Augustus Montague Toplady was an Anglican cleric and hymn writer best known for the hymn Rock of Ages. Not many of his songs are sung today but he is still worth remembering for being a Calvinist and major opponent of John Wesley.
Toplady was born in November 1740 in Farnham, Surrey, to Richard, an Irish commissioned officer of the Royal Marines, and Catherine. Unfortunately, Toplady’s father died from yellow fever during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-42) leaving Catherine to raise their son alone. Catherine relocated to London so that Toplady could attend Westminster School from 1750 to 1755, after which they moved to Ireland.
In Dublin, Toplady enrolled in Trinity College where he heard a sermon preached by James Morris, a follower of John Wesley. Inspired by this, Toplady initially followed Methodist ideas until he read a book by a Calvinist author when he was 18 years old.
Following his graduation in 1760, Toplady and his mother returned to Westminster where he met several Calvinist ministers. In 1762, the Bishop of Bath and Wells appointed Toplady curate of Blagdon, in Somerset. It was whilst he was in Blagdon that he composed Rock of Ages.
In 1763, Toplady was walking along the gorge of Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills near Blagdon when he was caught in a storm. His only shelter was a fissure in the gorge and it was while he sat there waiting out the storm that the initial lyrics of Rock of Ages came to him. The hymn is also based on Psalm 94:22, which says, “But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge.” The fissure that is believed to have sheltered Toplady is known today as “Rock of Ages”.
Toplady was ordained as a priest in 1764 and served briefly as a curate of Farleigh Hungerford in Somerset. His next post was in Devon where he became incumbent of Harpford and Venn Ottery, which he later exchanged for the post of vicar of Broadhembury. He kept this post until his death.
Although Toplady never married, he had relationships with a couple of women. The first was Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who founded a small society of Calvinist Methodist chapels. Toplady preached in a few of her chapels but seemingly their relationship did not last. The second was Catherine Macaulay, a historian, who Toplady spent considerable time with between 1773 and 1777.
During his life, Toplady wrote several books, beginning with Poems on Sacred Subjects while he was studying in Dublin. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, including animals and the natural world. In some of his works, he marvels on the behaviour of birds and his observations of nature, however, he also applied religious teachings, such as in his speech on Whether unnecessary cruelty to the brute creation is not criminal?
Although he remained the vicar of Broadhembury, Toplady spent his final three years in London, preaching regularly at a French Calvinist chapel at Orange Street. This can be found behind the National Gallery. Unfortunately, Toplady was never able to return to his parish having succumbed to tuberculosis on 11th August 1778. He was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle on Tottenham Court Road.
Hymns by Toplady, although not well known, include:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee."
~ Augustus Toplady
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon