Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymnist, writing more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, and the most remarkable thing about her was that she did so in spite of her blindness.
Born in 1820 in rural south-east New York, Fanny lost her sight to an eye infection and medical ignorance at the age of six weeks.
Her blindness means that all the existing photographs show her with dark glasses and give the impression of a solemn, formal and very stern woman. The reality was very different: Fanny was an exuberant, warm and cheerful individual.
To be sightless in an age with little concern for the blind, without guide dogs and Braille books, was difficult. Nevertheless, Fanny was raised in a family determined to give her the best possible education and was read Bible passages. Fanny made an early commitment to follow Christ and developed a remarkable memory, learning whole books of the Bible by heart.
Fanny’s formal education did not begin until when, aged fifteen, she went to the New York Institute for the Blind, a pioneering institution where she was to spend twenty-three years: twelve as a student and eleven as a teacher. She developed her singing and learned to play a variety of instruments. The Institute also encouraged her to progress with her gift of composing poetry. An able speaker, Fanny campaigned for better education of the blind and, as part of this, became the first woman to speak in the United States Senate.
Fanny had always expressed her faith in poems and songs and she increasingly became sought after as a writer of Christian lyrics. Despite a growing reputation as a conference speaker and preacher, she remained deeply involved with her church. Ignoring her blindness and the fact she was under five foot tall, Fanny became involved in Christian social work amongst the poor of New York and even acted as a nurse during the devastating 1849 cholera epidemic.
In 1858 Fanny married Alexander van Alstyne, a blind church organist. They had one daughter who died shortly after birth: an event that may have prompted Fanny’s famous hymn ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’. Fanny lived on to 1915, dying at the then remarkable age of ninety-four.
Fanny had an astonishing ability to write lyrics; she would compose them in her mind and then dictate them to be written down. She could work at incredible speed, sometimes creating seven songs a day. For thirty years she wrote songs for Ira Sankey, the singer who accompanied the evangelist D.L. Moody on his remarkable evangelistic campaigns, and many people made decisions for Christ as her words were sung. Many of Fanny’s hymns are still sung in church today. They include ‘Blessed Assurance’, ‘All the Way My Saviour Leads Me’, ‘Praise Him, Praise Him’, ‘To God Be the Glory’ and ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross’.
Fanny wrote warm and memorable verses that appealed to both the mind and the heart. Consider just a few of her best-known lines:
‘All the way my Saviour leads me
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt his tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?’
‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long.’
Fanny’s theology was simple and Christ-centred. Significantly, in an America that was increasingly receiving immigrants with poor English, her words were both easy to understand and to translate. Her accessible songs revolutionised Christian music, opening the way to simpler, gentler songs and so, ultimately, to ‘gospel music’ and modern worship songs. In 1975 she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Fanny Crosby was a truly extraordinary woman and I find three challenges in her life.
First, she displayed a remarkable commitment to the gospel. Let’s face it, no one writes 8,000 songs without a very serious level of dedication! In her songs Fanny spoke not only of her own faith but also of her burning desire for others to come to Jesus. She claimed she wanted to introduce a million people to Christ through her songs: she may well have exceeded that number! Fanny showed her commitment not just in her words but in her social work. She did indeed give Jesus everything.
Second, she achieved a remarkable communication of the gospel. Evangelism is about communicating clearly, concisely and compassionately the good news of Jesus Christ, and in this Fanny Crosby was a remarkable communicator and evangelist.
Finally, she displayed a delightful contentment in the gospel. In a life of disability, difficulties and disappointments, Fanny didn’t just find comfort in Jesus Christ, she found contentment. Her first verse, written at age eight, echoed her lifelong refusal to feel sorry for herself:
‘Oh! what a happy soul I am!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.’
May we too live contented lives and exude joy in Christ despite disappointments and restrictions.