The subject of this month's Goodly Heritage story about hymn-writers is not British but a remarkable American lady whose name is very familiar. She wrote around 8,000 hymns, a huge number of which are dearly loved and still sung frequently especially in a "gospel" setting. This prolific output is all the more amazing when you realise that she was blind, and that she did not begin her hymn-writing until she was forty. This year (12th February) is the centenary of her death (as it was for Mary Slessor on 13th January).
Fanny Crosby's own favourite hymn was Safe in the arms of Jesus. Another which she called "my soul's poem" is Some day the silver chord will break, which has the lines:
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story - saved by grace.
This echoes a remark she made early on in life when she said, "When I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour!"
Her mother, Mercy Crosby was twenty when Mary was born on 24th March, 1820 into a humble home in New York State. At six months old she developed an eye infection. A careless locum doctor insisted on treatment with hot mustard poultices. Can you imagine how agonising this must have been to the little one, but worse still, it burned and scarred her eyes and she was blinded for life.
Just a year later her father died and her mother had to go out to find employment, leaving the little girl in the care of her grandmother, Eunice, who did a tremendous job in enabling her to relate to her surroundings, and read to her from the Bible. She encouraged her to learn Scripture from memory, and eventually she could readily quote from the first five books of the Bible, the Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms!
When she was just eight years old she wrote:
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.
In later life she said, "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".
When she was fifteen she went to the New York Institute for the Blind to study, then at twenty-three she obtained a teaching post there. That was where she began to teach a twelve year old boy called Alexander van Alstyne. After his years of training he too returned as a music teacher. They found much in common, and in due process they fell in love and were married on 5th March, 1858.
Fanny had grown up with a strong religious background and a great knowledge of the Scriptures, but she was not saved until she was thirty. In the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York she often heard the gospel. She put her trust in Christ at the close of one meeting while Isaac Watts' hymn, Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, was being sung.
After their marriage Fanny and Alexander left the Institute and set up home in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, near one of the city's worst slums. During her years at the Institute she had written some songs and poetry, but now her life took on a more focussed role. A publisher called William Bradbury was looking for hymns to publish better than the ones he had been offered and, hearing of Fanny's talent, asked her to write hymns for his company. He told her, "While I have a publishing house, you will always have work!" She was paid $2 for each hymn, but gave most of it away to the poor and needy around her.
Her first hymn was,
We are going, we are going, To a home beyond the skies, Where the fields are robed in beauty, And the sunlight never dies. We are going, we are going, And the music we have heard, Like the echo of the woodland, Or the carol of the bird.
Hymns would become her life's work, and she described her approach to it 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". Her own character is woven into her hymns - childlike trust, occupation with the unseen and the eternal, familiarity with the presence of the Lord Jesus. How well she must have known Him to write hymns such as:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Jesus, keep me near the Cross;
I am Thine, O Lord;
Saviour, more than life to me;
To God be the glory;
Praise Him, praise Him, Jesus our blessed Redeemer.
Living where she did, she came face to face with many alcoholics and homeless convicts. America's first rescue mission, the Water Street Mission, was nearby and she became involved with the great need of these poor men who were down in the gutter of sin. She said, "You can't save a man by telling him of his sins. He knows them already. Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him".
One night in 1869 the preacher was led to think that some mother's boy must be rescued then or not at all. So he asked anyone who knew they had wandered from their mother's teaching to come and speak to him at the close of the service. A young man of eighteen came: "Did you mean me? I promised my mother to meet her in heaven, but as I am living now that will be impossible". He was saved that night, exclaiming, "Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for I have found God!". That is how Fanny came to write
Rescue the perishing, Care for the dying, Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; Weep o'er the erring one, Lift up the fallen, Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.
Another time she heard a prisoner cry out, "O Lord, don't pass me by", and so the hymn Pass me not, O gentle Saviour was written. She had the wonderful gift of quickly putting her thoughts into verse which soon found fitting tunes and have become the hymns that we love. During Moody and Sankey's great revival meetings both in the UK and the USA, her hymns were sung again and again. They struck such a chord with so many that their popularity has continued to this day. Only God knows how many have been touched and led to Christ through these hymns. She once prayed that she might be instrumental in saving a million men; maybe that prayer will be answered in full?
Two Kindred Spirits
Frances Ridley Havergal never met Fanny Crosby, but each thought very highly of the other. Frances Havergal sent the following lines to her in New York:
Dear blind sister over the sea, An English heart goes forth to thee. We are linked by a cable of faith and song Flashing bright sympathy swift along: One in the East and one in the West Singing for Him whom our souls love best; "Singing for Jesus", telling His love All the way to our home above, Where the severing sea, with its restless tide, Never shall hinder and never divide. Sister! What shall our meeting be, When our hearts shall sing, and our eyes shall see!
Fanny Crosby was blessed with a long and productive life. She died a month before her 95th birthday and was buried in Bridgeport cemetery, Connecticut. She finally saw her Saviour "face to face", and knew Him "by the print of the nails in His hands".
To be continued.