The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880

By Candy Gunther Brown | Go to book overview

8
Unifying the
Pilgrim Community

John Wesley and Augustus Toplady could not agree. Despite their common passion for evangelical truth, the two men bitterly disputed doctrines characteristic of their respective denominations. In the course of debates printed in England's periodical press, the Calvinist Toplady wrote the hymn “Rock of Ages” as part of an article in the Gospel Magazine (1776) to refute the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification. Wesley averred that justified Christians could attain a degree of holiness in this world such that they ceased to commit intentionally sinful acts. Toplady rebutted that Christians “never, in the present life, rise to the mark of legal sanctity,” and that to the contrary, “our Sins multiply with every second.” Toplady introduced “Rock of Ages” to reinforce his argument, supplying the explanatory heading: “A living and dying PRAYER for the HOLIEST BELIEVER in the World.” In Toplady's view, even the holiest Christian remained desperately corrupted by sin. Ironically, nineteenth-century evangelicals of every denomination— including Methodists—appropriated Toplady's hymn to promote Christian unity, a quality seen as necessary to the holiness of the church universal. Evangelicals considered hymns, because of their usefulness in evoking experiences shared by all Christians, as specially suited to disseminating a corporate model of pilgrimage. In positioning hymn texts within published collections, hymnal editors, compilers, and translators muted theological disputes for the purpose of unifying the textual community that the hymn canon helped to define.1

The publication history of Toplady's “Rock of Ages” illustrates how hymnbook editors, compilers, and translators acted as cultural arbiters by framing, selecting, and altering hymns to encourage evangelical unity on

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