Brief Thoughts on Augustus Toplady
From time to time I will receive an e-mail from someone recommending I read an article by Augustus Toplady. His infamous articles (especially if you are an Arminian) are titles such as, “Arminianism: The Golden Idol of Free-Will” or “A Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines.” Toplady is famous for his bitter-filled letters to John Wesley. Some Calvinists see him as a champion of Calvinism against the Arminian Wesley and label him a hero. He is famous for his hymns more so than for his theological writings though he was a prolific writer in his day. His most famous hymn is, “The Rock of Ages” which is sung by many Arminians today and even included in Arminian hymnals. He died when he was only 38 years old.
A brief history about Toplady. He was converted to Christ at the age of 18 under the preaching of a Methodist. He embraced Arminianism but quickly turned to Calvinism after reading a couple of Calvinist books. He would befriend popular Calvinists of his day such as John Gill, George Whitefield, and others. He soon would make John Wesley, who was nearly 70 at this point, his chief aim. Until his death, Toplady would write one attack against Wesley and Arminianism after another. Toplady believed that Wesley and his evangelical Arminianism were the greatest threats to true Christianity (which of course is Calvinism). He wrote,
Can any thing be more shockingly execrable, than such a degrading and blasphemous idea of the ever blessed God? And consequently, is not the doctrine of human self-determinability the most daring, the most inconsistent, the most false, the most contemptible, and the most atheistical tenet, that was ever spawned by pride and ignorance in conjunction?
Theologian Fred Sanders wrote after reading this statement, “Yes I can think of one thing worst than Arminianism: atheism.” I would agree. I would not say that Calvinism is the greatest threat to the Church nor Arminianism. We could write much about prayerlessness, lack of evangelism, holiness, sinning, abusing God’s grace, works-salvation, denying inerrancy, etc.
The Calvinist J.C. Ryle had no taste for Toplady. He wrote, “Arminianism seems to have precisely the same effect on him that a scarlet cloak has on a bull.” Ryle goes on:
He appears to think it impossible that an Arminian can be saved, and never shrinks with classing Arminians with Pelagians, Socinians, Papists, and heretics. He says things about Wesley and Sellon which never ought to have been said. All this is melancholy work indeed! But those who are familiar with Toplady’s controversial writings know well that I am stating simple truths.
What did Toplady say about Wesley you ask? Here are a few quotes (from thousands more):
Concerning Wesley’s theology, Toplady said,
An equal portion of gross heathenism, Pelagianism, Mahometism, popery, Manicheaenism, ranterism, and antinomianism, culled, dried, and pulverized, secundum artem; and above all, mingled with as much palatable atheism as could be possibly scraped together.
Sanders points out in his article this,
The sense of personal antipathy makes Toplady forget his own best interests over and over, as when he writes a pretty accomplished little tract on predestination, and instead of letting it be published under the perfectly honorable sub-title “”A Vindication of the Decrees and Providence of God,” instead gives it the snotty main title, “More Work for Mr. John Wesley.”
Toplady despised Wesley. He called him many derogatory things. He said that Wesley was a heretic, a false teacher, a man who should be arrested and put in prison. He called Wesley, “a low and puny tadpole in divinity, which proudly seeks to disembowel a high and mighty whale in politics.” He despised the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness. He despised their preaching. He despised their people. In short, Toplady appears to have been one bitter man.
To be fair, the language of the day was common to attack one like this in debates. One need to only read Martin Luther to see the language of debates though that was, by this time, nearly 200 years earlier. Yet John Wesley and George Whitefield disagreed but they did so with much grace. Bear in mind that Wesley performed Whitefield’s funeral and counted him a friend until the end. Toplady, nearly 40 years younger than Wesley, gave Wesley no respect. In turn, Wesley gave Toplady no ear. He wrote in 1770 about Toplady, “Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well; but I do not fight with chimney sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with; I should only foul my fingers. I read his title page, and troubled myself no farther.”
So what are my thoughts about Toplady? I believe if he lived today, Toplady would be one of those Calvinists who is bent on declaring that Calvinism is the gospel. He would write diatribes against Arminians as though we Arminians are what is destroying the Church. As Fred Sanders points out, he would probably be one of those Calvinists who sends you a comment IN ALL CAPS SO THAT YOU DON’T MISUNDERSTAND THAT THEY DESPISE YOU AND REJECT YOU. Someone wrote that Toplady “was a bit of a jerk.”
Some Calvinists see the Toplady debates as proof positive that John Wesley was evil. In light of the Servetus incident with John Calvin, I can see the desire to take one of the greatest Arminians in history and seek to find fault with him. I don’t doubt that Wesley was a man. He made mistakes. He never asked for the head of anyone. He never asked, as Toplady suggested, that Calvinists be thrown into Welsh prisons. Wesley never asked that the Anabaptists be destroyed for their views regarding infant baptism (a practice both Arminius and Wesley maintained by the way). In the end, I believe that Wesley was a godly man though not a sinless man (though he wrote a book on Christian perfection).
Thankfully, God saves us by His grace and not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). I don’t begin to know Toplady’s heart regarding Wesley. I know 1 John 3:15 would apply here. I am thankful (to the chagrin of some Calvinists) that Toplady goes largely unread these days. Not because I fear his theology but because I fear his approach to debating others even if you don’t count them as saved. John Wesley (1703-1791) was much older than Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) and I am sure he was tired of Toplady’s writings as I am. Toplady seemed to show no regard for his elder. He continued to write against Wesley and Arminians until his final day.
I would rather exalt Jesus Christ and His gospel than spend my final days attacking James White or John Piper. In fact, I would rather pray for revival of God’s Church both Arminians and Calvinists than to spend time seeking to always debunk my Calvinist brethren. That is just how I see it.
HT: Fred Sanders