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Torchbearers of the Truth: Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778)

J Brown, Peterhead

Recent articles in this series have looked back to the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible, the seventeenth century’s crowning achievement! We now turn to the eighteenth century to consider another of the great figures of the evangelical awakening, Augustus Toplady. He is mostly remembered as a hymn writer, and particularly as the composer of that masterpiece "Rock of Ages", but this remarkable man was also an evangelical preacher, a scholar and theologian of no mean reputation who accomplished a great deal in a short life of 38 years.

Augustus Toplady was born at Farnham in Surrey on 4th November, 1740, the only son of Major Richard Toplady who was killed in the siege by British forces of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the spring of 1741. Toplady was brought up by his widowed mother who, after her husband’s death, had settled at Exeter. At a young age he was sent to Westminster School where he showed considerable ability, and following this studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received the degree of MA. It was while in Ireland that Toplady was converted when sixteen years of age on hearing a layman named Morris preach in a barn. The text, "But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ" (Eph 2.13), and the preaching founded upon it, spoke to the young man’s conscience with great power, and that night he became a new man in Christ Jesus. Later he wrote about the experience: "Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh to God in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of God’s people met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name! Surely it was the Lord’s doing, and is marvellous! 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, where, and as He listeth".

After graduation Toplady was ordained in the ministry of the Church of England, initially serving as curate for short periods at Blagdon in Somerset and Harpford in Devon. An anecdote relating to that period revealed convictions in contrast with the habits of many clergy. "I was buying some books in the spring of 1762, a month or two before I was ordained, from a respectable bookseller. After the business was over, he took me to the furthest end of his long shop and said, ‘Sir, you will soon be ordained, and I suppose you have not laid in a very great stock of sermons. I can supply you with as many sets as you please, all original, very excellent ones, and they will come for a trifle.’ My answer was: ‘I certainly shall never be a customer to you in that way; for I am of the opinion that the man who cannot, or will not make his own sermons, is quite unfit to wear the gown. How could you think of my buying ready made sermons?’ ". Here was a man of the Book!

In 1768 Toplady moved to the rural parish of Broad Hembury near Honiton in Devon. Physical infirmity precluded him from engaging, like George Whitefield and the Wesleys, in itinerant open air preaching to thousands of persons. He rather felt that God had called him to labour in his own parish. He declined Lady Huntingdon’s request to consider joining her itinerant preachers, replying, "And ought I not to see the pillar of divine direction moving before me very visibly and quite incontestably ere I venture to deviate into a more excursive path?". His diary gives an insight into the character of his preaching: "(1) Preach Christ crucified, and dwell chiefly on the blessings resulting from His righteousness, atonement, and intercession. (2) Avoid all needless controversies in the pulpit except it be when your subject necessarily requires it, or when the truths of God are likely to suffer by your silence. (3) When you ascend the pulpit, leave your learning behind you; endeavour to preach more to the hearts of your people than to their heads. (4) Do not affect much oratory. Seek rather to profit than to be admired".

He lived much alone, seldom going into society and possessing few friends. In childhood he had neither brothers nor sisters, and in manhood he never married. He was engrossed in his ministry, always preaching, visiting parishioners, reading, writing, praying, and spending time in private communion with God. The discipline of study was carried on with unabated zeal, and his wide knowledge and keen intellect made him a formidable opponent in controversy. The 1770s was a period of sharp controversy involving a number of prominent men. John Wesley held the Arminian views which by that time had become prevalent in the Church of England and Augustus Toplady became a leading opponent of Arminianism. In those days views were often expressed very robustly, and Toplady’s polemical writings were unsparing of his opponents. He carried the exhortation, "Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith", to an extreme. Bishop J C Ryle wrote, "He that only reads Toplady’s hymns will find it hard to believe that he could compose his controversial writings. He that only reads his controversial writings will hardly believe that he wrote his hymns". Ryle believed that Toplady’s works display extraordinary ability and that his "Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England" demonstrated a prodigious amount of research and reading. Another writer describes Toplady’s historical study of the doctrine of predestination to his own day, particularly in the writings of the English Reformers, as a valuable contribution to scholarship.

Toplady was an able and bold defender of Calvinistic views about election, predestination, perseverance, human impotency, and irresistible grace, but he did not hold these views as dry theology, believing that the truth must be brought into practical and heartfelt experience. In 1772 he refuted a false implication of the doctrine of election expressed in the phrase, "The elect shall be saved, do what they will". He wrote, "The Holy Spirit making the Apostle’s pen the channel of unerring inspiration, thus inspired him to write, ‘According as He (God the Father) hath chosen us in Him (in Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should (not, ‘be saved to do what we will’, but) be holy and without blame before Him in love’ Eph 1.4. Election is always followed by regeneration; and regeneration is the source of all good works: whence the Apostle adds, in the very next chapter, v.10, ‘We (the elect) are His (subsequent) workmanship, created (anew) in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.’ Consequently it does not follow from the doctrine of absolute predestination that the ‘elect shall be saved, do what they will’. On the contrary, they are chosen as much to holiness as to heaven; and are fore-ordained to walk in good works, by virtue of their election from eternity and of their conversion in time".

Toplady’s health was delicate and in 1775 he was advised to move to London under the impression that the moist air of Broad Hembury was injurious to him. There was little improvement, and gradually the insidious disease of consumption progressed and wasted his strength. Just two months before his death he spoke for the last time in Orange Street Chapel close to Leicester Square. It was a brief exposition of 2 Peter 1.13, "I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance". His closing days were spent in great peace. A friend wrote, "A short time before his death, I felt his pulse, and he desired to know what I thought of it. I told him that his heart evidently beat almost every day weaker and weaker. He replied immediately, with the sweetest smile on his countenance, ‘Why that is a good sign that my death is fast approaching, and blessed be God, I can add that my heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory’ ".

J C Ryle offered this assessment of Toplady’s life. "I firmly believe that he was a good man, and a great man, and did a work for Christ which will never be overthrown. He will stand in his lot at the last day in a high place, when many, perhaps whom the world liked better, shall be put to shame". As the end of another year approaches may the godly example of Toplady and other Torchbearers of the Truth stimulate in us a greater earnestness to "live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world".

To be continued.

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