Augustus Toplady’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
September 24, 1759 – November 14, 1836
English soil is haunted. Go where you will, the most glorious ghosts glide out from the silences and startle you. In visiting the Homeland recently, I vaguely expected to confront these splendid specters in the cities: but I was scarcely prepared to find them moving in broad daylight among the ploughed fields, the fragrant hedgerows and the drowsy hamlets of the countryside. Yet there they were! I met them on the Essex wolds (hills); on the Norfolk broads (a network of mostly navigable rivers and lakes) on the Salisbury plains; on the Sussex downs (a rolling range of chalk hills); on the Devonshire moors; and on the village greens of Kent. I met them among the picturesque peaks and the idyllic waters of Cumberland and Westmorland; among the Surrey hills; among the Yorkshire fells (elevated stretch of pasture land), and among the lochs (lakes) and trossachs (small woodland glens) of Scotland. I came upon them everywhere. One such experience holds my memory in thrall today.
It was a beautiful morning in August; we were staying at a little town in Devonshire; and, after breakfast, our host made a suggestion which was altogether to our taste.
“It’s a shame to stay indoors,” he observed; ‘how would you like to see some of our Devonshire lanes and perhaps look round a village or two?”
And so it came about that, an hour later, we were making our way up hill and down dale through scenery of the most bewitching loveliness. The lanes are so narrow that we speculate as to what will happen if we chance to meet another car; and so tortuous that we spend half our time tooting for the admonition of drivers who never appear. At times the little car seems buried in mountains of hedgerow. Then, as we emerge from the dense seclusion of a noble avenue of beeches, or reach the summit of some gentle knoll, we pause to survey the panorama of field and farm, woodland and stream, spread out before us, and inquire the names of the sequestered villages nestling in the hollows. The red kine (cow), standing amid the rich grass that rises to their dewlaps (fold of loose skin which hangs from the throat of cattle), stare lazily round at us as we drink in the beauty of the landscape.
All at once, at a lonely spot where two roads meet, we come upon a wayside memorial. We alight to read the inscription. To our astonishment we discover that this tall column – arising from the grass of the roadside – is a monument to John Coleridge Patteson, the martyr-Bishop of the South Seas! And why should the memorial to so heroic a soul, with whose text I have dealt in a later chapter of this book, stand in this charming but outlandish spot? The question is soon answered. For, in his early days, Patteson lived here! In this delightful district some of the happiest hours of his childhood were spent. Before we returned from that memorable drive, we inspected the home of his boyhood; and, a day or two later, we motored along this selfsame road as far as Exeter Cathedral – in which he was ordained – and admired the handsome Martyr’s Pulpit which has been placed there to his illustrious memory. But we have wandered from the wayside column at which we alighted. Reentering the car, we slip along the lane to Ottery St. Mary, the home of Coleridge, and glance at Hayes Farm, the birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh.
John Coleridge Patteson!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge!
Sir Walter Raleigh!
What glorious ghosts are we meeting in the course of this casual drive of ours! Yet it was of none of these that I set out to write. For, in the course of that morning spin, we came upon the pretty little village of Broadhembury. A photograph of the dreamy old hamlet lies before me at this moment. If, on the face of God’s earth, there is anywhere a more peaceful and picturesque place then Broadhembury, I should dearly love to be taken to it. A single street of little thatched cottages; none of the walls quite upright; none of the thatched roofs quite regular; none of the eaves quite level. Each cottage has its porch; each porch juts out on to the roadway (for Broadhembury would regard footpaths or pavements as a newfangled and senseless affectation); and each porch and cottage-well is splashed with irregular and straggling patches of ivy, rambler roses, and sweet briar. I almost apologized to Broadhembury for bursting upon its tranquility in a motor-car. A motor-car in Broadhembury is a, anachronism, almost a sacrilege. It is the clashing of two separate ages: it is the invasion of the world of repose by the world of hustle and noise. At the end of this cluster of old-fashioned habitations stands the village church, its noble tower rising grandly above its ancestral yews. And it was when we entered the church that we discovered that, like all the other villages, Broadhembury is haunted. The radiant spirit that we there encountered shed a new glory on the village we had just explored.
For, on the church wall, we found a tablet. How little we dreamed, when we set out on our morning drive, to find this stately phantom along one of these Devonshire lanes! Yet here it is! And here it is, too, in the actual setting with which, in other days, it was familiar; and this is the inscription that we read:
IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF
AUGUSTUS MONTAGU TOPLADY, B.A.
VICAR OF THIS PARISH FROM 1768 TO 1778, AND AUTHOR OF
THE IMMORTAL HYMN:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee:
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure –
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
TO WHOSE PERSONAL PIETY, BRILLIANT GIFTS, SANCTIFIED
LEARNING AND UNCOMPROMISING ADVOCACY OF THE GOSPEL
OF THE SOVEREIGN GRACE OF GOD, HIS WRITINGS BEAR
IS ERECTED A.D. 1898, BEING 120 YEARS AFTER HE ENTERED
INTO THE JOY OF HIS LORD ON THE 11TH AUGUST, 1778, IN
THE THIRTY-EIGHTH YEAR OF HIS AGE.
For by grace are ye saved through faith: not of works, lest any man should boast.
In the course of a century and a half, the rest of the world may have changed; but Broadhembury has made no effort to keep pace with those feverish fluctuations. “If,” says Mr. Thomas Wright, Toplady’s biographer, “if Toplady could revisit the village, he would recognize the cottages with their white cob walls and mouse-colored thatch roofs; the churchyard wall – also of cob and also mouse-colored; and the immemorial yew that casts its shadows over mounds and tombstones.”
Leaving the church – a little regretfully – we sauntered once more through the village, trying to conjure up the figure of Augustus Toplady visiting from door to door – always with the priceless words of life everlasting upon his earnest lips; and then, re-entering the car, we set out over the hills for home. The outline of that exquisite slice of countryside is easily remembered. For, as Mr. Wright says again, “whatever pictures fade from the mind of the visitor to Broadhembury, he will not lose the recollection of that great rounded height – Blackbutt Hill, a bastion of Blackdown -which, in Toplady’s mind, blazed with the yellow of the gorse and the amethyst of the heather, and on which, even today, although parts of the upland have been planted, wild Nature gorgeously asserts herself.” Amid such natural and historic enchantments we returned from an outing that had taught us that even the sticks and stones along the hedgerows of England are saturated with the most golden and the most sacred romance.
Memory strings her pearls upon a chain. One pleasing recollection swiftly summons another to the mind. The story of our drive in Devonshire reminds me of another drive-in Surrey this time. For, in the course of that tour over the Surrey hills, we visited Farnham; and it was at Farnham that Augustus Toplady was born. Farnham commemorates that interesting circumstance by singing a verse of Rock of Ages at the Parish Church every Sunday evening. Six months before Augustus Toplady came into the world, his father left it; and the boy was therefore reared entirely by his mother. Gentle, unselfish, and devout, the good woman made the training of her boy the supreme business of her life; and he – frail, thoughtful, and plastic (easily shaped) – responded to every uplifting influence that she brought to bear upon him. Yet, during his quiet and uneventful boyhood his faith consisted in a placid assent to the truths that his mother taught him rather than in any profound and attached convictions of his own.
Then comes a sudden change! At the age of sixteen he goes with his mother to visit her estate at Codymain, Wexford, Ireland. Near to the place at which they are staying, a man named James Morris is preaching in a barn. Augustus Toplady is captivated by the novelty of so irregular a proceeding; and, prompted mainly by curiosity, resolves to give the missioner a hearing. He goes. That night, the record says, the preacher seemed inspired. He took for his text the words: Ye who sometimes were far off were made nigh by the blood of Christ. Toplady – young and impressionable – was transported, carried beyond himself. “Under that sermon,” he himself tells us, “under that sermon I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ. Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh by the blood of Christ in an obscure part of Ireland, amid a handful of God’s people met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name. I shall remember that day to all eternity.” This was in August, 1756.
I like to shut my eyes and recall those two drives – the visit to Farnham in Surrey and the visit to Broadhembury in Devonshire. For here, at Farnham, I seem to see the fountainhead of that ever-broadening stream which, at the close of his ministry at Broadhembury, poured itself into the infinite sea. It was in his Farnham days that Augustus Toplady strode out upon that spiritual pilgrimage which, lasting only two and twenty years, made him one of the most potent and effective forces in the evangelization of England.
But, midway between his Surrey days and his Devonshire days, an experience befell him that the world will remember long after his connection with Farnham and Broadhembury is forgotten. And that reminds me of another drive.
We were at Wells in Somerset; and, after visiting the Cathedral, we set out for Cheddar, motoring some distance up the Gorge. Now it was in this charming and romantic Mendip country – at Burrington Combe – the greatest of all our hymns was born in the soul of Augustus Toplady.
Was there ever such a storm? How the lightning rent the skies! How the thunder rolled and reverberated along those wild and rocky combes (deep valley), defiles (narrow pass), and gorges! The whole valley is a place of solemn grandeur. The hills tower to a considerable height on either side, and out from their grassy yet precipitous slopes there project vast masses of jagged rock. I this weird place, Augustus Toplady – then curate-in-charge at Blagdon – was caught that stormy afternoon. As the black clouds gathered in preparation for the impending deluge, he cast his eye anxiously about him and noticed a pair of huge limestone crags that, leaning against each other, seemed to have become one. In the cavity between them, Toplady took refuge; and, sheltering there, watched the violence of the elements.
His thoughts wandered back to that unforgettable experience in Ireland – the cavernous barn – the uncouth preacher – and the text! Ye who were sometimes far off were made nigh by the blood of Christ.
Far off! It seemed to him that, in those days, he was far off, a long way from home, lost in the storm!
Made nigh! It seemed to him that, as a result of that memorable transformation, he had been drawn near, gathered in, and given shelter from the wrath that threatened.
Made nigh by the blood of Christ! The rock in which he had found refuge was a cleft rock! It was only in the breaking of that holy Body, and the shedding of that sacred Blood, that he had found shelter and satisfaction.
The thought captivated him: he could not shake it off. All the way home he thought of the rock – the rock in which he had sheltered in Burrington Combe – the Rock in which his soul had found refuge ten years earlier. And, sitting down, he wrote
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;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Mr. Gladstone thought it the greatest hymn ever written in any language, and he translated it into Latin, Greek, and Italian. No other hymn has taken so firm a hold of the hearts of men. In the sweep of its melody, thousands of storm-tossed hearts have found refuge in the Rock of Ages.
Professor George Jackson wishes that poor old Dr. Samuel Johnson could have sat at the feet of Augustus Toplady. The Professor is dealing with a stupendous problem. “Was John Ruskin far wrong,” he asks, “when he said that “the root of almost every schism and heresy from which the Christian Church has ever suffered has been the effort of man to earn rather than receive his salvation?” Once you take that view,” Professor Jackson continues, “you are back again in the old, dreary mill-horse round against which Luther’s Reformation and Wesley’s Revival were the protest, the protest of souls that knew themselves defrauded of their inheritance in Christ.” By way of illustration, the Professor cites Dr. Johnson. He has been reading Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations. “It is,” he says, “strangely moving little book. Can anyone read it and not be touched to the quick by the great, sad sincerity of soul which breathes through its every page, and at the same time without a sigh of regret that there was not someone at hand who could have shown to Johnson a more excellent way? If only Toplady could have taught him to sing
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling,
What a difference it might have made! Religion would have been a bridge instead of a burden, something to carry him instead of something for him to carry.” This, as the tablet at Broadhembury testifies, was Toplady’s gospel; and, by means of his hymn, he still preaches that gospel to the hearts of millions.
Toplady was only thirty-seven when he died. He called for his Bible and himself selected the verses that were to be read to him. I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. He was still sheltering in the Rock – the Rock of Ages – and even in that last fierce storm – the storm in the Vale that is lonelier than Burrington Combe – his soul’s sure refuge did not fail him.
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