Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Toplady, Augustus Montague

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TOPLADY, AUGUSTUS MONTAGUE (1740–1778), divine, was the son of Richard Toplady, a major in the army, by Catherine, daughter of Dr. Bate of Canterbury. His mother's brother Julius, rector of St. Paul's, Deptford, was a well-known Hutchinsonian. Augustus Montague was born at Farnham, Surrey, on 4 Nov. 1740. His father dying at the siege of Carthagena (1741), he grew up under his mother's care, and was a short time at Westminster school. There is a delightful journal by the boy describing his mother's fondness, his uncle's cross speeches, and containing some boyish prayers and sermons (Christian Observer, September 1830). On his mother's removal to Ireland in 1755 he was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated there in 1760. One August evening in 1755 or 1756 (he gives both years at different times; see Works, vi. 199, 207) he was converted by a sermon from James Morris, a follower of Wesley, in a barn at Codymain. His views then were those of Wesley, to whom he wrote a humble letter, criticising some of Hervey's opinions, in 1758 (Tyerman, Life of Wesley, ii. 315). But this same year came his change to the extreme Calvinism of which he was the fiercest defender. He was ordained deacon by the bishop of Bath and Wells on 5 June 1762, and licensed to the curacy of Blagdon. After his ordination as priest on 16 June 1764, he became curate of Farleigh, HUungerford. Either by purchase or some practice which afterwards troubled his conscience, the benefice of Harpford with Venn-Ottery was obtained for him in 1766. He exchanged it in 1768 for Broad Hembury, which he held till his death.

Outside the circle of his immediate friends—Ambrose Serle, Sir Richard Hill, Berridge, and Romaine—Toplady mixed freely with men of all denominations and even general society. He corresponded with Mrs. Catharine Macaulay [q. v.], and was acquainted with Johnson. One of his letters contains an anecdote of an evening with them, in which Johnson, in order to tease Mrs. Macaulay about her republican views, invited her footman to sit down with them. ‘Your mistress will not be angry. We are all on a level; sit down, Henry.’ Toplady was the author of the fine hymn, ‘Rock of ages cleft for me,’ which was published in the ‘Gospel Magazine’ in October 1775, probably soon after it was written, although a local tradition associates its symbolism with a rocky gorge in the parish of Blagdon, his first curacy (Julian, Dict. of Hymnology, p. 970). It does not appear in his early volume, ‘Poems on Sacred Subjects,’ 1759. It was translated into Latin by Mr. Gladstone in 1839. Montgomery puts Toplady's hymns on a level with those of Charles Wesley, but that is too high an estimate. The best, after ‘Rock of Ages,’ is ‘Deathless Principle, arise,’ a soliloquy to the soul of the type of Pope's ‘Vital Spark.’

Of the contemporary Calvinist writers Toplady was the keenest, raciest, and best equipped philosophically. His best book is ‘The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England’ (1774), a presentation of the subject from the times of the apostolic fathers to those of the Caroline divines, full of quotations, acute, incisive, and brilliant. But it is the brief of a controversialist. The unpardonable blot in all his writings is his controversial venom against Wesley and his followers. The wrangle began after Toplady had published a translation of a Latin treatise by Jerom Zanchius on Calvinism, 1769. Wesley published an abridgment of this piece for the use of the methodist societies, summarising it in conclusion with contemptuous coarseness: ‘The sum of all this: one in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected: nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will: the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Witness my hand, A—T—.’ Toplady replied in ‘A Letter to Mr. Wesley’ (1770), charging him with clandestine printing, coarseness, evasiveness, unfairness, and raking together stories against Wesley's general conduct. Wesley reiterated his estimate in ‘The Consequence proved’ (1771). Toplady replied in ‘More Work for Mr. Wesley’ (1772). He had, he said, kept the manuscript by him ‘some weeks, with a view to striking out what might savour of undue asperity,’ but it contains sentences like these: Wesley's tract is ‘a known, wilful, palpable lie to the public.’ ‘The satanic guilt … is only equalled by the satanic shamelessness.’ After this Wesley declined to ‘fight with chimney-sweepers,’ and left the ‘exquisite coxcomb,’ as he terms Toplady, to Walter Sellon, against whom Toplady raged in ‘The Historic Proof.’ Until disease stopped him Toplady never ceased to hound Wesley in the ‘Gospel Magazine,’ of which he was editor from December 1775 to June 1776; and in ‘An old Fox tarred and feathered’ he brackets with malicious delight the passages from Johnson's ‘Taxation no Tyranny,’ which Wesley has transferred without acknowledgment to his ‘Calm Address to the American People’ (1775). There was venom among Wesley's followers also.

In 1775 signs of consumption necessitated Toplady's removal from his living at Broad Hembury, under leave of non-residence, to London. There he ministered in the French Calvinist reformed church in Orange Street. When he was in the last stage of consumption a story reached him that he was reported to have changed some of his sentiments, and to wish to see Wesley and revoke them. He appeared suddenly in the Orange Street pulpit on 14 June 1778, and preached a sermon published the following week as ‘The Rev. Mr. Toplady's dying avowal of his Religious Sentiments,’ in which he affirmed his belief, and declares that of all his religious and controversial writings (especially those relating to Wesley) he would not strike out a single line. Toplady died of consumption on 14 Aug. 1778. Subsequently Sir Richard Hill appealed to Wesley about a story, said to emanate from a curate of Fletcher, that his old enemy had died in black despair, uttering the most horrible blasphemies. Hill enclosed a solemn denial of the calumny, signed by thirteen witnesses of his last hours. Toplady was buried in Tottenham Court Chapel, where a marble tablet, with the motto

Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee,

was erected to his memory. Rowland Hill, apparently unsolicited, pronounced a eulogy on him at the funeral.

Toplady's other works include:

  1. ‘The Church of England vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism,’ 1769.
  2. ‘The Scheme of Christian and Philosophical Necessity asserted,’ 1775
  3. ‘A Collection of Hymns,’ 1776.
  4. ‘A Course of Prayer,’ 1790? (sixteen later editions).

[Memoirs, 1778; Works, with Memoir by W. Row, 1794, 2nd edit. 1825; Memoir, by W. Winters, 1872; Gent. Mag. 1778 p. 335, 1814 ii. 433; Smith's Hist. of Farnham; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. iii. 203.]

H. L. B.