Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 24: The “Queen of Gospel Hymns”

Do you know who this is?
-She wrote over 8,000 Christian hymns and over 1000 poems.
-She was blind as a result of a prescription by a doctor when she was six weeks old.
-She wrote the lyrics, but not the music, for her hymns.

Many of America’s churches have her hymns in their hymnals. Songs such as Blessed Assurance; Safe in the Arms of Jesus, and Rescue the Perishing are sung regularly at many Christian services around the world. Her music had words of comfort, testimony, and salvation.

Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, and would live a life spanning almost 95 years, passing away on February 12, 1915. She was born in Putnam County, New York, to John and Mercy Crosby. She would lose her sight when she was about six weeks old while being treated by a doctor for a slight eye infection. The regular family doctor was treating patients in another county, so the concerned parents found another country doctor. The doctor prescribed hot mustard poultices – a case of the cure being worse than the disease, for the infection did clear up, but the result was that scars formed on the eyes and Fanny would eventually go blind. They would later find that the doctor was not qualified to practice medicine.

“When my dear mother knew that I was to be shut out from all the beauties of the natural world, she told me in my girlhood that two of the world’s greatest poets, Homer and Milton, were blind and that sometimes Providence deprived persons of some physical faculty in order that the spiritual insight might be more fully awake.”
Fanny’s father would die when she was about seven months old, and her mother – a widow at age 21 – took the job of maid. Eunice Crosby, Fanny’s grandmother, came to take care of her granddaughter, educating her and becoming her eyes. She described the world and colors, sunsets and sunrises, rainbows and the beauty of nature to Fanny so well that Fanny could ‘see’ the colors in her mind, if not with her eyes.

“Soon I learned what other children possessed, but I made up my mind to store away a little jewel in my heart, which I called Content. This has been the comfort of my whole life.”
When Fanny was eight or nine, her mother took a job in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her mother’s landlady, Mrs. Hawley, helped Fanny memorize the Bible, and often the young girl learned five chapters a week. 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. Blindness never produced self-pity in Fanny and she did not look on her blindness as a terrible thing. At eight years old 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.

When she was fifteen she attend the New York Institute for the Blind, first as a student, then as a teacher of English and history. She became a published authoress, her first book being a book of poems published in 1844 titled The Blind Girl and Others. In 1843 Fanny was taken to Washington DC to lobby for education for the blind. Her characteristic cheerfulness opened many doors for the blind and created lasting friendships for Fanny. During her lifetime she would forge friendships with a number of Presidents, including John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Grover Cleveland.

It was while at the institute that two major events would shape her life. First, she became a Christian. A cholera epidemic struck, and Fanny stayed at the institute to help the sick. She realized at this time that she had followed her mother and grandmother’s religion, but never personally accepted it. She accepted Christ as her savior in November 1850.

That night, says Fanny, “the Lord planted a star in my life and no cloud has ever obscured its light”.
She went on to use her poetic gifts to write hymns – many based on passages from the Bible she had memorized - and became the “queen of the gospel hymn”. She would write the lyrics to hymns that are still sung today, such as Blessed Assurance, He Hideth My Soul, Rescue the Perishing, Near the Cross, Safe in the Arms of Jesus, and To God Be the Glory.

The second event was Fanny marrying a fellow teacher at the institute, blind musician and composer Alexander Van Alstyne, in 1858. They had one daughter, who died as an infant. The marriage would last 44 years, until his death in 1902.

She would write her first hymn in 1864 at the request of song publisher William Bradbury. While Bradbury’s business was taken over by Lucius Horatio Biglow and Sylvester Main, Fanny would remain with the company throughout her life – although she exercised her right to produce hymns published by other companies.

Fanny’s capacity for work was legendary. She could compose six or seven hymns a day in her head, to be later transcribed by her husband; her friend Carolyn Ryder; or her secretary Eva C. Cleaveland. Fanny herself could write little more than her name. While she did write the words, she did not compose the melody for her lyrics.

She often drew on her experiences to provide the topic for her hymns. She once told about the source of inspiration for the great Gospel song, Rescue the Perishing:

“It was written in the year 1869, when I was forty-nine years old. Many of my hymns were written after experiences in New York mission work. This one was thus written. I was addressing a large company of working men one hot summer evening, when the thought kept forcing itself on my mind that some mother’s boy must be rescued that night or not at all. So I made a pressing plea that if there was a boy present who had wandered from his mother’s home and teaching, would he come to me at the close of the service. A young man of eighteen came forward and said ‘Did you mean me?’. A few days before, Mr. Doane had sent me the subject “Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying’. I could think of nothing else that night. When I arrived home, I went to work on the hymn at once, and before I retired it was ready for a melody.”
During her lifetime she would write over 9,000 hymns while using a variety of pen names. To listen to the melodies and see the lyrics of many of these, go here. Fanny would be highly respected during her time for her religious testimony and her hymns. She was a popular public speaker who had promised herself early in her career that wealth was not her goal – doing her Lord’s work was. Much of the money she earned in royalties was donated to charities – where she often worked herself while trying to help those less fortunate than herself.

When Fanny died, her tombstone carried the words, “Aunt Fanny” and “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.” She once said, "when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!"

Photo Sources:
01. Fanny Crosby Portrait: Wikipedia
o2. Birthplace: Center for Disabilities and Public History
03. 1844 book of poems: Cyberhymnal
04. Hymn of Thanksgiving cover: New York Public Library Digital Collection


  1. What a wonderful and inspiring story. Thanks so much for posting it. I will remember Fanny Crosby.

  2. If you look in a hymnal containing songs from before 1900 - and many of the non-contemporary music churches have them - you'll see quite a few by her. Great songs that deal with the basic aspects of the Bible. And to think - we probably won't know all that she wrote because she used so many different names writing them! Over 8000! If only I could be that productive in anything.
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  3. Thanks for the good review of Fanny Crosby's life. Today is the 190th anniversary of her birth. Quite a milestone in gospel music!