A TALE OF TWO SONGS
by Wayne S. Walker
Charles Wesley lived from 1707 to 1788. Although his older brother John is better known, many believe that Charles was actually the more talented of the two. While the work of the Wesleys eventually resulted in the formation of the Methodist Church, both brothers lived and died as ministers in the Church of England, or Anglican Church. However, they were often unwelcome in many of the Anglican Churches of their day, and in fact were sometimes even persecuted by them, because their evangelicalism led them to reject some of the traditional Calvinistic theology then characteristic of the Church of England.
Augustus Montague Toplady lived from 1740 to 1778. A younger contemporary of Charles Wesley, Toplady also was a minister in the Church of England. Originally, he had been converted by a preacher associated with the Wesleys and was first attracted to their doctrine. However, he later became an ardent Calvinist and a fiery defender of the orthodox beliefs of the Anglican Church. In fact, Augustus and Charles had public debates to discuss their differences. Both men were well known preachers in their day, but in our time each is best remembered, not as a preacher or as a theologian, but as a hymn writer. One of Wesley’s most beloved hymns is "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," and Toplady’s most famous hymn is undoubtedly "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me."
In fact, sometimes the story is told that after one of their debates, each man went away and wrote a hymn to solidify his arguments, Wesley penning "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" and Toplady producing "Rock of Ages." However, this is not possible, because "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" first appeared in print in 1738, two years before Toplady was even born! The exact circumstances behind "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" are not known, though there are unconfirmed stories about a bird that flew through a window into Wesley’s study to find refuge in a storm and times when the Wesleys themselves hid in bushes to find refuge from persecutors, but it appears to have been influenced by Wesley’s experiences of nearly being shipwrecked on his return from Georgia to England, his great spiritual awakening, and his working with Newgate Prison felons who were hanged on Tyburn Hill.
1. Jesus, lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last.
2. Other refuge have I none, Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah, leave me not alone, Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head With the shadow of Thy wing.
3. Thou, O Christ, art all I want; More than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is His name, I am all unrighteousness;
Vile and full of sin I am, Thou art full of truth and grace.
4. Plenteous grace with Thee is found, Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams about; Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart, Rise to all eternity."
There is another story, also unconfirmed, that Toplady wrote "Rock of Ages" while on a walk in the Mendip Hills near his home in Blagdon when he took shelter in a limestone cave at Burrington Combe during a thunderstorm. However, this story was not spread until long after Toplady’s death. The first stanza appeared at the end of an article entitled "Life–A Journey" by Toplady under the pseudonym of "Minimus" in The Gospel Magazine, Oct., 1775, and the entire poem with the title "A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believe in the World" was used with another article by Toplady about the absolute impossibility of one’s paying his indebtedness to God, designed to oppose the Wesleys’ doctrine of holiness, in the Mar., 1776, issue of the same magazine.
1. 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.
2. Could my tears forever flow, Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone, Thou must save, and Thou alone.
In my hand no price I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.
3. Not the labor of my hands Could fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Vile, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.
4. While I draw this fleeting breath, When my eyelids close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.
It is interesting that today we sing hymns written by people of differing, and perhaps opposing, theological backgrounds. Sometimes, we ourselves might even disagree with some of the theological beliefs of those writers. However, these two hymns both emphasize our utter dependence upon God in this life, especially for salvation. They are good examples of how hymn writers, if they will lay aside the human creeds to which they subscribe and simply base their words upon the truth of scripture, can produce songs that all who sincerely believe in Christ and His word may sing with their whole hearts. "Therefore I will give thanks to You, O LORD, among the Gentiles, and sing praises to Your name" (2 Samuel 22:50).
(—Faith and Facts Quarterly; April, 2008; Vol. 36, No. 2; pp. 31-35)