AN Anglican clergyman was travelling through a gorge in the Mendip Hills when he was caught in a storm. Finding refuge in a rocky fissure, he did the obvious thing – he wrote a hymn.
That’s the story, anyway.
The wonderfully named Augustus Toplady was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1740. His father was a major in the Royal Marines and in May 1741, when Augustus was six months old, he died in the Caribbean in the naval Battle of Cartagena de Indias, the most significant battle of the War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain. Like many of the causalities, he was probably a victim of yellow fever.
Toplady’s mother, Catherine, and her son moved from Farnham to Westminster, and Augustus attended Westminster School from 1750 to 1755.
In 1755, Catherine and Augustus moved to Ireland, and he was enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin.
In August that year the 15-year-old Augustus attended a sermon preached by James Morris, a follower of John Wesley, in a barn in Codymain, Co Wexford, and experienced a religious conversion.
Following his graduation from Trinity College in 1760, Toplady and his mother returned to Westminster. In 1762, he was ordained in the Church of England and was appointed curate of the village of Blagdon, in the Mendip Hills of Somerset.
Toplady wrote Rock of Ages the following year, 1763. According to legend, he was travelling through the gorge of Burrington Combe
not far from his parish when he was caught in a storm. He found shelter in a fissure in the rocks (towards the left of the formation in the picture) and there wrote down the initial lyrics of the hymn. The spot is now marked by a plaque, which can be seen on this tweet by Chris Beer (thank you, Chris).
Many accounts say that this story has been discounted by historians, but they don’t say why, or what really happened. It seems a perfectly reasonable tale to me.
Toplady went on to be an early campaigner against cruelty to animals. His extreme Calvinist theology later brought him into conflict with John Wesley, and the two exchanged bitter letters. In the end Wesley avoided direct correspondence with Toplady, stating in a letter of 24 June 1770: ‘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.’ Toplady died of tuberculosis in 1778, aged 38.
Rock of Ages was first published in The Gospel Magazine in 1775.
These are the words:
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 fulfil 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.
‘Rock of Ages’ is a metaphor for Jesus, based on Isaiah 26 verse 4: ‘Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord Himself, is the Rock eternal’, and the world ‘cleft’ making the connection with Jesus’s broken body.
This hymn was regarded as one of the Great Four Anglican Hymns of the 19th century, the others being All Praise to Thee, my God, this Night,by Thomas Ken, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Charles Wesley, and Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending, also by Wesley.
The hymn was a favourite of Prince Albert, who asked for it to be played to him on his deathbed in December 1861. It was played at the state funeral of William Gladstone at Westminster Abbey, at which the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and the Duke of York (the future King George V) acted as pallbearers, on May 28, 1898.
In his 1896 book Hymns That Have Helped, the English journalist W T Stead reported when the steamship London sank in the Bay of Biscay on January 11, 1866, with the loss of 220 lives, the few survivors heard the doomed passengers singing Rock of Ages. Stead drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.
The first musical setting was by an American composer, Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). He called the tune Toplady and it is the best known of the 1,000 hymn tunes he wrote. I was spoilt for choice on YouTube with so many great versions but I settled on the great Tennessee Ernie Ford,
and this joyful version from the Ivory Coast:
Another tune in common use is Petra, written in 1853 by the English organist and composer Richard Redhead (1820-1901). Not so many to choose from on YouTube but I liked this one by the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge.
I came across a third version, very little used but lovely, by John Henry Maunder (1858-1920) from his cantata Olivet to Calvary. Here is a 1964 recording by the choir of Guildford Cathedral.
Finally, forgive me for returning to the first tune, Toplady, but here are two great recordings which I had to feature. The first is on a terrific portable (!) organ which I have shown before:
And here is a beautiful recording from 1904 by the American singers Albert C Campbell and James F Harrison. I just love this one.