This is the day that … Augustus Montague Toplady died, in 1778.
Augustus Toplady was born in Surrey, England, in 1740, and his father was killed in battle at the Siege of Carthagena when Augustus was only a few months old. His biographer describes the boy as a “sickly, neurotic, and precociously religious lad” (The Gospel in Hymns, A. Bailey, page 117).
In his diary he writes, “I am now arrived at the age of 11 years. I praise God I can remember no dreadful crime, and not to me but the Lord be the glory, Amen.” He also wrote that “Aunt Betsy is so fractious … and insolent … she is unfit for human society.”
At the age of 12 he began preaching, at 14 he was writing hymns. At the age of 16, now living in Ireland, he heard a Methodist lay preacher, James Morris – and was converted. He later wrote: “Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought near to God in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of people met together in a barn, by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name.”
He later decided that Calvinism was the Scriptural teaching and joined the Anglican Church. He became a fighting Calvinist – his violent antagonistic clashes with John Wesley make sorry reading – “he sometimes indulged in the severe and scurrilous language that was tolerated in controversy in those times,” writes Elsie Houghton. Toplady called Wesley a “liar and forgerer … the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this island”. He accused Wesley of “Satanic shamelessness”.
In 1762 Toplady was ordained in the Church of England, where he was to become an effective witness for his Lord. “Immense crowds” we are told, flocked to hear him preach.
His ministry was cut short by consumption (tuberculosis), railing on Wesley to the last, but around the world thousands of believers still sing his great 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.
The popular account of its creation is that Toplady was caught in a sudden storm on a path between two cliffs. He quickly found shelter in a cave, leading him to consider the shelter afforded believers through faith in Christ. There was no paper on which to write, but he found a playing card, considered a devil’s tool, on the floor of the cave. On that he penned the start of his great hymn.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.