Augustus Montague Toplady (17401778), by John Raphael Smith, pubd 1777
Toplady, Augustus Montague (17401778), Church of England clergyman and hymn writer, was born on 4 November 1740 at Farnham, Surrey, the only surviving child of Richard Toplady (1713?1741), army officer, and Catherine (17041770), the daughter of Richard Bate (d. 1736), incumbent of Chilham, near Canterbury, from 1711 until his death. On his maternal side he was a grandson of the Stanhopes of Mellwood in Lincolnshire. His parents had been married by his mother's brother, Julius Bate (17111771), at his church of St Paul's, Deptford, on 31 December 1737. His father, who was from Ireland, probably Enniscorthy in co. Wexford, took a commission first in Moreton's marines in 1739 and then transferred to Cottrell's regiment, serving with which he met his death, probably from yellow fever, at Cartagena in May 1741. Toplady never knew his father and thus came entirely under the care of his mother, who settled in Petty France, London. He became a scholar of Westminster School probably in 1750 (he himself records his attendance there in 1751), where he remained until 1755.
Toplady and his mother moved to Ireland, perhaps in pursuit of legal claims to her husband's family estate. Toplady matriculated from Trinity College, Dublin, on 11 July 1755 and proceeded BA in 1760. In August 1756 he heard the itinerant James Morris, a follower of Wesley, preaching on Ephesians 2: 13 in a barn at Codymain in the parish of Ballynaslaney, co. Wexford, an occasion which he later recorded in his diary on 29 February 1768 as that memorable evening of my effectual call by the grace of God (A. Toplady, The Posthumous Works of A. M. Toplady, 1780, 275). There is a deep irony in this early link with Wesley, for it would not be long before their lifelong controversy would erupt. In a sermon at St Ann Blackfriars on 25 May 1774 Toplady claimed, It pleased God to deliver me from the Arminian snare before I was quite eighteen (Works, 1825, 3.170), mainly, he asserted, by reading the seventeenth-century puritan Thomas Manton on St John's gospel, chapter 17, and then Zanchius of Heidelberg's Confession of the Christian Religion (1562), which he translated and later published in an edited version as The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted (1769).
After graduation Toplady returned to England with his mother; she took up residence once again in Westminster at New Way, where she remained until her death in 1770. He met and was influenced by various Calvinistic ministers, not only Whitefield but also the Baptist John Gill of Horsleydown in Southwark and William Romaine, who preached at the New Way Chapel. Toplady was ordained deacon by Edward Willes, the bishop of Bath and Wells, on 5 June 1762 to serve the curacy of Blagdon, Somerset, in the Mendip hills; he was priested two years later in June 1764. Near to Blagdon is Burrington Combe, a spectacular ravine, where legend and now a metal plaque have it that Toplady wrote Rock of agesa very unlikely story. He preached his last sermon at Blagdon on 29 April 1764, returned briefly to London, and was then licensed as curate of Farleigh Hungerford, some 7 miles from both Bath and Frome, where he remained for just over a year. He was back with London friends in the winter of 17656, but in May 1766 he began a two-year incumbency of the Devon villages of Harpford and Venn Ottery. Being troubled by the circumstances under which this living had apparently and without his knowledge been purchased for him, Toplady exchanged it for Broad Hembury, also in Devon, to which he was instituted on 6 April 1768. Despite several absences he remained vicar there for the rest of his life.
Toplady never married, but two women of very different character and interests appear to have attracted him. One, not surprisingly, was Selina, countess of Huntingdon, whom he first met in 1763 and in whose chapels, and in whose presence, he preached several times after leaving Broad Hembury in 1775. The other, much more surprisingly, was the worldly Catharine Macaulay, historian and egalitarian controversialist, whom Toplady met probably in 1773 and with whom he spent some time in May 1774. She was in Devon for three months in that year and heard him preach in Wells Cathedral in October, and he expressed the hope of staying in Bath near to her house in the winter of 17745. He even warned her against her friend, the dapper doctor, Thomas Wilson, rector of St Stephen Walbrook, who had placed his house in Bath at her disposal. Toplady also saw her later when she lived in Berners Street, London, but by 1777 he could dismiss her with what he called her such contemptible vanity and such childish affectation (Works, 6.29091). At this time Toplady upbraided himself for having been unusually idle, both as a preacher and as a writer (ibid., 281). That judgement must have been very relative in one so prolific. Of his preaching it has been said that his voice was melodious and affecting; his manner of delivery and action were engaging, elegant and easy. His explanations were distinct and clear; his arguments strong and forcible; and his exhortations warm and animating (A. C. H. Seymour, Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, 1840, 2.634).
The Calvinism which Toplady preached from the pulpit suffused his polemical writings. The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism (1769) was directed against Thomas Nowell, the professor of modern history at Oxford, who had criticized the six students expelled from St Edmund Hall for their evangelical views. This apart, most of Toplady's work formed a protracted quarrel with Wesley, who had dismissed his Doctrine of Absolute Predestination as suggesting that only one in twenty would be saved and that The elect shall be saved, do what they willthe reprobate shall be damned, do what they can (J. Wesley, The Works of the Rev. J. Wesley, 14 vols., 1872, 10.370). Toplady replied with A Letter to Mr John Wesley Relating to his Pretended Abridgement of Zanchius on Protestantism in March 1771. Wesley responded with The Consequence Proved (August 1771) and Toplady came back with More Work for Mr Wesley (28 November 1771). Others joined in and the controversy culminated in Toplady's greatest work, The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England (1774), a massive study tracing the doctrine from the early church and devoting 500 of its 700 pages to the Reformation and the Laudian reaction. In 1775 he published his Scheme of Christian and Philosophical Necessity Asserted in reply to Wesley's Thoughts upon Necessity (May 1774) and followed it in the same year with An Old Fox Tarred and Feathered, a scurrilous attack exposing Wesley's alleged plagiarism. In his footnote on the Synod of Dort in The Historic Proof, Toplady isolated his five fundamental tenets of Calvinism as election, limited redemption, the spiritual incapacity of the human will because of sin, the invincible efficacy of regenerating grace, and the final perseverance of the truly converted.
Toplady took over the editorship of the Gospel Magazine from Charles de Coetlogon in December 1775 and ran it until July 1777, continuing here also his attacks on Wesley. It was in this publication that the first verse of Rock of ages appeared in September 1775, to be followed by the full hymn in March 1776. Toplady had written verses from his youth, his first book being Poems on Sacred Subjects (1759), but the main body of his work is to be found in Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776). Toplady's last three years were spent mainly in London, where he occupied the pulpit of the French Calvinist chapel in Orange Street. There on 14 June 1778, during his final illness, he made a dramatic entry to deny reports being spread about by Wesley and his followers that he had renounced his Calvinistic beliefs. This final address was published as The Rev. Mr Toplady's Dying Avowal of his Religious Sentiments (1778). He died, a victim of tuberculosis, at Knightsbridge, on 11 August 1778 and was buried six days later at Whitefield's Tabernacle (later the Whitefield Memorial Church) in Tottenham Court Road, London.
Most of Toplady's hymnody is now forgotten. Three pieces still minimally surviveA debtor to mercy alone, Deathless principle, arise, and Object of my first desire. Only in Rock of ages are the dramatic power, emotional tension, and sheer vividness of physical suffering so compelling. It is a hymn so well known that it is almost standard for those film scenes of the kind found, for example, in John Ford's westerns where, as the congregation is singing it confidently, there is suddenly threat and danger from the enemy at the door. Toplady's hymns match his preaching; there are no half measures. For him assurance was complete; his was faith in the furnace, religion at perpetual white heat.
The works of Augustus M. Toplady, new edn, 6 vols. (1825) · G. Lawton, Within the Rock of ages: the life and work of Augustus Montague Toplady (1983) · T. Wright, The life of Augustus M. Toplady (1911) · P. E. G. Cook, Augustus Toplady: the saintly sinner (1978) · A. Pollard, Restless endeavour: a study of the hymns of A. M. Toplady, The Churchman, new ser., 73 (1959), 238 · J. Julian, ed., A dictionary of hymnology, rev. edn (1907), 11823 · H. D. Rack, Reasonable enthusiasm: John Wesley and the rise of Methodism, 2nd edn (1992) · DNB · Burtchaell & Sadleir, Alum. Dubl.
Cowper Memorial Library, Olney, Northamptonshire, sermon drafts and other MSS
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, Robert W. Woodruff Library, papers
J. R. Smith, engraving, pubd 1777, NPG [see illus.] · engraving, 1777, repro. in Wright, Life of Augustus M. Toplady; in possession of Whitefield's Tabernacle, 1911 · C. Blackberd, line engraving (after C. R. Ryley), BM; repro. in Memoirs (1794) · pencil-and-gouache drawing (after J. R. Smith), NPG
Wealth at death
see Lawton, Within the Rock of ages, 134