Rock of Ages

From the book "Lead, Kindly Light"  (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)

Lightning briefly illuminated the primitive, rock-hewn landscape of Burrington Combe in Somerset. It was followed by a deep growl of thunder, and the rain lashed mercilessly down, pouring bubbling streamlets down the craggy sides of primeval cliffs which rise up some 250ft. to the Mendip Heights on one side, and into Cheddar Gorge on the other.

The curate of Blagdon, a nearby village, had been travelling along the road near the cliffs when the storm struck, and he dashed into a cave for shelter. He had been fortunate to find this hiding place so quickly, and while waiting for the storm to pass, he  began to muse on the idea of the “rock of faith” being a shelter from the “storms of life”. The words for a hymn began to form in his mind, but according to the legend that still persists, he had no paper in his pocket to write them down.  Looking about he saw a playing card on the ground, considered a sinful thing by the young cleric. Nevertheless, he picked it up and began to write:

Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.

The curate was Augustus Montague Toplady, and such is the popular story behind the origin of one of the world’s best-loved hymns which was first published in the Gospel Magazine in 1775, some 12 years after Toplady wrote it. “Rock of Ages” was by far the most well known of the more than 600 hymns written by Augustus Toplady. It was this hymn that was sung at the funeral of Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone in Westminster Abbey. Prince Albert of Britain asked it be sung to him as he lay dying. The hymn was also reportedly sung at the funeral of American President Benjamin Harrison because it was his favorite hymn, and the only one he ever tried to sing.