An argument in books: Augustus Toplady versus John Wesley

Long before social media, people could still engage in vitriolic public debates without actually meeting. The rise of the cheap and easy to produce printed pamphlet meant that educated and well off authors could pen arguments against their peers, who might respond in kind. Popular printing of the early modern period is littered with these episodic, sometimes witty and often sharply worded exchanges, none more so than those on the subject of religion.

In this blog, Methodist minister Rev. Dr. David Hart tells us about Augustus Toplady, one of the most vociferous opponents in print of John and Charles Wesley’s early Methodist movement.

'Rock of Ages', Toplady's most famous hymn from his 'Psalms and hymns for public and private worship' (London, 1776).
‘Rock of Ages’, Toplady’s most famous hymn from his ‘Psalms and hymns for public and private worship’ (London, 1776).

Augustus Toplady (1740 – 1788) was probably not at the top of John Wesley’s list of favourite correspondents in the 1770s. Toplady’s biggest claim to fame is probably as the author of the hymn ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, written in 1763 and first published in 1775. The hymn was inspired, so the story runs, when Toplady sheltered in the lee of a rock cleft at Burrington Coombe in Somerset during a violent rainstorm. Be that as it may, what is certain is that the John Rylands library now holds two significant volumes which were at one time in Toplady’s ownership.

A brief biography of Toplady may be found in the Methodist biographical index on the Library’s website. As a Church of England clergyman, Toplady was also associated with the Calvinist Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. It was, however, his vehement opposition to John and Charles Wesley that marked out his theological significance.

John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament was published in 1754 and Toplady’s own annotated copy is held in the University of Manchester’s Special Collections. The volume is peppered with marginal notes and references by Toplady (who probably made the annotations during his time as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 1750s) which reveal a systematic desire to derail, at least in his own thinking, Wesley’s  theology.

The marginalia of this volume offer some insight into the opposition faced by Wesley from Toplady. In his preface, John Wesley writes  ‘But I write chiefly for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their Mother-tongue and yet reverence and love the Word of God, and have a desire to save their Souls.’ In response, Toplady writes in the margin ‘Happy had it been for Mr Wesley, if only unletter’d men had read this commencement for then he could not have been detected in his mistranslation’.

Toplady's annotations in Wesley's Preface of his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
Toplady’s annotations in Wesley’s Preface of his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Toplady became one of Wesley’s fiercest critics in print.

Part of Toplady’s (Calvinist) argument focuses on challenging Wesley’s translation of the Greek New Testament.  A. W. Harrison’s work[1] has shown that Wesley probably used the Greek text by Johann Albrecht Brengel published in Tubingen in 1734. Toplady’s annotations also serve to express points of theological divergence between Calvinist and Arminian doctrine.

Toplady was an educated man and wrote annotations in Latin, English and Greek.
Titlepage of the recently acquired volume annotated by Toplady (R228935).
Titlepage of the recently acquired volume annotated by Toplady (R228935).

If Toplady’s copy of John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament reveals the precocious outpourings of a young undergraduate, another volume which was in Toplady’s possession reveals one of the sources of his scholarship. Acquired by the John Rylands Library from a New York bookseller in 2017, this is an edition of William Cave’s Antiquitates Apostolicae: or, The History of the Lives, Acts, and Martyrdoms of the Holy Apostles of Our Saviour printed in London by M. Flesher for R.Royston, in 1684. This is a fifth edition, and is bound with William Cave’s Apostolici: or, The History of the Lives, Acts, Death, and Martyrdoms of Those Who were Contemporary with, or immediately Succeeded the Apostles. As Also the most Eminent of the Primitive Fathers printed in London by J. R. for Richard Chiswel, 1682.

These two volumes are in effect a collection of ‘lives’ with engraved illustrations. The copy contains lengthy indices in manuscript on the paste downs and ownership inscription on a slip pasted above the Dedication: “È Libris Augusti Toplady: Empt. Londini, Maii de 15to 1761.” There are extensive annotations and these appear to have been made shortly after Toplady’s graduation from Dublin. Like his copy of the Notes on the New Testament the volume will offer valuable insights into the emergent and developing theological thinking of one of Wesley Methodism’s most vociferous opponents.

Librarian of the printed Methodist Collections Jane Gallagher adds;

William Cave (1637–1713) was an Anglican clergyman from a strongly Royalist family, whose studies looked back to the early days of the Church to find greater truth and simplicity in the practice of the faith. His first book harked back to the first ‘primitive’ Christians, but he soon began to show a preference for historical, rather then meditative, works on the Church.

An image of the handwritten index which note important pages within the book. This is partially obscured by later repair work.
A handwritten index on the paste down notes important pages within the book. This is partially obscured by later repair work.

Antiquitates apostolicae (first published as part of a larger work in 1675) focuses on the lives of the twelve apostles as well as Paul, Mark and Luke during the first two centuries of the spread of Christianity. The next book, Apostolici (first published 1677), followed this chronological pattern, including martyrs from the early decades of the Church. Having these two books bound together, as in the case of Toplady’s copies, makes sense for a scholar interested in tracing the history of the Church, particularly one focussed on the idea of returning to older and what were believed to have been simpler ways.

Cave’s works were popular during and immediately after his lifetime and published in many editions, but fell out of favour in the mid nineteenth century. Toplady’s ownership of two editions contemporary with the author suggests that he too may have believed that the closer to the original meant closer to the truth. In any case, the two annotated volumes from Toplady’s library now in the John Rylands collections demonstrate the power of the printed word to leap off the page, to be repurposed, and to leave tangible traces of hard fought debates so many centuries after their inception.

See also: John S. Simon, ‘Mr Wesley’s notes upon the New Testament’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society Vol. 9.5 (1914) 97 – 105.

[1] (published as, ‘The Greek text of Wesley’s Translation of the New Testament’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Vol. 9.5 (1914), 105 -113).


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