Biographical Sketch Fanny Crosby
by Brian Johnson
On February 13, 1915, the New York Times ran a special in the paper entitled, “Fanny Crosby, Blind Hymn Writer, Dies—Author of More than 8,000 Acted Gospel Songs Passes Away in Her 95th Year.” The headlines continued by reminding the public that she showed talent at eight years of age and once composed Safe in the Arms of Jesus in 15 minutes. She took her last breath in her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 4:30AM on February 12, and the first face she ever laid her eyes on was Jesus.
Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, to John and Mercy Crosby in the town of Southeast, Putnam County, New York. Her family lineage can be traced to the group of Puritans who fled the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud’s persecution in 1633. The Crosby family left Holme-on-Spalding Moor, England, and travelled to the New World. On both her Crosby grandparents’ sides, she descended from the Massachusetts Bay Puritans and Mayflower Pilgrims.
At six weeks old, she caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes. The Crosby’s family physician was not available, and a man pretending to be a certified doctor came in his place and recommended hot mustard poultices as treatment. The infection cleared up, but the scars which formed on her eyes left her blind for the next 95 years of her life.
Fanny also grew up without her father, who died before she was one. With her mother widowed at 21, Fanny was cared for by her grandmother, Eunice, who became the most influential woman in her childhood. While Mercy worked as a maid to support her family, Eunice spent her time educating Fanny at home. Eunice described the physical world in detail, read and carefully explained the Bible to her, and always emphasized the importance of prayer.
A landlady of the Crosby’s, Mrs. Hawley, also took an interest in Fanny and encouraged her to cultivate her mind by memorizing the Bible and listening to poetry. Fanny was challenged to memorize five chapters a week and could recite the Pentateuch, Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many Psalms. These godly women of her childhood greatly impacted her life for years to come.
Just before turning fifteen, one of her dreams came true on March 3, 1835. She enrolled in the New York School for the Blind. Fanny recalled this day by saying:
That was the happiest day of my life; for the dark intellectual maze in which I had been living seemed to yield to hope and the promise of the light which was about to dawn. Not that I craved physical vision, for it was mental enlightenment that I sought; and now my quest seemed almost actually rewarded.
She spent 23 years at the Institute: 12 as a student and 11 as a teacher. While there she expressed her writing skills as a poet by addressing her friends and teachers at the Institute, Congress, and Presidents. She was also an advocate for education for the blind, and in 1844, Fanny’s first book, The Blind Girl and Other Poems, was published with the proceeds from the sale of the book being donated to the Institute.
Although she craved and received mental light from the Institute, she had her greatest awakening on November 20, 1850, after her third walk down the aisle to the ‘anxious bench’ of Thirtieth Street Methodist Church in New York. She said, “My very soul was flooded with celestial light.” From this moment on, her life was not the same. Her fellow students and teacher could see the difference.
She eventually married at 38 to a fellow blind teacher at the Institute named Albert Van Alstyne. He was a talented musician and helped compose some of the music to her hymns. Overall, there is not much written about their marriage. They did have one child who died as an infant. With Fanny’s heavy writing and speaking schedule, they spent a lot of time apart
At 43, Fanny wrote her first hymn. She came on the scene at the precise time when congregational singing was being promoted in churches and Sunday schools. The next 52 years of her life were spent fulfilling her calling. From the first hymn written to her last, she has and continues to minister through her music to multitudes of people each year. Though the pen of her heart has been silenced by the grave, Frances Jane Crosby is still singing!
1. She was content and rested in the sovereignty of God.
Fanny Crosby could have easily been someone whose name may have never been heard. She could have been mad at God, her parents, and herself for the rest of her life, yet like the man born blind in the Bible, her life was purposed to give God glory. Although she was six weeks old when she became blind, she was shaped by her family’s Calvinist reading of Scripture to understand that God had a purpose for whatever happened. It is apparent that her grandmother and mother raised her to trust the God of the Bible, because at age eight, she penned the following words:
Oh, what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see.
I am resolved in this world
Contented I will be.
How much blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t;
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.
Even in her old age, she stated:
I have not for a moment, in more than eighty-five years, felt a spark of resentment against him (the guilty doctor) because I have always believed from my youth to this very moment that the good Lord, in his infinite mercy by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do. When I remember his mercy and loving kindness; when I have been blessed above the common lot of mortals; and when happiness has touched the deep places of my soul, how can I repine?
She exhibited godliness with contentment which proved to be great gain for her and those who still sing the hymns which were birthed through great adversity. Nearing the end of her life she said, “I do not know but that on the whole it has been a good thing that I have been blind. How in the world could I have lived such a helpful life as I have, were it not that I am blind? I am very well satisfied.”
2. She had a defining moment of salvation which proved to be true.
Although she had a strong Puritan heritage, she needed to be washed in the blood of Jesus herself. It was not until she was thirty that she realized her great need for a Savior. After having a dream of her friend Mr. Camp asking, “Will you meet me in heaven?,” her heart was stirred to begin seeking after God. In autumn of 1850, she went to revival meetings at Thirtieth Street Methodist Church. She recorded her experience by saying:
Some of us went down every evening; and on two occasions, I sought peace at the altar, but did not find the joy I craved, until one evening, November 20, 1850, it seemed to me that the light must indeed come then or never; and so I arose and went to the altar alone. After a prayer was offered, they began to sing the grand old consecration hymn, “Alas and did my Savior bleed, And did my Sovereign die?” And when they reached the third line of the fourth stanza, “Here Lord, I give myself away,” my very soul was flooded with light. I sprang to my feet, shouting “Hallelujah,” and then for the first time I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.
I believe she would agree with Richard Baxter, who said, “Conversion is the most blessed work, and the day of conversion the most blessed day, that this world is acquainted with.” By her testimony and life, it is evident that Fanny had been born from above and began sharing Christ’s love with her classmates and others with whom she came into contact. She continued to proclaim the gospel in an Arminian tone with a Christ-centered emphasis by declaring salvation was Christ’s gracious act. This great salvation had been worked in, and for the next sixty-five years, she worked it out with fear and trembling for God’s good pleasure.
3. Her hymns were a manifestation of her communion with God.
Fanny grew up with a love to express herself with poetry. She had heard the classics read, but the greatest blessing was to hear the Word of God read often. She memorized many passages and meditated on God’s truth often until her mind was saturated with the Bible. Out of this love for God and His Word, she worshipped and often wrote. She said, “The most enduring hymns are born in the silences of the soul, and nothing must be allowed to intrude while they are being framed into language. Some of the sweetest melodies of the heart never see the light of the printed page.” While some of her hymns were the result of deep meditation, she believed others were dictated by the blessed Holy Spirit.
4. She loved people and desired that they be taught about Christ and be converted.
Fanny Crosby loved to write, but she found much of her inspiration through contact with other people. She could often be seen walking down the streets of Manhattan in her unusual dress, covering her 4’9” frame that weighed less than 100 pounds. She was moved with compassion for the masses, but she had time for individuals. Her heart was gripped by the true gospel which did not promise health and wealth but offered sustaining grace.
She loved little children and was challenged to write hymns for them to sing. In 1864 at age 44, she signed a contract with Bradbury Publishing who composed Sunday school hymnals. Even though she worked with the teachers and superintendents, she had the little children in mind. She knew she could be a child among them and loved everyone.
On the other end of the spectrum, she frequently visited the rescue missions in New York and eventually Bridgeport where she lived toward the end of her life. Many of her songs were inspired from her visits there. One in particular, Rescue the Perishing,was birthed one night when she was speaking at the mission. She felt an urgency that some mother’s boy must be rescued that night or not at all. At the end of the service, a young 18-year-old approached her and asked, “Did you mean? I have promised my mother to meet her in heaven; but as I am now living that will be impossible.” The young man was saved that night, and Fanny’s heart overflowed with the song which has reached many in evangelistic services.
5. Fanny used her gifts to glorify God and minister to others while being ministered unto.
While at the Institute, a travelling phrenologist (one who studies the shape and irregularities of the skull for insights into character and mental capacity) ignited her passion to continue writing. He said, “Here is a poetess. Give her every possible encouragement. Read the best books to her and teach her the finest that is in poetry, you will hear from this young lady some day.” His encouraging words proved to be prophetic, and she wrote to encourage others to love Christ.
She was full of musical ability. She was an excellent harpist, played the piano, and had a beautiful soprano voice. However, where would she have been without the ministry of others? She was read to all of her life. Someone became her pen for every song she dictated. She had teachers who challenged her mind and guides who helped her through the city. She collaborated with music writers such as George Root, John Sweney, Ira Sankey, Philip Phillips, William Doane and others. She had financial supporters and friends, some of whom were presidents (Cleveland and Polk). It is often hard for us to allow someone to minister to us, but Fanny graciously received others help to meet needs she could not.
6. She cultivated, stretched, and exercised her mind.
From an early age, Fanny was forced to use her mind. She could have remained in intellectual darkness, but she was challenged by her grandmother who became her eyes. Later, Mrs. Hawley encouraged her by reading poetry and the Bible. Fanny loved to learn and write. This desire continued through her time at home, the Institute, and in her hymn-writing endeavors.
She believed in the power of the mind, and she thought it was a terrible thing to waste. In order to get a glimpse of her remarkable mind, she gave the following example in her autobiography:
In 1866, Mr. Phillips published a collection of hymns called the “Singing Pilgrim”; and while he was preparing that book he sent me forty titles to which I composed words and not a single poem was written by my amanuensis until the whole number was completed. They were then forwarded to Mr. Phillips at Cincinnati; he again sent me a long list of titles and they were treated exactly as the first forty had been. This incident is not told to commend myself, but merely to illustrate to what extent memory will serve us, if we only give memory a fair chance.
7. She kept her writing simple and “singable.”
Fanny wrote hymns that were simple. Most of them could be placed within four categories—salvation, consecration, service, and heaven. They were also “singable”. Many claimed her hymns were not written in the serious tone like those of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, but they reached down into the hearts of common people. The simplicity, sentiment, “galloping,” and repetitiveness that critics found offensive were the precise elements that charmed the masses. Many of her hymns are still being sung every Sunday morning in churches across America and the world. Her simplistic messages have proved to be enduring through time and universal in scope, because they speak of Christ and to the basic needs in the hearts of men and women, boys, and girls.
Implications for the 21st Century Church
A. Learn to be content by resting in God’s goodness.
Fanny lived a life whose foundation could be found in the depths of Romans 8:28. She knew that, “All things worked together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are called according to his purpose.”
One of the greatest battles in this postmodern world is convincing others that God is who He says He is. Attacking God’s goodness as a gracious and benevolent Creator was the first assault known to man. The greatest witness to such an attack occurs when those converted by God’s grace live a life of faith through adversity. Many question the goodness of God since we live in a world of sin. Unbelievers’ minds are warped by sin, and God often uses suffering to purify the saint to display His trophies of grace. Contentment is difficult to maintain; however, it is learned through a deepening knowledge and trust in God’s goodness. He is good all the time, and we, through simple faith, must trust His Word.
B. Focus on Genuine Conversion.
Fanny went to the revival service for a whole week. God had been awakening her through the dream about Mr. Camp, and she actually went to the anxious bench and prayed for herself. She went to the altar on three occasions. In today’s view of salvation, many never shed a tear or appear broken over their sin. True conversion begins with true conviction. When Fanny heard the song, At the Cross, the celestial light of the glory of God filled her soul and she was made alive by the Holy Spirit. She knew she had been justified by faith. She had peace and she shouted “Hallelujah.” Although she said her growth in grace was a slow process, there were immediate changes in her after that day. She wanted to share her testimony and was willing to pray in front of people though once timid. Genuine conversion will cause a person to want to share what God has done for them. A profession of faith will not have to be pulled out of a new believer. Out of the abundance of love shed abroad in the regenerate heart, confession will be made and no demon in hell can thwart the miraculous work done by the power and majesty of God.
C. Listen to the voice of God through His Word and seek His face.
Though the natural windows of light covered her mind with darkness, she enjoyed the illumination of the Holy Spirit. She was not able to see what everyone else could, but she had an inner sanctuary where she feasted on the bread of life, communed with God in prayer, and was illumined by the presence of the Holy Spirit. As we remember the tabernacle in the wilderness, the outer coverings of badger’s skins which adorned the tabernacle were not much to look at. However, within the Holy Place, it was filled with light no one else could see, and it reflected off of the furniture made of pure gold. Often, unbelievers and even believers have no idea of the communion that some share with God. God knows and sees the heart. We can look pitiful at times and very unappealing, yet God really knows us and the purpose for which He made us. One well-meaning preacher told her once, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.” She responded at once because she received 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? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” She spent time with Christ and her work was a reflection of His presence.
D. Rescue the perishing and actively train up children in the ways of God.
Jude reminds us to have compassion on some, pulling them out of the fire. A more proactive way is to build healthy relationships with children and instill in them God’s love and commands for life. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
It is important for today’s church to build strong Sunday schools for children and adults. Fanny was active in this endeavor by writing hymns for children. Actually, she helped William Bradbury who made famous Jesus Loves Me. Together, they implemented songs to enhance the retention of lessons learned and to improve congregational singing.
Often, parents and children are not in the Word of God at home, and therefore, good Sunday schools and other Biblical training opportunities are important to build strong families. When strong support systems are in place, children and adults do not have to turn to addictions to fill the void of lacking relationships.
E. Discover and minister through spiritual gifts and recognize your need to be ministered to.
Every saved person is a minister and has been bestowed with a spiritual gift. Fanny’s gift appeared to be that of exhortation. She wrote poems to encourage family members and friends on their birthdays and during the loss of infants. On special occasions at the Institute and before Congress and Presidents, she composed poems which stirred hearts toward God, family, and country. In her mid-forties, she began writing hymns that are still being sung around the world for the edification of the saints.
Not all people are able to write or speak. In Fanny’s case, where would she be without someone to read to her, explain her physical surroundings, write down her thoughts, fund her trips, listen to her poems, and love her? Everyone needs someone.
In regards to the church, the body is not made up of one member but many. There is no one more important than the other. It is vital to help each individual member discover their ministry. This is done not to show off gifts but to participate in the activity of the local body. As each member ministers, the body functions together causing every member to be refreshed and energized for continual service.
F. Renew your mind by the Word of God.
Believers are commanded in the Word of God to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. There is a direct link between having a renewed mind and knowing God’s will. Many today wonder what the will of God is for their life, yet they rarely open their Bibles to hear from God.
Fanny was blind, but she could still see God and know His will for her life. At an early age, she was challenged to memorize the scriptures. It is imperative in the church today to have faithful pastors who will preach the Word and not their opinions, teachers who will instill a passion for personal study, parents who talk of Scripture in the home, and students who never get tired of learning.
The discipleship process is ongoing and will never be mastered. Those in the church will always be learning throughout the endless ages. Paul told Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” With the computer, internet, IPods, and television, everyone has the opportunity to listen to, read, and know God’s Word if they have a translation in their language.
G. Sing because you are happy.
Individual and congregational singing is still important today. Choir practice, singing schools, and musical instrument training are all crucial in order to give our best to God in song. The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians to sing out of the fullness of God. They were to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.
The lyrics to His Eye is on the Sparrow by Clivia D. Martin include these lines, “I sing because I am happy, I sing because I am free.” Fanny Crosby felt the same way after she met Jesus at the cross. She had blessed assurance and knew she was redeemed. She spent 52 years of her life writing hymns to rescue the perishing, because she loved to tell the story of Jesus who hid her soul in the cleft of the rock. She was safe in the arms of Jesus for her Savior led her all the way and kept her near the cross. She praised him and proclaimed, “To God be the glory!” Around the throne of God today, Frances Jane Crosby is still singing to Jesus!