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Although Isaac Watts’ beautiful hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross,” is regarded by most critics as the finest hymn in the English language, Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” holds the distinction of being the most popular. Perhaps no hymn ever written has so gripped the hearts of Christians of all communions as this noble hymn.

A British magazine once invited its readers to submit a list of the hundred English hymns that stood highest in their esteem. A total of 3,500 persons responded, and “Rock of Ages” was named first by 3,215.

We have tried the same experiment with a group of Bible students, and “Rock of Ages” easily headed the list.

Augustus Montague Toplady, the writer of this hymn, was born on November 4, 1740, at Farnham, England. His father, a major in the English army, was killed the following year at the siege of Carthagena. The widowed mother later removed to Ireland, where her son was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. It was during this period of his life that Augustus, then sixteen years of age, chanced to attend an evangelistic service held in a barn. The preacher was an unlettered layman, but his message so gripped the heart of the lad that he determined then and there to give his heart to God. Of this experience Toplady afterward wrote:

“Strange that I who had so long sat under the means of grace in England should be brought right unto God in 234 an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of people met together in a barn, and by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name. Surely it was the Lord’s doing and is marvelous.”

Toplady was ordained at the age of twenty-two as a minister of the Church of England. He was frail of body, and after some years he was stricken with consumption. It was while fighting the ravages of this disease that he wrote his famous hymn, two years before his death.

The hymn first appeared in the March issue of the Gospel Magazine, of which Toplady was editor, in the year 1776. It was appended to a curious article in which the author attempted to show by mathematical computation how dreadful is the sum total of sins committed by a man during a lifetime, and how impossible it is for a sinner to redeem himself from this debt of guilt. But Christ, who is the sinner’s refuge, has paid the entire debt. It was this glorious thought that inspired him to sing:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.

For some years John Wesley, the great founder of Methodism, and Toplady had been engaged in a theological dispute. Toplady was a confirmed Calvinist and was intolerant of Wesley’s Arminian views. Both men were intemperate in their language and hurled unseemly and sometimes bitter invectives at each other. Wesley characterized Toplady as a “chimney-sweep” and “a lively coxcomb.” Toplady retorted by calling Wesley “Pope John” and declaring that his forehead was “petrified” and “impervious to a blush.” There are reasons for believing that the article in the Gospel Magazine by Toplady to which we have alluded 235 was for the purpose of refuting Wesley’s teachings, and that “Rock of Ages” was written at the conclusion of the article as an effective way of clinching the argument.

In our day, when we find “Rock of Ages” on one page of our hymnals and Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my soul,” on the next, it is hard to understand the uncharitable spirit that existed between these servants of Christ. Perhaps, had they really understood each other, they were more in accord than they suspected.

Nevertheless, God is able to use the most imperfect of human instruments for His praise, and surely “Rock of Ages” has been the means of bringing multitudes to God through Christ. Its strength lies undoubtedly in the clear and simple manner in which it sets forth the glorious truth that we are saved by grace alone, through the merits of Christ. Even a child can understand the meaning of the words,

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to Thy cross I cling.

Or these,

Not the labors 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.

In this comforting and triumphant faith Toplady himself passed into glory in his thirty-eighth year. A few hours before his death he exclaimed: “My heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory. Sickness is no affliction, pain no curse, death itself no dissolution.” His last words were: “My prayers are all converted into praises.”


During his illness some friends had expressed the hope that he might soon be restored. Toplady shook his head.

“No mortal man can live,” he said, “after the glories which God has manifested to my soul.”

At another time he told how he “enjoyed a heaven already in his soul,” and that his spiritual experiences were so exalted that he could ask for nothing except a continuation of them.

Before his death Toplady had requested that he be buried beneath the gallery over against the pulpit of Totenham Court Chapel. Strangely enough, this building was intimately associated with the early history of Methodism. It was built by Whitefield, and here also Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon. Perhaps it was Toplady’s way of expressing the hope that all the bitterness and rancor attending his controversy with Wesley might be buried with him.

“Rock of Ages” has been translated into almost every known language, and to all peoples it seems to bring the same wondrous appeal. An old Chinese woman was trying to do something of “merit” in the eyes of her heathen gods by digging a well twenty-five feet deep and fifteen in diameter. She was converted to Christianity, and when she was eighty years old, she held out the crippled hands with which she had labored all her life and sang: “Nothing in my hands I bring.”

A missionary to India once sought the aid of a Hindu to translate the hymn into one of the numerous dialects of India. The result was not so happy. The opening words were:

Very old stone, split for my benefit,

Let me get under one of your fragments.


This is a fair example of the difference between poetry and prose. The translator was faithful to the idea, but how common-place and unfortunate are his expressions when compared with the language of the original!

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