It’s time to chalk up another item to the list in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, so I’ve selected a fairly well-known hymn, which I thought I’d be out of this deep into the series. I didn’t actually realize how many familiar hymns are rattling around in my brain.
Augustus Montague Toplady was born in Farnham, Surrey, England in November 1740. His father, Richard, became a commissioned officer in the Royal Marines in 1739 and had reached the rank of major. In May 1741 (shortly after Augustus’ birth) when he participated in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, the most significant battle of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, where he died (most likely of yellow fever), leaving Augustus’ mother to raise the boy alone.
Augustus’ mother, Catherine, moved with him from Farnham to Westminster, where Augustus attended the Westminster School. In 1755, Catherine and Augustus moved to Ireland, and Augustus was enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin. Following his graduation, Toplady returned to Westminster, where he met and was influenced by several prominent Calvinist ministers, including George Whitefield, John Gill, and William Romaine. Toplady never married, but became an Anglican priest and eventually died of tuberculosis on 11 August 1778. He was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road.
In 1771, he wrote the lyrics to “Rock of Ages,” which was set to music in 1830. Toplady was a noted Calvinist in his day, entering the controversy between that and the Armenian camp in his writings, which included published books on the subject and a “protracted pamphlet debate” with John Wesley. The relationship between Toplady and Wesley that had initially been cordial, involving exchanges of letters in Toplady’s Arminian days, became increasingly bitter and reached its nadir with the “Zanchy affair” which began with Toplady’s translation of a work by Zanchius on predestination. A battle ensued, with Wesley publishing an abridgment of it, including the words, “The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate will be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand”. Toplady was enraged when these comments became attributed to him as if they reflected his own view. Wesley did not respond to Toplady’s open letter of response, and later attributed his comments to Toplady. He avoided direct interaction with Toplady, “famously stating in a letter of June 24 1770 that ‘I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers. I read his title-page, and troubled myself no farther. I leave him to Mr. Sellon. He cannot be in better hands.'” Given this background, some have seen the hymn as “a criticism of the theology of John Wesley and the early Methodists, citing the line, ‘Thou must save, and Thou alone’.”
According to a famous but largely unsubstantiated story, Rev. Toplady drew his inspiration from an incident in the famous gorge of Burrington Combe, a Mendip gorge close to Cheddar Gorge in England. Toplady, a preacher in the nearby village of Blagdon, was travelling along the gorge when he was caught in a storm. Finding shelter in a gap in the gorge, he was struck by the title and scribbled down the initial lyrics on a playing card. The fissure that is believed to have sheltered Toplady is now marked as the ‘Rock of Ages’, both on the rock itself and on some maps, and is also reflected in the name of a nearby tea shop.
Of course, we fully understand that the “Rock of Ages” of which Toplady wrote is not the literal rock… and the hymn has been a comfort to many, being played by request upon the deathbeds of Prince Albert and J.E.B. Stuart. Naturally, all of this was unknown to me in my youth, when I simply puzzed over some of the words in the hymn. As I grew older and understood them better, of course the hymn became more meaningful to me as well.
Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, else I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.