Augustus Montague Toplady and His Defense of the Gospel

Augustus Montague Toplady and His Defense of the Gospel

            Augustus Montague Toplady was one of the many young people who turned to Christ through the ministry of John Wesley. He was also one of the many who called Wesley out on his departure from the teachings of the Reformed confessions.

Effectual Call and Effectual Shock

            Born on 4 November 1740 at Farnham, Surrey, he never knew his father Richard, an army officer who died six months after Augustus’s birth in Cartagena de Indias (probably from yellow fever). The child was raised by his mother Catherine.

            After attending the prestigious Westminster School in London from 1750 to 1755, Toplady moved to Ireland with his mother (possibly to deal with matters of inheritance, since his father was Irish). There, he enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin.

            During his first summer vacation, he heard the itinerant preacher James Morris in a barn near Wexford, Ireland. The text was Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” Thirteen years later, Toplady recorded this occasion as “that memorable evening of my effectual call by the grace of God.”[1]

            He found the situation “strange.” He had been, after all, raised under the means of grace in the fine city of London, and had even written some religious poems and hymns. And yet, he had to visit a barn “in an obscure part of Ireland” and listen to a man “who could hardly spell his name,”[2] in order to be truly drawn “nigh by the blood of Christ.”

            This was only a starting point. Two years later, after a constant study of Scriptures and of the previous theologians, he made a made a radical and permanent break with some of the doctrines taught by Morris, a follower of John Wesley – what Toplady described as “the Arminian snare.”[3] “Through the great goodness of God,” he said, “my Arminian prejudices received an effectual shock.”

            Those two events – the “effectual call” he perceived in the barn and the “effectual shock” he received two years later – were marked in his diary as turning points of his life. He attributed the second to the writings of 17th-century Puritan Thomas Manton (particularly on John 17) and of 16th-century Reformer Jerome Zanchius (particularly his Confession of the Christian Religion, which Toplady translated and published under the name The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted (1769).

            The issue at hand concerned the teachings of 17th-century Jacob Arminius and his followers, which affirm that human beings are able to cooperate to their salvation, which rests on their decision to believe and their efforts to obey God. This doctrine had been condemned at the synod of Dordt (1618-1619) but continued throughout Europe. In England, it had been revived with passion by the evangelist John Wesley.

Toplady and John Wesley

            Toplady returned to England with his mother in 1760, after graduating with a BA from Trinity College. His mother died ten years later. During this time, Toplady frequented the lively English circle of evangelicals and met several leading figures, including George Whitefield, John Gill, William Romaine, and Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (who became one of his most faithful supporters).

            Determined to pursue the ministry of the gospel, he was ordained deacon in 1762 and priest two years later. After brief periods of service in London and nearby cities, and some financial struggles, he finally settled in Broad Hembury, Devon, where he remained vicar for most of his life.

            Toplady’s active involvement in what is known as “the Arminian controversy” began in 1768, when six undergraduate students were expelled from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, for having held “the doctrine of absolute election, that the spirit of God works irresistibly, that one a child of God always a child of God,” and for having “endeavoured to instill the same principles into others.”[4]

            The chorus of protests from various evangelical leaders, including Whitefield, compelled Thomas Nowell, professor of modern history at Oxford, to defend the judgment by stating that Arminianism was the proper doctrine of the Church of England.

            It was not a new explanation. In the previous century, Archbishop Laud had stated that Arminianism was in line with the church’s Thirty-Nine Articles. To refuse this recurring notion, Toplady wrote The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism.

            This, together with his translation of Zanchi’s work, caught the attention of John Wesley, who replied by publishing an abridgment of Toplady’s book under Toplady’s name, where he eliminated all the 350 Bible references (as if Zanchius’s work had no Scriptural foundation). He ended with a caricature of the doctrine of predestination, suggesting that it meant that only one over twenty people would be saved, and that living well was futile. “The elect shall be saved, do what they will—the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can.”'[5]

            Toplady replied with fury to this clear travesty of his work. To those who criticized his tone, he explained: “To have refused the forgeries and perversions of such an assailant tenderly, and with meekness falsely so called, would have been like shooting at a highwayman with a pop-gun, or like repelling the sword of an assassin with a straw.”[6] He did, however, soften his words in later writings.

            The exchange between the two men continued, culminating in Toplady's greatest historical work, The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, where he chronicled the developments of the doctrine of predestination from the time of the early church.

Toplady’s Last Years

            Toplady's last years were spent mainly in London, where preached at a French chapel in Orange Street. In 1778, at only 38 years of age, he was forced to retire due to tuberculosis. Already bedridden, he made one last, dramatic appearance on the pulpit to refute the rumor that he had renounced his faith. “I pray God to give the perfect liars grace and repentance to the acknowledgement of the truth,”[7] he told the congregation.

            It is possible that Wesley had spread those rumors, since he continued to do so the very same year, after Toplady’s death, suggesting the young man had died in despair. Wesley stood firm on his conviction that Toplady’s teachings bred both indifference and a dangerous view of a cruel God. One of Toplady’s last letters might be the best confutation.

            “My dear friend,” Toplady wrote, “those great and glorious truths which the Lord, in rich mercy, has given me to believe, and which he has enabled me (though very feebly) to stand forth in defence of, are not (as those who believe not or oppose them, say) dry doctrines, or mere speculative points. No. But, being brought into practical and heart-felt experience, they are the very joy and support of my soul, and the consolations, flowing from them, carry me far above the things of time and sense.”[8]

            Today, Toplady is mostly remembered as the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages,” which is sung by Reformed and Arminians alike. The controversy is largely forgotten, as are most of his other hymns and poems. They are, however, worth of rediscover, filled as they are of the same fervor and passion for God’s grace that characterized his short life.



[1] Augustus Toplady, Works, Vol. 1, London: J. Chidley, 1837, p. 8

[2] Ibid.

[3] Toplady, Works, Vol. 3, p. 170

[4] Lee Gatiss, The True Profession of the Gospel, London: The Latimer Trust, 2010, p. 76.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 6, New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1831, p. 141.

[6] Toplady, Works, Vol. 3, p. 53.

[7]

[8] Augustus Toplady, Complete Works, London: J. Chidley, 1841, p. 36.