems to have on a bull.”
To focus primarily on the disputes of Toplady’s life would indeed be a lopsided portrait of a sanctified, but not sinless, man. Toplady’s collected writings boast not only powerful sermons, but biographies of the saints, humorous anecdotes, familiar essays on such things as meteors and highwaymen, intimate, tender letters to friends, pamphlets defending the faith and perhaps most significantly, hymns. And these hymns were likely born in the quiet chamber of Toplady’s prayer closet.
Consider this prayer, a confession made with words reminiscent of his famous song: “My faith was weak, and my comfort small, this whole day; especially in the evening. Yet, this is my rock of dependence, that the foundation of the Lord standeth sure; his love is unchangeable; his purpose according to election, cannot be overthrown; his covenant is from everlasting to everlasting; and he girdeth me when I know it not.”
Toplady wrote over 100 hymns, but just a few are still in use today.
Ryle writes: “Of all the English hymn-writers, none perhaps, have succeeded so thoroughly in combining truth, poetry, life, warmth, fire, solemnity and unction as Toplady has. I pity the man who does not know, or, knowing, does not admire those glorious hymns of his beginning, ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me;’ or, ‘Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness;’ or, ‘A debtor to mercy alone;’ or, ‘Your harps, ye trembling saints;’ or, ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies;’ or, ‘When languor and disease invade;’ or, ‘Deathless principle, arise.’ The writer of these seven hymns alone has laid the church under perpetual obligations to him.”
Bishop Ryle reminds observers of Toplady’s life that the “best saints of God are neither so very good, nor the faultliest so very faulty, as they appear … the holiest among us all is a very poor mixed creature!”