If you have gone to church all of your life (as I have) or if you have only attended a few times for special services or events you, no doubt, have heard some of the following songs sung: “Blessed Assurance”, “Near the Cross”, “To God Be the Glory” or “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior“. What do they all have in common? The lyricist to these and nearly 9,000 other Gospel songs and hymns is a woman whose name you may have heard; she was Frances Jane van Alstyne, and she went by her maiden name, Fanny J. Crosby. She is known as the “Queen of Gospel Songwriters” and the “Mother of modern congregational singing in America”, with more than 100 million copies of her songs in print. Perhaps no one has seen more of their songs included in church hymnals than Fanny Crosby. But, what you may not know about her is the fact she was blind from shortly after birth!
Fanny J. Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 in the village of Brewster, New York, about 50 miles north of New York City, and traced her ancestry from Anna Brigham and Simon Crosby who arrived in Boston in 1635 and were among the founders of Harvard College. When she was just six weeks old, she developed an inflammation of the eyes resulting in total blindness for the rest of her life. Her father died when she was only six months old and she was raised by her devout Christian mother and maternal grandmother, who grounded her in Christian principles and helped her memorize long passages from the Bible. She memorized five chapters of the Bible each week from the age of ten, and by age fifteen had memorized the four gospels, the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament), the Book of Proverbs, Song of Solomon and many of the Psalms! Fanny later 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.”
After her 1843 graduation from the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB) where she was a student for eight years and another two as a graduate pupil, learning among other things to play the piano, organ, harp and guitar, as well as sing, she lobbied in Washington, DC for support of education for the blind; was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate; gave a concert for Congress; spoke before a joint session of Congress; and recited original poems for several presidents, including John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk and Grover Cleveland, whom she had met while teaching at the NYIB, when he was only seventeen years old! The two spent many hours together at the end of each day and he often transcribed the poems she had written as she dictated them to him. In 1858 she married Alexander van Alstyne, Jr., who was also blind and had been a student at the NYIB.
Fanny J. Crosby was a committed Christian who was a member of several different churches during her lifetime, including the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where she served as a consecrated Baptist missionary, deaconess, and lay preacher, writing one of her most famous hymns, together with her minister Robert Lowry, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”, as well as many others. Although Fanny wrote many political, patriotic, and popular songs, as well as three cantatas, (one written for the choir at the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church in Manhattan), she is best known for her Gospel songs and hymns which have endeared themselves to the hearts and souls of millions through the years. Although she was criticized by hymnologists as writing “very weak and poor” lyrics which were considered “crudely sentimental” or “gushy and mawkishly sentimental” (attacking both her writing and theology), Fanny persevered with the gift God had entrusted to her. The informal ballad style broke away from the staid, formal approach of earlier periods, touching deep emotions in singers and listeners alike; audiences thrilled to the genuine, heartfelt Christianity of her songs, placing a heightened emphasis on the conversion experience through Jesus Christ, with the emotions that accompany it, and the testimonies that reflect a genuine change of heart and lifestyle! I believe they were anointed by the Holy Spirit! She always asked the Lord to be her inspiration before writing a song, often composing six or seven hymns in one day! Her poems and hymns were composed entirely in her mind and she worked on as many as twelve hymns at once before dictating them to an amanuensis (one employed to write from dictation); on one occasion she composed 40 hymns before transcription!
Over 8,000 of her songs were purchased by major publishing companies of the day (nearly 2,000 of them actually published in their hymnals), and Fanny gave the majority of her earnings from her songs (often only $1 or $2 per song as a lyricist) to the poor and disabled. She truly had a heart of compassion and love and spent most of her adult years working in rescue missions and living near the slums of New York City. It was her involvement in the city missions and a Manhattan prison that gave her the inspiration for “Rescue the Perishing”, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (used worldwide by Ira Sankey in his crusades with Dwight L. Moody in Britain in 1874), and “More Like Jesus”. Even though Van and Fanny could have lived comfortably on his income from playing the organ at two churches in New York City and giving private music lessons, and hers as a poet and lyricist, the couple “had other priorities and gave away anything that was not necessary to their daily survival.” The couple organized concerts with half the proceeds given to aid the poor. Truly they personified Jesus’ words to “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven….” Matt. 19:21
In 1859, the van Alstynes had a daughter names Frances who died in her sleep soon after birth. The cause is not known for sure, but some believe she became ill with typhoid fever, and others have given SIDS as the cause. As a result of this tragedy, Fanny was inspired to write the beautiful hymn which has been a comfort to so many in time of bereavement, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”. Towards the end of her life, she would remark, “Now I am going to tell you of something that only my closest friends know. I became a mother and knew a mother’s love. God gave us a tender babe but the angels came down and took our infant up to God and to His throne.”
Another hymn which is one of my favorites is “My Savior First of All” which says,
“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.”
During times of great tragedy, as after the loss of her daughter, and even in challenging times caused by her lifelong blindness, Fanny could write such words, looking forward to the day when she would see Jesus and know Him by feeling the print of the nails in His hand! The only way she knew how to “see” things, was by feel. Think about the profound statement she made in that hymn…to “feel” the print of the nails in His hand! She made the statement once, “When I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” For the first time ever, she saw Jesus with eyes that were no longer blind! This touches me deeply.
Fanny J. Crosby wrote so many, many more wonderful songs, some of which are basically unknown, and many which you and I have probably sung multiple times, such as “Jesus Is Calling”, “Will Jesus Find Us Watching?”, “Saved by Grace”, “He Hideth My Soul”, “I Am Thine, O Lord”, “Redeemed”, “Near the Cross” and “Close to Thee”. She collaborated with numerous composers of melody including William H. Doane, an industrialist who composed melodies for an estimated 1500 of Crosby’s lyrics; Ira Sankey, D.L. Moody’s song leader who made her basically a household name throughout the world by singing many of her songs in their meetings; and Robert Lowry, an American Baptist minister who also wrote “Shall We Gather at the River”, “Christ Arose!” and “Nothing But the Blood!” among others.
I think one of the most interesting stories is her collaboration with wealthy Methodist socialite Phoebe Palmer Knapp, whom she met in 1868, and who was married to Joseph Fairchild Knapp, co-founder of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company! The Knapps published hymnals for the Sunday School of Saint John’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, where Knapp was Sunday School superintendent for 22 years. Fanny co-wrote (lyrics) for 21 hymns in their hymnal “Notes of Joy”; Phoebe provided music for fourteen of them. The best-known of all of these songs which the two women collaborated on is one you have probably sung many times, “Blessed Assurance”, which Fanny wrote the words to in the Knapps’ music room to Phoebe’s music, while staying at the Knapp Mansion in 1873. I find it so interesting that the beautiful song which says, blessed “assurance”, Jesus is mine was composed by an “insurance” man’s wife. The two remained friends for life!
In her latter years, Fanny J. Crosby continued to be actively involved in her work with the missions of Manhattan and greater New York City, including speaking engagements, support and missionary work among America’s urban poor almost until the day she died in 1915 a month before her 95th birthday after moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut to be closer to her family. Although her hymn writing declined in these last years of her life, the popularity of her lyrics as well as her winsome personality catapulted her to fame. In 1975, Fanny was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
One of my favorite Fanny J. Crosby songs is the well-known hymn, “Praise Him, Praise Him” which I recorded a few years ago in a bit of an up-tempo jazzy version; I hope she would have approved! The melody is composed by Chester G. Allen. I hope you will enjoy my arrangement as we celebrate the life and music of a remarkable woman devoted to God in spite of her challenges, and who was determined to write lyrics that would lift up Jesus and win people to Him! Fanny had set a goal of winning a million people to Christ through her hymns, and whenever she wrote a hymn she prayed it would bring men and women to Christ; she kept careful records of those reported to have been saved through her hymns! I believe that goal has been surpassed many times over throughout the years as people of all ages continue to be blessed, inspired and changed through listening to the words of Fanny J. Crosby set to music!