Fanny Crosby, America’s Hymn Queen

Mercy Crosby held her tiny daughter’s hands as little Fanny’s face contorted in a scream of pure agony.

“Doctor, are you sure you have to do this to her?,” Mercy asked through tears of anguish.

“Mrs. Crosby, I know it’s hard to hear little Fanny scream like this, but we must draw out the infection. These hot mustard poultices are the best way to do it.”

“But she is so small, only six weeks old. Maybe we should wait until our regular doctor returns to town.” Mercy tried her best to shut out tiny Fanny’s screams, but it proved too difficult. If anything, her screams were getting louder.

The impatient doctor replied, “Mrs. Crosby, as I told you, waiting would only make the infection worse. I know the treatment hurts Fanny, but it’s much better to treat the infection immediately. You never know what may happen if an eye infection is left untreated.”

Mercy reluctantly accepted the doctor’s diagnosis. Although Fanny’s screams eventually subsided to a whimper, they still lingered in her mother’s memory. The infection in Fanny’s eyes did go away, but her corneas had been burned in the process and scars began to form over them. In the weeks that followed, long after the unknown doctor left town, John and Mercy realized that their daughter was not responding to visual stimuli. Soon, their worst fears were realized: young Fanny was completely blind. The doctor was revealed to be a quack and disappeared. In time, she would become America’s hymn queen.

The future musical monarch, Fanny Jane Crosby, was born on March 24, 1820, in the village of Brewster, fifty miles north of New York City, the only child of John and Mercy Crosby. When she was six months old, her father died. Her mother was forced to work as a maid and she was mostly raised by her Christian grandmother. These women grounded her in Christian principles and instilled in her an abiding faith in God.  

Fanny would later write of her grandmother: “My grandmother was more to me than I could ever express by word or pen.” Her grandmother Eunice took the time to help her granddaughter “see” the world around her. They spent hours walking in the meadow, where Eunice would describe the sights around her in as vivid detail as possible. Many hours would also be spent in an old rocking chair where Eunice would describe to Fanny the intricate details of flowers and birds around her, or the beauty of sunrise or sunset.

Although Fanny was blind, she never considered herself handicapped. She did many of the things that other children did and accepted her blindness with a positive attitude that is evident in a poem that she wrote when she was just eight years old. She maintained this positive outlook her whole life and considered her blindness a blessing and not a curse. She refused to feel sorry for herself. She once stated, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

“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 Savior.”

Grandma Eunice spent many hours reading the Bible to Fanny and teaching her the importance of prayer and a close relationship with God. She soon discovered Fanny’s amazing gift for memorization. She encouraged her to memorize long passages of the Bible. She memorized five chapters of the Bible per week from age ten; by age fifteen, she had memorized the four gospels, the Pentateuch, the book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and many of the Psalms. Fanny remarked, “The Holy Book has nurtured my whole life.”

Her mother’s hard work paid off. Shortly before her fifteenth birthday, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. Lessons were taught by lecture, as Braille was not widely used at this time. Her phenomenal memory helped her retain the information she heard and she enjoyed her studies.

In 1843, she joined the Institute faculty and taught history and rhetoric for the next fifteen years. During this time, she gained recognition as a poet and rubbed shoulders with well-known people such as President James K. Polk, Henry Clay, and William Cullen Bryant. She also recited poetry before a joint session of Congress in April 1846 to advocate for the education of the blind. The audience included Jefferson Davis and former president James Quincy Adams. When she finished her recitation, the applause was so deafening it sounded like thunder and frightened her. Her encore was so moving that it moved many Congressmen to tears. She even befriended future president Grover Cleveland, then age 17, while teaching at the Institute. The two spent hours together at the end of each day and he often transcribed the poems that she dictated to him. He wrote her a recommendation that was published in her 1906 autobiography. She wrote a poem to be read at the dedication of Cleveland’s birthplace at Caldwell, New Jersey, being unable to attend due to ill health.

Fanny and others at the Institute often travelled giving concerts and programs to make people aware of the school and what it offered to the blind. On one such trip, Fanny met an acquaintance that would prove significant for her life. Mary Van Alstine was so impressed by the Institute that she determined to send her twelve-year-old boy there as soon as she could. She wanted Fanny to be his instructor and told the twenty-three-old teacher, “Take good care of my boy!” She did take good care of him but what no one realized is that the two would later marry!

“Van,” as Fanny called him, was the first of the school’s students to attend “regular college.” After obtaining his teaching certificate, he returned to the Institute as a music teacher, where he and Fanny connected over their mutual love of music and poetry. Despite the age difference, their friendship blossomed into love, and on March 5, 1858, the two married. Considered one of New York’s best organists, he wrote the music to many of her hymns. Fanny put the music to only a few of her hymns, even though she played piano, guitar, harp, and other instruments. More often than not, musicians came to her for lyrics.

For example, one day musician William Doane dropped by her home for a surprise visit, begging her to put some words to a tune he had recently written and which he was to perform at an upcoming Sunday School convention. The only problem was that his train to the convention was leaving in 35 minutes. He sat at the piano and played the tune.

“Your music says, ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus,’” Crosby remarked. She quickly scribbled down the lyrics. “Read it on the train and hurry. You don’t want to be late!” It became one of her most famous hymns.

Fanny is best remembered for the nearly 9,000 hymns she wrote. Amazingly, she did not start writing hymns until her forties. Publisher and hymn writer William B. Bradbury was not happy with the quality of the hymns that were submitted to him for publication. He had heard of Fanny’s talent and after verifying her ability, he hired her to write hymns telling her, “As long as I have a publishing house, you will have work.”

Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day, many became incredibly popular. When Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey began to use them in their crusades, they received even more attention. Among them are “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,” and “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

From 1871 to 1908, she worked with Ira Sankey who helped turn her into a household name for Protestants around the globe. While Sankey was the premier promoter of gospel songs, Crosby was their premier provider. Sankey and Moody brought many of her hymns to the attention of Christians in the United States and Britain. Crosby was friends with Ira Sankey and his wife, Frances, and often stayed at their home in Northfield, Massachusetts, for the annual Summer Christian Workers’ Conference, and later at their home in Brooklyn. After Sankey’s eyesight was destroyed by glaucoma in March 1903, their friendship grew even deeper and they continued to compose hymns together at his home.

She once described her writing process in this way: “It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.” And God never ceased to provide inspiration for her music.

Though she is best remembered for her hymns, she wanted to be remembered as a rescue mission worker. She even said that her official occupation was mission worker.

Many of her hymns were inspired by her work in city missions. She was inspired to write Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, after speaking at a service at the Manhattan Prison in 1868, after hearing comments by the prisoner asking the Lord not to pass them by. It became her first hymn to have global appeal, after it was used by Sankey at Moody’s crusade in Britain in 1874. Sankey commented that no hymn was more popular at those London meetings than this one.

Crosby and her husband had lived in area of New York City such as Hell’s Kitchen, the Bowery, and the Tenderloin. She was acutely aware of the great needs of the immigrants pouring into the city and of the urban poor. She was passionate about helping them through working at city missions and other urban ministries. She wrote, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” She was said to have had a horror of wealth throughout her life. She never set prices for her speaking engagements, often refused honoraria, and what little she did accept she gave away at the first opportunity. She and her husband organized concerts, with half the proceeds being given to aid the poor. Throughout New York City, her love for the poor and efforts to help them were well-known. She and her husband could have lived comfortably off the money she was making through her hymns, but they chose to use the money to embetter the lives of the poor.

Her hymn-writing declined in later years, but she remained active in speaking engagements and in mission work until almost the day she died. She met with presidents, generals, and dignitaries.

Crosby died at Bridgeport on February 12, 1915, after a six-month illness, age 94; her husband predeceased her. She was buried in the town cemetery near her mother and other family members. Per her own request, a small gravestone was erected which read, “Aunt Fanny: she hath done what she could; Fanny J. Crosby.” In 1955, a large marble monument was erected which dwarfed the original gravestone and has the first stanza of Blessed Assurance written on it.

In 1975, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and is known at the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers.” The Episcopal Church remembers her on February 11.

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