Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hymns & Hymn Writers: "Rock of Ages" by David R. Kenney

The above picture was given to me by one of the members of the Wadsworth church of Christ made from when he served in the Air Force and stationed in England.  He attended the church in Bristol and became friends with a Christian family there.  In the picture above are Harold, Eliza and Vi.  The picture was taken on August 8, 1953 at the site of what would inspire the hymn “Rock of Ages” by Augustus M. Toplady in 1776.  The area in front of the rock is a grass field; although it appears like rushing water at first glance.   The rock formation is located in Somerset, England.

Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), Lyricist

Toplady was born November 4, 1740 in Farnham, Surrey, England.  His father, Richard Toplay, died serving in the Royal Marines from yellow fever; so he was reared mostly by his mother, Catherine.  She moved them to Westminster where he attended school from 1750-1755.  He would go onto study in Dublin, Ireland at Trinity College and become a Methodist shortly after.  He switched views from Arminianism to Calvinism at the age of 18 and would become an outspoken critic of John Wesley and Methodism.  In 1759 he published his first book, Poems of Sacred Subjects.  He would return to Westminster and be influenced by several prominent Calvinists of the time:  George Whitefield, John Gill and William Romaine.  In 1762, he was ordained as an Anglican Deacon and sent to serve in the Mendip Hills of Somerset.  Toplady, according to legend, wrote his famous hymn "Rock of Ages" in 1763.  In 1764 he was ordained a priest and moved to London.  He never married.  He eventually left the Anglican Church in 1775 and preached at the French Calvinist Church in Leicester Fields.  He spent much of his energy attacking the teachings of John Wesley which made him unpopular with many at the time.  He edited Gospel Magazine from December 1775 till June 1776. 

According to Hymnary.org, he has over 150 hymns, but his most popular by far was Rock of Ages.  According to the analysis of Hymary.org, his top five hymns printed in hymnbooks:  Rock of Ages (2,109), Your harps, ye trembling saints (257), When languor and disease invade (237), If on a quiet sea (175), and O Thou, that hearest the prayer of faith (140).  He also wrote under a pen name Minimus.

He passed away of tuberculosis on August 11, 1778 in Kensington, Middlesex, England and was buried at Whitefield's Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road.
Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), Composer

Thomas Hastings was born October 15, 1874 in Washington, Litchfield County, Connecticut.  He taught both lyric writing and music.  He edited his own religious journal, Musical Magazine, which he used to advocate his views of church music.  He spent many years working with church choirs and even published several books of hymns.  He worked as a Choir Master for over 40 years.  It is difficult to determine whether or not some hymns were his due to lack of documentation, but some credit him with writing a thousand or more tunes.  One source states that Thomas Hasting had written over 600 hymn lyrics and 1,000 hymn tunes. 

There are also records that he worked with Lowell Mason in the publishing of a hymnbook in 1831.  This hymnbook was called Spiritual Songs which was the first appearance of “Rock of Ages” with the music Hastings wrote for it.  The name for the tune is TOPLADY.  One source states of Hastings’ contribution to church music:  “With Lowell Mason and William B. Bradbury, he stands as one of the great leaders in the advance of church music in America during the greater part of the last century” (Our Hymnody, p. 252.)
He appears to be more known for his music tunes which he is credited with at least 27 tunes.  According to Hymnary.org, his top five musical tunes:  TOPLADY (95), ORTONVILLE (65), RETREAT (52), ZION (42), and HOLY CROSS (6).  While we may are not familiar with Hastings’ lyrics, we certainly use his tunes including the following songs:  From Every Stormy Winds (RETREAT), Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (ZION), and others.
Not surprising is the fact that the words and music of Rock of Ages combined make for the most popular work of both men.  The music, a 77.77.77 metrical arrangement, was composed by Thomas Hastings in 1830 and named TOPLADY. 
Hastings was interesting to watch apparently as one source states:  “A perfect albino, very nearsighted, yet having the ability to read from a book held upside down, he was said to have been an excellent choral conductor, often conducting while reading a book held in the hands of some person standing facing him.” (Our Hymnody, p. 253)
Thomas Hastings died in New York City in May 15, 1872 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. 

The Rock of Ages Story

Tradition has it that Toplady wrote the hymn after seeking shelter under a large rock at Burrington Combe during a thunderstorm in 1753.  Some report that he had found a playing card on the ground in the rock and began sketching out the hymn during this time.  There is a report claiming a Six of Diamonds playing card that has Toplady’s words scratched on it which read:  “Rock of ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in thee.  March 12” (July 1911 edition of Strand magazine, pages 106-7).  Some dispute this story. 

Although a Methodist source, of which Toplady would have not approved, states “There is no foundation in fact to the story of its composition on a stormy day, when the author sought shelter in a cleft of a limestone rock in Burrington Combe in the Mendip range of hills in southern England.  The story seems to have been invented about 1850” (Our Hymnody, p. 251.)  There are some substantive investigative reports such as H. J. Wilkins’ booklet in 1938 entitled An Enquiry Concerning Toplady and His Hymn “Rock of Ages” And Its Connection With Burrington Combe Somerset seeks to trace down the validity of the story.  Historians argue the hymn was most likely written in 1776 at Blagdon. 

While the story of the Six of Diamonds is probably a myth, there is no reason to doubt that Toplady did take shelter at this location and was perhaps impacted to write the hymn some time later than 1753.  Interestingly, Toplady published several of his poetical works prior to 1776 but the words to “Rock of Ages” did not appear prior.  The words to our hymn were first printed in the paper he edited The Gospel Magazine in March 1776 under the title “A living and dying PRAYER for the HOLIEST BELIEVER in the World”.

Rock of Ages

Regardless of whether or not the story beyond the hymn is partially or fully fictitious, the hymn has endured because of the beautiful words of comfort it has brought coupled with the pleasant tune in which it is sung.  It has been rated as one of the top four of Anglican hymns and has been sung at several funerals of dignitaries.

On a website dedicated to the background of the hymn, http://officialrockofages.com, there is a copy of the sheet music of the hymn which includes Isaiah 26:4.  The passage from Isaiah reads “Trust in the Lord forever, For in YAH, the Lord, is everlasting strength.” (Isaiah 24:4, NKJV).  This matches the wording in the KJV; however, there is a note in the margin of the NKJV showing an alternate reading for “everlasting strength” which is “rock of ages”.  Other translations include “Rock eternal” (NIV), “everlasting rock” (ASV, RSV, NASV, ESV, NRSV), and others which convey the same concept.

David Sargent well commented “As Gus found shelter under a rock formation, so you can find “shelter” (forgiveness) from the “storm of sin” in the Rock of Ages, Jesus Christ.  Jesus endured God’s wrath against sin on our behalf by dying on the cross.  He paid the price for our redemption (Ephesians 1:7).  Through His blood, we receive the “double cure”:  we are cleansed form guilt and the dominion of sin.” (David Sargent, “Shelter in the Storm,” House to House, p. 3).



Bill Burk, “Rock of Ages,” Maxie B. Boren, Editor, Hymns and Songs We Sing, Bedford, TX: Brown Trail School of Preaching, 2002, pp. 109-116.






Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1937.

David Sargent, “Shelter in the Storm, House to House Heart to Heart, Jacksonville, AL:  Church of Christ, Volume 18, Number 4, July/August 2013, p. 3.

John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN:  Praise Press, 1997.

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