Notes from Dr. Julian's Hymnology:
Toplady was born at Farnham in Surrey on Nov. 4th. 1740. His father, Richard Toplady, was a Major in the British Army, and was killed at the siege of Carthagina (1741) soon after the birth of his son. His widowed mother placed him at the renowned Westminster School, London. Bye and bye, circumstances led her to Ireland, and young Augustus was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, where he completed his academic training, ultimately graduating M.A. He also received his "new birth" in Ireland under remarkable conditions, as he himself tells us with oddly mixed humility and lofty self estimate as "a favourite of heaven". "Strange that I who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought right unto God in an obscure part of Ireland, midst a handful of people met in a barn, and by the ministry of one who could hardly spell his own name. Surely it was the Lord's doing and it is marvellous. The regenerating Spirit breathes not only on whom, but likewise when and where and as HE listed". The present writer [Julian] happens to know that the lay preacher, a Wesleyan Methodist, was Janus Norris, and his text Eph. 6:13; and that he was not the illiterate man Toplady's words would have us believe. Likewise he had far more brain power than his convert, and was a born orator, though retired and lowly minded.
Toplady received orders in the Church of England on June 6th. 1772 and after some time was appointed to Broadhembury. His "Psalms and Hymns of 1776" bears that he was then "B.A." and Vicar of Broadhembury. Shortly thereafter he is found in London as minister of the Chapel of the French Calvinists in Leicester Fields. He was a strong and partisan Calvinist, and not well informed theologically outside of Calvinism. We willingly, and with a sense of relief, leave unstirred the dust of oblivion that has gathered on his controversial writings, especially his scurrilous language to John Wesley because of his Arminianism, as we do John Wesley's deplorable misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Calvinism. Throughout Toplady lacked the breadth of the divine Master's watchword "Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is for us" Luke 9:50. He was impulsive, rash-spoken, reckless in misjudgement; but a flame of genuine devoutness burned in the fragile lamp of his over taxed and wasted body. He died on Aug. 11th. 1778. . . his "Rock of Ages", a song of grace that has given him a deeper and more inward place in millions of human hearts from generation to generation than almost any other hymnologist of our country, not excepting Charles Wesley . . . Regarded critically, it must be stated that the affection with which Toplady is named, and the glow and passion of his faith and life and yearning after holiness, have led to an over exaltation of him as a hymn-writer. Many of his hymns have been widely used. . . Year by year, however, the number in use is becoming less. The reason is soon found. He is no poet or inspired singer. He climbs no heights. He sounds no depths. He has mere vanishing gleams of imaginative light. His greatness is the greatness of goodness. He is a fervent preacher not a bard.
[End of Dr. Julian's opinions].
There is some doubt about the story that is oft related about the writing of the hymn "Rock of Ages", said to be written by Toplady in a crevice in Burrington Combe where he was sheltering from a thunderstorm.
Norman Mable in his "'Popular Hymns and their Writers"
writes that the readers of "The Sunday at Home" voted "Rock of Ages" as the most popular hymn. 3,500 readers voted. 3,215 voted for "Rock of Ages".
When the Prince Consort was dying he asked for "Rock of Ages" to be sung. He is reported to have said, "For if in this hour I had only my worldly honours and dignities to depend upon, I should be poor indeed!"
Mr. W.E. Gladstone, Prime Minister of England, translated 'Rock of Ages" into Latin, Greek and Italian. It has been translated into many languages. Toplady wrote 133 hymns.
His hymns in 'Spiritual Songs' are:
117 Not to ourselves we owe
120 Oh Thou who didst Thy glory leave
177 Though in a foreign land
326 As debtors to mercy alone
412 Rock of Ages, cleft for me
Toplady's hymns are full of assurance of forgiveness through God's mercy, being available through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God's Son.