“Rock of Ages” was my Memaw’s favorite hymn. It holds a particular place of sentiment in the hearts of many and regularly tops various greatest hymns lists. Its relationship to Augustus Toplady’s (its author) conversion is also widely known. Traveling home from a neighboring village, Toplady found himself caught in a storm and took refuge in a cave. He connected this to the biblical account of Moses being hidden in the cleft of a rock, as well as the image of Christ as the Rock of God, and the famous hymn was born.
But this is only the history of the writing of the hymn. Its publication history is another matter and not quite as sweet.
Toplady was a staunch defender of Calvinism in the late 18th cent. Church of England. As such, he was famously engaged in a bitter controversy with John Wesley. It began in 1769 (interestingly enough, due to a new translation of Zanchius), and it continued, at least on Toplady’s part, until his death. It was not always conducted in an irenic manner. Erik Routley recalls some of the low points:
“[Toplady] describes John Wesley’s headquarters, the Foundery Chapel in Moorfields:
Its chief ingredients are: An equal portion of gross Heathenism, Pelgianism, Mahometism, Popery, Manichaeism, Ranterism, and Antinomianism; culled, dried and pulverized, secundum artem; and, above all, mingled with as much palpable Atheism as you can possibly scrape together from every quarter.
In another place he writes:
Whereunto shall I liken Mr. John Wesley? And with what shall I compare him? I will liken him to a low and puny tadpole in divinity, which proudly seeks to disembowel a high and mighty whale in politics”
the reference here being to an alleged plagiarism by Wesley of a pamphlet by Dr. Johnson.” (Hymns and Human Life, Eerdmans, 1959, pg. 106)1
Toplady went on to found the Gospel Magazine where he continued writing scathing criticisms of Wesley, as well as apologetical essays for his own brand of Calvinism. One of them gained some notoriety at the time, as it compared the debt we owe to God for our sins to England’s national debt, which was at the time of an enormous sum. The essay, titled simply “Questions and Answers Relative to the National Debt” can be found in Vol. 3 of Toplady’s works. The work is a familiar defense of a stricter sort of penal substitution, though it surely seemed to reach a pedantic tone to those not previously convinced. Yet, amazingly, at the end of this polemical essay, Toplady decided to affix the lyrics to “Rock of Ages,” the first time they were published at large.
J Cuthbert Hadden summarized this occasion in The Nonconformist Musical Journal (April, 1896, pg. 59-60), writing:
TURNING over an old volume of the Gospel Magazine the other day I came across the original version of “Rock of Ages,” and was thereby reminded of the circumstance that we owe that now famous hymn to a controversy — a controversy, too, on the fateful subject of predestination, which, if we may credit Milton, was the question discussed in a debating club of fallen angels in Pandemonium. Toplady, the author of the hymn, was a clergyman who held very strong Calvinistic views, and he was not pleased with the doctrines being propagated in his time by the Wesleys, who hated the tenets of predestination as much as Satan is said to hate holy water. Toplady, indeed, had a long and bitter controversy with John Wesley, in which he appears in anything but an enviable light. Passing over the details of this controversy as being quite uninteresting at this time of day, it is sufficient to say that “Rock of Ages” was written as a kind of protest against the doctrine of absolute perfection in this life, which the author erroneously suspected Wesley of preaching. In the Gospel Magazine for March, 1776 [*it was actually 1775–SW] — a magazine of which Toplady was at the time editor — it comes at the end of an extraordinary article, written by Toplady, and headed “Questions and Answers relative to the National Debt.” The author begins by showing the impossibility of the nation ever paying off its pecuniary obligations. Then, founding on this, he makes a kind of spiritual calculation of the number of a man’s sins, bringing out the grand total, at eighty years of age, to be 2,522 millions and 880 thousands! We can never, he says, pay off this immense debt, and ‘divine goodness will not compound for it by accepting, anything less than we owe. Alter this, of course, we have the Gospel remedy for the utter insolvency of the sinner; and then follows the now well-known hymn, which is headed, “A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world.”
And so it was that the world was first given these lines:
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.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
- A few more impressively biting lines can be found in A Letter To The Rev. John Wesley Relative to His Pretended Abridgment of Zanchius on Predestination. For example:
“Blush, Mr. Wesley, if you are capable of blushing. For once publicly acknowledge yourself to have acted criminally: ‘unless,’ to use your own words on another occasion, ‘shame and you have shook hands and parted.’
Your concluding paragraph, which you have the effrontery to palm on the world as mine, runs thus: ‘The sum of all this: one in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate shall he damned, do what they can. Reader, believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand, A T .’
In almost any other case, a similar forgery would transmit the criminal to Virginia or Maryland, if not to Tyburn. If such an opponent can be deemed an honest man, where shall we find a knave? –What would you think of me, were I infamous enough to abridge any treatise of yours, sprinkle it with interpolations, and conclude it thus: ‘Reader, buy this book, or be damned, Witness my hand, John Wesley?’
And is it thus you contend for victory? are these the weapons of your warfare? Is this bearing down those who differ from you with meekness? Do you call this binding with cords of love? Away, for shame, with such disingenuous artifices. At least, endeavour to conceal that narrow sectarian spirit, which betrays itself more or less in almost every thing you write. Renounce the low serpentine cunning, which puts you on falsifying what you find yourself unable to refute. And, as you regard your character and the cause you espouse, dismiss those dirty subterfuges (the last resources Of mean malicious impotence), which degrade the man of parts into a lying sophister, and sink a divine beneath the level of an oyster-woman. Cease to fight like the French, with old nails and broken glass. Charge fairly and fire as forcibly as you can. But if you persist to employ the weapons of scurrility and falsehood, the splinters will not only recoil on yourself, but you will continue to be posted for a theological coward.”