by Al Maxey

Issue #517 ------- January 17, 2012
I never heard so musical a
discord, such sweet thunder.

William Shakespeare {1564-1616}
A Midsummer-Night's Dream

A Hymn Born of Discord
Augustus Toplady vs. John Wesley
"Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me

His name was Augustus Montague Toplady, an Anglican clergyman and hymn writer who, in the words of one historian, "was, frankly, a bit of a jerk." This assessment came as a result of his combative nature evidenced in his repeated vicious attacks against John Wesley. Yet, from that debate lasting many years would come one of the most beautiful hymns of grace ever written for the people of God -- Rock of Ages. Following is the surprising story of that hymn, and the unlikely forces that gave life to it.

Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham, Surrey, England on November 4, 1740. He was the son of Richard Toplady, a major in the Royal Marines, who was killed in the Battle of Cartagena in 1741 just a few months after the birth of his son, leaving his wife, Catherine, to raise the boy alone. Catherine, who was the daughter of Richard Bate, the Incumbent of Chilham, was said to be "a woman of remarkable piety." After the death of her husband, she and Augustus moved to Westminster. When he was old enough, Catherine enrolled Augustus in the prestigious Westminster School in London, where he remained from 1750 to 1755. In 1755, mother and son moved to Ireland, and Augustus entered Trinity College in Dublin, from which he would graduate in 1760 with a M.A. degree.

In August of 1755, shortly after arriving in Ireland, Augustus Toplady attended a meeting being held in a barn by a follower of John Wesley named James Morris. He would later declare that this sermon, although the speaker was far from an educated man, would alter the course of his life, compelling him to train for and eventually enter the ministry. It was in that barn that he felt specifically called to accept Christ Jesus and to commit his life to Him. Of this experience he wrote, "Strange that I who had so long sat under the means of grace in England should be brought right unto 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 marvelous. 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 and where and as He listeth." For a time, Toplady embraced the teachings of John Wesley, as well as his Arminian theology. This was not to last long, however.

Perhaps at this point it would be well to briefly examine Arminianism, as this theology would become the point of contention in the years to come between Toplady and Wesley. Arminianism is a school of soteriological thought that evolved from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who had been personally taught by Theodore Beza (the successor to John Calvin). Arminius, however, soon rejected the Calvinistic teachings of Beza, and began promoting the ideas of free will and "election" of believers on the basis of faith. In a theological statement of belief known as The Remonstrance (the followers of Arminius would come to be known in the annuls of history as the Remonstrants), which was signed in 1610 by 45 pastors, five articles of faith were affirmed (which stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Calvin and his followers): (1) Election, and condemnation on the day of judgment, is conditioned by the rational faith or non-faith of man, (2) The Atonement, while qualitatively adequate for all men, was efficacious only for the man of faith, (3) Unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God's will, (4) Grace is not irresistible, and (5) Believers are able to resist sin, but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. Although there are many variations within Arminianism, these are the basic tenets, with emphasis on the free will of men and the doctrine of salvation by faith. Needless to say, this theology, which had been embraced by John Wesley, as well as many others, was strongly opposed by the Calvinists. Indeed, the Synod of Dort was held from 1618-19 to address the five points of The Remonstrance, and from that synod would come the five points of Calvin's theology (known to most today by the acronym TULIP -- I would refer the reader to my own Study of TULIP Theology: Examining the Five Points of Calvinism in Light of God's Inspired Word).

As already noted, "for a time Toplady was attracted to the ministry of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodists. As time went on, however, he became a strong follower of the 'election' doctrines of John Calvin and was vehemently opposed to the Arminian views promoted by the Wesleys and their supporters" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 216]. This theological transformation came about in 1758 when Toplady read, and was strongly influenced by, Dr. Thomas Manton's 17th century sermon on John 17 and Confession of the Christian Religion, which was written by Jerome Zanchius in 1562. These two works convinced Augustus Toplady that Arminianism was a false doctrine, and that Calvinism was the Truth. Two years later, after his graduation from Trinity College, he and his mother returned to England. There he met and was further influenced by such prominent Calvinist ministers as William Romaine, John Gill, and George Whitefield. The latter had some very heated discussions with John Wesley about their differing theologies, which undoubtedly had an impact on the young Toplady.

On June 6, 1762, Toplady was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and appointed by Edward Willes, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, as the Curate of Blagdon. He was ordained a priest in 1764, and in 1768 became the Vicar of Broadhembury, which position he held until his death in 1778 at the age of 37. During his years in public ministry, Toplady did a great deal of preaching and writing, becoming known as a powerful voice for Calvinism (although a rather controversial figure due to his extreme invective against his opponents). The "target" he favored most was John Wesley, and he attacked him repeatedly without mercy. Toplady was not just an advocate for Calvinism, however; he had other interests as well. He had a tremendous love for animals, and was a strong advocate in the cause against cruelty to animals. He once delivered a powerful speech in a public debate on "Whether unnecessary cruelty to the brute creation is criminal." In his speech he not only condemned brutality toward animals, but he also declared his conviction that the Scriptures suggest that animals will also be resurrected at the last day (a view with which even John Wesley agreed). Toplady also wrote a number of poems, some of which would later be set to music and published as hymns. These appeared in 1759 in his first book: Poems and Sacred Subjects. In 1763 he wrote a poem he titled "A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World." This would later be known as "Rock of Ages," and was written as a "satirical swipe" at some of the Arminian beliefs of John Wesley. More about this a little later in this study.

His religious writings, however, are the ones for which he is best known. In 1769 Toplady wrote a book titled "The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism." In this work he argued vigorously that Calvinism, not Arminianism, was the position historically held by the Anglican Church. That same year he published his translation of Jerome Zanchius's "Confession of the Christian Religion," which was one of the two works that had converted him to Calvinism. He titled his translation: "The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted." It was this work in particular that fanned the flames of John Wesley's fury, and which brought about a fiery response from Wesley. From this came a long, drawn-out war of words between the two men, conducted via published pamphlets and public speeches, which became increasingly bitter over time [for those interested, a letter from Toplady to Wesley, dated March 26, 1770 (and a second letter dated January 9, 1771) -- Click Here -- may be read online]. As an example of the harsh tone of these exchanges, Toplady once said of John Wesley, "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" [Osbeck, p. 216]. He further charged that Wesley's theology is "an equal portion of gross heathenism, Pelagianism, Mahometism, popery, Manichaeism, ranterism, and antinomianism, culled, dried and pulverized, secundum artem; and above all, mingled with as much palatable atheism as could be possibly scraped together." Clearly, he had no use for John Wesley!

But, Wesley could give it back just as fiercely. In a letter dated June 24, 1770 (which falls between the above two mentioned letters that may be read online), Wesley wrote, "I dare not speak of the deep things of God in the spirit of a prize fighter or a stage player ... Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well, but I do not fight with chimney sweeps. 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." This whole debate raged for so long, and became such a sad spectacle, that most people simply turned away from both sides in disgust, as did many in the years that followed. For example, Dr. A. B. Grosart (1827-1899), a clergyman with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and also a literary editor of some renown at the time, said of Toplady's writings, "We willingly and with a sense of relief leave unstirred the small thick dust of oblivion that has gathered on his controversial writings, especially his scurrilous language to John Wesley because of his Arminianism, as we do John Wesley's deplorable misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Calvinism. Throughout, Toplady lacked the breadth of the divine Master's watchword 'Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is for us' (St. Luke ix.50). He was impulsive, rash-spoken, reckless in misjudgment; but a flame of genuine devoutness burned in the fragile lamp of his over tasked and wasted body."

Few questioned the devoutness of Augustus Toplady. He was quite sincere in his devotion to what he perceived to be Truth, and genuinely thought he was serving his Master best by seeking to destroy those who held differing views than his own (which he truly believed were the only "sound" ones). "Though known as a controversial preacher in his crusade against Arminian theology, Toplady was highly respected as a deeply spiritual, evangelical leader" [Osbeck, p. 217]. Dr. A. B. Grosart even admitted that Toplady was a great man, and that "his greatness is the greatness of goodness," and that he was "a fervent preacher." He genuinely cared about those within his fold, and pastored them with love. It was only against the "heretics" that his invective poured forth. I too have known (and still know) some men like this -- very devout, sincere, good men, who deeply love the Lord, and who have made (and are making) great personal sacrifices to serve Him, yet who will turn and tear to pieces anyone (even former friends -- just as Toplady had once been friends with Wesley) who dares to teach something with which they happen to differ. Such a man was Augustus Toplady. Further, as part of his devotion to the Lord, Toplady never married, although he developed a close relationship with two women during his brief life. The first was Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and the second was Catherine Macaulay, with whom he spent much of his time during his final years.

From 1775 to 1776 Toplady edited, and wrote for, a British publication called The Gospel Magazine. In 1776 he wrote an article for this publication in which he "attempted 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" [Osbeck, p. 216]. As the climax to that article, Toplady printed the words to the poem he had written thirteen years earlier (the poem that would later become the hymn "Rock of Ages"). By these words he hoped to show, in poetic form, the helplessness of man to effect his own salvation, and that man's salvation is totally in the hands of a sovereign God. Notice the second and third stanzas particularly (which may be slightly different than the words in our current hymn books):

It was not until 1830 (52 years after Toplady's death) that the tune for this poem was composed. The composer was a well-known American church musician by the name of Thomas Hastings, who was born on October 15, 1784 (six years after the death of Toplady) in Washington, Connecticut. He named his tune "Toplady" in honor of the writer of the original poem. "This hymn has traditionally been ranked as one of the most popular hymns ever written. It is certainly one of the best-known in the English language. It has been described as a 'hymn that meets the spiritual needs of all sorts and conditions of men, from the derelict snatched from the gutter by the Salvation Army to Prime Minister Gladstone, at whose funeral it echoed through the dim spaces of Westminster Abbey'" [Osbeck, p. 215]. Augustus Toplady wrote a good many other hymns (such as "A Debtor to Mercy Alone," "Deathless Principle, Arise," and "Object of My First Desire," songs familiar to those in the Anglican Church), but none ever gained the prominence of "Rock of Ages." By the way, the most famous line in the hymn -- "Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee" -- is based on the following: (1) the Rock of Ages is a reference to Christ, as per the reference by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 10:4, and (2) the Rock being "cleft" (split open) is from Exodus 33:20-23 where God put Moses "in a cleft in the rock" so that he, being a fallen man, would not see God and die. Thus, salvation was found in being in the cleft of the Rock -- i.e., in Christ Jesus, our Rock of Salvation, who was stricken so that we who are hidden within the cleft of this Rock may find salvation! Fanny Crosby (Reflections #188), in her hymn "A Wonderful Savior," conveyed a similar thought: "He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land; He hideth my life in the depths of His love, and covers me there with His hand."

One historian wrote, "While not all grace-centered Christians will agree with Toplady's stand on election, all can surely rejoice in this hymn which so effectively states the clear Scriptural teaching regarding man's utter inability to in any way offer God anything to earn or merit salvation." Amen! "He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy" (Titus 3:5). Augustus Toplady, through his powerful preaching and writing, has left a positive imprint upon the people of God, and his hymn is still being sung by Spirit-filled and Spirit-led people long after most men have forgotten his years of heated debate with John Wesley. In the final analysis, most such arguments have little lasting merit in the eternal scheme of things; what truly matters, what truly endures, is the legacy of love and grace we leave in the wake of our lives. A theologian named Fred Sanders perhaps summed it up best: "So what's going on here? If you belong to an evangelical church that gladly and wholeheartedly sings the songs of Wesley and Toplady side by side, are you a dupe who can't tell when two things disagree? Not at all. The churches that sing Toplady's anti-Wesleyan Rock of Ages right alongside of Wesley's anti-Calvinist Love Divine, All Loves Excelling are acting on a sound instinct. They can see clearly what Toplady and Wesley in the heat of battle did not always discern: that we have the most important things, the things we want to sing about, in common. This is why, if you look in any good collection of worship songs, you can find songs written by Catholics and Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, Calvinists and Arminians, Anglicans and Dissenters, Baptists and Charismatics and Pentecostals. Sure, there are some major differences in their doctrine that aren't going away any time soon. But those aren't the things we want to sing about. When we talk theology, we talk about complementarianism and creationism and Calvinism and dispensationalism and universalism and all the other -isms that have caused so much division and contention. When we worship, we sing about God's grace, about Jesus, about Christmas and the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. We sing about our love for God, about God's love for us, about the joy of being forgiven and redeemed. We sing about comfort and encouragement in Christ. We sing about the most important things. And we agree on those. Maybe we don't need to restore unity. Maybe we've had it all along. Maybe we just couldn't see it because we were looking at the things we want to argue about instead of the things we want to sing about!!"

Augustus Montague Toplady passed from this life at the early age of only 37, being overcome by tuberculosis on August 11, 1778. He was buried at Whitefield's Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road, London, England. May we learn from his life, both his successes and his failures, and may we truly come to appreciate what truly matters from the perspective of the Throne. And help us to learn, dear Lord, that from the depths of our own ugliness, You can create a thing of enduring beauty!! After all, from one who threw rocks, came the "Rock of Ages." Thank You, Lord! May this good, passionate man rest in peace!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, "Peter's Problem Preposition" (Reflections #515) is an excellent article!! Thank you!! For too long we have focused on a sacramental interpretation of this passage, to the neglect of the importance of faith and repentance. Acts 2:38 should be interpreted in light of Peter's words in Acts 10:43 -- "To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name."

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, The basics of our faith are thankfully quite simple to understand. But, as we grow and mature in the faith, it is important to understand the deeper meanings of the passages that often are obscured by prejudicial theology, archaic language (in some translations), and, quite frankly, the difficulty of the passage itself. Thank you for helping me to more fully understand the Word of God and its application to my walking more fully in the Truth. Blessings, brother!

From a Reader in South Carolina:

Dear Brother Al, In 1 Cor. 16:22 ("A Curse Upon the Unloving" -- Issue #516) it sounds like Paul is stating a truism or an Amen, since those who are outside of Christ do stand condemned. In other words, it's "sinners in the hands of an angry God," unless they are granted salvation through the gospel of hope in Jesus. On the other hand, there are also those who profess to be disciples, yet who are apostates by their unbelief that Jesus is Lord. Paul's statement is true for them as well. Whether someone is trying to justify themselves by law, or the more popular Gnostic approach of using the grace of God as a license to sin, the doctrine stated by Paul is true to orthodox Christianity.

From a Reader in Missouri:

Brother Al, I have to admit that I'm having a difficult time understanding the Judgment Day. I have been reading a variety of materials that address the fate of those who have never heard the salvation story. It seems there are many, many interpretations: everybody saved, only a few saved; saved by ignorance, saved by works; etc. I'm so confused at this point that I'm going to take a break from this and just pray! Al, if you could point me to something in your writings that clearly and honestly uses Scripture to explain the concept of salvation for the ignorant innocent who have never been exposed to the salvation story, I would greatly appreciate it. I think Satan has been getting me worked up over this matter!

From a New Reader in North Carolina:

Dear Brother Al, Please put me on your Reflections mailing list. We have never met, but I love you and your web site! From your writings I believe you have a loving and gracious heart. God bless you, brother, for sharing your wonderful spiritual gift of study and writing with us. It was by divine providence that I came across your Reflections web site. I was born and raised in the Churches of Christ in Alabama, and am a graduate of Freed-Hardeman. Bobby Valentine, in Tucson, AZ is a good friend of mine, and we attended the same church growing up. I was Googling the topic "Church of Christ - Legalism" when I found your site. I do not believe it was an accident. I sincerely believe the Holy Spirit led me to your Reflections. I, like you, have been ostracized, verbally attacked, and shunned by a significant number of members of the "Legalistic, Patternistic Church of Christ Denomination" here in NC. I have my own battles with the "John Waddey" types here. My wife and I simply could not take it anymore. We felt like we were dying spiritually. So we had no choice but to leave the Church of Christ. We are now attending a Community Church, and have found a very loving, supportive, Christ-centered, Bible-affirming, and mission-minded body of believers. We feel so at home there, although my parents in Alabama are not supportive, and pray that we will return to "the one true church." Thank you so much for sharing your scholarship, hard study, and excellent prose with the Family of Christ. I have been spiritually blessed by your web site. God bless you in your ministry, and God bless your family, health, and study life.

SPECIAL NOTE: -- This past week I had the opportunity to exchange a number of emails with one of the leaders at the Bowie Church of Christ in Bowie, Maryland. I was very encouraged by what I learned about this devoted group of disciples who have taken very seriously their freedom in Christ, and who are moving boldly forward in their faith, rather than being shackled by the party parameters of the past. Women are beginning to take an active part in the worship assemblies, and they are daring to step away from the sectarian sacramentalism that has plagued our movement for far too long. For example, on their web site under the heading "What We Believe," they write (in part), "We celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the central event of history and the sole ground of hope for human redemption. ... We teach that man comes into a right relationship with God not by religion, but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Leader of our lives. Our hope is in Christ alone and is accessed by faith alone. ... We believe baptism does not earn salvation ... it is not a work; it is an obedient faith response to God's grace as demonstrated in Christ's sacrifice. Baptism celebrates our new life and hope for resurrection in the future. ... Baptism is an outward expression of a heart decision." We are finding more and more congregations within our faith-heritage coming to these convictions, and I applaud the leaders and members at the Bowie Church of Christ for moving away from religion and into relationship with their Redeemer! May God bless them and protect them, as they will most certainly become the focus of attacks from the legalists. Please keep these brethren (and all those like them) in your daily prayers!!

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