Fanny Crosby, American Hymn Writer

Diane Severance, Ph.D.

Fanny Crosby, American Hymn Writer

Take fifteen hymnals and stack them one on top of another. Taken all together, that's about the number of hymns Fanny Crosby wrote in her lifetime! Of course, many of those have been forgotten today, but a large number remain favorites of Christians all over the world.

Francis Jane Crosby was born into a family of strong Puritan ancestry in New York on March 24, 1820. As a baby, she had an eye infection which a quack doctor treated by placing hot poultices on her red and inflamed eyelids. The infection did clear up, but scars formed on the eyes, and the baby girl became blind for life. A few months later, Fanny's dad became ill and died. Mercy Crosby, widowed at 21, hired herself out as a maid while Grandmother Eunice Crosby took care of little Fanny.

Grandma's guidance
Grandmother took the education of her little granddaughter on herself and became the girl's eyes, vividly describing the physical world. Grandmother's careful teaching helped develop Fanny's descriptive abilities. But Grandmother also nurtured Fanny's spirit. She read and carefully explained the Bible to her, and she always emphasized the importance of prayer. When Fanny became depressed because she couldn't learn as other children did, Grandmother taught her to pray to God for knowledge.

A landlady of the Crosby's also had an important role in Fanny's development. Mrs. Hawley helped Fanny memorize the Bible, and often the young girl learned five chapters a week. She knew the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many of the psalms by heart. She developed a memory which often amazed her friends, but Fanny believed she was no different from others. Her blindness had simply forced her to develop her memory and her powers of concentration more.

Fanny did not look on her blindness as a terrible thing. Even at eight she composed this little verse:

Oh, what a happy child I am,
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!
So weep or sigh because I'm blind,
I cannot - nor I won't.

Amazing outlook
Blindness never produced self-pity in Fanny. In her adult years she would say, "It was the best thing that could have happened to me" or "How in the world could I have lived such a helpful life as I have lived had I not been blind?"

In 1834 Fanny learned of the New York Institute for the Blind and knew this was the answer to her prayer for an education. She entered the school when she was twelve and went on to teach there for twenty-three years. She became somewhat of a celebrity at the school and was called upon to write poems for almost every conceivable occasion.

On March 5, 1858, Fanny married Alexander van Alstine, a former pupil at the Institute. He was a musician who was considered one of the finest organists in the New York area. Fanny herself was an excellent harpist, played the piano, and had a lovely soprano voice. Even as an old woman (Fanny lived to be 95) Fanny would sit at the piano and play everything from classical works to hymns to ragtime. Sometimes she even played old hymns in a jazzed up style.

Making much music
After her marriage, Fanny left the Institute, and in a few years she found her true vocation in writing hymns. She had an agreement with the publishers Bigelow and Main to write three hymns a week for use in their Sunday school publications. Sometimes Fanny wrote six or seven hymns a day. Though Fanny could write complex poetry as well as improvise music of classical structure, her hymns were aimed at bringing the message of the Gospel to people who would not listen to preaching. Whenever she wrote a hymn, she prayed God would use it to lead many souls to Him.

Music for the masses
In her own day, the evangelistic team of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey effectively brought Fanny Crosby's hymns to the masses. Today many of her hymns continue to draw souls to their Savior for both salvation and comfort: " Blessed Assurance," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "To God Be the Glory, " "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," " Safe in the Arms of Jesus," "Rescue the Perishing," "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," "I Am Thine, O Lord," and many more.

To the urban poor
Though her hymn writing declined in later years, Fanny was active in speaking engagements and missionary work among America's urban poor almost until the day of her death in 1915. She sought to bring others to her Savior not only through her hymns but through her personal life as well. What happened when Fanny died? Perhaps one of her later hymns tells it best:

When my lifework is ended and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see,
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

Chorus:

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand!
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Paid by the poem
She was usually paid only one or two dollars for each poem. Those who composed the tunes usually kept all the rights to the entire hymn.
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