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Augustus Toplady (1740-1778)

Category Articles
Date March 29, 2011

Augustus Toplady was born at Farnham, Surrey on 4th November 1740. His father, who was a soldier, died soon after he was born. He was educated for a time at Westminster School. When he was still a boy, his mother went to Ireland to claim some property there and he accompanied her. It was in Ireland that he received his final education taking a B.A. degree at Trinity College, Dublin. It was also, according to his own writings, in Ireland at the age of sixteen that the Lord met with him and opened his ears to the truth. In his diary for February 29th, 1768 he writes:

At night, after my return from Exeter, my desires were strongly drawn out, and drawn up to the Lord. I could indeed say that I groaned with groans of love, joy, and peace; but so it was, even with comfortable groans that cannot be uttered. That sweet text, Ephesians 2. 13, ‘Ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ,’ was particularly delightful and refreshing to my soul; and the more so as it reminded me of the days and months that are passed, even the day of my sensible espousals to the bridegroom of the elect. It was from that passage that Mr. Morris preached on the memorable evening of my effectual call. By the grace of God under the ministry of that dear messenger, and under that sermon I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ, in August 1756. 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 an 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 doings 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.

Many years later another servant of the Lord was blessed on the shores of Ireland as he wrestled in great trouble with the Lord. We are thinking, of course, of J. C. Philpot, who as a staunch defender of the truth in its spirit and power, and a lover of the doctrines of grace, was a strikingly similar servant of the Lord to Augustus Toplady. Early in life Toplady showed his gift for writing poetry. He published a small volume in Dublin in 1759 when only nineteen. Nothing seems to remain of his exercises to the ministry, but it seems clear from his later life that he did not take up the work lightly or unthinkingly. He was ordained on Sunday the 6th June, 1762. He first went to Farleigh Hungerford in Somerset; then later he ministered at Fen-Ottery and Harpford near Exeter; and finally took the living at Broadhembury near Honiton in Devon, where he preached until 1775. His health then showing signs of failing with consumption, he went to London for a change of climate. He stayed there for the last three years of his life, preaching regularly in the French Calvinistic Church in Orange Street on Sundays and Wednesday evenings so long as his health permitted.

His hymns were first published in 1776. He included in this volume the hymns of other writers such as Charles Wesley, and as he attached no names to any of the hymns, it is sometimes difficult to be certain exactly which were by Toplady himself. Many of his own hymns were first published in The Gospel Magazine in 1771 signed “Minimus” or “Concionator”. His famous hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’, appeared in this magazine in 1776 entitled ‘A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World’, signed ‘A.T.’ Toplady was himself Editor of The Gospel Magazine from December 1775 until June 1776. He was a strong opponent of error and a great defender of the truth. In his life he came into much conflict with John Wesley. His own experience had showed him the utter futility of free-will and led him to be a consistent defender of the doctrines of grace. He was also a very loyal defender of his own church, The Church of England, for whose Thirty-Nine Articles he had a great affection. These he defended in an extensive work entitled An Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, published in 1774. Besides this he wrote many other works. Considering how relatively young he was when he died – thirty-eight – his complete works, which run into a combined volume of well over 900 pages of close print, show how he expended his energies in study and the defence of the truth.

His memory today survives mainly in his hymns, and at Broadhembury, where he preached from 1768 to 1775 and where the Lord greatly blessed his work. In that Church, on the left hand side of the chancel, there was erected in 1898 a memorial to him by lovers of his hymns. It reads:

In grateful memory of the Revd. Augustus Montague Toplady B.A. Vicar of this parish from 1768 to 1778, and author of the immortal 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.

to whose personal piety, brilliant gifts, sanctified learning and uncompromising advocacy of the gospel of the Sovereign Grace of God his writings bear abundant testimony. This Tablet is erected 1898 A.D., being 120 years after he entered into the joy of his Lord on the llth August 1778, in the 38th year of his age.

‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.’ Ephesians 2. v. 8 and 9.

A little-known record is his diary which he kept for the period December 6th, 1767 – December 3rd, 1768, entitled, Short memorials of God’s gracious dealings with my soul in a way of spiritual experience. The following extracts reveal the man in his approaches to his God.

Sunday, 27th December, 1767. In the morning read prayers and preached at Harpford, to a congregation tolerably large and very attentive. Afterwards administered the Lord’s Supper to some who appeared truly devout communicants. It was indeed an ordinance of love to my own soul. I experienced the favour and presence of God. I sat under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was pleasant to my taste.

Saturday, 9th January, 1768. This evening I felt unusual diffidence in myself, about the performance of tomorrow’s duty. Free (blessed be God) from fightings without, I yet had fears within. I besought the Lord to manifest his strength in my weakness; and these precious words were returned, with unutterable power and sweetness to my soul. ‘Trust in the Lord Jehovah, for in him is everlasting strength.’ I was instantly enabled to cast myself with perfect acquiescence on the message from heaven: which though delivered as an exhortation, is in effect a most glorious and comfortable promise. My doubts ceased; my misgivings vanished away; and I was assured that God would certainly give me a supply of sabbath-day strength for a sabbath-day’s work.

Sunday, 10th January. Found God faithful to his word. Great was my strength, both morning and afternoon: nor less the liveliness of my soul in preaching.

Sunday, 31st January. How sweet is the work of the ministry, when attended with the unction and power of the Holy One! My soul has been very barren since last Lord’s Day; but this Sabbath has been a Sabbath indeed.

Wednesday, 10th February. The Lord was very gracious to my soul this afternoon. His spirit was the comforter, and Mr. Erskine’s two sermons, on ‘The Rainbow of the Covenant’, were the channel through which that comfort was conveyed. Amid my many seasons and long intervals of barrenness and want of joy, God sometimes makes me glad with the light of his countenance.

Sunday, 20th March. About six in the evening, being alone in my chamber, I was still more sensibly led forth beside the waters of comfort. I tasted some sweet droppings of the honeycomb and could say, ‘My Lord and my God.’ The embers were blown aside by the breath of the Holy Spirit; the veil of unbelief was rent; and the shadows fled away. Light sprung up and the fire kindled: even the light of God’s countenance and the fire of his love.

Thursday, 7th April. That gracious promise was given to me today, ‘I will inform thee and teach thee in the way wherein thou shall go; and I will guide thee with mine eye’: I had been previously much dejected in spirit and exercised with various doubts; but that word of comfort came with such power and effect that I was soon set to rights again.

Thursday, 21st April. Riding home tonight from Exeter the Lord was with me in a way of spiritual communion. Applying to him for a blessing on my intended removal to Broadhembury this answer was given, ‘Go and I will be with thee’ and a little while after, ‘Thou shalt shake off every weight.’

Sunday, 24th April. What a day has this been! A Sabbath Day indeed, a feasting to my soul; a day of triumph and rejoicing. He brought me into his banqueting-house and his banner over me was love. I never was more assisted from above than this afternoon; very seldom so much. Lord, bless the people as thou hast blessed me.

Thursday, May 5th. My honoured and most dear mother’s birthday. Gracious God, crown her inestimable life with many years to come; and crown each year with additional grace and redoubled happiness. After dinner removed for good from Fen-Ottery to Broadhembury; where being arrived, I spent the evening in a comfortable frame of soul; humbly trusting that the God and guide of my life, who fixeth the bounds of our habitation below, will himself vouchsafe to be the dwelling place of my soul here and ever.

Friday, 27th May. Not withstanding my aggravated sinfulness and my absolute unworthiness, God gave me this night to drink of his consolations as from a river. ‘Pardon and sanctification,’ was my prayer: ‘Mercy, pardon and salvation,’ was the gracious reply.

Saturday, 18th June. All day at home. Wrote several hymns; and while writing that which begins thus: ‘When faith’s alert, and hope shines clear,’ I was, through grace, very comfortable in my soul; so indeed I have been the whole day.

Sunday, 24th July. In the morning I rode to Sheldon; where I read prayers and preached. Returning thence, I read prayers and preached here at Broadhembury in the afternoon with uncommon strength and liveliness and to the largest congregation I have yet seen in the place. Blessed be the God of all comfort for the distinguished mercies of this delightful Sabbath. I was carried through the duties of it as on eagle’s wings and amidst the vast auditory the word preached seemed to reach some hearts with power and demonstration of the Spirit. May it be fastened as a nail in a sure place and be found after many days.

Monday, 29th July. This evening after my return from Grange, God was very gracious to my soul. My meditation of him was sweet and he gave me songs in the night season. I had sweet melting views of his special goodness and my own utter unworthiness. The united sense of these two keeps the soul in an even balance. I am then happiest as well as safest when my very exaltations lay me lowest.

At Broadhembury, Toplady had a very large congregation, though he said when he first went there he truly felt there were only about three in the parish in whom he had reason to believe the Lord had begun a work of grace. When his health began to fail in 1775 he felt he had to leave and go to London. His illness took a serious turn in April, 1778, and he only preached four times after this. In his end he was greatly blessed and his last days were in many ways his best days. Speaking to a friend, he said,

It is impossible to describe how good God is to me. Since I have been sitting here in this chair this afternoon I have enjoyed such a season, such sweet communion with God and such delightful manifestations of his presence and love to my soul, that it is impossible for words to describe them. I have had peace and joy unutterable . . .

He showed great resignation to the Lord’s will and was brought in peace to his end on the 11th August, 1778. He was buried in Tottenham Court Chapel, London.

Of his hymns there are in Gadsby’s Selection twenty-four, which include:

Awake, sweet gratitude, and sing 117
Rock of ages, cleft for me 143
Your harps, ye trembling saints 330
A debtor to mercy alone 340
A sovereign Protector I have 346
Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing 461
When languor and disease invade 472
Compared with Christ, in all beside 940
Happiness, thou lovely name 988
Emptied of earth I fain would be 991
At anchor laid, remote from home 1018
Redeemer! whither should I flee 1052

Augustus Toplady lived a comparatively short life, but at the same time a very full one. In an age of rationalism and godlessness, he was among a group of ministers whom the Lord raised up to proclaim the gospel and defend the truth; which included such names as John Berridge, John Newton and George Whitefield. He has left a sweet savour behind and his memory is blessed.

Taken with permission from Perception, Spring 2011, edited by the author, J. R. Broome.

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