Hymnspiration: Rock of Ages

HymnspirationLogoThe words of today’s hymn were written in 1763 by Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady and first published in The Gospel Magazine in 1775 or 1776.  Some believe the hymn was inspired after Toplady, while traveling and caught in a storm, sought refuge in a gorge in Burrington Combe, England – but no real proof exists and many historians doubt the validity of this “legend”.

AugustusTopladyAugustus Montague Toplady was born in Surrey, England on November 4, 1740 to parents Richard and Catherine Toplady.  It is thought that perhaps his father Richard was from Ireland and had entered the Royal Marines as a commissioned officer in 1739.  Richard, however, likely died of yellow fever during the Battle of Carthegena in 1741, leaving Catherine to raise her son alone.

Little is known about his early years, except that around 1755 Augustus and his mother moved to Ireland where he enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin.   In August of that year he was said to have heard Reverend James Morris, possibly a follower of Methodist John Wesley, preach a sermon.  At this time Augustus experienced his own personal conversion to Christ, marveling years later he wrote the following:

Strange that I, who had long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought right with God in an obscure part of Ireland, midst a handful of people met together in a barn, and by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name.  Surely it was the Lord’s doing and is marvellous.

There is some controversy over the theology that Toplady embraced.  Many believe that he initially followed the teachings of the Wesleys, but later renounced, even mocked, the Wesleys in favor of Calvinism, which it appears he embraced in the late 1750’s and held to the rest of his life.  In the book 101 Hymn Stories, author Kenneth W. Osbeck relates that Toplady and the Wesleys carried on “theological warfare” via public debates, sermons and pamphlets.

Referring to John Wesley, Toplady once had this to say:

I believe him to be the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this Island . . . Wesley is guilty of Satanic shamelessness . . . of uniting the sophistry of a Jesuit with the authority of a pope. (101 Hymn Stories)

Ouch!  John Wesley countered with the following: “I dare not speak of the deep things of God in the spirit of a prize fighter or a stage player, and I not fight with chimney sweeps.”

Several years after the hymn was written by Toplady, it was published in The Gospel Magazine.  He linked it to the subject of England’s national debt, concluding his article with the hymn to “prove his argument that even as England could never pay her national debt, so man through his own efforts could never satisfy the eternal justice of a holy God.”  The hymn at that time was entitled “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World” (101 Hymn Stories).

Osbeck believed that even the words Toplady penned constituted more mocking – “satirical swipes” he called them – of the Wesleys’ teachings.  As he explained:

Some of the expressions in Toplady’s hymn text are quite obviously satirical swipes at such Wesleyan teachings as the need for contrite and remorseful repentance and the Arminian concept of sanctification – the belief that it is possible for any believer to live without consciously sinning and thereby to find the promised “rest,” the state of moral perfection as described in Hebrews 4:9.  Note Toplady’s rebuttal in the second stanza:

Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

I noticed that there seems to be more than one version of the hymn, so through the years some of the words have likely been modified to a certain extent (some versions have four stanzas).  Here is one three-stanza version:

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

Augustus Toplady never married and by all accounts was a forceful and zealous preacher of the Gospel, firm in his Calvinist beliefs until the end.  He contracted tuberculosis at age thirty-eight and died on August 11, 1778.  The hymn is most often sung today to the tune of “Toplady”, so named in honor of the lyricist, composed by Thomas Hastings in 1830.

ThomasHastingsThomas Hastings was born on October 15, 1784 in Washington, Connecticut.  Born an albino, Hastings suffered eye problems most of his life, yet managed to become a prolific composer and hymn writer.  Although he had little formal musical training, perhaps just naturally gifted, Hastings received an honorary Doctor of Music in 1858 from the University of the City of New York.

Thomas Hastings is credited with being one of the most influential people who helped develop church music in the United States.  He also compiled and published several hymnals and edited the Musical Magazine.  Thomas Hastings died on May 15, 1872.

Rock of Ages has long been regarded as one of the most popular hymns ever written.  As Osbeck concludes in the hymn’s chapter:

It is encouraging to realize that, despite the original belligerent intent behind this text, God in His providence has chosen to preserve this hymn for the past two hundred years so that congregations of both Calvinistic and Arminian theological persuasion can sing this hymn with spiritual profit and blessing.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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