SHELTERING IN THE ROCK
A Glimpse at Toplady and His Most Famous Hymn
In this article I want to consider three things: 1. The Life of Augustus Montague Toplady; 2. The origin of Toplady’s hymn Rock of Ages; and 3. The Scripture basis upon which the hymn was written.
Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham in Surrey on 4th November 1740. His father, Major Toplady died in May 1741 of yellow fever at the siege of Cartagena. Toplady was baptised at Farnham Church on the 29th November of that year. We can pass over his childhood for there is little of importance for us to note with the exception of an entry in a childhood diary which has survived. He writes on Sunday 27th January, 1754 that he went to St Martin’s church and heard a sermon from Dr Pearce, the then Bishop of Bangor and he records, "The only good thing in it was when he said, ‘to conclude.’"
He entered Trinity College Dublin in July 1755. His poetic genius was early exhibited for a poem of his was published in The London Magazine in March 1756. This poem was written to a friend who had asked him what God was. It is dated Tuesday, November 23rd, 1755. Remember, this poem was written before he made any profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and also remember, that The London Magazine was a very fashionable newspaper which circulated in the higher echelons of society at that time. The editor must have considered that here was a prodigy.
Is there a man, whose daring hand
Can number every grain of sand?
Can count the drops that fill the sea?
And tell how many stars there be?
Who shall presume to comprehend
Infinity, that knows no end?
Who shall set bounds to boundless power,
Restrain Omnipotence, or lower
Eternity to one poor hour?
Who shall disclose his Maker’s plan,
Or dare his secret will to scan?
Shall feeble, short-lived, sordid man?
Believe me, friend, thou canst no more
The vast designs of God explore.
Than thy short arm can reach the sky,
Or turn the spacious ocean dry.
None but perfection such as His
Can know the Almighty as he is;
His searchless glory can’t be brought
Adapted to a mortal’s thought;
His majesty we can’t discern,
His attributes we cannot learn,
Till He removes the fleshy glass,
And shows His glory face to face.
Vain is the wisdom, vain the skill,
That strives to take away the veil;
That searches every mystery,
While clouded with mortality.
God is a theme too great for thought;
An awful something, who knows what?
Be silent, and submit to show
Respect to what thou can’st not know.
Remember what thou art; and fear
This unknown witness, always near.
Search not into His deep decree!
The subject’s too refined for thee;
Thou must not ask, nor wish to see.
Cast each presumptuous doubt away;
Consider thou art at best but clay,
Whose only province is to obey.
Whilst there is much to commend itself in those verses, it is completely devoid of any hope in Christ and Toplady tells us that
God is a theme too great for thought;
An awful something, who knows what?
At that time he was completely ignorant of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That experience of Christ, however was soon to be known and felt. He tells us that in August 1756 he was visiting his mother’s estate in County Wexford where he went to a preaching service held in a barn and heard one James Morris who preached on the text from Ephesians 2:13, "Ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ." In contrast to the sermon by Dr Pearce he wrote of James Morris’s sermon:
That sweet text, Ephesians 2:13, was particularly delightful and refreshing to my soul; and the more so, as it reminded me of the days and months that are past, even the day of my sensible espousals to the bridegroom of the elect. It was from that passage that Mr. Morris preached on that memorable evening of my effectual call by the grace of God. Under the ministry of that dear messenger, and by that sermon, I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ, in Aug 1756. Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of God*s people, met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one, who could hardly spell his name! Surely it was the Lord*s doing and it was marvellous! The excellency of such power must be of God, and cannot be of man. The regenerating Spirit breathes not only on whom, but likewise when, where, and as he listeth.
[Toplady was incorrect in his opinion of James Morris - he knew more that Toplady gave him credit for. He had become firstly a Methodist preacher in 1752 and later in life, after restoration from a period of spiritual declension, appears to have become, according to John Ryland, a Baptist minister. We do not have space to consider any further Toplady’s relationship with James Morris, Toplady’s correspondence with Morris and Morris’s further ministry].
Whilst at Dublin Toplady worshipped with the Dissenters and took communion in the Church of England. He considered he was justified in not attending the parish church because the minister had no sympathy with the Evangelical Awakening. It was whilst he was in Dublin that he published his first volume of poetry. This had the interesting title of Poems on Sacred Subjects, wherein the Fundamental Doctrines of Christianity with many other interesting points are occasionally introduced written between fifteen and eighteen years of age. J C Philpot wrote of this book:
How a youth of eighteen could pour out such simple easy, thoroughly original, and yet at times sublime, verses, so pure in thought and language, so rich in experience, and so imbued with the unction and savour of the Holy Ghost, is indeed marvellous. Some of his compositions will live, as long as there is a people of God on earth, such as "Rock of Ages," "Happiness, thou lovely name," "A debtor to mercy alone."
I will conclude this article with an extract from one of his poems written at this time, and extracted from this volume.
Toplady’s theological principles at this time were Arminian. He writes, "There was not a more haughty and violent free-willer within the compass of the four seas." And he did exchange correspondence with John Wesley. But he goes on to tell us that it was through the reading of Thomas Manton’s sermons on the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel that he came to receive the Doctrines of Grace.
Though awakened in 1756, I was not led into a full and clear view of all the doctrines of grace, till 1758, when, through the goodness of God, my prejudices received an effectual shock in reading Dr Manton’s sermons on the 17th of St John. I shall remember the years 1756 and 1758 with gratitude and joy, in the heaven of heavens, to all eternity.
Toplady was ordained curate at Blagdon in June 1762. From here he moved to become vicar of Fen Ottery and Harpford in May 1766. Because of the manner in which the benefice had been obtained for him - it had been purchased by a Mr Samuel Cleveland of Woolwich, he sought with his bishop’s approval to move to another church. He exchanged with the vicar of Broad Hembury and here he settled in his final parish preaching his first sermon there on April 17th, 1768. Whilst at Broad Hembury he became ill with what was called consumption, although he had never been a truly healthy child, and was advised by his doctor to move to the dry and healthy air of London. This would seem to indicate that he suffered from Tuberculosis.
It was whilst he was vicar of Broad Hembury that most of his literary work was undertaken. Although he was part of the Evangelical Awakening, it was his belief that the Church of England epitomised the purest Church of Christ. He therefore wrote two defences of the doctrine of the Church, viz. "The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism" (1769) and "The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England" (1774). He also wrote 28 of his hymns whilst minister at Broad Hembury, publishing them in the Gospel Magazine between April 1771 and December 1774.
Whilst retaining the living at Broad Hembury he commenced living in London from 1775. His friends hired the French Reformed Chapel in Orange Street, London for him to continue his ministry which commenced with effect from April 11th 1776. He became editor of the Gospel Magazine with effect from December 1775 resigning in June 1776. He had written much for that magazine and, as noted above, a number of his hymns appeared firstly in those pages. His health continued to deteriorate and, as he came near to death his theological opponents, followers of John Wesley broadcast a statement to the effect that Toplady had recanted his strong evangelical and Calvinistic beliefs. On Sunday morning, June 14th 1778, just a few weeks before his death he was taken from his home to Orange Street chapel where he, with gasping breath, spoke his avowal of his dying principles from 2 Peter 1:13,14, "Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me." This he published shortly before his death as "The Reverend Mr Toplady’s Dying Avowal of his Religious Sentiments." He said:
Whereas; some time since, a wicked, scandalous, and false report was diffused ... by the followers of Mr John Wesley; purporting that I have changed my sentiments, especially such of them as relate more immediately to the Doctrines of Grace, I thought it my indispensable duty on the Sunday after I received this information ... publicly to declare myself from the pulpit. ... Now, I do publicly and most solemnly aver, that I have not, nor ever had, any such intention or desire; and that I most sincerely hope, my last hours will be much better employed. ... So certain and so satisfied am I of the truth of all that I have ever written, ... I should not strike out a single line.... I am every day in view of dissolution. And, in the fullest assurance of my eternal salvation, (an assurance which has not been clouded by a single doubt, for near a year and a half past) am waiting, looking, and longing for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. ... I was awakened in the month of August 1755, but not, as has been falsely reported under Mr John Wesley, or any preacher connected with him.
He died on 11th August 1778 aged 38 years and was buried at Tottenham Court Road Chapel.
Come with me in your imagination to the Mendip hills in Somerset. The year is round about 1763. Toplady was incumbent at Blagdon for two years between June 1762 and June 1764. Toplady is taking a walk in the Mendips, a storm is brewing so he quickens his pace. The clouds gather and the rain begins to fall. It is quite a storm. Toplady hurries along S he is now at the foot of Burrington Coombe, but the rain is falling too heavily for him to carry on his journey. There at the foot of the coombe on the left hand side he espies a cleft in the cliff face and here he shelters from the storm. The story goes that he sees a playing card (the six of diamonds) he picks it up and his active mind scribbles the first verse of the hymn that we have come to know and love as the "Rock of Ages." Three of Toplady’s biographers (Thomas Wright, George Lawton and George Ella) all agree that the story is probably a fable. However, it is based on the possibility, indeed the probability, that he did shelter from a storm in the cleft of a rock at the foot of Burrington Coombe whilst he was walking in the Mendips, and that his active mind meditated upon the subject of the cleft of the rock. The cleft in the rock can still be seen as can a plaque which was placed there in the 1950's.
Whilst the story goes that Toplady composed the hymn whilst he was sheltering from a storm in Burrington Coombe, it is highly likely that the hymn does date from the period that Toplady was incumbent at Blagdon. There are a couple of Toplady’s sermons that he preached at this time which make reference to the Rock of Ages. The following quotation comes from his farewell sermon at Blagdon:
If God were to justify and save only those who are pure and upright heaven would be empty of inhabitants. I say not this to encourage sin; but to encourage those who are grieved for their sins; who fly to the blood of the cross for pardon, and whose prayer is that they may henceforward be renewed in the spirit of their mind and bring forth acceptable fruit unto God. Let not such be afraid to meet him: let not such say, "How shall I stand when he appears?" For such have a Foundation to stand upon, a Foundation that cannot fail, even Jesus, the Mediator and Surety of the covenant, Christ, THE ROCK OF AGES. He died for such, their sins which lay like an unsurmountable impediment, or stood like a vast partition wall, and blocked up the passage to eternal life; I say he took the sins of his penitent people out of the way, nailing them to his cross.
Here is another quotation from Toplady from the same period:
Let even those rugged regions of ignorance and barbarism resound with the high praises of God and of his Christ ... chiefly may they sing who inhabit Christ, the spiritual ROCK OF AGES. He is a rock in three ways: as a foundation to support; a shelter to screen; and a fortress to protect. ... We are apt to build houses of self-righteousness for ourselves; the Lord send you a bill of ejectment and compel you to the Rock.
The finest sight in the world is a stately ship, lying at anchor, by moonlight in the mouth of the harbour, in a smooth sea, and under the serene sky, waiting for high water to carry it into the haven. Such is the dying Christian at anchor, safely reposed on Christ, the ROCK OF AGES.
But the phrase "Rock of Ages" was one that was familiar to Christian believers of the 18th century and, as George Lawton says, "The expression ‘Rock of Ages’ was idiomatic in evangelical religion, and not specific hymnological utterance..."
A similar phrase was used by Charles Wesley in one of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper which had been published in 1745. It is inconceivable that Toplady was ignorant of this book and that book itself contains a preface extracted from Daniel Brevint’s The Christian Sacrament... to which we will refer shortly. (Daniel Brevint was a Caroline divine). Charles Wesley wrote:
Rock of Israel, cleft for me,
For us, for all mankind,
See, thy feeblest followers see,
Who call thy death to mind:
Sion is the weary land;
Us beneath thy shade receive,
Grant us in the cleft to stand,
And by thy dying live.
Daniel Brevint wrote:
O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two streams of blood, and water, which once gushed out of thy side, bring down pardon and holiness into my soul; and let me thirst after them now, as if I stood upon the mountain whence sprung this water and near the cleft of that rock, the wounds of my Lord, whence gushed out this sacred blood. All the distance of time and countries between Adam and me doth not keep his sin and punishment from reaching me, any more than if I had been born in his house. Adam from above, let thy blood reach as far, and come as freely to save, and sanctify me, as the blood of my first father did, both to destroy and defile me.
Toplady’s hymn first appeared as four lines in an article by Toplady entitled "Life a journey" which was published in the Gospel Magazine for September 1775 as:
Rock of Ages, Cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee!
Foul, I to the fountain fly:
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
The whole hymn, as we know it today was published in the March 1776 issue of the Gospel Magazine at the end of another article. That article was called "Questions and Answers, relative to the National Debt" by someone with the initials "J F" (probably J Fisher of Whitechapel). Toplady then followed this with "Spiritual Improvement of the forgoing: by another hand" concluding with "A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world." "Rock of Ages Cleft for me..."
One final comment before we consider the hymn. The hymn that we sing is largely the same as Toplady composed it. Julian tells us that the text was often altered (probably by editors of hymn books to fit their own doctrinal emphases). However, the hymn as we sing it today is by and large the same as written by Toplady. The only variations that have survived have been to alter the word "cleft" to "shelter". This appears in just a couple of hymn-books. And the alter "eyestrings break" to "eye-lids close". Both of these alterations appear in the final verse.
What a mercy it is to be able to sing "Rock of Ages, cleft for ME." That is that we recognised that the Lord Jesus is the Rock that was cleft, who was wounded, who shed his precious blood for us as individuals.
The hymn is based on a number of Scriptural analogies. Firstly, it is based upon the marginal reading of Isaiah 26:4 "Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." The marginal reading says that "The Lord Jehovah is the Rock of Ages." The Book of Psalms is replete with references to the Lord being a Rock: "The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer" (Psalm 18:2); "He shall set me upon a rock" (Psalm 27:5) &c. But the analogy that I want us to particularly look at is that of the smitten rock.
In Exodus chapter 17 the Children of Israel have complained to Moses of their lack of water. Moses is shown a rock by the Lord and told to smite it. "And thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink" (Ex. 17:6). The Apostle Paul identifies the rock as being the Lord Jesus Christ. "And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them: and that rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4).
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
Cleanse me from its guilt and power
When the Children if Israel murmured again because of lack of water Moses was commanded of God to speak to the rock, to bring forth water. Moses struck the rock twice when he had been told just to speak to the rock. The water gushed out but there was no necessity to strike the rock a second time because it had been struck but once (Numbers 20:12). Likewise there is no need for a second cleaving of the Lord Jesus Christ. He made one sacrifice for sins for ever - never to be repeated (Hebrews 10:6). Christ the Rock was smitten, he was cleft once on Mount Calvary.
But Toplady speaks also of the certainty of the death of Christ. Christ did not swoon. He was dead upon the cross. How do we know? Because the blood separated into the plasma and the corpuscles. The Roman Soldier’s spear was thrust into his side "and forthwith came there out blood and water" (John. 19:34).
Let the water and the blood
From thy riven side which flowed.
Here is the death of Christ asserted! And here is the purpose of his death explained:
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not only does the blood of Christ cleanse from actual sin (1 John. 5:7-9), but it cleanses from the power of sin that holds the fallen nature of man. The Christian believer walks before the Lord in newness of life. "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:12), ""For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).
He continues in the second verse to speak of his own inability to save himself. He cannot keep the law of God by his own endeavours:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil thy law’s demand
It is impossible, he says. His zeal for God cannot save him. His tears cannot cleanse away his sins. Esau sought a place of repentance with tears, says the Apostle Paul, but he found no place (Heb. 12:17), likewise neither could Toplady, nor anyone else. None of these things can save and atone for sin:
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save and Thou alone.
Where then is the blessing of salvation to be found? When we are emptied of self and stripped of all our pretended righteousness, then and only then will we approach unto the Lord Jesus Christ and view him as the alone Saviour of Sinners. "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14).
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling
Naked come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace,
Where then is there to be found the needed cleansing from sin? Only in the fountain of Christ’s blood! "In that day," writes the prophet Zechariah, "there shall be a fountain opened ... for sin and uncleanness" (Zech. 13:1). The chorus puts it like this:
I know a fount where sins are washed away
I know a place where night is turned to day
Burdens are lifted, blind eyes made to see,
There’s a wonder working power in the blood of Calvary.
Toplady puts it like this:
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
He then turns in the last verse to the inevitability of death. It comes upon us all. We cannot escape from its cold, icy tentacles. And where will be our final destination? He is conscious that we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body. Where is the place of safety? When his breath ceases? when his eyestrings break in death? Where is safety to be found? Only on the Rock of Ages. Only in the Lord Jesus Christ!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyestrings break in death,
When I sore through tracts unknown,
See Thee on thy judgement-throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
As I said a few moments ago, it is a mercy when we are able to sing that the cleaving of the rock was "for me." God grant that we each have that assurance that it was for us individually. And then we will be among that "countless throng" of whom Toplady wrote when he was just eighteen.
I saw, and lo! A countless throng
The elect of every nation, name, and tongue,
Assembled round the everlasting throne;
With robes of white endued
(The righteousness of God):
And each a palm sustained
In his victorious hand:
When thus the bright melodious choir begun:
"Salvation to thy name,
Eternal God, and co-eternal Lamb,
In power, in glory, and in essence, One!"
So sung the saints, the angelic train,
Second the anthem with a loud Amen.
(These in the outer circle stood,
The saints were nearest God);
And prostrate fall, with glory overpowered,
And hide their faces with their wings,
And thus address the King of kings;
"All hail, by thy triumphant church adored!
Blessing and thanks, and honour too,
Are thy supreme, thy everlasting due,
Our Triune sovereign, our propitious Lord!"
While I beheld the amazing sight,
A seraph pointed to the saints in white
And told me whence they came:
"These are they, whose lot below
Was persecution, pain and woe;
These are the chosen, purchased flock,
Who ne’er their Lord forsook;
Through his imputed merit, free from blame;
Redeemed from every sin;
And, as thou seest whose garments were made clean,
Washed in the blood of yon exalted Lamb.
Saved by his righteousness alone,
Spotless they stand before the throne,
And in the eternal temple chant his praise;
Himself among them deigns to dwell.
And face to face his light reveal;
Hunger and thirst, as heretofore,
And pain, and heat, they know no more;
Nor need, as once, the sun’s prolific rays,
Immanuel, here, his people feeds,
To streams of joy perennial leads,
And wipes, for ever wipes, the tears from every face.