What are we to make of a man described as “strangely compounded, peculiarly constituted, and oddly framed”? It conjures up in the mind an image of Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, or Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Hugo’s Quasimodo. But such is J. C. Ryle’s (1816-1900) description of Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), author of what has been called the best-loved English hymn. One wonders why someone would bother writing a biography—or reading one—about a strange, peculiar, odd person. Nevertheless, Ryle declared that no account of Christianity in England in the eighteenth century would be complete without featuring remarkable Toplady.
Not one of his contemporaries surpassed him, and hardly any equaled him. He was a man of rare grace and gifts, and one who left his mark very deeply on his own generation. For soundness in the faith, singleness of eye, and devotedness of life, he deserves to be ranked with Whitefield, or Grimshaw, or Romaine.
Ryle ranks Toplady among exalted company indeed. But he had so much less time to achieve worthiness of that ranking. Consider that Whitfield outlived Toplady by nearly twenty years, Grimshaw by about the same, and Romaine lived over forty years longer—more than twice Toplady’s lifetime. Yet Ryle ranks Toplady on a level with these great Christian leaders, all who lived decades longer than he. In his thirty-eight years of life, Toplady rose to the rank of a foremost scholar, theologian, pastor, and hymn writer.
Not everyone, however, has shared Ryle’s exalted opinion of Toplady. His was a life of sometimes bitter contending for gospel orthodoxy in The Age of Reason. And for this contending he was dismissed by critics as “a wild beast of impatience and lion-like fury," an extreme Calvinist, a copper-bottomed controversialist, and a “chimney sweeper.”
But today we’re far more likely simply to be ignorant of Toplady. People who know something about 18th century Christianity, who might actually recognize his name, may connect his name with a hymn, but more likely he will be remembered as the vitriolic controversialist with John Wesley. Politely pushed to the side; end of story. I find myself in a continual process of learning that the more I think I know about someone, about whom I actually know very little, the more certain and inevitable it is that I will draw distorted conclusions about that person.
The story of Toplady’s life is a prime example of my tendency to draw ultimate conclusions about someone based on very partial information. I suspect I am not alone in this. “There is hardly any man of [Toplady’s] caliber,” laments Ryle, “of whom so little is known.” [He was, however,] most loved where he was most known.” He further laments that what is known and remembered about Toplady, by those who bother to do so, are primarily his frailties.