Caught unawares by a sudden downpour, a lone figure takes shelter in a mighty cleft of rock. The figure is the Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady, a zestful Calvinist preacher. The cleft is in the face of a large cliff of limestone, connected to Cheddar Gorge. Rain storms in this area can last for hours. Toplady must have been aware of this; his ministry lay in nearby Blagdon. Settling in for a long wait he has nothing to do but study the rock around him. It is a mighty cleft after all. Inspiration comes in a flash, as if from on high. Fumbling in his pockets for something on which to record the imagery that fires his imagination, he finds some playing cards. We must assume he has a pencil around his person, because he manages to squeeze a three verse hymn onto one side.
The hymn remains well known, though the author of it remains in deep obscurity, and the cleft now has its own car park. This is a story of rivalry, a tragic childhood, the contingent nature of memorable events, and ancient tropical seas interacting with shallow sand-banks.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in Thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy riven side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfil thy law's demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.
When my pilgrimage I close,
Victor o'er the last of foes,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
and behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in Thee.
Catherine Toplady gave birth to her only surviving child on the 4 November, 1740, a son1 for her husband, Major Richard Toplady. In short order the Major took off for war in foreign climes. Within weeks he lost his life on a patch of dust somewhere around Carthagena, South America.
Catherine hurriedly retired to Exeter to recover her nerves and raise her son. Lacking other children and almost certainly missing her husband, she transferred her affections to Augustus. In his brief 1885 biography of Toplady, Bishop JC Ryle states that Catherine had brought up her son with 'the utmost care and tenderness'. Ryle's biography - just a few pages - of Toplady's life chronicles most of what is known about the man.
His education started at Westminster School and culminated at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He was ordained into the clergy in 1762. Shortly after ordination he received a temporary appointment to Blagdon, Somerset. It was here that he encountered the 'Rock of Ages' that inspired his hand one rainy day in Burrington Combe. The duration of the appointment is uncertain, but was probably no longer than one or two years. He was a Calvinist by the time of his ordination. At the beginning of his religious life he was a follower of John Wesley (son of Charles Wesley), who firmly believed that God's grace could be extended to all, and that God would receive 'Whosever [sic] will may come.'
After Toplady converted to Calvinism, he railed against the teachings of his former mentor and became convinced that life was a matter of Providence, and that only God ordained who would enter the gates of Heaven. Nothing anyone did in their life could improve their chances of entry; if you were born damned, then damned you'd stay. Toplady stated in print that:
Wesley is guilty of Satanic shamelessness, [and] acts the part of a lurking, sly assassin [whilst] uniting the sophistry of a Jesuit with the authority of a pope.
Wesley's retort was that he 'Did not fight with chimney-sweeps', suggesting, perhaps, that he thought that Toplady found dirt in everybody's chimney but his own. However, the exact reasoning behind this rebuttal remains a little unclear.
Toplady died in London at the age of 38 after moving to London in 1775. This move was prompted by medical advice. According to the wisdom of the time, the airs of the capital would be less deleterious to his health than those of Broad Hembury, 10 miles from the South Dorset coast. He died of tuberculosis three years later on 11 August, 1778. In late summer the capital must have been swarming with disease. He made peace with his God before he died, but never made peace with Wesley.
Had Toplady never converted, it is unlikely that he would have written the hymn 'Rock of ages, cleft for me', possibly condemning the sentiment as providential nonsense; the notion that God would specifically supply Toplady with place to shelter from the rain might have been rejected out of hand. This may not be the case, however, because Wesley wrote hymns against which 'Rock of Ages' can be compared. The most obvious hymn to which comparison calls is Wesley's 'Rock of Israel', written when Toplady was a small child. The introduction for the hymn book by Wesley in which the hymn appears runs:
O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck 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 sprang this Water; and near the Cleft of that Rock, the Wounds of my Lord, whence gushed this Sacred Blood.
Plagiarism was far from being Toplady's style. This leaves the supposition that he must have heard the hymn or read the hymn book in his youth, before his conversion took place. It seems that the power of his conversion was enough to bury even the slightest trace of this memory, until it was unsprung on regarding a large cleft of rock in later life. The words flew from his fingers - he took the inspirational nature of this revelatory moment to be divine - further proof that God took a personal interest. In reality Wesley had planted the seed for his erstwhile pupil - the pupil mistook the forgotten words of his now despised mentor for evidence of his own faith - proof of Providence, provided not by a God, but by the suppressed memory of an influential man.
The rock in which the cleft lies is 'oolitic' limestone2. Oolitic limestones contain the ooliths that give them their name. Ooliths are not terribly impressive to behold, but they are evidence of a very different climate to that of contemporary Cheddar. Ooliths are formed when cold oceanic water flows over banks in shallow, warm water. The carbonate contained in the cold water precipitates onto shell particles and grains of sand, and an embryonic oolith is formed. In a snowball effect, the more calcite that adheres to the particle of sand or shell, the larger the oolith becomes (until it reaches the size of 2mm or more, upon which it is termed a 'pisolite').
Ooliths, like pebbles, roll around in the tide, and eventually find themselves in the carbonate sludge at the bottom of the sea. Here they will have progressive layers of carbonate covering them until, after aeons of pressure and heat, the sludge and the oolites form oolitic limestone. Given more time and more pressure, upthrusting (literally when the crust is thrust up through geological pressures) will eventually expose the limestone, as it has in Cheddar. The upthrusting has caused the limestone layers of the cliff that contains the cleft to lie well off the plane - as can be seen on the Somerset Government Archives website.
The limestone was deposited around 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period. It was during this period that the coal seams were formed, largely from trees and other organic growth. For Toplady's God to have provided him with refuge he would have had to set in motion events that preceded the Carboniferous, then gone through the Carboniferous (during which the environment was akin to the Bahamas), dabbled in tectonic plate activity and the upthrusting of the limestone, before weathering the surface rocks until suitable sheltering conditions appeared. A forward thinking God indeed.