August 2012 E News

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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – August, 2012
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

Rock of Ages

When Augustus Toplady died on August 11, 1778, not many Americans took note for they were busy fighting for independence.  However, the nation that was being born would soon sing a song in harmony with the nation they were fighting fifty years later, composed by an American patriot.

Augustus was born in 1740 in Surrey, England, but would never meet his father who died in battle as a major in the English army.  His mother Catherine sent him to Westminster School in London where Charles Wesley had attended.  At 16, he and his mother moved to Ireland and it was there in a barn that Augustus surrendered to Christ.  He wrote “strange that I who had so long sat under the means of grace in England should be brought right unto 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.  The excellency of such power must be of God and cannot be of man.  The regenerating Spirit breathes not only on whom, but likewise when and where and as he listeth.” 

The man who preached that day in the barn was James Morris, disciple of John Wesley.  Though Toplady would soon reject aspects of Wesley’s theology in favor of Calvin, his story illustrates the fact that God rules in the affairs of men.  We may have legitimate differences in theology, but it is the Spirit of God that regenerates a heart and will get the glory in the end.  At a time when America and England were parting ways, they would soon overwhelmingly sing the same hymn – declaring the truth of the gospel with clarity!  It is this gospel declaring that we are saved by grace and not of works that must be restored if we are to see spiritual unity in the Church once again built on Biblical truth.

Seven years later after his conversion, in 1763, Augustus Toplady was preaching in the village of Blagdon, England.  He then travelled along the gorge of Burrington Combe and was caught in a lightning storm.  He soon found shelter in a gap in the gorge, and pondered several Biblical truths.  Christ is our Rock that never moves (1st Corinthians 10:4).  God hid Moses “in the cleft of a rock” so He wouldn’t be consumed by God’s holiness (Exodus 33:20-23).  Salvation is found when hidden in Christ that we might have fellowship with a holy God.  The Church in America, and even most Americans, once held Christ up as their Rock and embraced the fear of God.  If we are to have any hope, this must happen again for a true awakening.

Augustus wrote his poem, initially called “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World” soon after this experience.  It was written to describe his experience that day in the gorge, but also to clarify his differences with Wesley – that man cannot initiate his own salvation.  That is why he wrote “not the labor of my hands, can fulfill thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save, and thou alone.”

Both Toplady and Wesley wrote some very strong letters between each other about their theological differences that at times went beyond the bounds of brethren in the Lord.  However, their differences brought forth greater clarity, and for Toplady, they helped him define more clearly the Biblical theology to which he was committed.  It is in this crucible that the poem eventually called Rock of Ages was born, for as he said “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.

The differences expressed culturally and politically in our day have their origin in theology as well.  We can view these differences as the splitting apart of the nation or as the precursor to the overruling Hand of God that will bring greater clarity to what we ought to believe as we struggle to define who we are as Americans.  Toplady was an Englishmen who was saved in Ireland and differed with his brother John Wesley.  Toplady wrote Rock of Ages at a time when America was fighting for her Independence from the very nation and church (Anglican) that he was committed to preserve.  Wesley, on the other hand, had been converted from the witness of the Moravians he had met while in the newly formed colony of Georgia in colonial America.

Only God sees the future as well as the past and present.  It would be more than half a century after Toplady’s death that the tune to Rock of Ages would be composed by the American patriot Thomas Hastings.  Hastings was the third great-grandson of the colonist Thomas Hastings who came to Massachusetts in 1634.  He was born in Connecticut and eventually moved to Clinton, New York as a young man.  The town of Clinton had origins at the time of the American Revolution and writing of the U.S. Constitution.  Its patriotism ran deep, and its root of liberty was well known to have originated in Christian theology.  Hastings chose to display his patriotism by devoting his life to writing tunes to hymns – over a thousand – that were “simple, easy and solemn” in style.  His book Spiritual Songs first put in print, in 1831, the tune called Toplady in honor of Augustus and his poem now called Rock of Ages.  What is today obscure will tomorrow be shouted from the housetops!

Toplady died at 37 years of age with Tuberculosis.  He knew he would die young, but he wrote and lived to make an impact for decades to come.  As Americans we must remember our hope is in God, for we need to kneel before Him!  Let us plant the seeds today that will sprout tomorrow.  Let us make sure we are surrendered to the Rock of Ages and are hid in Christ.  Let us make our mark now upon our culture while we live.  Christ is the Rock of our liberty, and the source of our security.  It is in the elevation of Christ in the way we live that will speak to our neighbors and bring unity of purpose.  Then, as Toplady did on August 11 of 1778, we can say… “while I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyes shall close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee!”