[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

County Devon, on England’s South West Peninsula, separates the Bristol Channel from the English Channel. It is the last county before Cromwell and a place appropriately known as “Land’s End,” because after that there is only the vast Atlantic.

This is open country: space, hills, rock cliffs, and small parish villages. Today we are driving to Broadhembury, home of Augustus Toplady (1740-1778), writer of “Rock of Ages.” To get there we obediently follow the commands of the cheerful GPS voice down a one-car-wide road closed in by a tunnel of six-foot hedgerows. Broadhembury is a community of very pricey thatched-roof houses, a stately thirteenth-century church, a single inn proudly displaying the sign of the Red Lion, and a happy-looking and comfortable population just a shade under 700.

Augustus Toplady was born November 4, 1740, and educated at Westminster School of London and at Trinity College, Dublin. Converted by a sermon delivered in a barn in Ireland in 1755, he became curate at Blagdon, Somersetshire, in 1762. Ordained an Anglican priest two years later, he served in Somerset and Devon villages before coming to Broadhembury.

Augustus was a spiritual preacher, if maybe a bit of a loner. His positive traits, however, were partially offset by his extremely bitter controversy with John Wesley, during which Augustus held rigidly to his Calvinistic beliefs and bitterly attacked the Methodist leader up to the very end of Augustus’ life in London in 1778 at age 38.

Sometime during the Blagdon years, Augustus wrote “Rock of Ages,” one of the most beloved Christian hymns, and the circumstances of his writing it are legendary. Cheddar Gorge, one of the most scenic spots in western England, has rock walls hundreds of feet high.

Slanting down from one of the rock cliffs is a long, straight crevace perhaps a hundred feet high. Here, the story goes, Augustus found cover when he and his horse were caught in a violent rainstorm. Always seeking spiritual parallels, he imagined the sheltering cleft as a figure of the saving Christ and conceived the idea for a hymn. Needing paper on which to write the song, he found a playing card left by a previous visitor probably less inclined toward religion. Augustus composed his now-famous hymn on the card.

Apparently there is no documentation for this story and most sources doubt it. Whatever the case, many believers have found the words of “Rock of Ages” to be the most moving expression in English hymns of the sinner’s plea for salvation by Christ’s blood.

Augustus included “Rock of Ages” in his Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship, published in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. Altogether he wrote some 130 hymns, loved and sung by millions.

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