Rock of ages, cleft for me
PETRA (REDHEAD 76)
Text: Origins. Four lines of this hymn by Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) were published in the October 1775 issue of The Gospel Magazine, near the end of an article, “Life a Journey” (Fig. 1). In the context of the article, these lines were part of Toplady’s assurance not to despair over sin. “Look to the blood of the covenant, and say to the Lord, from the depth of your heart, ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me,’ …”
The hymn appeared in its full form in the March issue of The Gospel Magazine, 1776 (Fig. 2). Here also, the hymn involves some context. The preceding article, formatted in question-and-answer format and signed “J.F.,” dealing with the British national debt, posed the question, “When will the government be able to pay the principal?” A: “When there is more money in England’s treasury alone than there is at present in all Europe.” Q: “And when will that be?” A: “Never.”
What follows is a “Spiritual improvement of the foregoing,” from the pen of Augustus Toplady; in a sense, a spiritual application dealing with the debt of humanity against the law of God and the redemption found in Christ. The last question asks, “What return can believers render, to the glorious and gracious Trinity, for mercy and plenteous redemption like this?” The answer:
We can only admire and bless the FATHER, for electing us in Christ, and for laying on Him the iniquities of us all; the SON, for taking our nature and our debts upon himself, and for that complete righteousness and sacrifice, whereby he redeemed his mystic Israel from all their sins; and the co-equal SPIRIT, for causing us (in conversion) to feel our need of Christ, for inspiring us with faith to embrace him, for visiting us with his sweet consolations by shedding abroad his love in our hearts, for sealing us to the day of Christ, and for making us to walk in the path of his commandments.
Then comes the hymn, “A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world,” in four stanzas of six lines.
That same year, this hymn was also included in Toplady’s Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (London: E. & C. Dilly, 1776 | Fig. 3), with only one difference. Stanza 4, line 3 reads, “When I soar to worlds unknown,” versus the original, “When I soar through tracts unknown.” This version of the hymn is regarded as Toplady’s official text.
E.J. Fasham, who spent many years studying the origins of this hymn, including some notable stories and myths, believed all available evidence showed it was written between October and December, 1774, in Broadhembury, Devon, England, based on Toplady’s very limited use of the signature “Minimus” during this period.
Text: Variants. Toplady’s hymn has been edited to greater and lesser degrees by other compilers. One curious but enduring alteration began in John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors (London: Thomas Wilkins, 1787 | Fig. 4), which began, “Rock of ages, shelter me.” This has been repeated in several collections, even into the 21st century.
Some influential alterations were made by Thomas Cotterill for his Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Use, as early as the 5th edition (1814 | Fig. 5). As hymn scholar Samuel J. Rogal described it, “Cotterill plunged his editorial lancet deep into the bowels of Toplady’s original hymn and, generally, reconstructed the entire piece.” Among the changes were the removal of six lines to form a different construction of stanza two, while trading “riven” for “wounded,” “respite” for “langour,” and “eye-strings break” for “eyelids close” (“eye-strings” coming from an old belief that the tendons in a person’s eyelids broke upon death). For a point-by-point assessment of all the alterations, see Rogal’s 2003 work, listed below.
In the 8th ed. of Cotterill’s Selection (1819), edited by James Montgomery (1771–1854), one more change was made: “From thy wounded side which flowed,” became “From thy side, a healing flood.” This version was repeated in Montgomery’s Christian Psalmist (1825).
In the 1830 supplement to John Mason’s influential edition of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (Fig. 6), some other notable changes entered circulation, including a shift back to “Could” from Cotterill’s “Should” in stanza 2, and “When my eyes shall close in death,” versus the previous options of “eye-strings” or “eyelids.”
John Julian, in his Dictionary of Hymnology (1907), p. 971, credited Roundell Palmer (1812–1895) with a movement to restore Toplady’s text, citing a “vigorous protest at the Church Congress at York in 1866.” Palmer had used Toplady’s unaltered text from The Gospel Magazine in his Book of Praise (London: MacMillan & Co., 1862), No. CXLV. Many, if not most, modern hymnals print all four stanzas, although typically with slight alterations, including some of those shown above.
Text: Influences. Toplady’s hymn seems to have been directly influenced by the Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord Supper (1745; printed in 9 eds. through 1786), for more than one reason. The preface to the collection included an excerpt from Daniel Brevint (1616–1695), The Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice (Oxford: At the Theatre, 1673). In the Wesley printing, the relevant material is in section 2, number 9:
O Rock of Israel, Rock of salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two streams of blood and water which once gushed out of thy side, bring down pardon and holiness into my soul. And let me thirst after them now, as if I stood upon the mountain whence sprung this water; and near the cleft of that Rock, the wounds of my Lord, whence gushed his sacred blood.
The original text by Brevint, 1673, is somewhat different:
O Rock of Isreal, Rock of salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two streams of blood and water, which once gushed out of thy side, when the curse of the law, and the rod of Moses had opened it, bring down with them salvation and holiness into my soul, though far distant from the mountain, where thou didst receive that deadly blow. And let not my soul less thirst after them at this distance, than if I stood upon Horeb, whence sprung this water, and near the very cleft of that Rock, the very wounds of my Saviour, whence gushed out this sacred blood (pp. 17-18).
The Wesleys’ collection contained a couple of notable hymns. One is “Rock of Israel, cleft for me,” which drew some images from Brevint’s text and made the same connection to Christ’s pierced side, but otherwise had little in common with Toplady’s hymn. Another, “O Rock of our salvation, see / The souls that seek their rest in Thee,” spoke of water and blood, and it was a petition for that Rock to apply its “sin-atoning blood” for pardon and sanctification.
Granted, Brevint’s text, including John Wesley’s abbreviated version, had been published separately from the Wesleys’ hymns, so the connection to Hymns on the Lord Supper is speculative, but Toplady was familiar with the hymns of the Wesleys, in spite of his disdain for their Arminianism; he included some of their hymns in his 1776 collection. Frank Colquhoun saw Toplady’s text as a possible rebuttal to John Wesley’s belief in Christian perfection, saying, “In using that curious title, [‘A living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world,’] Toplady was hitting at the doctrine of ‘sinless perfection.’ … As against that notion he was asserting that, however good and holy a Christian may be, he is still a sinner until he dies and therefore is always in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.”
Text: Analysis. Relevant Scripture passages include the two instances of Moses striking a rock, in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 (1 Corinthians 10:4 relates these events to Christ), the story of Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock in Exodus 33:12-23, and the piercing of Jesus, releasing blood and water, in John 19:34. The term “Rock of ages” is an alternate translation of Isaiah 26:4 (“everlasting rock”; see also 22:16, 32:1-2, 48:21). The doctrinal basis of having nothing to offer to purchase salvation comes from passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9. The notion of blood having cleansing power can be seen Revelation 7:14 (“They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” ESV).
Esteemed hymnologist John Julian had high praise for Toplady’s text:
The merits of this hymn are of a very high order, whether regarded as a sacred lyric or as a metrical epitome of certain well-known passages of Holy Scripture. The influence which it has had upon the minds of men, especially amongst the more learned, has been very considerable. … It has been a stay of comfort in days of peril and in the hour of death. No other English hymn can be named which has laid so broad and firm a grasp upon the English speaking world.
Erik Routley, in an extended devotional analysis, said of this hymn:
When a hymn achieves that order of merit which makes it impossible that it be omitted from any hymn-book, broad, high, or evangelical, you will find in that hymn a combination of three properties—familiar teaching, vivid language, and a commanding opening phrase. By these means it engages and retains the attention and inscribes itself on the memory of the singer. In ‘Rock of ages,’ all these qualities are present, but especially the last has established its popularity.
K.L. Parry, textual editor for the Companion to Congregational Praise (1953), offered, “In spite of its confused images and mixed metaphors, it remains a great hymn.” Duncan Campbell, writing 55 years earlier, had a similar but more poignant perspective:
From a literary point of view it is open to criticism, being full of mixed metaphors, but when men are conscious of deep need, “weak and weary, helpless and defiled,” when heart condemns and conscience accuses, these very metaphors, with their combined suggestion of shelter and cleansing, are strangely restful.
Tune 1. In England, this text is closely associated with REDHEAD 76 by Richard Redhead (1820–1901), from his Church Hymn Tunes Ancient and Modern (London: J. Masters, 1853 | Fig. 7). Some commentaries erroneously report how Redhead’s original tune was printed with or written for “Rock of ages.” None of Redhead’s tunes in this collection contained texts or text references, although the preface states his tunebook was intended as a companion for Introits and Hymns, with Some Anthems Adapted to the Seasons of the Christian Year (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), in which “Rock of ages” appeared as no. 59 (Archive.org). “Rock of ages” was not the only hymn in this collection in 188.8.131.52.7.7, so the connection between the two was not definite.
The direct pairing of Toplady’s text and Redhead’s tune occurred in the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern (London: Novello, 1861 | Fig. 8), where the tune was named REDHEAD NO. 76 in the index (not PETRA, as is often reported). This version of the text incorporates the alterations from Cotterill’s Selection (1814, see Fig. 5) while keeping Toplady’s “Judgment throne” (see Figs. 2-3), and it chooses a different set of lines to form the second stanza.
Tune 2. In the United States, the most common tune setting for “Rock of ages” is TOPLADY by Thomas Hastings (1784–1872), first printed in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (Utica: Hastings & Tracy & W. Williams, 1832 | Fig. 9), where it was originally called ROCK OF AGES. Many of these tunes had appeared the previous year in a series of four booklets (simply Spiritual Songs); only the first and the fourth are known to survive in modern libraries. The text in this printing is a direct borrowing from Cotterill’s Selection (1814, see Fig. 5).
The tune can be interpreted as having either an ABA or ABCCAB structure, with some portions of the melody utilizing chordal intervals and others moving mostly stepwise. The name TOPLADY was assigned to this tune in the Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book (1859 | Archive.org), edited by Lowell Mason and others.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
26 April 2019
Samuel J. Rogal, An Analysis of Various Versions of A.M. Toplady’s ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’ (1774-2001) (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003), p. 12.
Frank Colquhoun, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Hymns that Live (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), p. 100.
John Julian, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 972.
Erik Routley, “Rock of ages,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), p. 146.
K.L. Parry, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Companion to Congregational Praise (London: Independent Press, 1953), p. 219.
Duncan Campbell, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A.C. Black, 1898), p. 57.
John Julian, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 971-972.
Duncan Campbell, “Augustus Montague Toplady,” Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A.C. Black, 1898), pp. 57-59.
Louis F. Benson, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Studies of Familiar Hymns, Second Series (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1923), pp. 104-118.
E.J. Fasham, “Rock of ages,” Baptist Quarterly, vol. 10 (1940), pp. 94-96.
K.L. Parry & Erik Routley, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Companion to Congregational Praise (London: Independent Press, 1953), pp. 219-220.
Erik Routley, “Rock of ages,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), pp. 145-156.
E.J. Fasham, “Rock of Ages,” HSGBI, Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 5 (spring 1957), pp. 76-82.
William J. Reynolds, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Hymns of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman, 1964), p. 169-170.
J. Ithel Jones, et al., “Rock of ages,” The Baptist Hymn Book Companion, rev. ed. (London: Psalms and Hymns Trust, 1967), pp. 304-305.
Frank Colquhoun, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Hymns that Live (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), pp. 98-104.
Richard Watson & Kenneth Trickett, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Companion to Hymns and Psalms (Peterborough, 1988), pp. 183-184.
Milburn Price, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), p. 225.
J.R. Watson, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), pp. 212-214.
Samuel J. Rogal, An Analysis of Various Versions of A.M. Toplady’s ‘Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me’ (1774-2001) (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003).
Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 735-736.
Carl P. Daw Jr. “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 441-443.
J.R. Watson, “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“Rock of ages, cleft for me,” Hymnary.org: