Preacher, Poet, Protagonist
Contemptuous Calvinist Convert

Hymnist for the Rock of Ages


How many think of rearing up a building whose top shall reach heaven itself; and quite forget to lay their foundation upon the rock, Christ Jesus
--A. M. Toplady

(1740-1778)

For Unto Us a Child is Born


...the gracious providence of God assigned my birth and residence in a country where the Scriptures of inspiration kindly hold the lamp to benighted reason.

--from Toplady's "A Short Essay on Original sin"


In 1740, on the fourth on what was probably a dreary English November day in Farnham, Surrey, was brightened: at least for Richard and Catherine Toplady with the birth of what would be their only son, Augustus Montague. (He was named after godfathers, Augustus Middleton and Adolphus Montague.) This silver lining had a gloomy downside, however, for in a matter of weeks afterwards, his father Major Richard Toplady was sent off to the South American Continent, near Carthagena. This cloudburst proved deadly as the Major never returned from those far-off shores. An only son raised with extra loving care by widowed mother Catherine, he went to Westminster School until he entered into Dublin, Ireland's Trinity College in 1755. He, as a young lad probably had heard Wesleys' hymns, who had just established the first Methodist headquarters in Bristol and London the year before his birth, and the year before going away to University, Augustus had written his first hymn.. While in Codymain, on an August afternoon of 1756, he happened upon a meeting in a barn where an itinerant preacher only named as Morris was giving a sermon on Ephesians 2:13

(Ye who were sometimes far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ...)

His spirit was irrevocably touched, and was 'born again.' And, he was, as he recalled a little more than a decade later, a "...haughty and violent free-willer."

Two years later he was pulled into the Calvinist camp by a Doctor Manton's sermon on the Gospel of John's seventeenth chapter. (Jesus' prayer to the Father for all believers, verse 24, here):

Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which Thou hast given me: for Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

In 1760 he was awarded his degree (one source says Master's, another Bachelor of Arts). But, he was probably reading more on his own that would change his life indelibly; moreover this love of study would continue lifelong. Before becoming a new Anglican Priest he flatly refused the temptation to buy "ready-made" sermons from a London bookseller, even if some Bishops supposedly had previously benefited from 'used' homilies. Strangely but accurately speaking of himself,

...he subscribed the articles and liturgy from principle; and that he did not believe them merely because he subscribed them, but subscribed them because he believed them.

Shelter from the Storm

Ooh, a storm is threatenin'
my very life today.
If I don't get some shelter,
Ooh, yeah I'm gonna fade away

--Jagger/Richards, "Gimme Shelter"

In 1762 he was ordained into the Church of England and was given a couple year's assignment at Blagdon, Somerset. While traversing the landscape nearby in Burrington Combe he was caught in a torrential downpour, but fortunately for him, and for us -as we shall see - there was (and still is) an outcropping of limestone over Cheddar Gorge. Seeking shelter here, for what he knew could be no small wait, he meditated on the rock around him during his respite from the typical regional rains. As he marveled at the edifice around him he might have subconsciously remembered John Wesley's Hymn, "Rock of Israel," or his preface in that song's hymnbook:

O Rock of Salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two Streams of Blood and Water which gushed from 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 sprang this Water; and near the Cleft of that Rock, the Wounds of my Lord, whence gushed this Sacred Blood.

The protecting ledge was made by Toplady's Providential God 300 million years ago as a geological formation of Oolitic (little tiny shells) limestone. Later in the Carboniferous Period it was upthrust and eroded all in a tremendously earlier time and considerably mellower semi-tropical climate. Now, Augustus saw the connection with this cleft, and the place in Jesus --our Rock of our faith-- where we could hide, and feelingly Divinely inspired, he penned his famous poem turned hymn:

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.

Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my Hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for Grace;
Foul, I to the Fountain fly:
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

Whilst I draw this fleeting Breath,
When my eyes shall close in Death1,
When I soar through tracts unknown,
See Thee on Thy Judgment-Throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!

(alternate/additional verses)

When my pilgrimage I close,
Victor o'er the last of foes,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.


1 {or (mine eyelids) or (Eye-strings break)}
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Calvinist Controversy

Come on and take a free ride. --E. Winters

Haec perversitas nunquam in nobis cessat, sed novos assidue fructus parit ; non secue atque incensa fornax flammam et scintillas perpetuo efflat, aut scaturigo aquam sine fine egerit:

"The corruption of our nature is always operative, and constantly teeming with unholy fruits: like a heated furnace which is perpetually blazing out; or like an inexhaustible spring of water, which is for ever bubbling up and sending forth its rills."

--Calvin (Institut. 1. iv. c. 15.) quoted by Toplady in "Original Sin"

By 1764 Toplady had moved to Farleigh Hungerford, was appointed to Venn-Ottery in Devonshire's Harpford near Sidmouth and brought along with him a new full-fledged adoption of Calvinism, that also brought him into emotional doctrinal conflict with the "Whomsoever will may come" -to the grace of God- teachings of his old mentor, John Wesley. He was now thoroughly enamored with the Providence of God, that He alone can open His gates. Contrary to those that defend Toplady as not being a Hyper-Calvinist, he indeed wrote that one could not change the fact if they were already damned. This double-predestination caused understandable and inevitable rifts.

Interestingly, Toplady considered the Anglican Church of his day to be to most biblical of all churches. He felt it adhered to a strong Gospel of Grace, and he welcomed fellowship with Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Independents who accepted these Doctrines of Grace. The sore point was against the more Arminian followers like the Wesleys -who believed that God gave everyone free-will to choose Gods' Plan of Salvation through Jesus; Calvinists believed we have no worthy or powerful enough abilities to enable such renewal. Their understanding of Grace is made more 'Amazing' by the acknowledgement of one's miserable sinful condition. (The famous song even points out to His saving "...a wretch like me.") Toplady recalls the gentleman who questioned his earlier exposition of free-will with,

How was it with you when the Lord laid hold on you in effectual calling? Had you any hand in obtaining that grace? Nay, would you not have resisted and baffled it, If God's Spirit had left you alone in the hand of your own counsel.?

His adherence to this theology only grew stronger with time, but his adamant position of his opinions gave him a bad reputation, especially regarding calling the Reverend Wesley of the Devil,

Wesley is guilty of Satanic shamelessness, ... acts the part of a lurking, sly assassin ... uniting the sophistry of a Jesuit with the authority of a pope.

John Wesley, with whom Toplady never did make amends, "Did not fight with Chimney sweeps." (Your guess would be as good as anyone's of what his statement meant.)

Consumed

And I can almost smell your t.b. sheets
On your sick bed.

--from Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets"

Augustus Toplady went to his final vicarage for the country churches of Devon Broad Hembury near Honiton. He would have remained living with his parish if it had not been for his declining health due to Tuberculosis, which caused him to go to supposedly London's healthier climate in 1775. Living in the damper regions of the South Dorset coast were deemed deleterious. He was known by many (but somehow forgotten {compared to George Whitefield}, too) as a powerful preacher at London churches like Orange Street Chapel, in spite of his physical frailty. He became somewhat of a loner from here on in, (adding to misconceptions of him) but continued,

...the usefulness of preaching predestination; or, in other words, of tracing salvation and redemption to their first source.

However, though he was more awe-respected, than beloved, during two decades of ministry he did make friends with like-minded associates like Lady Huntington, Sir Rowland Hill, George Whitefield (duh), John Berridge, Dr. John Gill, Ambrose Serie, and William Romaine, at whose church, St. Anne, Blackfriar, he spoke from the pulpit. About his love of books and devotions he confessed:

I am wedded to these pursuits, as a man stipulates to take his wife; viz., for better, for worse, until death do us part. My thirst for knowledge is literally inextinguishable. And if I thus drink myself into a superior world, I cannot help it.

Although he gained some notoriety that he would have missed in the bucolic location, but, his health, of course, did not improve in London, and he was dying of, what was called then, Consumption. He was just getting a better reputation in the city, the potential to move spiritual mountains -- he was only 37 years old. About two months before he passed forever to the shelter of that Rock he had to make an important denial in front of his flock, against doctor's orders. He spoke on the rumors that he was going to do a turnabout for Mr. Wesley:

It having been industriously circulated by some malicious and unprincipled persons that during my present long and severe illness I expressed a strong desire of seeing Mr. John Wesley before I die, and revoking some particulars relative to him which occur in my writings,- 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 than in communing with such a man. So certain and satisfied am I of the truth of all that I have ever written, that were I now sitting up in my dying bed with a pen and ink in my hand, and all the religious and controversial writings I ever published, especially those relating to Mr. John Wesley and the Arminian controversy, whether respecting fact or doctrine, could be at once displayed to my view, I should not strike out a single line relative to him or them

Also he told his friends at his deathbed about more of those recantation murmurs,

I recant my former principles! God Forbid that I should be so vile an apostate! And, yet that apostate would I soon be, if I were left to myself.

In spite of his deterioration, he would become more animated in his relations with his comrades, making the case that he wanted honor only to go to Christ when comforted with words of how he would be missed,

What! By my death? No, no! Jesus Christ is able, and will, by proper instruments defend His own truths. And with regard to what little I have been able to do in this way, not to me, but to His own Name, and to that only, be the Glory

Days away from leaving this 'mortal coil' he answered the poor prognosis with,

Why, that is a good sign that my death is fast approaching; and, blessed be God, I can add that my heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory.

Love Me Like A Rock

Regarding being cut short, he was not bitter even up to the last declaring

God may, to be sure, as a sovereign, hide His face and smiles from me; however, I believe He will not; and if He should, yet will I trust Him. I know I am safe and secure, for His love and His covenant are everlasting!

He called his loved ones around him during his last hour on August 11, 1775 "to give him up;" and after he said these last words, he joined so many saints from before and following after:

Oh, what a blessing it is that you are made willing to give me up into the hands of my dear Redeemer, and to part with me! It will not be long before God takes me; for no mortal man can live, after the glories which God has manifested to my soul.

At his funeral his fellow Calvinist, Rowland Hill broke Toplady's dying request to refrain from an eulogy, and to a mixed crying and rejoicing congregation at Broad Hembury he gave proper respect to the once sometimes maligned vicar.

His last verses, "Poem X" show his humility, even while he was stubborn in his doctrine.

1. O That my heart was right with Thee,
And lov'd Thee with a perfect love!
O that my Lord would dwell in me,
And never from His seat remove!
Jesus, remove th' impending load,
And set my soul on fire for God!

2. Thou seest I dwell in awful night
Until Thou in my heart appear;
Kindle the flame, O Lord, and light
Thine everlasting candle there:
Thy presence puts the shadows by;
If Thou art gone, how dark am I!

3. Ah! Lord, how should Thy servant see,
Unless Thou give me seeing eyes?
Well may I fall, if out of Thee;
If out of Thee, how should I rise?
I wander, Lord, without Thy aid,
And lose my way in midnight's shade.

4. Thy bright, unerring light afford,
A light that gives the sinner hope;
And from the house of bondage, Lord,
O bring the weary captive up,
Thine hand alone can set me free
And reach my pardon out to me.

5. O let my prayer acceptance find,
And bring the mighty blessing down;
With eye-salve, Lord, anoint the blind,
And seal me Thine adopted son:
A fallen, helpless creature take,
And heir of Thy salvation make.

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Sources:
Morgan, Robert J., Then Sings My Soul, Thomas Nelson: Nashville (2003).
Johnson, Charles, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns, Hallberg Publishing: Delaven (1983).
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A676307 .
http://www.go-newfocus.co.uk/articles/augustus_toplady.htm
http://www.btinternet.com/~alan.s.flint/toplady/
http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poet334.html

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