Keeping the Hymns Close By

Rock Of Ages

Author – Augustus M. Toplady, 1740 – 1778
Composer –  Thomas Hastings, 1784 – 1872
The hymn was first published in 1776

…for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. I Corinthians 10: 4

Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham, England, on November 4, 1740. He was converted to Christ as a young boy of sixteen years of age while visiting Ireland. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and was ordained in 1762. He had various pastorates and 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.

Toplady was involved in several literary endeavors. He published Psalms and Hymns for a Public and Private Worship (1776) and served as editor of The Gospel Magazine from 1771 – 1776. 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.”

In this prayer, Toplady uses “Rock of Ages” as an endearing term for God. Christ’s blood from his death as the forgiveness for our sins is the theme in stanza one. Stanza two focuses on the idea that we can never repay him for that sacrifice. Baptism is the theme of stanza three. Stanza four climaxes with an eschatological focus asking for mercy as we face death.

Scriptural references are all paraphrases. He cites Exodus 33:22, for instance, “when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.” And Psalm 18:2: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge…”

Julian, a hymnologist in 19th-century England, declared “Rock of Ages” as one of the most well known of English hymns. 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. Thomas was born on October 15, 1784 in Washington, Connecticut. He wrote no less than fifty volumes of church music, including 1000 hymn tunes and more than 600 original hymn texts.

One of the paradoxes of this hymn is that Toplady may have borrowed the opening line from his theological nemesis, Charles Wesley. The image of the rock, common in hymnody and Scripture, was used by Wesley in one of his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, published 30 years earlier. Though Wesley’s hymn goes in a different direction, it begins, “Rock of Israel, cleft for me…”

Taken from 101 Hymn Stories Copyright © 1982, 2012 by Kenneth W. Osbeck. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Used by permission from “History of Hymns” by Sarah Burden, a church music student of Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.