Rev. George Bringhurst of Philadelphia, one of the first Delegates of the U.S Christian Commission serving the soldiers in the spring of 1862, shares how he saw this well-known hymn bring positive change in some who heard it being sung [Incidents of the U.S. Christian Commission by Edward P. Smith 1869. Pages 24-26]:
Again, we heard the same hymn at Yorktown, sung by some of the same Delegates. After its singing, as we were returning to our quarters, one of the Delegates was overtaken by a soldier, who belonged to the “Lost Children” – (the name of a New York Regiment, “Enfans Perdus”). He asked “Won’t you please tell me how I may build on the ‘Rock’ you sang about? I was thinking of it while on guard the other day.” He told his story in brief: he was from New York City, had received his mother’s dying blessing. Before she breathed her last, she sang this hymn, and said “George, my son, I would not feel so badly about your enlisting, if you were only built upon that ‘Rock.’”
These sacred memories were revived by the singing of the hymn; and as the Delegate and the soldier knelt on the dusty roadside, beneath the stars, the wanderer lost his weariness and thirst for sin, in the shadow of the “Rock of Ages.”
Eighteen months after this incident, the same Delegate, going to Fortress Monroe, on a boat which had as part of her passengers a gay and happy company of the Signal Corps, conversed, sang and prayed with them. He related to them the foregoing incidents, sang “Rock of Ages,” and retired to his state-room. Soon after, a gentle tap called him to the door, where he found a tall graceful Lieutenant, who, with tears streaming down his face, said “O sir! I could not let you go to bed tonight until I had told you what you have done. As I sat, with my head leaning against a spar, and listened to your words and to that hymn, you brought back my dead mother with all her prayers and love. I have been a wanderer until this night, now by God’s grace I want to hide myself in that Rock of Ages.”
“Rock of Ages” was the song JEB Stuart requested to be sung as he was dying.
Exploration of the Hymn “Rock of Ages”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Though there is some debate about Toplady writing the first verse of the hymn as he took refuge in a rock cleft himself during a strong storm, the Biblical Background for the hymn is likely the incident recorded in Exodus 33:12-34:9 where Moses is hidden in a cleft of the rock so that he is protected as he witnesses the Lord’s glory passing by and hears the Lord’s proclamation. Psalm 18:2 also declares: “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower [KJV]” from which Toplady may have also drawn inspiration.
In the Dictionary of Hymnology, John Julian cites the 1775 article “Life a Journey” (printed in the Gospel Magazine) in which Toplady published the first stanza of his hymn “Rock of Ages.” As introduction to the first stanza’s words Toplady wrote: “Yes, if you fall, be humbled, but do not despair. Pray afresh to God, who is able to raise you up, and set you on your feet again. Look to the blood of the covenant; and say to the Lord from the depths of your heart” the prayer which Toplady lays out in his hymn.
This gives insight into Toplady’s heart in writing this hymn of praise to Jesus. Toplady points us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as our only hope in this life of struggle with sin and our only protection when we come before Him on the judgment day. Toplady correctly points out in verse 2 our own “goodness” cannot protect us on that day of judgement as the Apostle Paul teaches us in Ephesians 2:8-9. Just as God placed the sinner Moses in a protective place, so in the day of judgment Jesus will be the protective place for those who have put their trust in Him alone for grace and mercy. Toplady’s song calls on hearts to realize their need for Jesus and depend on Him to “be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power”.
From the Civil War incidents shared above by Bringhurst, we see that the hymn written 87 years earlier did indeed touch hearts of those who had heard the gospel before but had shrugged off God’s call to them. Through the hymn’s succinct call to look to Jesus, along with the perilous circumstances of that time, some hearts did respond in faith to the promise that Jesus alone saves us from the condemnation we justly deserve.
The Lincoln Gun
The Rodman Gun, cast in 1860, shipped from Pittsburgh to Fort Monroe in March 1861 to help guard the Hampton Roads and prevent Confederate ships from fighting their way through the channel, was one of the largest smoothbore cannons ever made, weighing 49,000 pounds, 15’10” long and 4 feet in diameter with a 15” bore. It is said it could fire a 330lb explosive projectile or a 437lb solid shot more than four miles. It was named the “Lincoln gun” by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
The “Lost Children” battalion
This unit was formed between Nov.22, 1861 and April 1862 mostly of French & German European immigrant volunteers, who served in the Carolina area during the War. They did not muster enough men to form a regiment, so it was classed as a battalion and eventually assimilated into the 4th Corps, Army of the Potomac. “Lost Children” – Enfans Perdus – Enfants Perdus – with its European background means the “forlorn hope” – small groups of soldiers assigned dangerous tasks like the first to charge through the breach, or hold a strategic but dangerous position. The “Lost Children” name tag was likely taken as a challenge to these volunteers to step up and show courage no matter what they would face in battle.
1) God has created us to respond to music. Studies have shown music can help focus, can change moods, can help memory, can create connection with others listening to it. Discuss how music can be both good and bad in our lives, depending on what is stirs up within us. Music can motivate us to do great and good things. It can also be used to draw us into evil and sinful actions. While “music” in itself is neutral, how it affects us is what we need to be discerning about. What words are in the song? Who is it connecting us with? What is it motivating us to do?
2) Help your children explore how Toplady moves verse by verse, developing the theme of the hymn. He is not simply playing on emotions as is often the case in music today by repetition of the same few phrases over and over and over again. Instead, he leads the singer/listener through a developing thought process – ballad style writing. Yes, his song does stir up emotions, but it is through a development of thought. Maybe explore having your child write their own song/poem where they present an important truth that they want others to better understand.