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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

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Written by The Seeking Disciple

03/11/2012 at 5:34 PM

13 Responses

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  1. This was a great post, brother. You could have easily taken Toplady’s approach and deride him all the live-long day, but you rose far, far above it! I also appreciate very much your conclusion!

    Have you ever read John Owen’s “A Display of Arminianism”? If not, then I suggest that you stay away from it. Past chapter one I could sense a very deep anger within me rising. Then again, I suppose that is fairly normal when someone is telling you that your theology is Satanic. Yet, people love and revere and promote John Owen.

    I read only one of Owen’s other books, and only because I was obligated to do so for Church history class. Frankly, I don’t care what other material one writes: if he says Arminianism is Satanic, then I have no use for anything else the man might say.

    Justin Taylor is a huge promoter of Owen. I recently asked him if he had read Owen’s “A Display” and he said no. I’m sure he doesn’t want to be controversial over the issue, so he avoids reading it. If I can (and should) shun men like Malcolm L. Lavender, who writes that Calvinism is from hell, then I can (and should) shun Calvinists who take the same vein with Arminianism. I like Wesley’s tact: “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.”

    William W. Birch

    03/11/2012 at 7:19 PM

    • I read John Owen’s book on sin. I enjoyed it. Then I read a review of his book on Arminianism and have avoided him since. I agree that anyone who says that Arminianism is Satanic fails to understand Arminius. I also would avoid any so called Arminian who would say that Calvinism is Satanic or that Calvin was Satanic. I have read some Arminians who want to say that Calvin was not even saved. Who are we?

      I don’t doubt that Wesley had his faults. We all do. This not excusing sin but simply acknowledging that we are sinful, fallen people who need redemption through Christ (1 Timothy 1:15-16). Yet Toplady showed no respect for Wesley nor the hundreds of thousands who were saved under his preaching. History remembers Wesley and has largely forgotten Toplady so wisdom is justified by her children.

  2. Informative post Roy. It is encouraging that such a sound Calvinist like J. C. Ryle spoke so clearly against this man. You made an worthy point about 1 John 3:15, and yet I can’t imagine that Toplady would be in hell. I mean, how could he write the hymns he wrote if he didn’t know God, and His gospel? I know you weren’t making a judgment on him per say, but I just don’t know. I might make the same comment about John Owen and John Calvin too. I mean, Owen had some worthy insights that I question whether he could have apart from being saved, in spite of his grave misunderstanding of Arminianism. Same goes to Calvin, in spite of Calvin’s awful atrocities in condemning heretics in Geneva. Yet, I can’t stomach that any of them aren’t saved.

    Unfortunately, I can think of at least one other Arminian from my experience that seems to evidence the same spirit of hatred against a particular aspect of Calvinism, specifically all forms of eternal security or perseverance of the saints. I won’t name the name here, but I just know that I probably would’ve been wise to “not even touch” that person’s writings because of the spirit that seems to be in them.

    Thanks be to God that many Calvinists today stop short of this type of rhetoric against Arminianism, even if they fundamentally misunderstand Arminianism. Many and most do not call sound, evangelical Arminians to be Satanic.

    • Roy, can you please just delete the above post…I think I mis-spoke. Please just delete the whole post. I am sorry to pollute your blog.

      • A. Jacob,

        I am an Arminian and I rather appreciated your response. I wish you would reconsider having Roy delete it. I don’t think you misspoke.

        God bless, brother.

        William W. Birch

        03/11/2012 at 9:38 PM

      • I agree Jacob with Billy. Your comments were good and godly.

        Sent from my iPhone

    • I won’t judge Toplady’s salvation. I was simply trying to point out that 1 John 3:15 forbids hating a brother. Love truly marks our salvation.

      Good points Jacob. Thanks!

      Sent from my iPhone

  3. Very good post, I enjoyed it! I agree that Toplady was bitter, and that George Whitfield was a good example of a Godly Calvinist.

    Here’s an interesting fact about “Rock of ages”. Toplady actually plagarized some of Charles Wesley’s work for the lyrics, and it was originally written as a satire against the Wesley brothers. See here.

    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.

    -Charles Wesley

    Kevin Jackson

    03/11/2012 at 9:06 PM

  4. Hi Roy,
    Please correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t bearing false witness against your neighbor breaking of one of the commandments? And if we break the law… how are we to be saved. They are His Standards and Laws not up for discussion. He expects us to be Holy as He is holy. There does not appear to be much sacntification exhibited from his writings towards John Wesley.
    Just asking.
    God Bless
    Beth Lockwood

    Beth Lockwood

    03/13/2012 at 12:58 PM

    • I agree Beth. I believe that what he did was sinful. However, I cannot say that Toplady was not a believer. I hope he truly was. His actions were deplorable. I don’t doubt that. I just am not ready to cast him into hell. I pray God’s grace is bigger and that he did forgive Wesley for whatever he thought Wesley did that he deemed so evil and repent of his behavior before he died. I only hope that my life is not marked like his was.

  5. For personal reasons, one of my heroes of the faith is Charles Simeon. He had his own encouonter with Wesley. Their meeting is instructional. Perhaps you’ll blog about it one day.

    John Sneed

    03/13/2012 at 11:34 PM

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