Augustus Montague Toplady, clergyman and writer, was born in 1740, at Farnham, about 20 miles southwest of Windsor, England. He studied at the prestigious Westminster School for a short time, but was sent to Ireland in 1755, the same year as his conversion—he had been greatly influenced by the teachings of John Wesley.
Toplady received his degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Trinity College. During his studies, he gradually came to reject the Arminianism of the Methodists in favor of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace of the Calvinists. Ordained deacon in 1762, he was licensed to the Anglican curacy of Blagdon the same year. He was ordained a priest in 1764, and from then until 1766 he served as curate at Farleigh, Hungerford. For the next two years he held the benefice of Harpford with Venn-Ottery, and for two years after that, of Broad Hembury. During 1775 he took a leave of absence to minister to the French Calvinist Reformed Church in Orange Street, London.
His first published work was a work of verse, Poems on Sacred Subjects. But he was best known for his polemical and dogmatic works—including The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism which was published in 1769 and The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England which was published five years later in 1774. Those works proved vital in the ongoing theological struggles within the English church and helped to ensure orthodoxy for at least another generation.
Toplady was only thirty-eight when he died, but his short life-span was enough to produce one of the most beloved of all hymns, Rock of Ages:
Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood
From Thy driven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy law’s commands;
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.
The hymn was first published in the Gospel Magazine, London in 1776. Today, only a very few non-specialists read the theological works which established Toplady as one of the most significant men of his day, but nearly all Christians sing his hymn—even the Arminians it was written to confound.