Fanny Crosby, Hymnwriter
By Anne Adams
As the author of more than 9000 hymns plus 1000 secular poems and songs, hymnwriter Francis Jane (Fanny) Crosby was one of the most beloved Christian figures in the late 1800s. While providing many of the appealing gospel hymns that would replace the formerly popular more staid and sober songs, she also gained renown as a preacher, lecturer and home mission worker. And she accomplished it all – despite being blind since infancy. Still, Fanny never allowed what could have been a seriously limiting handicap caused by a careless mistake to keep her from using her God given talent to create songs that would provide inspiration and encouragement to many.
Born March 24, 1820, Frances Jane Crosby had normal vision at birth but at six weeks suffered an eye inflammation. Their usual doctor was unavailable and so the family sought help from a man who claimed to be medically qualified but who put a poultice on her eyes that left the infant’s eyes scarred. The “doctor” hurriedly left town.
Not long after Fanny’s father died and her young mother sought domestic work in nearby town, leaving her blind daughter in the care of her mother Eunice and other relatives.
Resolved that Fanny would not be completely dependent on others, as were many blind people at the time, Eunice set about to educate Fanny about many aspects of the world around her as she helped her memorize great portions of the Bible and other books.
Though other physicians reluctantly told her family there was nothing to be done to restore her sight, Grandma Eunice continued to help develop her memory as she grew and played as nearly as possible as normal children. Still when she became discouraged she prayed and asked God to use her, refusing to let her handicap limit her. Her new resolve was expressed in her first poem:
O what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world,
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy,
That other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t!
Fanny had attended local schools occasionally but since the teachers did not know how to help her she never attended long. However, as Fanny became a teenager it became evident that she had great creative talent – she sang well, played the piano and became quite well known locally as a poet. Then at age 14 her mother heard about a new opportunity for Fanny in the newly opened New York Institute for the Blind. In 1835, Fanny enrolled in the school and there she finally she found what she’d been praying for – a chance to learn among people who could teach her all she wanted to learn.
The students learned by means of lectures and readings, and her subjects included English, grammar, science, music, history, philosophy and astronomy. The pupils would hear the lesson several times and then be expected to not only answer detailed questions but also even paraphrase the lessons. Fanny learned it so quickly and so completely even years later she could recite the entire contents of her grammar text.
Fanny continued to demonstrate her poetic talent as she was frequently asked to compose verses for special occasions and to honor prominent visitors to the Institute where she became a teacher in 1842. In her role as institute poetess she became acquainted with such celebrities as famed singer Jenny Lind, President James K. Polk, Henry Clay, General Winfield Scott, and Horace Greeley. She even published poems for his newspaper. There was another employee who not only copied her poems but also became her life
long friend. His name was Grover Cleveland.
In 1844 she published a collection of her verse as “The Blind Girl and Other Poems,” the first of several later volumes of poems. Later she met a fellow instructor a somewhat younger man named Alexander Van Alystyne who was an accomplished musician. They married in 1858 when she was 38 and he was 27 then left the Institute because of what they felt were deteriorating conditions and relationships with the school. In 1859 Fanny gave birth to a baby but the child died shortly after birth. Fanny rarely spoke about the incident so it isn’t even clear if it was a girl or a boy. Also, while she and “Van” as she called him would remain married till his death in 1902 they followed their own career paths and eventually lived apart though always remained good friends.
As Fanny recovered from the loss of her child she may well have found solace and comfort in her deep and life long faith in God, and as she did so she became part of a religious revival that was sweeping the country. One aspect of it was the development of the Sunday school, which had evolved from an effort to offer secular education to working men on Sundays that evolved into the church’s education ministry.
Part of this element was the “Sunday School” music or what would be later called “gospel songs.” Hymns had long been traditionally grave, and sober with an emphasis in sin and judgement. However, worshipers preferred the more personal songs and Fanny was among many poets and composers who provided what the church needed.
One of these composers was William Bradbury who had studied and performed widely in Europe as well as America. Yet he disliked the poems he was presented so he was anxious to find more suitable lyrics. Fanny’s pastor brought the two together thus beginning a business and personal association as Fanny provided verses for his publishing company. She also later collaborated with businessman and part time composer William Doan, who would
become her close friend for more than 40 years.
One day Doan asked Fanny to write a poem using the phrase “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, but she lacked inspiration. A short time later as she was speaking at a prison one of the inmates called out: “Good Lord! Don’t pass me by!” That was what she needed and after Doan provided the melody the hymn was later used at the same prison and inspired several conversions
Another time Doan arrived at Fanny’s home with a melody in mind along with an urgent request. He was on his way to catch a train and he needed a poem to fit the tune. Upon hearing the melody Fanny clapped her hands together and exclaimed. “That says ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’!” After a period of private prayer Fanny returned to dictate the entire poem. It was immediately popular and eventually it became a worldwide inspiration particularly for those who had lost a child – as Fanny had.
Not long after this Fanny accepted Doan’s invitation to address an audience where she described an impression she had. “There’s a dear boy here who has wandered away from his mother’s teaching. Would he please come to me at the close of the service?” A young man did come forward and related how he had promised his mother he would meet her in heaven, but after the way he’d been living now he wasn’t sure he would. After a period of prayer the new convert was exuberant “I’ve found my mother’s God and I’ll meet her in Heaven!” With that inspiration came the words Fanny needed and “Rescue the Perishing” took form to go with Doan’s melody.
In 1876 Fanny met Dwight L. Moody, the renowned evangelist of that period and Ira Sankey his featured soloist, beginning a long personal and professional relationship with both. They utilized many of her hymns, recognizing her gifts as a vital part of their ministry. Sankey published many of her hymns as well as providing music for her verses.
When she did write a hymn Fanny received only a few dollars and no further royalties, since the hymns became the property of the composer. Though many thought Fanny had been exploited or should ask for more money she did not agree. She felt her hymns were her work for God and her reward was the effects of the song on those who came to Him. Fanny herself defined a hymn as a “song of the heart addressed to God.” She published her many hymns under her own name but also used many pseudonyms, including such labels as “the Children’s Friend” or initials, or even such symbols as asterisks and number signs. One reason she did this was at her publisher’s insistence because they did not want it known they relied so much on one person.
As she got older Fanny continued her speaking tours and home mission work but as she entered her 90s, she gradually stayed closer to home, which at this time was with a niece in Bridgeport, Connecticut. However there was still a steady stream of visitors wanting advice, an autograph or just a glimpse of the fabled “Queen of the Gospel Song.” She still retained her sense of humor, often playing the piano in the parlor – starting with a classical number, then lapsing into ragtime and from there she “pepped things up” with a jazzed up version of one of her hymns!
Then on February 11, 1915 she dictated a letter of sympathy and a poem to a neighbor family on the death of their child, assuring them that their daughter was “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”. Later that night she slipped into in the presence of the Lord she’d served through her verses and her life.
Fanny’s life had been long and productive, and despite a handicap that might have discouraged and limited someone else, she did not let it prevent her from providing the sacred words that inspire and encourage even a century after her death.
Anne Adams is a writer/teacher in Houston, Texas. She has published in Christian and secular publications and her book “Brittany, Child of Joy” wasissued by Broadman Press in 1986.