821 Rock of Ages

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Story Behind the Hymn

Clouds gathered in dull, gray heaps around Burrington Combe [England] and broke their silence. Rain slicked down the fissures of the gorge and pooled along the steep path. The man quickened his pace, slogging through water and mud, hoping to escape the ferocity of the storm. He slid his hand along the rough edge of the limestone slope and suddenly found it—a deep crevice. Here he turned and squeezed himself between the narrow walls away from the raging wind and rain. He would wait out the storm, sheltered by the rock. As the elements lashed around the man, he called to mind the greatness of the God he served, how like a Rock He protected His people throughout their sojourn in a barren and hostile wilderness. Thought followed thought, and words heaped up like the clouds until the young man could no longer contain himself. Finding the only thing he could to write on—an old playing card—Augustus Toplady scribbled [the words to this hymn] and one of the Church’s most beloved hymns was born. Or so the legend goes. (Kate Uttinger)

A more likely, though less captivating origin to this hymn is that Toplady had a copy of Charles Wesleys’ “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper” (1745). The introduction included, nearly word-for-word, the first stanza of this hymn. Another hymn in the same book opens with “Rock of Israel, cleft for me.”

When a student at Trinity College in Dublin, Toplady found relaxation in composing spiritual odes, poems, and hymns. As a pastor, he was dedicated to Bible study and sermon-writing. One day he had an encounter at a London bookstore where the shopkeeper pulled him aside and made him an offer to sell him ready-made sermons, “all originals, very excellent ones . . . for a trifle.” Toplady hurled back, “I certainly shall never be a customer to you in that way, for I am of opinion that the man who cannot or will not make his own sermons is quite unworthy to wear the gown.”

Could it be that this unusually devout man who was writing daily prayers at the age of 11, sermons at 12 years old, and hymns when he was 14, wrote the hymn with Wesleys’ hymnal open at his desk, thinking back to that thunderstorm he encountered several years prior? Whatever the origin of the hymn, Toplady was a fierce defender of the doctrines he held, a tender shepherd of his flock, and a tireless preacher. He died of tuberculous on August 11, 1778 and is laid to rest at George Whitefield’s Tabernacle.

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