Fanny Crosby Queen of Gospel Song Writers, Prolific and blind hymn writer
"Oh, what a happy soul I am, / although I cannot see! / I am resolved that in this world / Contented I will be."
Frances Jane Crosby was born about 75 miles north of New York City on March 24, 1820. Throughout her long life — and she died shortly before her 95th birthday in 1915 — she went by the name Fanny.
When just a few weeks old, Fanny had an eye infection that an incompetent doctor mistreated. Consequently, Fanny became blind for life. A few months later, her father died and her mother, widowed at 21, had to go to work as a maid.
Grandmother Eunice Crosby then took care of Fanny — and she taught the precocious little girl that she could learn and excel in life despite being blind. When Fanny was only eight or nine years old, she wrote these words:
Oh, 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.
Just before her 14th birthday, she enrolled as a student in the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB, now the New York Institute for Special Education).
Fanny was a student at NYIB for eight years and then taught there for fifteen years, leaving in 1858, the year she married Alexander Van Alstyne, who was also blind — and who had also been a student and then a teacher in the same school.
While a teacher at NYIB, Fanny had the opportunity to recite some of her poems before the U.S. Senate and later before a joint session of Congress — the first woman to do either. She also became a friend of President James Polk, who visited NYIB, and with Fanny, at least twice during his presidency, the last time being in 1848.
In 1849 the cholera epidemic in the U.S. worsened, and Fanny nursed children in the school. After she showed symptoms, she was asked to leave the NYIB until autumn. She survived, but President Polk, whose term ended in March, died of cholera in June of that year at the age of 53.
Although she had written poetry for thirty years by the time of her marriage, it was only a few years later that she began to write hymns. She is said to have written more than 9,000 gospel songs/hymns!
Many of her hymns were regularly used in the highly popular evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey. But hymn-writing was not what Fanny considered her main mission in life.
Fanny “wanted most to be remembered as a home missions worker to the poor.” She served in various New York City rescue missions from the early 1860's to the first decade of the 1900's.
Chapter 18 of her book Fanny Crosby’s Memories of Eighty Years is titled “Work Among Missions,” and she writes of how her work at the well-known Bowery Mission began in 1881. “Serving Kings: The Bowery Mission in Manhattan at 140 Years” is an article in the Winter 2020 Plough Quarterly that quotes words Fanny often said when speaking in the Bowery Mission chapel services.
Evangelicals, like Fanny, in the 19th century often combined loving service to people in physical need with sharing a Gospel message for their spiritual needs.
From 1835 to 1843 she attended the New York Institution for the Blind in New York City. Her inclination to versify was encouraged by a visiting Scottish phrenologist, who examined her and proclaimed her a poet. Thereafter she was the school’s chief ornament. She contributed a poetic eulogy on President William Henry Harrison to the New York Herald in 1841 and subsequently published verses in other newspapers. In 1844 she published her first volume, The Blind Girl and Other Poems, and in 1851 her second, Monterey and Other Poems. From 1851 she began writing verses to be set to music. With George F. Root, music instructor at the school, Crosby wrote a successful cantata, The Flower Queen. She also wrote lyrics for scores of songs, some of which, such as “Hazel Dell,” “There’s Music in the Air,” and “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” were widely popular. After her graduation, Crosby remained at the New York Institution for the Blind as a teacher of English grammar and rhetoric and of ancient history until 1858. That year she married Alexander Van Alstyne, also blind, a former pupil, and then a teacher at the school, and she published her third volume, A Wreath of Columbia’s Flowers.
About 1864 Crosby began writing hymns. Like her poetry, her hymns suffer generally from cliché and sentimentality, but they also display an occasional gleam of more than ordinary talent. In all Crosby wrote between 5,500 and 9,000 hymns, the exact count obscured by the numerous pseudonyms (as many as 200, according to some sources) she employed to preserve her modesty. The best known of her hymns include “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Rescue the Perishing,” “Blessed Assurance,” “The Bright Forever,” “Saviour, More Than Life to Me,” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour.” They were especially popular in the Methodist Church, which for a time observed an annual “Fanny Crosby Day.” Most prominent among her many musical collaborators was Ira D. Sankey. In 1897 she published a final volume of poetry, Bells at Evening and Other Verses, and she later wrote two volumes of autobiography, Fanny Crosby’s Life-Story (1903) and Memories of Eighty Years (1906).
Francis Jane Crosby wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination. She wrote so many that she was forced to use pen names lest the hymnals be filled with her name above all others. And, for most people, the most remarkable thing about her was that she had done so in spite of her blindness.
"I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you," remarked one well-meaning preacher.
Fanny Crosby responded at once, as she had heard such comments before. "Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind?" said the poet, who had been able to see only for her first six weeks of life. "Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour."
Fanny Crosby is easily one of the most recognised, well-loved, and influential hymn writers in history. You've probably sung many of her hymns. "Blessed Assurance," "Praise Him, Praise Him, Jesus Our Blessed Redeemer," "To God Be the Glory," "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me," and "Rescue the Perishing" are just a few from her vast repertoire.
Fanny never saw her blindness as a slight from God. Instead, she openly thanked Him for the ways her visual impairment opened doors for her to serve Him in ways she felt she otherwise couldn't have. She hadn't set out to become a prolific hymn writer; she simply wanted an education so she might be "useful." God took her offering and used it for the edification of His church body.
Fanny's ability to think of herself as a capable servant allowed her to excel in the strengths God had given her, never being held back by self-pity. Fanny followed God's lead, humbly stewarded her God-given talents, and walked through each open door of opportunity with joy in her heart. Her life is a true example of walking by faith and not by sight.
How might we serve the Lord more passionately and effectively if we focused on utilising our gifts, rather than hiding behind our limitations? Whether our hindrances are physical or emotional barriers, real or self-inflicted ones, we must recognise God's sovereignty in our situations and know that we were "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand" (Eph. 2:10). Our Father loves us and wants to use us for the work of His kingdom, despite our limitations. Like Fanny, we must learn to trust Him and let our lives of worship and service become a sweet echo of her famous lyrics:
This is my story, this is my song Praising my Saviour all the day long.