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History of Hymns: “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”

by Sarah Burden

"Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me"
Augustus Toplady
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 361

Augustus Toplady

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.


Augustus Montague Toplady, the writer of “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” was born in England in 1740 and died there from tuberculosis in 1778. 

Toplady was a staunch Calvinist and notorious for his dislike of and feuds with John Wesley. Though he had converted to Methodism, his study persuaded him that the Calvinist perspective, rather than Arminian theology supported by Wesley, offered the best understanding of salvation. In 1775, he moved to Leichester Fields and preached for a French Calvinist Church. 

Toplady was involved in several literary endeavors. He published Psalms and Hymns for a Public and Private Worship (1776) and served as editor of the Gospel Magazine from 1771-1776. 

In the Dictionary of Hymnology, John Julian cites the 1775 article “Life a Journey,” in which Toplady first published the first stanza of “Rock of Ages.” The following paragraph preceded the first stanza of the hymn: “Yes, if you fall, be humbled, but do not despair. Pray afresh to God, who is able to raise you up, and set you on your feet again. Look to the blood of the covenant; and say to the Lord from the depths of your heart . . . ” 

The complete hymn appeared a year later in the Gospel Magazine as “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World.” According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, the climax of the article “intended to show that as England could never pay her national debt, so man could never liquidate his sin account.” 

In this prayer, Toplady uses “Rock of Ages” as an endearing term for God. Christ’s blood from his death as the forgiveness for our sins is the theme in stanza one. Stanza two focuses on the idea that we can never repay him for that sacrifice. Baptism is the theme of stanza three. Stanza four climaxes with an eschatological focus asking for mercy as we face death. 

Scriptural references are all paraphrases. He cites Exodus 33.22, for instance, “when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” And Psalms 18.2: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” 

British hymnologist J.R. Watson suggests that perhaps the hymn owes the most to I Corinthians 10:4: “for they drank of the spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.” 

Julian, a hymnologist in 19th-century England, declared “Rock of Ages” as one of the most well known of English hymns. Thomas Hastings’ musical setting TOPLADY will be the one we sing for the life of the hymn. Written in a four-part harmony, TOPLADY can be sung with piano, organ or a cappella. Hastings (1784-1872) lived in New York and was an advocate with Lowell Mason for music education and Singing Schools. 

One of the paradoxes of this hymn is that Toplady may have borrowed the opening line from his theological nemesis, Charles Wesley. The image of the rock, common in hymnody and Scripture, was used by Wesley in one of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, published 30 years earlier. Though Wesley’s hymn goes in a different direction, it begins, “Rock of Israel, cleft for me . . . ” 
 

Ms. Burden is a church music student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns