The Glory of God in the Hymnal Classic ‘Rock of Ages’
by Robie Day
In the world of music, the term “Christian music” does not fully describe all songs that worship and praise Jesus Christ. Today’s Christian music consists of so many varying types of genres that Christian music must be divided into many groups. These groups include traditional bluegrass, southern gospel, contemporary rock, rap, and my personal favorite, Christian folk music (Some of the congregants at my church tell me this is a result of the hipster in me. Obviously they do not know a true hipster when they see one. To understand what kind of music a true hipster listens to, see Dave Dunham’s series of blogposts entitled “Hipster Hymns”). Although I enjoy all of these different subgroups of Christian music, I still love and revere traditional Christian hymns as well. Some of my favorite hymns include “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Farther Along,” “Brethren We Have Met to Worship,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and of course, “Amazing Grace.” However, there is one hymn that has always stood out to me above all the rest. Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” is my all-time favorite hymn. The hymn is a sobering reminder of the sinful and depraved state from which God, in sending his Son, rescues sinners. In its telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it includes the fallen state of man, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the imputation of his righteousness to sinners, and reminds us that all the glory of salvation belongs to God alone. Having said that, over the next few weeks I will be breaking down and discussing each stanza of the hymn, as well as including various renditions of the hymn each week (see below). This week, however, I simply want to give you a little bit of the story behind the hymn and its author.
There is actually very little biographical information available on the life of Augustus Montauge Toplady. As J.C. Ryle stated, “Few spiritual heroes of the last century, I must freely confess, have suffered more from the want of a good biographer than Toplady.” However, his impact on the English church was enormous. Ryle would also say of Toplady, “I should think no account of English religion in the last century complete, which did not supply some information about this remarkable man.”
Toplady was born in Farnham, England on November 4, 1740. He was the only child of an English major who died soon after his birth, leaving his mother to raise him as a widow. Toplady attended the Westminster school before studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Toplady’s conversion was attributed to hearing the text of Ephesians 2:13, “Ye who were sometimes far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ,” preached by James Morris in a simple barn gathering. Toplady would say of his experience, “Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh to God 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 is 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.” After his conversion in 1756, he would go on to be ordained into ministry in 1762 in the Church of England. Toplady’s ministry was cut short after just sixteen years when he died an early death in 1778 due to illness. During his ministry, Toplady would engage in a doctrinal battle over the doctrine of salvation (this is not to define this entire ministry, but is important to the purpose of his article). A staunch Calvinist, Toplady and his Arminian opponents wrote many articles in refutation of one another, which Ryle refers to as “bitter and intemperate.” Written first as a poem, “Rock of Ages” was published in 1776 as a part of an article in The Gospel Magazine, in which Toplady edited. A part of the ongoing doctrinal debate, the article was entitled, “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World.” Toplady would go on to publish the poem in his hymnbook, Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship. Although he did not write very many, his hymn-writing ability has been rivaled by only a few. Ryle wrote, “Of all the English hymn-writers, none perhaps, have succeeded so thoroughly in combining truth, poetry, life, warmth, fire, solemnity, and unction as Toplady has.” Of his most well-known hymn, Ryle would go on to say, “Heretics have been heard in absent moments whispering over ‘Rock of Ages,’ as if they clung to it when they had let slip all things beside. Great statesmen have been known to turn it into Latin, as if to perpetuate its fame.” The words of “Rock of Ages” still have the same resonance today as they did over 200 years ago. It is this hymn that draws me to tears almost every time I hear it, for Jesus is the Rock of my salvation, and “simply to the cross I cling.”
Here is a very traditional, Anglican version of “Rock of Ages”
All biographical information taken from J.C. Ryle’s “Christian Leaders of the 18th Century,” 1885.