Of all [the] American hymn writers, there never has been one more thoroughly lovable than Mrs. Van Alstyne, or Fanny Crosby, as she is familiarly known. None would claim that she was a poetess in any large sense. Her hymns (which might, perhaps, be more appropriately discussed under the head of "Gospel Songs") have been severely criticised. Dr. Julian, the editor of the Dictionary of Hymnology, says that "they are, with few exceptions, very weak and poor," and others insist that they are "crudely sentimental." Some hymn books will give them no place whatever. And yet, on the other hand, Dr. Duffield, author of English Hymns, wrote to his publishers shortly before his death, "I rather think her talent will stand beside that of Watts or Wesley, especially if we take into consideration the number of hymns she has written."
If the worth of a hymn is to be determined solely by certain canons of excellence laid down by hymn-critics, probably few of Fanny Crosby's would meet the test. But if other considerations also enter in, the verdict may be different. Her productions, in her own and in the various languages into which they have been translated, are probably sung by more voices than those of any other writer, save Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. At least seventy are in common use in England, a far greater number than by any other American.
How many souls have been led to Christ through her hymns, God only knows, but undoubtedly there has been a host. She prayed that she might be instrumental in saving a million men; may it not be that the prayer has been or will be answered? Her total production was prodigious, numbering scarcely less than eight thousand songs and hymns. For years she was under engagement with Biglow and Main to furnish them regularly three songs a week. No doubt if she had written far less and written better, it would have been a gain, but her habit of throwing her thoughts into rhyme was spontaneous, as natural as breathing. The astonishing fact is not that she gave forth so much of small value, but that so many of her hymns have found lodgment in the affections of vast multitudes of Christians of various faiths, and are sung today with joy and blessing the world around.
Fanny Crosby was born of humble parents, in Southeast, Putnam County, New York, on March 24, 1820. Through an ignorant application of a poultice to her eyes when she was six weeks old, her sight was forever destroyed. And yet during all her life she was amazingly independent in finding her way about. Indeed, she would scarcely have realized that she was blind had not people constantly reminded her of the fact. Her affliction never made her gloomy. When she was eight years old she wrote the cheerful ditty:
"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."
At the age of fifteen she entered the Institution for the Blind in New York City, remaining there as pupil and afterward as teacher for twenty three years. It was soon recognized that the girl was unusually gifted, especially in the use of her pen. It became quite the custom on state occasions to put her forward to recite one of her poems. In 1843 several of the pupils went to Washington seeking to enlist the sympathy of Congress on behalf of the blind. At the insistent request of the members, Fanny recited a number of her poems, moving many to tears by her simple eloquence.
Though she had grown up with a strong religious bent, she entered into a more definite experience in 1851, and at that time united with the old John Street Methodist Episcopal Church of New York. Seven years later she was married to Mr. Alexander Van Alstyne. He was a teacher in the same school, and like herself he was blind. As the author of hymns, however, she always retained her maiden name.
While at the institution she wrote a number of secular songs, especially for the popular tunes composed by George F. Root, who for a time was an instructor at the school. In this way she contributed the title and the words for the well-known "There's Music in the Air." But she was not contented, for she had not yet found her life work. She left the institution which for so long had been her home in 1858. It was about this time that she met Mr. W. B. Bradbury, and at his request she wrote a sacred song — her first:
"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."
She afterward said, "I had found my mission, and was the happiest creature in all the land." To the close of her long life she was devoted to the one task of hymn-writing. As we would naturally expect with one who was shut away from much that was passing in the outside world, her hymns are the outgrowth of her own experience, and to an unusual extent reflect the changing phases of that experience. Indeed, it would not be difficult from a simple study of these hymns to write her spiritual biography. Her unfailing cheerfulness, her childlike trust in the divine watch care over her own life, enabled her to say to others:
"God will take care of you, be not afraid,
He is your safeguard through sunshine and shade;
Tenderly watching, and keeping his own,
He will not leave you to wander alone."
Such hymns as: "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine," "Jesus, keep me near the Cross," "Saviour, more than life to me," and many others equally well known, were born in her own heart life.
Fanny Crosby was deeply interested in gospel work for men, especially among the poor fellows who were down but not out. "You can't save a man by telling him of his sins," she used to say. "He knows them already. Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him." In his admirable Story of Ninety-Four Years, the Rev. S. Trevena Jackson gives the account of how "Rescue the Perishing" came to be written, as he received it from the lips of Fanny Crosby. "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, he would come to me at the close of the service. A young man of eighteen came forward and said, 'Did you mean me? I promised my mother to meet her in heaven, but as I am now living that will be impossible.' We prayed for him and he finally arose with a new light in his eyes and exclaimed in triumph, 'Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for I have found God!'
"A few days before, Mr. Doane, the musical composer, had sent me the subject, 'Rescue the Perishing,' and while I sat there that evening, the line came to me, '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 the melody. The next day my song was written out and forwarded to Mr. Doane, who wrote the beautiful and touching music as it now stands to my hymn."
"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."
The great meetings held by Moody and Sankey gave wings to Fanny Crosby's hymns both in England and America. On the other side of the sea, in particular, where more conservative tastes had prevailed, these warm-hearted songs with their simple, pleasing melodies, were a revelation, and they awakened a popular enthusiasm which is felt to this day.
Of all her hymns, Fanny Crosby's own favorite was "Safe in the arms of Jesus," and the general verdict agrees with her. One day in 1868, Mr. Doane said to her, "Fanny, I have a tune I would like to have you write words for." He played it over and she exclaimed, "That says 'Safe in the arms of Jesus!"' She went to her room, and in half an hour the hymn was finished. It has gone everywhere; it knows no limitations of race or sect. It is sung in many languages, and at funerals in Roman Catholic as well as in Protestant churches. Multitudes who never heard of Fanny Crosby know and love this song. The Rev. Mr. Jackson was taking her to his home for a visit: "Our hackman listened to his passenger with close attention, and when I informed him that she was Fanny Crosby, who had written 'Safe in the arms of Jesus,' he took off his hat and wept. He called a policeman and said, 'This is Miss Fanny Crosby, who wrote 'Safe in the arms of Jesus.' I want you to help this young man to get her safely to the train.' 'I sure will,' said the policeman. Then, quite sadly, he added, 'We sang that hymn at my little girl's funeral last week.' Aunt Fanny took the policeman's arm and said, 'I call all the policemen and railroad men "my boys." They take such good care of me wherever I go.' The officer assisted her with the greatest care and as she took her seat in the train she said to him, 'God bless your dear heart. You shall have my prayers. Tell your dear wife that your little daughter is safe in the arms of Jesus.' The great strong policeman turned away wiping the tears from his eyes."
It is fortunate that from the first this beautiful hymn has been wedded to a melody of peculiar sweetness and one so perfectly suited to the tender pathos of the words. At many public obsequies, notably at Grant's funeral, the tune has been a favorite with the bands.
Frances Ridley Havergal and Fanny Crosby never met, but each was an ardent admirer of the other, and no message that Miss Crosby ever received was treasured more highly than these lines from Miss Havergal:
"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!"
One summer Fanny Crosby was visiting at Northfield. At an evening gathering when she with others was on the platform, several had spoken of their Christian experience, and presently Mr. Moody turned to Miss Crosby, "Now we want a word from you." For a moment she hesitated, but when he pressed her she quietly arose and said: "There is one hymn I have written which has never been published. I call it my Soul's poem, and sometimes when I am troubled I repeat it to myself, for it brings comfort to my heart." And she recited the lines which have since become so familiar:
"Some day the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing:
But, O the joy when I awake
Within the palace of the King!
And I shall see him face to face,
And tell the story — Saved by Grace."
Those who were present and saw Miss Crosby, her uplifted face with those sightless orbs marked by a strange wistfulness, will never forget the pathetic emphasis of the refrain,
"And I shall see him face to face!"
It was on Friday morning, February 12, 1915, on the threshold of her ninety-fifth birthday, that the yearning of her heart was gratified and she saw Him face to face.