THE POETIC WONDER OF ISAAC WATTS, Reformation Trust, 2013
AUGUSTUS TOPLADY, Debtor to Mercy Alone, Evangelical Press (UK, '12)
"Thanks to the prolific and eloquent pen of Douglas Bond, we now have an insightful glimpse into the life, the faith, and the poetic wonder of this remarkable servant of the church: Isaac Watts.”
—Dr. George Grant
“Who among us has not had heart and mind stirred by a Watts hymn? Here we learn the story behind the hymns. We learn of a Christ-centered life, a doxological life. And from that wellspring has come the hymns we love to sing. Watts’s hymns are a gift for the church, and so is this biography by Douglas Bond.”
—Dr. Stephen J. Nichols
Professor at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School
Listen to a recent KNOWING THE TRUTH RADIO interview on Watts with Kevin Boling
“We all know and love ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘Jesus Shall Reign,’‘Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,’ ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past,’ and a host of his other compositions. And yet, most Christians know precious little about the author of these great hymn texts—the man history has dubbed as the ‘Father of English Hymnody.’ At least, until now. Thanks to the prolific and eloquent pen of Douglas Bond, we now have an insightful glimpse into the life, the faith, and the poetic wonder of this remarkable servant of the church: Isaac Watts. This delightful book needs to be put at the top of your must-read list.”
—Dr. George Grant
Pastor, East Parish Presbyterian Church
Listen to JANET MEFFERD interview me about THE POETIC WONDER OF ISAAC WATTS
Listen to another interview on Watts, PILGRIM RADIO with Bill Felton
From the Introduction (Watts biography to release with Reformation Trust, September, 2012)
Doxology for All Time
It was an autumn Sunday evening in 1976 when as a seventeen-year-old the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone became irrevocably real to my soul. I remember it vividly: the awakened hearing of truths I had been tenderly taught since my earliest recollections, but now the sense of wonder at divine grace, the experiential thrill of the reality of the cross and of Christ my Savior shedding His blood, suffering and dying in my place, for my sin and my guilt. I remember the hot tears stinging my cheeks as the genuineness of grace and the gospel washed over me that evening.
With a trembling hand and a heart nearly bursting with love and gratitude for the free grace of God, I reached for the elements of bread and wine, Christ therein pictured, symbolized, and made spiritually real before me.What was the means of so awakening a teenage young man that glorious evening? Was it the result of an entertaining sermon delivered by a celebrity preacher? Was it the result of emotional hype concocted by the latest Christian rock band? Was it the result of high-church ceremony attempting to fabricate the transcendent? No, it was none of these.
It was Isaac Watts.
I had sung the words of his hymn at communion every month for the past eleven years, but that evening Watts’ rich poetry dazzled my imagination, and made a deep and lasting impression on my heart. It’s not cool at seventeen to weep publicly, but I wept, and though I did, I managed to join Watts in his slack-jaw wonder at the cross.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
By his incomparable imagination, Watts had transported me back to hot, dusty Golgotha, where I heard the thudding of the hammer on the spikes, the taunting and spitting, the moaning and sorrow. With Watts’ words, I became the young man surveying that wondrous cross. With eyes of faith, I was the one seeing the Prince of glory forsaken by His Father and dying in anguish. And because I was now seeing it, I was the one resolving to count but loss all my aspirations to riches and greatness. It was I who was, for the first time, pouring contempt on all my delusional pride of body and mind.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the cross of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
Watts, by his own sense of wonder at the cross of Christ, and with skillful strokes of his poetic pen, showed me the absurdity of my view of the world. He deftly stirred up in me the ugliness and utter inappropriateness of my pride and boasting, my preoccupation with empty things that so captivated my teen world. By vividly holding before me the cross of Jesus, Watts demanded that I drop everything and reckon with that cross. By his words, Watts compelled me to join him, to see with him the One who hung on that cross for me.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Watts’ rhetorical question caused me to see how ridiculous my sense of value had been. I had been scrambling after the world’s riches, the world’s wisdom, the world’s entertainments. But here Watts held before me Christ--His head, His hands, His feet--the surpassing richness of His thorny crown. And it was as if I was there, could see it, could hear Him groaning, could feel the penetration of each thorn in His crown. And in that gracious seeing, I was compelled to respond.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.[i]
[i] Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition (Atlanta, Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publications, 1997), 252.
Tour the Hymn Writers of England & Wales with Mr Pipes (actually, with Douglas and Cheryl Bond). Travelers on the 2012 Hymn Tour received a free, signed copy of my biography of Augustus Toplady. We explored places Isaac Watts saw as a child and later as an adult in London. We sang Watts favorites at Bunhill Fields, London, where he is buried--and daily as we rode from fascinating place to fascinating place. Travelers on a recent tour singing, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross in London.
Listen from the first chapter of THE POETIC WONDER of ISAAC WATTS
MANUSCRIPT COMPLETE! I was more richly blessed in writing this concise biography of Augustus Toplady than ever I expected to be. I wrote the entire book in about four weeks, but four weeks of eating, drinking, meditating, singing, and reading and researching this imminently humble and gifted Christian's life and ministry. (read a sample)
Blessings on David Woolin, EP's editorial and marketing fellow (now with RHB). He asked if we could chat at CBA (ICRS) in St Louis (2010). He wanted me to write for their new biography series edited by Dr. Michael Haykin.
I had a certain expectation when I began writing about Toplady, and expectation that was getting pretty beat up right from the start. Few men have been more misunderstood and misrepresented than Toplady. When I was talking to a friend and colleague of mine about writing on Toplady, his remark was typical of my thinking and I suspect of most people's thinking about Toplady: "He was a pretty cranky controversialist, wasn't he?" Listen to an excerpt
Au contraire, mon frère! What I discovered in Toplady's private writings, hymns--many more than Rock of Ages--and other writings, was a young, passionate, gifted, and single-minded lover of Christ and his gospel. He died at thirty-eight of TB, and one can only wonder what more he could have accomplished had he lived longer. This was a man who preached, pastored, wrote scholarly treatises, and crafted hymns, "as a dying man to dying men," as Baxter has it. Read a sample chapter below.
Here's how the switch from another volume on Watts came about: Evangelical Press (EP) contract on AUGUSTUS TOPLADY. After a number of emails back and forth with David Woolin and Michael Haykin, series editor at Evangelical Press, we decided to scratch the EP Isaac Watts bio in favor of an all new one on Toplady. The cover will look something like the biography at left on Lloyd-Jones, one of the first released in EP's new biography series. I feel really good about this and am already researching and immersing myself in his writings. Yes, it will still be a complimentary volume to my RT Watts, both on important hymn writers. It will likely release far sooner than the plan for Watts with EP, though we don't have a date on the calender yet. Listen to chapter 4
"I vividly recall the sweetness and joy of Toplady's diary when I first read it more than twenty years ago now. Douglas Bond has ably captured the man and his faith in this brief biography. Warmly recommended!"
Michael Haykin, Professor of Church History, Southern Seminary
"I highly recommend this new book by Douglas Bond. He does a great job of introducing us to Toplady, an important, but often-overlooked, and misunderstood figure in church history. It is a quick read, and filled with fascinating anecdotes about Toplady and his 18th century context. We all know Rock of Ages, but if you want to learn about the man behind the hymn, and the grace that made him sing, this book is a great start!"
Rev. Kevin Twit, RUF Campus Minister and Founder of Indelible Grace Music
“Doug Bond has an engaging and thoughtful style of writing that brings his subject to life in a tangible way. We need examples like Augustus Toplady to emulate and inspire us to strive for greater spiritual growth and deeper devotion to the Lord. This book will open windows of insight in how to stand firm in your faith despite ridicule, poverty, health challenges, and the flood of popular cultural. I have been inspired to strive for a closer walk with the Lord, and I can highly recommend this and other books by Douglas Bond.”
Vince Treadway, MM, Director of Music Ministries, First Presbyterian Church of Lake Wales, Florida
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 18th 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."
This is exalted company with which Ryle ranks Toplady. Moreover, consider that Toplady had many fewer years in which to achieve worthiness of that ranking: 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 giants, all who lived decades longer than he. It is nothing short of remarkable that in his brief life Toplady achieved the foremost rank as 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 to be simply 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’m apparently 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.
The event that would be the catalyst to the theological train wreck coming for Toplady occurred two years before he was born. May 24, 1738, John Wesley, newly returned from the American colonies, found himself in a hall only a few yards from where the London Museum stands today. He gave this account of what transpired:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Alas, Wesley and Toplady in later years would square off and plant their flags in one of church history’s bitterest battles over the meaning of the gospel and of grace. One wonders if the two would have become such intractable enemies had Wesley continued expressing his conversion in terms of “…the change which God works in the heart…” and declaring that he “…did trust in Christ alone for salvation.” In any event, it would be Toplady’s wrangling with Wesley about salvation that would most expose his frailties and yet also his remarkable gifts and graces.
TOPLADY AND GRACE
“He was a man in whom there was a most extraordinary mixture of grace and infirmity,” wrote Ryle. “Hundreds, unhappily, know much of his infirmities who know little of his graces.”
Grace was a constant theme for Toplady, in his hymns, in his theological works, and in his private entries in his diary. He never wearied of or grew bored with God’s free grace in the gospel. Nothing could divert him from speaking and writing about it. In an entry dated December 31, 1767, he wrote, "Upon a review of the past year, I desire to confess that my unfaithfulness has been exceeding great; my sins still greater; God's mercies greater than both." Reflecting on this stage in his short life, he concluded, "My shortcomings and my misdoings, my unbelief and want of love, would sink me into the lowest hell, was not Jesus my righteousness and my Redeemer."
Heartfelt reflections on his unworthiness and Christ’s immeasurable worth appear everywhere in Toplady’s diary and devotional writings. But it would be in Toplady’s hymns that he would immortalize for the ages his intimate knowledge of and dependence on the free grace of God in Jesus his righteousness and Redeemer. It was the archbishop of the Church of Ireland, and husband of Irish hymn writer Cecil Francis Alexander, who said after his wife’s death in 1895, “The theologian is for the educated few; the preacher is for one generation; the hymn writer speaks an imperishable language.”
The archbishop goes on to say that the poet who writes hymns “bequeaths to all the ages the music of immortal words.” Though he is remembered primarily for one hymn—and that one a perennial favorite—it was in one of Toplady’s lesser-known hymns that he so memorably placards for us the centrality of the grace of God:
Grace, ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to mine ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.
Each quatrain thereafter begins with the word “Grace” and explores, with poetic skill and simplicity, the beautiful intricacies of the gospel of grace. Toplady understood grace so well because he understood the sinfulness of his own heart so thoroughly, as he so often expressed it in his diary and other writings. After a Lord’s Day of particularly fruitful ministry, October 2, 1768, he wrote these words, “How is it, O thou God of love, that thy tender mercies should thus accompany and follow the vilest sinner out of hell! That, to me, who am less than the least of all saints, this grace should be given, that I should both experience and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ!” So consistent is this man’s sense of his own unworthiness in his writings, that we have every reason to believe that this was no self-deprecating pretense; he really thought this way about himself—and, hence, about Christ and his love. Nevertheless, history has largely ignored Toplady’s keen awareness of and candid admission of his unworthiness, preferring to feature more of his sins and dwell more lingeringly on his infirmities than on the grace of Christ on which Toplady so utterly depended.
It is, therefore, the purpose of this work to pull back the shroud that has covered Toplady, to unmask the caricature that has shaped his memory as merely a raw-boned and harsh controversialist. Since his infirmities are better known and more easily remembered, it is the purpose of this succinct biography of Toplady, with honesty, fairness, and candor, to make known more widely and clearly his pastoral, theological, and poetic graces.
The 18th-century world into which Toplady was born was a time of great intellectual achievement: philosophers soaring into the heights of human reason; political theorists formulating treatises on government and economics; scientists discovering the intricacies of human anatomy and making significant advances in medicine; and musicians, architects, painters, and poets creating magnificent, culture-defining art.
There were luminaries aplenty in Toplady’s world. Three years before Toplady’s birth, Samuel Johnson had left his home in Lichfield and come to London, there to write his epic poem named for the city, and later in his house near Fleet Street to compile his famous dictionary, for which he is known as “Dictionary Johnson.” Johnson’s Literary Club, with which Toplady would have some associations, began meeting at the Turk’s Head Inn and at London coffee shops and public houses for more informal gatherings. James Boswell, Johnson’s companion and justly famous biographer, was born the same year as Toplady.
Meanwhile in 1740, the year of Toplady’s birth, John Wesley translated from German the hymn Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness. And a few months later, when Toplady was cutting his first teeth, Jonathan Edwards delivered his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, July 8, 1741, at Second Meeting House, Enfield, Connecticut. When Toplady was eight months old, the famous violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi died in Vienna. By September of the same year, George Fredrick Handel had completed in a mere twenty-four days his incomparable oratorio, “The Messiah.”
WHY TOPLADY IS FOR TODAY
Toplady lived out his thirty-eight short years in Enlightenment England, the so-called Age of Reason and Rationalism—never mind how ridiculously irrational hairdos became. The rationalism infecting philosophy was making its way—sometimes at a crawl and other times hot and gaseous, more like a pyroclastic volcanic eruption—into the theology, worship, and preaching of the church. It was also a day of awakening, the Great Awakening, when the Spirit of God was moving mightily in Britain and throughout the American colonies.
But no one hates the outpouring of the Spirit more than the Enemy. And so entwining himself like a serpent around that Great Awakening was the enemy of grace and the gospel in the form of deism and a resurgent semi-Pelagianism. Alas, what the 18th century would be remembered for was a moralistic deism that continued to use the language of orthodoxy, but began, by fits and starts, to deny the sovereign power of God alone to transform sinners into saints by grace alone. Unflinching Toplady took his stand against such preachers.
“To hear some preachers today,” I heard Bryan Chappell say in a sermon, “one would think that sanctification is a condition of justification.” Paul calls down a twofold curse on foolish Galatians who add any condition to justification. Just as Paul got worked up when men distorted the gospel in his day (Galatians 1:6-9), so did Toplady. Tragically, Church history is littered with preachers distorting the gospel, as some did in Toplady’s day.
But that’s in the past. Distorting the gospel is all behind the church today, right? Sadly, it’s not. Not when we have men in confessional pulpits telling their congregations that they are tired of propaganda buzz words like “gospel” and “grace”—Toplady would never have said this. Not when we have ministers who claim to be preaching in the historic tradition of the Reformation but who declare that “we determine our destiny by our faith and our obedience”—nor would he preach this. Not when we have men preaching justification by faithfulness and calling Christ-centered preaching a fad—nor would he do this. Not when we have learned preachers who make sanctification a condition of justification, who declare that the elect can forfeit their salvation by unfaithfulness—Toplady would rather have been accursed than preach anything like this.
Make no mistake, the gospel is in the crosshairs of the Enemy in every generation, and that is why it is imperative that we rise up in our day and contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
Toplady was such a man. Since the church is never far from abandoning the good news for the bad news, never far from becoming suspicious of free grace and returning—like a dog to its vomit—to a cooperative salvation, a responsible partnership salvation, a syncretistic grace-and-obedience distortion of the gospel, we need to drink deeply of the life and ministry of a man like Augustus Montague Toplady, “debtor to mercy alone.”
Listen to another excerpt from AUGUSTUS TOPLADY Debtor to Mercy Alone, by Douglas Bond