|Fanny J. Crosby (March 24, 1820 – February 12, 1915)|
Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, in the small village of Brewster, about 50 miles north of New York City. She was the only child of John Crosby, a widower who had a daughter from a previous marriage, and his second wife, Mercy Crosby.
When she was six weeks old, she caught a cold but their town doctor was unavailable, so they sought the advice from a nearby country doctor who unwittingly prescribed a hot mustard poultice for her inflamed eyes. When she started crying, the doctor said something to the effect that it was working and they should leave it on for the prescribed time. The result was total blindness. When it became known throughout the small town, the man left and no one ever heard from him again. Concerning this tragedy, Fanny Crosby later wrote, “In more than eighty-five years, I have not for a moment felt a spark of resentment against him, for I have always believed from my youth up that the good Lord, in His infinite mercy, by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do.” Her father died when she was just ten months old, leaving Mercy to tend to Fanny and the other child from the previous marriage. Mercy remarried not long afterward to Thomas Morris and to that marriage was born two girls, Julia and Caroline.
When she was five, sympathetic neighbors contributed money to send Fanny to New York to a Dr. Valentine Mott, a noted surgeon, but he only stated, “Poor little blind girl.” She would remember that statement for the rest of her life. At the age of eight, she wrote:
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!”
When her grandmother Eunice heard that her little granddaughter was blind and that nothing could be done about it, she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” She taught the little girl about the wonderful colors in nature and everything she was missing. She patiently taught her the Bible, first one verse, then another. The little girl was soon memorizing chapters, then books. She finally retained the first five books of the Old Testament, then the first four of the New Testament, then Proverbs and many of the psalms.
When Fanny was fifteen, she entered the New York Institute for the Blind, fighting her urge to stay under the protection of the family. She was a student for seven years and taught for another eleven. There, she learned to sing and mastered the guitar, the piano, the organ, and became a noted harpist. During that time, she went to Washington D. C. with others and became the first woman to speak before the Senate and later before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. She spoke about educating the blind, moving many to tears with her poems and winning personality. She would later become a friend to several presidents and would stay in the White House at times. Many of her first poems were published in the Saturday Evening Post and other prominent newspapers and magazines of the time.
In 1858, at the age of 38, Fanny Crosby married Alexander Van Alstyne, a scholarly, accomplished musician and pupil at the New York school. He was also blind and took pride in his wife’s genius and insisted that she retain her maiden name. She insisted, however, that she use her married name on all legal documents. Shortly after the marriage, a child was born to them but soon died. In later years, she would never speak about that loss except to say in her oral biography, “God gave us a tender babe and soon the angels came down and took our infant up to God and His throne.”
Two decades after she had written her first verse, she wrote “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower”, which was set to music by George Frederick Root, who was an instructor at the New York school. It sold tens of thousands of copies and earned her over three thousand dollars in royalties at a time that very few saw much profit at all from their poetry.
It wasn’t until 1864, that William Bradbury suggested to Fanny Crosby that she devote her talent to the cause of Christian worship in song. From that date on, she never wrote another secular song.
In 1868, musician Howard Doane knocked on the door of Fanny’s apartment in Manhattan. “I have exactly forty minutes before I must meet a train for Cincinnati. I have a tune for you. See if it says anything to you. Perhaps you can commit it to memory and then compose a poem to match it.” He then hummed the tune. Fanny clapped her hands and said, “Why, that says, ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus!’” Those words might have soothed Fanny’s own mind as they have so many others, at the loss of a child. She had often used the phrase in comforting others: “Remember, my dear, your darling cherub is safe in the arms of Jesus.”
Many touching allusions to her blindness are seen in her songs such as, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.” She began a second career when in her forties, worked in the missions in the Bowery district slums of New York City. From that inspiration came, “Rescue the Perishing.” She always insisted, “You can’t save a man by telling him of his sins. He knows them already. Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him and make him understand you believe in him and never give up.”
She used many pseudonyms including: A., C., DHW, V.A., Ella Dale, Jenny V., Mrs. Jenie Glenn, Mrs. Kate Grimley, Viola, Grace J. Francis, Mrs. C. M. Wilson, Lizzie Edwards, Henrietta E. Blair, Rose Atherton, Maud Marion, Leah Carlton, and many others. When her mind churned out poetry, it ran full tilt, sometimes faster than those taking dictation could follow. Many times literary critics would challenge the quality of her work, to which she would remind them that she was writing to be understood by the common people, not the elite.
In later life, a local newspaper reported that she was “feeble in body, yet strong in mind… with a trust and faith in God as firm as the everlasting hills.” Though bent nearly double by now and extremely thin, she wrote happily to a friend, “I am so busy I hardly know my name.”
At one point a Scottish minister told her it was too bad God did not give her the gift of sight. She startled him by responding, “If I had been given a choice at birth I would have asked to be blind… for when I get to Heaven, the first face I will see will be the One who died for me.”
While visiting William Doane in his home in Cincinnati in about 1875, Fanny and the famous composer found themselves discussing the nearness of God as the sun was setting and the evening shadows were gathering. Before the evening was over, the hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord” was born.
After a few years, Fanny’s marriage to Alexander became estranged. They mostly lived apart though both held that they were still married. They just had different priorities. She gave away most of her earnings to the poor. They ended up moving often. In those days, the copyrights to songs were assigned to the music authors, not jointly to both the lyricist and composer. Fanny was usually paid one or two dollars for each poem that she wrote while the composer racked in the money. Most of her publishers, however, made sure she had the money she needed to survive and even after she no longer supplied them with new lyrics, they paid her a stipend of $8.00 per week, which was enough for her to live on in those days.
Her husband “Van” died in 1902 and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, New York. She was not able to attend the funeral because of her own failing health. Though they had not lived together for years, they had remained friends.
After a six month illness, Fanny Crosby died in 1915 at the age of 94 in Bridgeport, Conn. She was buried in Mount Grove Cemetery in that city. Her grave is marked and there is another memorial nearby, honoring her. Among her descendants would be Bing Crosby.
In all, she wrote over 8000 hymns, surpassing Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Some have yet to be set to music. Each session of writing was always preceded by a prayer. It seemed that without the prayer, the words didn’t flow. A hymnal without her hymns is considered incomplete.
A Hymn is Born - Bonner / Broadman Press 1959
A Song is Born - Taylor / Taylor Publications 2004
Great Christian Hymn Writers - Smith & Carlson / Crossway Books 1997
Stories of Hymns We Love - Rudin / John Rudin & Company, Inc. 1941
Then Sings My Soul #1 - Morgan / Thomas Nelson Publishers 2003
Then Sings My Soul #2 - Morgan / Thomas Nelson Publishers 2004
Then Sings My Soul #3 - Morgan / Thomas Nelson Publishers 2011
Treasury of Hymn Stories - Wells / Baker Book House 1945
A list of Fanny J. Crosby songs found in The Paperless Hymnal:
A Wonderful Savior
All the Way My Savior Leads Me
Close to Thee
Hand in Hand
Hide Me O My Savior
I Am Thine O Lord
I Shall Know Him
Jesus Is Tenderly Calling
Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross
Meet Me There
Nearer the Cross
One Blessed Hour with Jesus
Pass Me Not
Praise Him Praise Him
Rescue the Perishing
Safe in the Arms of Jesus
Saved by Grace
Savior More than Life to Me
Sing On Ye Joyful Pilgrims
Take the World but Give Me Jesus
Tell Me the Story of Jesus
Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet
Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer
To God Be the Glory
To the Work
When Jesus Comes
Will You Come