On 100 Runs, Wesley and Toplady, Tupac and Biggie, and the Perseverance of the Saints

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

John Bunyan
The Pilgrim’s Progress

On March 3rd of this year I began a trip I really didn’t know I’d take, a run every other day for 200 days. It was the early days of the pandemic and I had just returned to the United States from a two and a half week trip to England, Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. I have always run, but somehow I felt that by running I’d somehow ward away the virus and, if I had it, I’d know since it affected the lungs. It was both prevention and a diagnostic tool; my own folk medicine. Today I finished run number 100, a 10 mile run which I didn’t plan to be 10 miles. Somewhere along the route I decided it made sense that the 100th run should be 10 miles. All those zeros seemed right.

There are lots of ways of measuring the 100 runs. The total distance I covered was 707.7 miles with runs that averaged 7.08 miles and lasted an average of one hour and 48 seconds. My average pace for the 100 runs was about 8 minutes and 35 seconds per mile. The longest run was today at 10 miles and the shortest was on August 20th, a 5K or 3.1 miles. The fastest run was completed in an average of just under 8 minutes per mile (7.51 miles in an hour) and the slowest was back on March 15th, a run of 6.36 miles in an hour, a pace of 9 minutes and 25 seconds per hour. I was attacked by one dog, aggressively trolled by drivers a few times, wore out one set of headphones, and used three tubes of body glide to prevent burns.

There’s something interesting about the fact that I did the first run at a gym in Seattle, on a treadmill, and finished the last one across the street from the stadium of my high school in Albuquerque. On such an occasion, for me, it is worth reflecting not just on the data, but the meaning of my running. What was this journey all about? Did I learn anything?

Most importantly, I didn’t intend to do this at the beginning. It was probably around my 12th run that I thought about 25 runs in 50 days, that somehow I’d mark the time of the quarantine with running. Soon, the running became something of a tonic for my mental health. It was something that was certain, something I could do regardless of Trump’s bizarre press conferences and mindless eviction bans and riots. At times I had to pry myself out of my apartment, get my feet on the pavement, and just take the first strides. Many people ran more than 100 times in the same period, ran farther and faster than I did. But for me, it became a promise I was keeping.

In a sense, it was a pilgrimage. As John Bunyan’s hymn, written in prison in 1684, emphasizes, a pilgrimage requires determination. Running every other day means, “Come wind, come weather/There’s no discouragement/Shall make him once relent/His first avowed intent.” And I have found myself, while I’m running and walking lately, thinking about Calvinism, and more specifically Augustus Toplady, who wrote the hymn, Rock of Ages. The hymn ended up on my playlist, and I rediscovered my interest in the 18th century preacher, theologian, and writer.

Agustus Toplady, who, when I talk to him now and then, I call “Gus.”

The hymn was even more relevant when I hiked across the top of the Sandia Mountain. This was also something I had not planned on. The mountain is really a giant rock, and after 20 miles and 10 hours I was amazed and happy I had done it. Again, I had not meant to do it, and while I was committed I had no choice but to complete the trip; there are no Lyfts or Ubers on the La Luz trail, once you’re on the trail, turning back is as long of a trip as finishing the hike. Toplady wrote something I kept thinking about.

And amidst all your weakness, distresses and temptations, remember that God will not cast out nor cast off the meanest and unworthiest soul that seeks salvation only in the name of Jesus Christ the righteous. When you cannot follow the rock, the rock shall follow you; nor ever leave you for so much as a single moment, on this side the heavenly Canaan.

From “A Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines”

Toplady locked himself into a dispute with popular and charismatic preacher John Wesley. Wesley was a super star in 18th century England, living a long life, from 1703, the final days of the Stuart dynasty, all the way until 1791 dying in the reign of George III. He was an Anglican, but his version of Anglicanism was so distinctive that it became its own denomination, Methodism. There is likely a Methodist church within in walking distance from where you are reading this. Wesley’s brand of Protestantism is often called Arminianism, a reaction against Calvinism and arguing that human beings had a profound role in their own salvation.

John Wesley, “with all the sophistry of a Jesuit, and the dictatorial authority of a pope.”

Toplady thought that this was a fraud. He wrote and campaigned against Wesley’s revival. Toplady’s sermons are convincing, relentless, and cutting. How, if God is almighty and all knowing, the sovereign of the universe, could He leave salvation to chance? How could one chosen by God to be saved reject that salvation?

Can then the Lord and giver of life; can he who, like the adorable Son, is God of God, and God with God; shall the Blessed Spirit of grace, who is in glory equal, and in majesty co-eternal, with the other two persons of the godhead, and has all power both in heaven and in earth; shall he who hath the key of David; who openeth and no man shutteth; and shutteth and no man openeth; (Rev. 3:7) shall he knock at the door of the human heart, and leave it at the option of free-will to insult him from the window, and bid him go whence he came? Surely, men’s eyes must be blinded indeed, before they can lay down such a shocking supposition for a religious aphorism.

Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines, 1770

Toplady calls Wesley’s followers, “merit mongers,” people who try to combine good works and moral stunts into salvation, a theology that is “a jumble of grace and free-will, human works, and the merits of Christ.”

Wesley dismissed Toplady, saying this same year, 1770, that, “I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers. I read his title-page, and troubled myself no farther.”

Yet Wesley took the trouble to put together what was essentially a satire of a translation of a Calvinist work by Toplady. Wesley vandalized the translation even signing it “AT” so as to attribute it to Toplady, not himself. This infuriated Toplady, and he wrote Wesley directly saying,

Though you neither are mentioned, nor alluded to, throughout the whole book, yet it could hardly be imagined that a treatise apparently tending to lay the axe to the root of those pernicious doctrines which, for more than thirty years past, you have endeavored to palm on your credulous followers, with all the sophistry of a Jesuit, and the dictatorial authority of a pope, should long pass without some censure from the hand of a restless Arminian, who has so eagerly endeavored to distinguish himself as the bellwether of his deluded thousands.

Toplady’s Letter to Wesley, March 26 1770

I love Toplady. And as I have dug further into Calvinism I find his arguments defending it compelling. I sort of like to think of Wesley and Toplady as an 18th century Anglican Tupac and Biggie, an epic feud begun in substance but also about style and dominance. Toplady died young, at 37, not in a hail of bullets but from tuberculosis and aside from Rock of Ages he is not well known. I have written a play in my mind about his life. One day I’ll write it down. He’s a remarkable figure who deserves more attention.

What does this have to with running? Lately I’ve been thinking of the Calvinist principle of the Perseverance of the Saints, defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document created in response to a call from Parliament to establish some theological structure at a time of religious foment:

They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.

Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 17, sec. 1

Like Toplady, I’m stubborn and it’s part of the reason why I admire him. He never gave in or gave up. Perhaps he obsessed too much over Wesley, but it galled him that someone so wrong would have such much sway over so many. But Toplady persevered. Was his perseverance evidence of his election, his sanctification, his salvation or was he just stubborn? That’s what fascinates me about him and myself.

The key phrase in the Westminster Confession is “persevere therein to the end;” to the end of the race, to the end of the 100 runs, to the end of the next chapter of life, to the end of life itself. I’ve written already about my own family and faith and how stubbornness and faith are so intertwined in me that they are indistinguishable and practically inseparable. Being home and finding my “Confession” from third grade in which I wrote, probably under duress, “Someday I will lern [sic] to be quiet. Someday I will to do what I am to do . . . I never do anything right. I don’t ever listen to anybody.”

As I said in a Facebook post, I still haven’t learned 42 years later. Is that stubbornness?. How is it that the boy who wrote those words remains just as stout, resolute, unwilling and even unable to change or bend even under threat and duress. Why does he, why do I, persist? Mrs. Powdrell, who wrung that confession out of me in the third grade, is but one of a long line of teachers, bosses, and opponents that have tried to squash me out. It has never succeeded. I keep running. And I keep running. And I keep running.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

And herein lies the question: according to Toplady, all that running, opposing Wesley, being persistent are simply an indicator of sainthood, not the basis of salvation. Being stubborn, running every other day no matter what, opposing the popular Wesley are not actions that save one’s soul. If they are anything salutary it is because those are but the signs of “the state of grace,” not the cause of grace. From Rock of Ages:

Not the labour 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.

Perhaps I have no faith, only stubbornness, the product of inbreeding or alien abduction or nuclear dust from Sandia Labs – or all of these. Or, maybe, I have the Perseverance of a Saint, something that pushes me and pulls me forward down the road, each minute, each hour, each day. No matter what, I am happy to be a pilgrim here, following in the steps of Toplady, saved or stubborn. Let’s see what happens next.