“Rock of Ages” is a great hymn, one of the best.
Here is the bad news: It was written out of spite, by a bitter and narrow-minded young man who couldn’t keep his personal hatred from over-flowing into his prayers and songs.
Here is the good news: God rescued the hymn from the defects of its author and his worst intentions, and Rock of Ages is every bit as good as you think it is. If you skip the rest of this blog post, remember that.
Toplady and His Work
Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778) got saved at age 15 when he heard a sermon delivered by a Methodist preacher in a barn in County Wexford, Ireland. He fell in with the evangelical revival of the mid-1750s, and with characteristic zeal he imbibed a broadly Arminian theology at first. But within a few years, young Toplady had read some heavy-duty Reformed theology (the Puritan Thomas Manton and the Italian reformer Girolamo Zanchi), and swung over to evangelical Calvinism with all his might. He started networking with the Calvinist side of the revival movement: international superstar George Whitefield, pastor William Romaine, ultra-predestinarian Baptist polymath John Gill, and the powerful Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.
So young Toplady entered the first phase of his brief career (as an Anglican minister and a writer) not only with a taste for the strong stuff of Reformed theology, but also with a recent 180-degree turnaround on the doctrines that divide Calvinists and Arminians. This is where his legacy becomes painfully mixed. On the one hand, Toplady stayed true to his commitments and wrote some solid expositions of Scripture and a barn-storming argument that Anglicanism was a consistently Reformed church movement until Laud.
On the other hand, at some point early in his ministry, Toplady decided that Wesley and his preachers were the greatest danger to the church of Jesus Christ since, well, Satan. Here is a typical bit of Toplady on the subject of free-will:
Can any thing be more shockingly execrable, than such a degrading and blasphemous idea of the ever blessed God? And consequently, is not the doctrine of human self-determinability the most daring, the most inconsistent, the most false, the most contemptible, and the most atheistical tenet, that was ever spawned by pride and ignorance in conjunction?
The answers to those two bombastic questions, I think, ought to be: yes, and no. Yes, there are things that are more “shockingly execrable” than free-will; and no, the doctrine of human self-determinability is not “the most atheistical tenet” ever spawned by “pride and ignorance in conjunction.” I can think of a couple of worse and more atheistical tenets off the top of my head. Atheism, for instance, strikes me as being at least a little bit more atheistical than Arminianism.
Was Toplady just slipping into an exaggeration here? Sadly, no. When he ramped up for controversy, he consistently attacked his opponents –his Christian, Protestant, Anglican, conservative, evangelical, fellow-revivalist opponents– with language so bitter and extreme that it defies belief.
Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) worked hard at praising Toplady’s genuine accomplishments as a writer –they are many. And Ryle himself was a definite Calvinist, and no stranger to controversy. But even Ryle had to admit, “I cannot praise his spirit and language when speaking of his opponents,” adding, “the epithets he applies to his adversaries are perfectly amazing and astonishing.” Ryle says that “Arminianism seems to have precisely the same effect on him that a scarlet cloak has on a bull;” that is, it drove him wild with rage and caused him to lash out with verbal violence:
He appears to think it impossible that an Arminian can be saved, and never shrinks with classing Arminians with Pelagians, Socinians, Papists, and heretics. He says things about Wesley and Sellon which never ought to have been said. All this is melancholy work indeed! But those who are familiar with Toplady’s controversial writings know well that I am stating simple truths.
John Wesley As the Worst Thing Imaginable
How bad was he? Since nobody reads Toplady anymore, I’ll share with you a few of his biggest howlers. The theology of John Wesley, according to Toplady, is:
an equal portion of gross heathenism, Pelagianism, Mahometism, popery, Manicheaenism, ranterism, and antinomianism, culled, dried, and pulverized, secundum artem; and above all, mingled with as much palatable atheism as could be possibly scraped together.
Did he say this behind Wesley’s back? No, he wrote it to him in open letters:
Somewhat like the necromantic soup in the tragedy of ‘Macbeth,’ your doctrines may be stirred into a chaotic jumble, but witchcraft itself would strive in vain to bring them into coalition.
What kind of man is John Wesley? “He is a pitiful nibbler at the file he cannot bite.” (wait, what?) How does he behave? “Mr. Wesley skulks for shelter under a cobbler’s apron.” What sort of writer is he? “An enraged Arminian porcupine” who has “dipt his quills in the ink of forgery.”
Toplady’s contempt for John Wesley was fathomless. You can almost hear him sneering and choking back bile whenever he says the name “Mr. Wesley,” and he somehow makes “Mr.” into a term of sarcasm, as when he discounts the testimony of “Mr. Wesley or Mr. Anybody-Else.” The sense of personal antipathy makes Toplady forget his own best interests over and over, as when he writes a pretty accomplished little tract on predestination, and instead of letting it be published under the perfectly honorable sub-title “”A Vindication of the Decrees and Providence of God,” instead gives it the snotty main title, “More Work for Mr. John Wesley.”
Some of his contemptful comparisons are fairly straightforward, as when he considers Wesley to be an idolatrous pagan:
If Mr. Wesley prefers Aristotle and the other gentlemen of the Lycæum to the inspired writers, and chooses the peripatetic scheme of freewill rather than the Bible scheme of necessity, he must, for me, go on to hug an idol that cannot save.
But so fluent is Toplady in invective that he chases his opponents down into some very convoluted insults. One Wesleyan apparently said that the translators of the King James Bible were “blunderers and blasphemers,” but Wesley expressed great admiration for the KJV, calling it “particularly venerable.” A reasonable person might assume that Wesleyans have different opinions about the KJV, or even that the unnamed first author was a jerk. But Toplady puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with this:
That is, blunderers and blasphemies are, in Mr. W.’s judgment, peculiarly venerable. I should have imagined as much, without his information: they being, literally two species of commodities, in which he drives a larger traffic than any other blunder-merchant this island has produced.
After indulging for a few pages in how fun it is to ponder what it would have been like if Wesley and his followers had been locked into a remote Welsh prison (no kidding), Toplady says, “I am glad the sweet singers are at full liberty to hop from spray to spray in pursuit of flies, though I cannot wish them a large capture.” Um, I missed that, they do or don’t want to eat flies? Lost me there.
For some reason, Toplady repeatedly tells the story of Wesley baptizing a woman (“in a tub in a cheesemonger’s cellar”). It’s hard to tell what Toplady is more upset about: re-baptism of a believer who was baptized as an infant; or Wesley’s alleged salacious intentions toward the woman; or the way Wesley was apparently attempting to drown her.
At the time when Toplady was writing a lot of this polemical material, he was a 30 year old vicar (he only lived to 38), while Wesley was a seventy-year-old leader of a fast-growing Christian movement. In 1770, Wesley wrote to a friend, “Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well; but I do not fight with chimney sweepers. 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.” But Wesley did write some nasty things about Toplady (beyond this chimney sweeper comment), and he did deputize at least one of his people to write roughly against him. In response, Toplady said:
The envy, malice, and fury of Wesley’s party are inconceivable. But, as violently as they hate me, I dare not, I cannot hate them in return. I have not so learned Christ. Your idea of Mr. John Wesley and his associates exactly tallies with mine. Abstracted from all warmth, and from all prejudice, I believe him to be the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in England. I except not Pelagius himself.
Haters gonna hate, I guess. Worse than Pelagius! Showing that he “cannot hate them in return,” in a tract entitled “An Old Fox Tarr’d and Feather’d,” (which apparently had a picture of a fox’s head in clerical garb for the frontispiece), Toplady begins by saying Wesley is best compared to “a low and puny tadpole in divinity, which proudly seeks to disembowel a high and mighty whale in politics.”
It’s an unedifying stretch of history, but there is an important moral: When publicly disagreeing with other believers, try to keep some sense of perspective. If a Wesleyan is the worst thing you can imagine, you have a weak imagination. Wesley’s influence is not what’s driving the godless spirit of the age. The same moral applies, of course, to Arminians, too: If you think the main problem with the world today is Calvinism, you should get out more. The Young Restless Reformed resurgence is not what’s burying the Methodist church.
Almost nobody these days argues as vituperatively as Toplady, and the few who do are kind enough to do all their writing IN ALL CAPS!!! WITH SENTNECE FRAGMETNS AND MISPELINGS AND ALL CAPS ALL CAPS REPETITION SO THE REST OF US KNOW TO IGNORE THEM!!! Their language rarely rises to the level of “the necromantic soup” of Macbeth or sinks to the level of the “low and puny tadpole.” Our tone of voice has changed considerably. But we can still learn from this episode. One of the most important things to learn is that a Calvinist shouldn’t define himself primarily over against Wesleyans. It would be better to define oneself over against Roman Catholics, or better still, non-Christians.
But What About Rock of Ages?
When Toplady came to write Rock of Ages, he was apparently thinking primarily of his standing before God. He first published it in a magazine after an article tallying up the number of sins each of us commits in our lifetime.
Toplady was always at his best when writing about worship. If you can avoid his dreadful performance as a theological controversialist, and instead catch him in the act of prayer, in the act of standing consciously in the presence of his God, you will read Toplady saying exactly the right things, and saying them well. At his best, he captures and documents the attitude of humble worship of a holy God in way that the Reformed tradition has so often excelled at. With Rock of Ages, he is especially focused on the question of how a sinner can approach this holy God. This is Toplady’s best theme, and by the common consent of everybody who has loved Rock of Ages, he expressed it powerfully in the hymn.
But there are some indicators that, even in this hymn, Toplady was hoping to get a few more digs in at Mr. John Wesley and his ilk. For one thing, the superscription of the hymn is “a living and dying prayer of the holiest believer in the world.” The Methodist watchword was “holiness of heart and life,” and Toplady seems to be saying, “I don’t care how holy you are, you’d better come to God with this attitude.” And in one of the verses, Toplady says “Not the Labors of my hands Can fulfill thy Law’s demands,” and then adds, “Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for Sin could not atone.” The idea here is that nobody should ever say “My zeal is so constant that it atones for my sins;” or “I grieve and cry so much for my sins, that that is atonement.” It’s easy to imagine Toplady contemplating the Wesleyan bands with their zeal and emotion and protestations of holiness, saying, “You’d better know that none of that is sufficient. I don’t care how much you cry, only God can save you.”
But the great thing is that Toplady wrote these thoughts into Rock of Ages in such an artful manner that the result is a hymn his opponents can gladly sing. “Thou must save, and thou alone!” Toplady himself no doubt thought that no Wesleyan, not “Mr. Wesley or Mr. Anybody Else” in that movement, could sing these lines with conviction.
But they did. Wesleyans ate it up, loved it, and put Rock of Ages right into the Methodist Hymnal. In a sense, Rock of Ages is the perfect example of fruitful conflict between Christians: The anti-Wesley hymn was such a perfect statement of the gospel that even the Wesleyans loved it.
This principle applied in the other direction, too: Charles Wesley not infrequently indulged in hymn-writing with an axe to grind. Some of Wesley’s compositions were diatribes against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, which he hated intensely. The results are mostly unsingable, and are well forgotten, buried among the six thousand hymns of Wesley. Imagine singing this anti-Calvinist doggerel:
O horrible decree,
Worthy of whence it came,
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb!
That doesn’t even rhyme or scan right. But even among Wesley’s popular works, the discerning ear can tell that he was trying to get a few digs in at his theological opponents. The same thing happened with him as with Toplady, though: Though he wrote with a will to undermine Calvinism, he also stuck to Scripture and the power of the gospel, and as a result the Calvinists loved his hymns. They still do.
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 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.
So sing Rock of Ages without reserve, and thank God that all of Augustus Toplady’s insight into the gospel was not buried beneath his rage or his inability to see that Wesley knew the same savior.
Feeling a little remorseful at having quoted so much of Toplady at his worst, I’ll close with another bit of Toplady at his best: Three stanzas of a great Trinity hymn.
Glorious Union! God unsought,
Three in Name and one in Thought;
All thy Works thy Goodness show,
Center of Perfection Thou.
Praise we with uplifted Eyes
Him that dwells above the Skies;
GOD who reigns on Sion’s Hill,
Made, redeem’d, and keeps us still.
Join th’angelic Hosts above,
Praise the Father’s matchless Love;
Who for us his Son hath giv’n,
Sent Him to regain our Heav’n.