Augustus Montague Toplady was born at Farnham in Surrey on 4th November 1740. His father, Major Toplady, died in May 1741 of yellow fever at the siege of Cartagena. Toplady was baptised at Farnham Church on the 29th November of that year. We can pass over his childhood for there is little of importance for us to note with the exception of an entry in a childhood diary which has survived. He writes on Sunday, 27th January 1754, that he went to St. Martin's church and heard a sermon from Dr. Pearce, the then Bishop of Bangor, and he records, "The only good thing in it was when he said, 'to conclude'."
He entered Trinity College Dublin in July 1755. His poetic genius was early exhibited for a poem of his was published in the London Magazine in March 1756. This poem was written to a friend who had asked him what God was. It is dated Tuesday, 23rd November 1755. Remember, this poem was written before he made any profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and also remember, that the London Magazine was a very fashionable newspaper which circulated in the higher echelons of society at that time. The editor must have considered that here was a prodigy.
"Is there a man, whose daring hand
Can number every grain of sand?
Can count the drops that fill the sea?
And tell how many stars there be?
Who shall presume to comprehend
Infinity, that knows no end?
Who shall set bounds to boundless power,
Restrain Omnipotence, or lower
Eternity to one poor hour?
Who shall disclose his Maker's plan,
Or dare His secret will to scan?
Shall feeble, short-lived, sordid man?
Believe me, friend, thou can'st no more
The vast designs of God explore.
Than thy short arm can reach the sky,
Or turn the spacious ocean dry.
None but perfection such as His
Can know the Almighty as He is;
His searchless glory can't be brought
Adapted to a mortal's thought;
His majesty we can't discern,
His attributes we cannot learn,
Till He removes the fleshy glass,
And shows His glory face to face.
Vain is the wisdom, vain the skill,
That strives to take away the veil;
That searches every mystery,
While clouded with mortality.
God is a theme too great for thought;
An awful something, who knows what?
Be silent, and submit to show
Respect to what thou can'st not know.
Remember what thou art; and fear
This unknown witness, always near.
Search not into His deep decree!
The subject's too refined for thee;
Thou must not ask, nor wish to see.
Cast each presumptuous doubt away;
Consider thou art at best but clay,
Whose only province is to obey."
Whilst there is much to commend itself in those verses, it is completely devoid of any hope in Christ and Toplady tells us that-
"God is a theme too great for thought;
An awful something, who knows what?"
At that time he was completely ignorant of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That experience of Christ, however, was soon to be known and felt.
He tells us that in August 1756 he was visiting his mother's estate in County Wexford where he went to a preaching service held in a barn and heard one James Morris who preached on the text from Ephesians 2:13, "Ye who sometimes were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ". In contrast to the sermon by Dr. Pearce he wrote of James Morris's sermon:
"That sweet text, Ephesians 2:13, was particularly delightful and refreshing to my soul; and the more so, as it reminded me of the days and months that are past, even the day of my sensible espousals to the Bridegroom of the elect. It was from that passage that Mr. Morris preached on that memorable evening of my effectual call by the grace of God. Under the ministry of that dear messenger, and by that sermon, I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ, in August 1756. Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh 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 it was 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."
[Toplady was incorrect in his opinion of James Morris - he knew more than Toplady gave him credit for. He had become firstly a Methodist preacher in 1752 and later in life, after restoration from a period of spiritual declension, appears to have become, according to John Ryland, a Baptist minister. We do not have space to consider any further Toplady's relationship with James Morris, Toplady's correspondence with Morris and Morris's further ministry.]
Whilst at Dublin Toplady worshipped with the Dissenters and took communion in the Church of England. He considered he was justified in not attending the parish church because the minister had no sympathy with the Evangelical Awakening. It was whilst he was in Dublin that he published his first volume of poetry. This had the interesting title of Poems on Sacred Subjects, wherein the Fundamental Doctrines of Christianity with many other interesting points are occasionally introduced written between fifteen and eighteen years of age. J. C. Philpot wrote of this book:
"How a youth of eighteen could pour out such simple easy, thoroughly original, and yet at times sublime, verses, so pure in thought and language, so rich in experience, and so imbued with the unction and savour of the Holy Ghost, is indeed marvellous. Some of his compositions will live, as long as there is a people of God on earth, such as "Rock of Ages", "Happiness, thou lovely name", "A debtor to mercy alone"."
Toplady's theological principles at this time were Arminian. He writes: "There was not a more haughty and violent free-wilier within the compass of the four seas." And he did exchange correspondence with John Wesley. But he goes on to tell us that it was through the reading of Thomas Manton's sermons on the 17th chapter of John's Gospel that he came to receive the Doctrines of Grace.
"Though awakened in 1756, I was not led into a full and clear view of all the doctrines of grace, till 1758, when, through the goodness of God, my prejudices received an effectual shock in reading Dr. Manton's sermons on the 17th of St. John. I shall remember the years 1756 and 1758 with gratitude and joy, in the heaven of heavens, to all eternity."
Toplady was ordained curate at Blagdon in June 1762. From here he moved to become incumbent of Harpford with Fen Ottery in May 1776. Because of the manner in which the benefice had been obtained for him - it had been purchased by a Mr. Samuel Cleveland of Woolwich - he sought with his bishop's approval to move to another church. He exchanged with the vicar of Broad Hembury and here he settled in his final parish, preaching his first sermon there on 17th April 1768. Whilst at Broad Hembury he became ill with what was called consumption, although he had never been a truly healthy child, and was advised by his doctor to move to the dry and healthy air of London. This would seem to indicate that he suffered from Tuberculosis.
It was whilst he was vicar of Broad Hembury that most of his literary work was undertaken. Although he was part of the Evangelical Awakening, it was his belief that the Church of England epitomised the purest Church of Christ. He therefore wrote two defences of the doctrine of the Church, viz. The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism (1769) and The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England (1774). He also wrote 28 of his hymns whilst minister at Broad Hembury, which were published in the Gospel Magazine between April 1771 and December 1774.
Whilst retaining the living at Broad Hembury he commenced living in London from 1775. His friends hired the French Reformed Chapel in Orange Street, London, for him to continue his ministry which commenced with effect from 11th April 1776. He became editor of the Gospel Magazine with effect from December 1775, resigning in June 1776. He had written much for that magazine and a number of his hymns appeared firstly in those pages. His health continued to deteriorate and, as he came near to death his theological opponents, followers of John Wesley, broadcast a statement to the effect that Toplady had recanted his strong evangelical and Calvinistic beliefs. On Sunday morning, 14th June 1778, just a few weeks before his death, he was taken from his home to Orange Street chapel where he, with gasping breath, spoke his avowal of his dying principles from 2 Peter 1:13,14: "Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me." This he published shortly before his death as The Reverend Mr. Toplady's Dying Avowal of his Religious Sentiments. He said:
Whereas; some time since, a wicked, scandalous, and false report was diffused . . . by the followers of Mr. John Wesley; purporting that I have changed my sentiments, especially such of them as relate more immediately to the Doctrines of Grace, I thought it my indispensable duty on the Sunday after I received this information . . . publicly to declare myself from the pulpit. . . . Now, I do publicly and most solemnly aver, that I have not, nor ever had, any such intention or desire; and that I most sincerely hope, my last hours will be much better employed. . . . So certain and so satisfied am I of the truth of all that I have ever written . . . I should not strike out a single line. . . . I am every day in view of dissolution. And, in the fullest assurance of my eternal salvation (an assurance which has not been clouded by a single doubt, for near a year and a half past), am waiting, looking, and longing for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . I was awakened in the month of August 1755, but not, as has been falsely reported, under Mr. John Wesley, or any preacher connected with him.
He died on 11th August 1778, aged 38 years, and was buried at Tottenham Court Road Chapel.
The Gospel Magazine, first published in 1766, is still appearing each two months, and this article is found in the current July-August edition and is reprinted here by permission of the editor Edward Malcolm.