Augustus Toplady

4 November 1740–11 August 1778


Augustus Toplady, portrait by John Raphael Smith, 1777, National Portrait Gallery (London).

Augustus Montague Toplady was the son of Richard Toplady, a commissioned officer in the British Army, who was married, December 21, 1737, to Catharine Bate. Their first child, Francis, died an infant. In 1740, Major Toplady was ordered to Spain, and died at the siege of Carthagena. Their second child was born, November 4, 1740, at Farnham, Surrey, just before his father’s death. He derived his name from his two godfathers, Augustus Middleton and Adol­phus Montague.

Left to the sole care of his widowed mother from his infancy, his early education was not neglected. He was entered at Westminster School, of high repute, in the me­tropolis, and evinced a remarkable aptitude for learning. His mother had claims to an estate in Ireland, and took her son with her, on her journey thither. While at Cody­main, in Ireland, he strayed into a barn, where an unlet­tered layman named James Morris was preaching to a handful of people, from the text, Ephesians 2:13, “But now, in Christ Jesus, ye who sometime were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” “Under that sermon,” he says, "I was, I trust, brought nigh by the blood of Christ, in August, 1756.” In another passage, he says, in­correctly, it was in 1755. He now began a new life and entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a student for the ministry.

As a relaxation from severer study, he composed during the next three years a considerable number of spiritual odes, poems, and hymns. These early effusions he com­mitted to the press in 1759. They were published by Sarah Powell, at Dublin, and entitled, Poems on Sacred Subjects: Wherein the Fundamental Doctrines of Chris­tianity, with Many Other Interesting Points, Are Occasion­ally Introduced. The work contained 105 pieces.

“Though awakened in 1755,” he says, “I was not led into a full and clear view of all the doctrines of grace, till the year 1758, when, through the great goodness of God, my Arminian prejudices received an effectual shock, in reading Dr. Manton’s Sermons on the xviith of St. John.” From this time, to the end of his life, he was a decided Calvin­ist. Tyerman (Life and Times of Wesley, II. 315) records a letter written, September 13, 1758, in answer to one from Mr. J. Wesley, from which it would seem, that he had not yet read Manton.

He received imposition of the hands of the bishop, on Trinity Sunday, June 6, 1762; and, shortly after, was pre­sented to the living of Blagdon, Somersetshire. Discover­ing that the place had been procured by purchase, he resigned it, and not long after became the Vicar of Harp­ford, on the Otter, and of the adjacent parish of Fen Ottery, near Honiton, Devonshire. He exchanged these with the Rev. Mr. Luce, for the living of Broad Hembury, April 6, 1768, also in the same neighborhood. The living was rated at £80. Christophers speaks of “the delicious retreats on the banks of the Otter, amidst the beautiful hills which are overlooked by the western slopes of the Black Down range,” where stands “the quiet parish church of Broad Hembury.” Here, amid the humble lace-workers of the district, he labored earnestly, during the next seven years, as his strength permitted.

It was at Broad Hembury that Toplady’s soul-stirring hymns were composed. “Saturday, June 18, 1768,” he writes, “All day at home. Wrote several hymns; and, while writing that, which begins thus: ‘When faith’s alert, and hope shines clear,’ etc., I was, through grace, very comfortable in my soul.”

Till now he was altogether unknown to fame. In March, 1768, six students were expelled from St. Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, in reality, for being “righteous overmuch.” It created a great commotion among Low Churchmen. Top­lady, among others, denounced it, and wrote in defence of the Calvinism of the Articles. In reply to an Arminian tractate by the Rev. Dr. Nowel, he published (1769) “The Church of England vindicated from the charge of Armin­ianism.” The same year, he published a translation of a Latin Essay by Jerome Zanchius, with the title, “The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination stated and asserted; with a Preliminary Discourse on the Divine Attributes; accompanied with the Life of Zanchius.” He had written it (1760) at the University in Dublin.

A letter to Mr. Wesley followed in 1770, and “More Work for Mr. John Wesley,” in 1772. “A Caveat against Unsound Doctrine,” appeared in 1770, and three sermons in 1771. “Free Thoughts,” etc., on “the Abolition of Ecclesiastical Subscription,” in 1771, and “Clerical Subscription no Grievance” (1772), preceded his elaborate work (1774) entitled, “Historical Proof of the Doctrinal Cal­vinism of the Church of England,” in two volumes. The same year, he published two sermons preached at London, bearing on the same discussion. “The Scheme of Chris­tian and Philosophical Necessity Asserted,” appeared in 1775.

His repeated visits to the metropolis, where his mother resided, and his frequent publications, brought him to the notice of Lady Huntingdon and the circle of earnest preach­ers whom she delighted to encourage and patronize. He was invited to preach in her chapels, at London, at Brigh­ton and Bath, and became at once one of the most popular of evangelical preachers. He wrote continually, also, from early in 1774, for The Gospel Magazine (then newly re­vived), as “A. T.,” or as “Minimus” or “Concionator”; and became, December, 1775, its editor, for seven months.

He accepted, in April, 1776, a lectureship for Sunday and Wednesday evenings in the French Calvinist Reformed Church, Orange Street, Leicester Fields, London, and con­tinued to minister there for the next two years. In 1776, he published his compilation of Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship, on which he had bestowed much labor for some years. It contained 419 hymns, with­out the names of their authors, and many of the hymns considerably altered. The volume obtained much popular­ity and has often been republished.

His health continued to decline, so that he could no longer continue his public ministry. He preached but lit­tle after Easter, 1778, and died, as he had lived, full of faith, and hope, and joy, at his retreat at Knightsbridge, near London, August 11, 1778, in the thirty-eighth year of his age. His Works were published, in six volumes, by his friend and admirer, Mr. Walter Row, in 1794. The Collec­tion of Poems in this edition is very inaccurate, and has led to much confusion, both as to text and authorship. A cor­rect edition of his Poems and Hymns was published, in 1860, by Mr. Daniel Sedgwick, of London. Much of his poetry is quite similar to Charles Wesley’s, with which, from the period of his conversion, he had been quite famil­iar.

by Edwin Hatfield
Poets of the Church (1884)


Featured Hymns:

Rock of ages, cleft for me

Collections of Hymns:

Poems on Sacred Subjects (1759): WorldCat

Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776): PDF

see also:

The Gospel Magazine (1771–1776): website

Editions:

The Works of Augustus Toplady, ed. W. Row, 6 vols. (1794): HathiTrust

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, ed. W. Row, 6 vols., New Ed. (1825): HathiTrust

Hymns and Sacred Poems, ed. Daniel Sedgwick (London: Daniel Sedgwick, 1860): PDF

Manuscripts:

Cowper & Newton Museum Library & Archive, Olney, England:
https://cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk/cowper-newton-museum-library-archive/

Augustus Montague Toplady Collection, Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University:
http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/902rj

Related Resources:

John Fellows, An Elegiac Poem in Blank Verse on the Death of the Rev. Mr. A. M. Toplady (London: J. Mathews, 1778): PDF

Thomas Wilkins, Elegy on the Death of the Rev. A.M. Toplady (1778): PDF

A Memoir of some Principal Circumstances in the Life and Death of the Reverend and Learned Augustus Montague Toplady, B.A. (1778): PDF

Memoirs of the Rev. Mr. Toplady, Late Vicar of Broad Hembury, Devonshire (1794): PDF

Edwin F. Hatfield, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” The Poets of the Church (NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1884), pp. 615-619: Archive.org

John Julian, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 1182-1183: Google Books

Duncan Campbell, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A.C. Black, 1898), pp. 57-59: Archive.org

Thomas Wright, Augustus M. Toplady and Contemporary Hymn Writers (London: Farncombe & Son, 1911).

A. Pollard, “Restless endeavour: a study of the hymns of A.M. Toplady,” The Churchman, New Series, vol. 73 (1959), pp. 23-28.

Paul E.G. Cook, Augustus Toplady: the Saintly Sinner (London: Evangelical Library, 1978).

George Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages: the Life and Work of Augustus Montague Toplady (Cambridge: J. Clarke & Co., 1983).

J.R. Watson, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/augustus-montague-toplady

Arthur Pollard, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27555