Toplady’s active involvement in what is known as “the Arminian controversy” began in 1768, when six undergraduate students were expelled from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, for having held “the doctrine of absolute election, that the spirit of God works irresistibly, that one a child of God always a child of God,” and for having “endeavoured to instill the same principles into others.” The chorus of protests from various evangelical leaders, including Whitefield, compelled Thomas Nowell, professor of modern history at Oxford, to defend the judgment by stating that Arminianism was the proper doctrine of the Church of England.
Augustus Montague Toplady and His Defense of the Gospel
Augustus Montague Toplady was one of the many young people who turned to Christ through the ministry of John Wesley. He was also one of the many who called Wesley out on his departure from the teachings of the Reformed confessions.
Effectual Call and Effectual Shock
Born on 4 November 1740 at Farnham, Surrey, he never knew his father Richard, an army officer who died six months after Augustus’s birth in Cartagena de Indias (probably from yellow fever). The child was raised by his mother Catherine.
After attending the prestigious Westminster School in London from 1750 to 1755, Toplady moved to Ireland with his mother (possibly to deal with matters of inheritance, since his father was Irish). There, he enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin.
During his first summer vacation, he heard the itinerant preacher James Morris in a barn near Wexford, Ireland. The text was Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” Thirteen years later, Toplady recorded this occasion as “that memorable evening of my effectual call by the grace of God.”
He found the situation “strange.” He had been, after all, raised under the means of grace in the fine city of London, and had even written some religious poems and hymns. And yet, he had to visit a barn “in an obscure part of Ireland” and listen to a man “who could hardly spell his name,” in order to be truly drawn “nigh by the blood of Christ.”
This was only a starting point. Two years later, after a constant study of Scriptures and of the previous theologians, he made a made a radical and permanent break with some of the doctrines taught by Morris, a follower of John Wesley – what Toplady described as “the Arminian snare.” “Through the great goodness of God,” he said, “my Arminian prejudices received an effectual shock.”