Rock of Ages – Audio
This free MP3 recording of Rock of Ages is brought to you by Redemption Hill Church in Richmond VA.
About the Hymn: Rock of Ages
Ooh, a storm is threatenin’ my very life today
If I don’t get some shelter, Ooh, yeah I’m gonna fade away
Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones
Rock of Ages has long been considered one of the most popular and best known hymns ever written. It has been described as a “…hymn that meets the spiritual needs of all sorts and conditions of men, from the derelict snatched from the gutter by the Salvation Army, to Prime Minister Gladstone, at whose funeral it echoed through the dim spaces of Westminster Abbey.” Where most hymns though have been written out of some deep personal need, or experience, this hymn was born in a spirit of passionate controversy.
Augustus Montague Toplady was born on November 4, 1740, in Farnham, England, the son of Major Richard Toplady, who was killed in battle soon after his son was born. He was left in the care of his mother, Catherine, who is said to have “spoiled” him, and his Uncle Julius, who was considered a stern disciplinarian. It is recorded that the young Toplady kept a diary that described his mother’s fondness, his uncle’s rigorous speeches, and many of his young prayers and sermons. But even in the middle of all this drama, Augustus’ interest in the Lord was evident. He wrote in his diary on his eleventh birthday, “I am now arrived at the age of eleven years. I praise God I can remember no dreadful crime; to the Lord be the glory.” By the age of twelve, he was preaching sermons to his friends, and whoever else would listen.
He attended school at Westminster School, in London, and would go on to attend Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland. It was during his time in Ireland that he was converted one evening in August after hearing a sermon by illiterate preacher James Morris, a follower of John Wesley, in a local barn. Of his conversion, Toplady wrote:
Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought right with God in an obscure part of Ireland, midst 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 graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, and was ordained in 1762 as an Anglican minister. It was around this time that the initial inspiration for the poem Rock of Ages is speculated to have transpired. The story goes that one day, Toplady was caught in a thunderstorm near the village of Burrington, and sought shelter in a rock gorge named Burrington Coombe. He hid in a rock, that still stands today, and was reminded of the place of refuge that he, as a believer, had in the wounded side of Christ. While the initial idea of the poem came at this time, it would be four years later when the finished product was actually published.
A powerful evangelistic preacher, Toplady would go on to pastor many congregations and parishes during his short life. In 1778, at the age of 38, Augustus Montague Toplady died after a long battle with tuberculosis that had seen his health deteriorate steadily over a number of years. One of his final statements before he died was:
My heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory. Sickness is no affliction, pain no cause, death itself no dissolution…My prayers are now all converted into praise.
Besides being a deeply spiritual evangelical leader, Toplady was also considered controversial. Early on in his life, Toplady was attracted for a time to the ministry of the Methodist brothers Charles and John Wesley; but as time went on, he became a strong adherent to John Calvin and the doctrines of Grace. He would go on to vehemently oppose the Arminian views of sanctification, promoted by the Wesleys “methodism.” By means of public debates, printed materials, and sermons, Toplady and the Wesleys carried on an extremely public theological war.
His bitter arguments with John Wesley date from around 1769, following Wesley’s derisive remarks about Toplady’s translation of a Latin treatise on Calvinism. It brought to a head their different opinions about whether or not people are predestined for salvation. An abridgment of the translation was published by Wesley for the use of the Methodist societies, and when Toplady accused Wesly of “lying and forgery,” that began a number of heated exchanges between the two men which eventually became more and more abusive.
I believe him [John Wesley] to be the most rancorous hater of the gospel-system that ever appeared on this island.
Toplady would also go on to write:
Wesley is guilty of satanic shamelessness…of acting the ignoble part of a lurking, shy assassin…of uniting the sophistry of a Jesuit with the authority of a pope.
Wesley’s rebuttal was no less callous:
I dare not speak of the deep things of God in the spirit of a prize fighter or a stage player, and I do not fight with chimney sweeps.
Toplady was editor of The Gospel Magazine from December 1775 to June 1776, and during his tenure, the verbal sparring with Wesley and his followers continued in the pages of the magazine. It was during this time that the article which first introduced Rock of Ages was written and published in 1776 in The Gospel Magazine by Toplady. The article was intended as a slap to Wesley. To refute some of his Arminian teachings, particularly his belief in man’s free will.
In it he attempted to prove that even as England could never pay her national debt, so man through his own efforts could never satisfy the eternal justice of a holy God. At the end, he included a poem he entitled A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World, which described Christ, the Rock of Ages, as the remedy for all our sin:
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
While many of the expressions in the poem are satirical swipes at Wesleyan theology, it is also worth noting that scholars today have pointed out that much of what Toplady wrote might have actually been ripped off from a poem that John’s brother Charles had written almost thirty years earlier in a collection of poetry entitled Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. A paragraph in the preface from this collection reads as follows:
O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck for me, let those two streams of Blood and Water which once gushed out of Thy side, bring down Pardon and Holiness into my soul. And let me thirst after them now as if I stood upon the Mountain whence sprang this Water; and near the Cleft of that Rock, the Wounds of my Lord, whence gushed this Sacred Blood.
It is encouraging to realize that, despite the somewhat contentious intent behind Rock of Ages, God in His providence has chosen to preserve this particular hymn for the past two hundred years so that Christians around the world can sing this tune with spiritual profit and blessing. Its strong declaration of Christ, and His work on the cross, as man’s only hope of salvation from the judgment his sin deserves, earns it a place of honor among hymns of grace. May we also learn in our day, that our safety and security is in the Rock that was cleft for us, and not in anyway by our own merits.
The melody that we use today for singing Rock of Ages, was composed in 1830 by well known American church musician, Thomas Hastings. Born in Washington, Connecticut, his formal musical training was almost non-existent; and as an albino, he suffered eye problems throughout his entire life. However, he would go on to write more than fifty volumes of church music, including 1,000 hymn tunes, and more than 600 original hymn texts, as well as editing more than fifty music collections. Along with Lowell Mason, Thomas Hastings is considered one of the most instrumental persons in shaping the development of church music in the United States. He once wrote:
The homage that we owe Almighty God calls for the noblest and most reverential tribute that music can render.
About this Recording
: Shelby T. Murphy
Engineered and Mixed by: Justin Bailey and Jonathan Fuller
Vocals, Stomps and Claps: Laura Agaba, Elizabeth Sullivan
Banjo, Mouth Harp, Stomps and Claps: Zachary Banister
Bass: Justin Bailey
Bass Drum, Stomps and Claps: Jonathan Tobin
: Justin Bailey, Jonathan Fuller, and David Jackson
Guitar, Stomps and Claps: Shelby T. Murphy
Recorded and Mixed at: