CCCXXXVII. A Prayer, living and dying.
1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee!
Let the Water and the Blood,
From thy riven Side which flow’d,
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.
2. Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy Law’s demands:
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the Fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die!
4. While I draw this fleeting breath—
When mine eye-strings break in death—
When I soar to worlds unknown—
See Thee on thy judgment-throne—
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
Augustus Montague Toplady was born in England in the village of Farnham, Surrey in 1740, the same year the Wesleys published “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” His father died shortly after Augustus was born, and he was raised by his mother – who some biographers say spoiled him. Toplady was converted through the ministry of the Methodists, at preaching in a barn – but through his Bible study adopted a staunch Calvinistic position. His works demonstrate this interest, such as Free-will and Merit Fairly Examined: or, Men Not Their Own Saviours, Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England and The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism. He translated from the Latin and published Jerome Zanchius’ The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination, Stated and Asserted. Toplady attended both Westminster School in London, and Trinity College in Dublin. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1762. He concluded his ministry preaching for a French Calvinist Church at Leicester Fields.
On the negative side, A. M. Toplady became well-known for his feuds with the Wesleys, especially John. His book title An Old Fox Tarred and Feathered: Occasioned by what is called Mr. John Wesley’s Calm Address to our American Colonies suggests some of the rancor that existed. Despite the rancor that existed between Toplady and the Wesleys, both his hymns and theirs have served to bless many of God’s poor children. Rock of Ages and Jesus, Lover of My Soul adorn many of the same hymnals, even showing up harmoniously side by side in the same opening. Toplady died in 1778 at the young age of 38, from tuberculosis, and was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle.
Augustus Toplady served for a period as editor of a periodical called The Gospel Magazine. The first stanza of the hymn appeared in the magazine in 1775, within the text of an article. The next year the full four stanzas were printed in both the magazine (called “A living and dying PRAYER for the HOLIEST BELIEVER in the World”) and Toplady’s hymn book Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship. (London: E. and C. Dilly, 1776, pp. 308-309). Toplady wrote many hymns – including O, Thou that hear’st the prayer of faith, and From whence this fear and unbelief – but “Rock of Ages” is without question the best known. Among Christians in general, it is his legacy. In 1923, Louis Benson claimed “Rock of Ages” was “in more church hymnals than is any other English hymn.”[i] A background story for the “Rock of Ages” about a rock of refuge in a storm is often repeated, and probably as often questioned as apocryphal. Another interesting (apparently true) story involves a sinking ship:
“When the ‘London’ went down in the Bay of Biscay, Jan. 11, 1866, the last thing which the last man who left the ship heard as the boat pushed off from the doomed vessel was the voices of the passengers singing ‘Rock of Ages’. No other English hymn can be named which has laid so broad and firm a grasp on the English-speaking world.” (Hymns That Have Helped, W. T. Stead, New York, NY: Doubleday and McClure Co., 1900, p. 141)
Organist Richard Redhead (1820-1901) composed a tune setting for “Rock of Ages” and published it as number 76 in his book Church Hymn Tunes, for the Several Seasons of the Christian Year, as sung in All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street (London: Masters, 1853). Unnamed, it became known as Redhead 76 (now also known as Ajalon and Petra). It remains a popular tune, especially in England. More common in North America is a tune by Thomas Hastings. Hastings wrote this tune circa 1830 and published it in 1831 in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (with Lowell Mason), simply labeled Rock of Ages – but now commonly known as Toplady.
“If on a quiet sea” (by A. M. Toplady) appeared in The Gospel Magazine in 1772:
If, on a quiet sea, toward Heaven we calmly sail,
With grateful hearts, O God, to Thee,
We’ll own the favoring gale.
But should the surges rise, and rest delay to come,
Blest be the tempest, kind the storm,
Which drives us nearer home.
(Excerpt; entire hymn can be found HERE.)