Search
  • Dr. Roger D Duke

"Rock of Ages (Cleft for Me)" The Story Behind the Hymn!




“Rock of Ages” (Cleft for Me)” ©

“The Story Behind the Hymn”

By

Roger D Duke

There has not always been the rhetorical category we refer to as the urban legend. This is a recent linguistic phenomena of a hyperactive information age. Which in turn, has birthed the present social media frenzy that perpetually bombards us. However, the genres of folk tales, fables, lore, sagas, traditions, parables, “old wives’ tales,” et al have been with us from time immemorial. They are part and parcel of our shared mortality conundrum known as the human condition. Along with these other forms of oral tradition has come the idea of the myth. Myth is “usually [a] traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serve to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” [1]


According to one these mythical accounts, “a young cleric at . . . [a particular] time, was walking along a road near his village when a thunderstorm struck. He dashed into a depression or cave in the cliffs of a rocky hill. A poem began to form in his mind; and, lacking paper on which to write, he saw a playing card and began to write on it.” [2] This story may or may not have anything directly to do with our considered hymn “Rock of Ages.” But it does provide the mind’s eye with an extra-Biblical visual. Many of us have been caught out in a thunderstorm and sought shelter from the lightening and the winds—maybe without a safe-place of refuge? So, it makes it quite easy to relate to our myth. This brings up a Biblical account of one who was placed in the split of the rock which provided the safety and comfort his circumstance demanded!


This incident happened in the life of the Old Testament Law Giver Moses. Moses begged the LORD God of Israel to see and experience Him in a greater way: “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory”! (Ex. 33: 18, KJV). And the LORD responded: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (v. 20). But the LORD did graciously grant Moses’ request for this encounter. The Bible declares:


v. 21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:


v. 22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in the cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:


v. 23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: by my face shall not be seen.


This no doubt was the Biblical scene Augustus Montague Toplady had in mind when he penned this great old hymn. Augustus Toplady, the composer of “Rock of Ages (Cleft for Me)” was born in England in 1740. He died of “consumption” (Tuberculosis) in 1778.[3] He became a Christian at the tender age of 16 while visiting Ireland.


Concerning this conversion, he related how, 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. [4]


Initially, Toplady was attracted to and followed the teaching and preaching of the brothers Wesley—John and Charles. But later he moved towards John Calvin’s Reformational teachings concerning the doctrines of election and predestination.[5] “Though he had converted to Methodism, his [personal] study persuaded him that the Calvinist perspective, rather than Arminian theology supported by [the] Wesley[s], offered the best understanding of salvation.”[6] The Reformation view taught; salvation is by Grace Alone, by Faith Alone, by the Scripture Alone, by Christ Alone, to the GLORY of GOD ALONE. sdg!


Toplady moved to Leichester Fields in 1775. There he preached for a French Calvinist Church. This happened to be a Huguenot Church.[7] During this time, he became involved in in several literary projects. During the period 1771-1776, he served as the editor of the Gospel Magazine. “He [also] published Psalms and Hymns for a Public and Private Worship (1776).”[8] In one of his many literary endeavors, he became involved in a theological tract warfare with the Wesleys. “By means of public debates, pamphlets and sermons”[9] they maintained an extended rhetorical campaign one against the other. Here is a sample of the written barbs inflicted by them on each other:


Toplady—I believe him (John Wesley) to be the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this [British] 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. [10]


It was in 1776 that Augustus wrote an article concerning God’s forgiveness. Its lines would serve as a metaphorical slap in the face to the Wesleys. Toplady ended with an original poem: [11]

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 sine the double cure,

Safe from wrath and make me pure. [12]


The short poetical reflection would serve as the opening verse of “Rock of Ages.” The hymn has been “traditionally . . . ranked as one of the most popular hymns ever written.” [13]

When the poem was first published, Toplady included the following exhortation for all Christians who may have fallen into despondence, depression, or sin. He wanted to encourage them in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ: “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[,]” [14] please forgive and restore me.


In a somewhat ironical and historical turn of events, “Dr. Louis Benson, a noted hymnologist, in Studies in 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 [entitled], Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.” [15] Consider Wesley’s earlier composition for comparison:


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. [16]


Robert Morgan, quoted above, says that Toplady “ended with an original poem.” [17] But Louis Benson refutes his assertion outright and charges Toplady with plagiarism. This brings up one of those twists and conundrums of history. Was it plagiarism, or no? Was it done in a vindictive, vengeful spirit of a pamphlet war over theology? Was it entirely innocent with no malicious intent? Was it accidental? Only the LORD himself can sort that out. And by the way, HE will sort it all out in the judgment! But we are left with one great conclusion. Toplady died at the tender young age of thirty-eight. And his poem / hymn “outlived him and has been called ‘the best known, best loved, and most widely useful’ hymn in the English language.” [18] The ethical issue will be left for the reader to ponder. Now you know THE STORY BEHIND THE HYMN!

ROCK of AGES (Cleft for Me)

Lyrics

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.

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.

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy 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.

While I draw this fleeting breath, When my eyes shall close in death, When I rise to worlds unknown, And behold Thee on Thy throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee. [19]

Finis!


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Myth,” accessed 8 March 2022 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myth. [2] Leland Ryken, “Rock of Ages,” in Leland Ryken, 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at the Spiritual and Poetic Meaning (Phillipsburg: NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing, 2019), 71-74.

[3] Burden, “History of Hymns: ‘Rock of Ages Cleft for Me,’” Discipleship Ministries: The United Methodist Church, accessed 8 March 2022 from https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-rock-of-ages-cleft-for-me. [4] Kenneth W. Osbeck, “Rock of Ages,” in Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 216. [5] Osbeck, 216. [6] Burden. [7] Memorial Plaque-Orange Street Church, London Remembers-Aiming to Capture All of the Memorials in London. Accessed 9 March 2022 from https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/orange-street-church The plaque to the right of the church door reads. “Orange Street Congregational Church. This Church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus M Toplady, author of 'Rock of Ages' was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton's house which was built in 1710 & condemned in 1913.” [8] Burden. [9] Osbeck, 216. [10] Osbeck, 216. [11] Robert J. Morgan, “Rock of Ages,” in Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 Christmas, Easter, and Favorite Hymn Stories (Nashville: W Publishing-An Imprint of Thomas Nelson, 2010), 159. [12] Morgan, 159. [13] Osbeck, 215. [14] Burden. [15] Osbeck, 217. [16] Louis J. Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns, in Kenneth W. Osbeck, “Rock of Ages,” in Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 217. [17] See Morgan’s discussion in Robert J. Morgan, “Rock of Ages,” in Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 Christmas, Easter, and Favorite Hymn Stories (Nashville: W Publishing-An Imprint of Thomas Nelson, 2010), 159. [18] Morgan, 159. [19] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages,” in Tom Fettke, senior ed., The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco: Word Music, MCMLXXXVI), 204.

185 views0 comments