The Origin Of Toplady’s Hymn,
Come with me in your imagination to the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The year is round about 1763 – Toplady was incumbent at Blagdon for two years between June 1762 and June 1764. Toplady is taking a walk in the Mendips, a storm is brewing so he quickens his pace. The clouds gather and the rain begins to fall. It is quite a storm. Toplady hurries along – he is now at the foot of Burrington Coombe, but the rain is falling too heavily for him to carry on his journey. There at the foot of the Coombe on the left-hand side he espies a cleft in the cliff face and here he shelters from the storm. The story goes that he sees a playing card (the six of diamonds), he picks it up and his active mind scribbles the first verse of the hymn that we have come to know and love as the “Rock of Ages”.
Three of Toplady’s biographers (Thomas Wright, George Lawton and George Ella) all agree that the story is probably a fable. However, it is based on the possibility, indeed the probability, that he did shelter from a storm in the cleft of a rock at the foot of Burrington Coombe whilst he was walking in the Mendips, and that his active mind meditated upon the subject of the cleft of the rock. The cleft in the rock can still be seen as can a plaque which was placed there in the 1950s.
Whilst the story goes that Toplady composed the hymn whilst he was sheltering from a storm in Burrington Coombe, it is highly likely that the hymn does date from the period that Toplady was incumbent at Blagdon. There are a couple of Toplady’s sermons that he preached at this time which make reference to the Rock of Ages. The following quotation comes from his farewell sermon at Blagdon:
If God were to justify and save only those who are pure and upright, heaven would be empty of inhabitants. I say not this to encourage sin; but to encourage those who are grieved for their sins; who fly to the blood of the Cross for pardon, and whose prayer is that they may henceforward be renewed in the spirit of their mind and bring forth acceptable fruit unto God. Let not such be afraid to meet Him: let not such say, “How shall I stand when He appears?” For such have a Foundation to stand upon, a Foundation that cannot fail, even Jesus, the Mediator and Surety of the covenant, Christ, the ROCK OF AGES. He died for such. Their sins which lay like an unsurmountable impediment, or stood like a vast partition wall, and blocked up the passage to eternal life; I say He took the sins of His penitent people out of the way, nailing them to His Cross.
Here is another quotation from Toplady from the same period:
Let even those rugged regions of ignorance and barbarism resound with the high praises of God and of His Christ. . . chiefly may they sing who inhabit Christ, the spiritual ROCK OF AGES. He is a rock in three ways: as a foundation to support; a shelter to screen; and a fortress to protect. We are apt to build houses of self-righteousness for ourselves; the Lord send you a bill of ejectment and compel you to the Rock.
The finest sight in the world is a stately ship, lying at anchor, by moonlight in the mouth of the harbour, in a smooth sea, and under the serene sky, waiting for high water to carry it into the haven. Such is the dying Christian at anchor, safely reposed on Christ, the ROCK OF AGES.
But the phrase “Rock of Ages” was one that was familiar to Christian believers of the 18th century and, as George Lawton says, “The expression ‘Rock of Ages’ was idiomatic in evangelical religion, and not specific hymnological utterance.
A similar phrase was used by Charles Wesley in one of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, which had been published in 1745. It is inconceivable that Toplady was ignorant of this book and that book itself contains a preface extracted from Daniel Brevint’s The Christian Sacramen. (Daniel Brevint was a Caroline divine.) Charles Wesley wrote:
“Rock of Israel, cleft for me,
For us, for all mankind,
See, thy feeblest followers see,
Who call thy death to mind:
Sion is the weary land;
Us beneath thy shade receive,
Grant us in the cleft to stand,
And by thy dying live.”
Daniel Brevint wrote:
O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two streams of blood, and water, which once gushed out of 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 sprung this water and near the cleft of that rock, the wounds of my Lord, whence gushed out this sacred blood. All the distance of time and countries between Adam and me doth not keep his sin and punishment from reaching me, any more than if I had been born in his house. Adam from above, let thy blood reach as far, and come as freely to save, and sanctify me, as the blood of my first father did, both to destroy and defile me.
Toplady’s hymn first appeared as four lines in an article by Toplady entitled “Life a Journey”, which was published in the Gospel Magazine for September 1775 as:
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee!
Foul, I to the fountain fly:
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
The whole hymn, as we know it today, was published in the March 1776 issue of the Gospel Magazine at the end of another article. That article was called “Questions and Answers, Relative to the National Debt” by someone with the initials “J.F.” (probably J. Fisher of Whitechapel). Toplady then followed this with “Spiritual Improvement of the foregoing: by another hand”, concluding with “A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world” – “Rock of Ages Cleft for me . . .”.
The hymn that we sing is largely the same as Toplady composed it. Julian tells us that the text was often altered (probably by editors of hymnbooks to fit their own doctrinal emphases). However, the hymn as we sing it today is by and large the same as written by Toplady. The only variations that have survived have been to alter the word “cleft” to “shelter”. This appears in just a couple of hymn-books. And they alter “eyestrings break” to “eye-lids close”. Both of these alterations appear in the final verse.
Taken from the Gospel Magazine September-October 2006 and printed here by permission.
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