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
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 prominentvisitors
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
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 workingmen 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 whoprovided 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
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,
Joy" wasissued by Broadman Press in 1986.