ROCK OF AGES
“Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers did all drink the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: And that Rock was Christ.” (I Corinthians 10:1, 4)
This hymn has traditionally been ranked as one of the most popular hymns ever written. It is certainly one of the best-known in the English language. It has been described as a "hymn that meets the spiritual needs of all sorts and conditions of men from the derelict snatched from the gutter by the Salvation Army to Prime Minister Gladstone, at whose funeral it echoed through the dim spaces of Westminster Abbey."
Whereas most hymns have been written out of some deep personal need or experience, this hymn evidently was born in a spirit of passionate controversy. Augustus Toplady was converted to Christ as a young boy of sixteen years of age while visiting in Ireland. Of his conversion Toplady has written, “strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought right with God in an obscure part of Ireland, midst a handful of people met together in a barn, and by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name. Surely it was the Lord's doing and is marvelous.”
For a time Toplady was attracted to the ministry of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodists. As time went on, however, he became a strong follower of the "election" doctrines of John Calvin and was vehemently opposed to the Arminian views promoted by the Wesleys and their supporters. By means of public debates, pamphlets and sermons, Toptady and the Wesleys carried on theological warfare. The following are several of their recorded statements:
Toplady: "I believe him (John Wesley) to be the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this Island…… Wesley is guilty of Satanic shamelessness... of uniting the sophistry of a Jesuit with the authority of a pope."
Wesley: "I dare not speak of the deep things of God in the spirit of a prize fighter or a stage player, and I do not fight with chimney sweeps."
In 1776 Toplady published this hymn text in The Gospel Magazine as a climax to an article attempting to prove his argument that even as England could never pay her national debt, so man through his own efforts could never satisfy the eternal justice of a holy God. He entitled the hymn "A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World."
Some of the expressions in Toplady's hymn text are quite obviously satirical swipes at such Wesleyan teachings as the need for contrite and remorseful repentance and the Arminian concept of sanctification-the belief that it is possible for any believer to live without consciously sinning and thereby to find the promised "rest," the state of moral perfection as described in Hebrews 4:9. Note Toplady's rebuttal in the second stanza:Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no languor know, these for sin could not atone-Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Dr. Louis J. Benson, a noted hymnologist, in Studies of Familiar Hymns, calls attention to the fact that Toplady actually plagiarized his text from a hymn Charles Wesley had written thirty years earlier in a collection, Hymns on the Lord's Supper. A paragraph of the preface from this collection reads as follows:
“O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck for me, let those two streams of Blood and Water which once gushed out of Thy side, bring down Pardon and Holiness into my soul. And let me thirst after them now as if I stood upon the Mountain whence sprang this Water; and near the Cleft of that Rock, the Wounds of my Lord, whence gushed this Sacred Blood.”
Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham, England, on November 4, 1740, the son of a Major Richard Toplady, who died in the service while his son was in infancy. Later young Toplady was graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and was ordained in 1762 to the ministry of the Anglican Church. His various pastorates included the French Calvinist Chapel at Leicester Fields, London, where he was known as a powerful and zealous evangelical preacher. Because of his frail constitution he died of overwork and tuberculosis at the early age of thirty-eight. Though known as a controversial preacher in his crusade against Arminian theology, Toplady was highly respected as a deeply spiritual, evangelical leader. His final statements just before his death are noteworthy:
“My heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory. Sickness is no affliction, pain no cause, death itself no dissolution,... My prayers are now all converted into praise.”
The tune for Toplady's text was composed in 1830 by a well-known American church musician, Thomas Hastings. Hastings was the first musician of sacred music to dedicate his life to the task of elevating and improving the music of the churches in this country. He once wrote, "The homage that we owe Almighty God calls for the noblest and most reverential tribute that music can render."
Thomas Hastings was born on October 15, 1784, at Washington, Connecticut. Though his formal musical training was meager, and as an albino he was afflicted with eye problems throughout his life, yet he wrote no less than fifty volumes of church music, including 1000 hymn tunes and more than 600 original hymn texts as well as editing more than fifty music collections. In 1858 the University of the City of New York conferred the degree of Doctor of Music upon him in recognition of his accomplishments. Along with Lowell Mason, Thomas Hastings is generally credited with being the person most instrumental in shaping the development of church music in the United States.
Other hymns by Thomas Hastings include "From Every Stormy Wind That Blows" (No. 24), "Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned" (No. 56), and "Come, Ye Disconsolate" (101 More Hymn Stones, No. 17).
It is encouraging to realize that, despite the original belligerent intent behind this text, God in His providence has chosen to preserve this hymn for the past two hundred years so that congregations of believers of both Calvinistic and Arminian theological persuasion can sing this hymn with spiritual profit and blessing.
Taken from 101 Hymn Stories © Copyright 1982 by Kenneth W. Osbeck. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.