Toplady, Augustus Montague


b Farnham, Surrey 1740, d Kensington, Middx (W London) 1778. Named after his two godfathers on the insistence of his godmother, he attended Westminster Sch, London (briefly overlapping with the older Wm Cowper) and Trinity Coll Dublin (MA). Like John Wesley whom he later came to oppose, he owed much to his mother, his soldier-father having been killed in a siege before Augustus was born. ‘Mamma’ was also a refuge from an unpleasant aunt, notably during his recurring illnesses. But in 1756, attending a meeting in a barn at the age of 16 in the variously-spelt Cooladine in the parish of Ballynaslaney in the Irish countryside, he was converted through the ministry of James Morris. Morris was a gifted Methodist (later a Baptist) evangelist; a lay preacher but probably not so illiterate as AMT afterwards recalled. The crucial text was Eph 2:13, and his life took a new direction from then onwards. Strengthened in his grasp of Reformed doctrine by feasting on Thos Manton’s printed sermons from John 17 and Geo Whitefield’s preached ones in London, he published a teenage collection of verse in 1759, Poems on Sacred Subjects, with an assured touch but in highly personal ‘I/me’ mode. Without an obvious mentor, a striking opening (‘Chained to the world, to sin tied down’) can descend into absurdity (‘Put on thine helmet, Lord’; ‘O when shall I my God put on?). In 1762 he was ordained in the CofE, but resigned his first parochial charge at Blagdon, Som; he ministered for 16 months at Farleigh Hungerford nr Bradford-on-Avon. A short break was followed by two years in the small and mainly poor villages of Harpford and Venn Ottery, Devon, until he was appointed in 1768, in an exchange of benefices, to Broad Hembury (also spelt as one word), nr Honiton in the same county. Newly recovered from some days of distress and depression (‘the disquietness of my heart’), by now his life was already marked by voracious reading, eloquent preaching, single-minded piety, feverish controversy, occasional hymnwriting, and alarmingly fragile health. His ministry began to achieve remarkable results, but he also fought battles in print with the perfectionism and Arminianism of John and Chas Wesley, writing while standing at his high desk. Where he saw gospel truth at stake, he believed ‘’twere impious to be calm’; 1769 saw the publication of his translation of Jerome Zanchius (1516–90) on predestination, which provoked J Wesley to conspicuous lack of calm in his mocking rejoinder, and so the battle hotted up.

In 1775 Toplady first met Lady Huntingdon and began to preach widely in her chapels, but he was already a sick man. For health reasons he was now able to move from Devon, employing a curate there while he ministered as ‘Lecturer’ at London’s Orange St Chapel in Leicester Fields (between Trafalgar Sq and Leicester Sq) for just over 2 years, the last of his meteoric life as chest pains and other ailments multiplied. This 1693 building was owned and still used by French Reformed Protestants, but licensed for CofE services by the Bp of London, for Toplady’s sake; congregations of both rich and poor overflowed. On 19 April 1778 he could barely croak out his text before withdrawing; it was 2 Pet 1:13–14. But on 14 June, close to death, he spoke with great difficulty, to reaffirm his convictions in the doctrines of grace, which were later printed as a pamphlet. He died two months later at the age of 37, still glorying in Christ but still aiming verbal darts at Wesley, who for his part did nothing to correct the hostile rumours surrounding Toplady’s final hours.

While there were faults and blind spots on both sides, the ‘natural’ friends of Toplady’s doctrinal position now regret that his fiercely-expressed convictions (probably aggravated by illness) provided any justification for John Wesley’s equally aggressive attacks and slanderous accusations. Dr Samuel Johnson remained the friend of both men, and AMT and JW shared an ‘almost uncontrollable passion’ (Lawton) for radically ‘improving’ other people’s hymns—in which they were not alone. Toplady also resembles Chas Wesley in his disciplined rhyming and the occasional indulgence in a rolling Latinism. Occasionally he rises to the heights of Watts; often too a comparable Britishness (identifying the ‘rogue states’ and ‘axis of evil’ of his day) led him into verses rarely sung then, let alone now: ‘Let France and Austria weep in blood;/ just victims of the sword of God’! While maintaining a warm and respectful friendship with Dissenters, notably the Baptist Dr John Gill of Carter Lane, Southwark, Toplady like his other hero Wm Romaine was always fiercely Anglican, appealing often to its Thirty Nine Articles of Religion and other formularies. Part of his own apologia was The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, 700 pages issued in 2 volumes in 1774 to provide theologically heavyweight grounding for the preaching and writing of George Whitefield, who had died in 1770. In 1775 he took over editorship of The Gospel Magazine (‘pompous…pestilential’—J Wesley) for which he wrote, wittily but in the end obsessively, over various initials, until 1777; in 1776 came Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship, which among its 419 items included many vivid Scripture paraphrases (the OT seen through Christian eyes, as in Watts). He lightly revised Cosin’s BCP version of the Veni Creator (see notes on 522) and his ‘Eucharistic’ verses use that adjective in its authentic sense of ‘thanksgiving’ rather than ‘sacramental’.

Reformed hymn-books naturally include more of his hymns than others; Strict Baptists often have a generous share, such as Denham’s 1837 Selection with at least 40 (second only to Newton among CofE contributors). Spurgeon chose 32 of his hymns for Our Own Hymn Book (1866).
But even some who resist his strong doctrines have acknowledged the merit of his writing. Thus while CH has 11 of his hymns and GH 9, Congregational Praise and its successor Rejoice and Sing both find room for 4—three more than A&M, Songs of Praise etc! As in his lifetime, so now, and as with Jn Wesley, it seems hard to arrive at a balanced view of the man and his writing; some hymn-book companions and most Methodist works are hostile, Dr A B Grosart (in Julian) is lukewarm, while other would-be assessors are plainly ignorant. George Ella’s biography (2000) is now essential reading; see also George Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 1983, of which Ella is sharply critical. While both are sympathetic, these evangelical biographers have contrasting assessments from AMT’s boyhood onwards. See also Paul E G Cook (the 1978 Evangelical Library Lecture) as well as earlier works. In 1825 Montgomery recognised an ‘ethereal spirit’ in his writing, calling his poetic touch vivid and sparkling; ‘the writer seems absorbed in the full triumph of faith’. One difficulty is that in the 18th and 19th cents, his name became attached to several hymns from other hands; it is among the strangest of some odd omissions from the 2003 Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals which lists more than 400 others. Nos.705, 711*, 738, 773, 774, 790.