Hymn History: Augustus Montague Toplady and “Rock of Ages”

Augustus Montague Toplady1We do know that Augustus Montague Toplady wrote this most beloved of  Gospel hymns. And, I will share with you the “traditional/historical” story of how this great hymn came to be written. While there have been doubts over the years whether the “tradition” story was accurate (and even different
stories about the actual writing) we can say with some certainty that it was written around 1763, but not published by Augustus Toplady until 1775. What I did not know was that the actual “Rock of Ages,” the actual “Rock” really existed, and you can visit it today. It is located in Burrington Combe in Somerset, which is in Southern England. I have taken great pleasure of being able to find photographs of the actual “Rock” in which Toplady sought out a cleft, for safety and protection.
The actual Rock of agesAugustus Montague Toplady was born at Franham in Surrey, England, on Nov. 4, 1740. His father was killed in battle a year later. Augustus was a sickly child; he suffered from tuberculosis, “consumption” as it was then known, and would only live 38 years.Rock of ages locationAugustus was educated at Westminster School in London and at Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated in 1760. Toplady received his degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from  Trinity College. While in Ireland, he was converted at a revival in a barn after listening to a sermon by James Morris, a Methodist preacher. At a very young age he showed a keen interest in developing a relationship with God. By age 12 he was preaching sermons, and at age 14 he began writing hymns. He was ordained as an Anglican priest at the age of 22. His first published work was “Poems on Sacred Subjects” published in Dublin in 1759. He would also write highly regarded religious books.
Ordained deacon in 1762, he was licensed to the curacy of Blagdon. Two years later, he was ordained as a priest.
Rock of agesIt was while serving as Curate of Blagdon that he wrote his beloved hymn, “Rock of Ages.”
Here is the commonly accepted story of how the hymn came to be written:
While walking along the road outside of Blagdon, near the village of Somerset, he was caught in a rapidly approaching thunderstorm, a loud, thundering storm with dangerous lightning. For a brief moment, the lightening showed his escape to safety. It was the rocky landscape of Burrington Combe, complete with crags, cliffs, and caves! Burrington Come climbs 250 feet toward the sky, with the Mendip Heights on one side, and Cheddar Gorge on the other. Anyone who has been caught out in a raging thunderstorm can easily picture the scene. He would have to act fast, as you can imagine the torrents of rain streaming down the cliff-sides.
Quickly, he found a cave … in the cleft of the rock, and waited the storm out. Augustus knew he had been blessed to find such a hiding place so quickly. While waiting for the storm to pass, he could easily picture the rock being a shelter from the storms of life. He would scribble down the opening lines to the song, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, Let Me Hide Myself in Thee … ”
early picture of rock of agesThe power of those opening words … I can feel, right now, as I sit here (albeit safe and secure), waiting out the latest Winter Storm, a late February/Early March ‘Noreaster. I feel the power of those opening words, and it has now been 250 years since they were first scribbled, on a rocky cliff in England.  After going through a major “Storm of Life” just too recently, with great loss, my tears won’t allow me to clearly see the rest of the words.
He is the “Rock of Ages.” Praise His Holy Name!
At the rock of agesAugustus Montague Toplady wrote over 100 poems and hymns.
As his death neared, he sensed God’s presence. “O what a day of sunshine this has been to me! I have not words to express it. It is unutterable. O my friends, how good is God!” The day he died, he was calling, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!” He told his friends that he could not live much longer, for no mortal man could live after seeing the glories of God that he had seen.” Not yet 38 years old, he died on August 11, 1778.
Augustus Montague Toplady2“I should think no account of English religion in the last century
complete, which did not supply some information about this remarkable man. In some respects, I am bold to say, not one of his contemporaries surpassed him, and hardly any equaled him.”
From: Christian Leaders of the 18th Century
Toplady and His Ministry
By Bishop J. C. Ryle

Here are the words of “Rock of Ages:”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor 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 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.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close 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.

As a side note, to show how times have changed … try a “Google Image Search” for “Rock of Ages.”
Blessings, Ted

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4 responses to “Hymn History: Augustus Montague Toplady and “Rock of Ages”

  1. Hi Phillip:
    Thanks for writing.
    I did a lot of research on the story, and this looks like the closest to the original. There have been minor changes to the words, over the years, especially in the first stanza.
    While checking this out, I found this interesting recording on Wikipedia. It is from 1913, and was recorded on the Edison Cylinder. Here’s a link to the story, which features the recording:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_of_Ages_(Christian_hymn)

    Thanks again for writing.
    Blessings,
    Ted

    Like

  2. Are these the original words to the hymn, Rock of Ages? They are very different than what I have seen in our church hymnal.

    Like

  3. Im not really religious but i really like this poem 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Pohai:
      At one time, none of us were (“religious”) … but it’s not the religion, it’s the relationship.
      It means a lot that you visited, and looked around the blog. A lot!
      You have a standing invitation to visit any time.
      Keep reading! 🙂

      Like

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