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Fanny J. Crosby: Biographical Sketch

by [Robert Lowry]

Fanny CrosbyFrances Jane Crosby, the daughter of John and Mercy Crosby, was born in South East, Putnam County, New York, March 24, 1820. Her home was in a little valley, through which ran a branch of the Croton River. The murmur of the flowing water was the music of her earliest childhood. Her fancy reveled in the silvery tones that rose incessantly from the humble brook. They spoke to her in a language which she could understand, and she learned to translate them into her own vernacular. The dancing measures of the little stream still linger sweetly in her memory.

When she was only six weeks old an affection of the eyes demanded medical treatment. Either from lack of accurate diagnosis, or from the operation of causes beyond the reach of ordinary skill, the remedies applied failed to accomplish the desired end, and her sense of sight entirely disappeared. Happily for her peace of mind, this loss of vision came upon her at so early an age that she was relieved of those violent and painful contrasts which would have been her lot if this misfortune had overtaken her in later years. Indeed so utterly foreign to her is our world of sight, she does not feel the loss of what practically never was in her possession. A calamity which would be regarded by us as beyond all compensation she looks upon as one of the commonplaces of her normal condition. It is pathetic to hear her gentle but earnest protest when tender sympathies are expended upon her by honestly commiserating friends; but we cannot but admire the beautiful contentment with which she accepts her place in life, and even expresses a preference for what to us would be only an unmitigated misfortune. Her childhood was a period of unalloyed delight. Her happy temperament threw sunshine over all her surroundings. She discovered in time that there was a sight-world in which she had no part, but no knowledge of that deprivation could affect the elasticity of her spirits. As if to give notice to all persons that they need not waste any condolements on her, she wrote, at the age of eight years, the following statement of the situation as she viewed it:

"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."

The poetry in this childish effusion may not be of the highest order, but the philosophy it contains is worthy of general adoption.

When she was about nine years old she was taken by her parents to Ridgefield, Conn., where the family remained four years. After the death of her father her opportunities for mental improvement were in a degree interrupted. This would have been a serious thing to her but for the one happy event which turned and fixed the course of her life. At the age of fifteen years she entered the New York Institution for the Blind. Here she remained as a pupil for twelve years. In 1847 she became a teacher, in which position she continued till 1858. She taught English Grammar, Rhetoric, and Roman and American History. This was the developing period in her life. The darkness that was upon the face of the deep gave place to the form and symmetry of intellectual expansion. Her vivid imagination, which had been running for years with but little restraint, came under the control of her broadening intellect. Language, which, under the circumstances of her life, had been necessarily limited, came to her aid with a steadily increasing vocabulary. The poetic faculty, which from early childhood had been struggling within her for expression, found food and stimulus along all these lines of intellectual development. Memory, always intensified and strengthened in the absence of external helps, became her ready and obedient servitor. The schoolboy may forget the lesson on the printed page, but the blind man retains it. The man with clear vision may lose the face of a friend in the distractions of the outside world, but the blind man never mistakes the tone of a voice. The expert organist, with his fingers on the keyboard or his pen marking the paper, may be puzzled to know the correct outlet for a discord, but the blind musician, almost by intuition, will see the difficulty and give the true progression. The Bible, studded with golden texts, became a never-failing treasury to this blind girl passing up into womanhood. So tenacious is her memory that in her early years she committed the first four books of the Old Testament, and also the four Gospels. Her hymns abound with phrases of Scripture which readily adapt themselves to rhythmic expression. Her mind is stored with much that she has learned from various authors. Once in possession of a thought of value, she assimilates it, reproduces it, makes it her own by putting on it the stamp of her individuality. The versatility of her genius is remarkable. Driven sometimes by a stress of work there will slip from her a striking epithet or phrase which she has used before; but, taking into view the many hymns which she has written, besides songs and miscellaneous poems, the wonder is that she expresses herself in such manifold variety. Her mind is a storehouse of things new and old, and her verse is constructed from the abundant words and phrases which seem to fall almost of their own accord into their appropriate places.

During her pupilage in the Institution for the Blind her teachers did not fail to notice the poetic quality of her mind, and the growing aptitude for putting words together in metrical form and tapering them off with rhymes. So prominently did this gift assert itself, the managers were led to utilize it for the benefit of the Institution. In August, 1842, a tour was made through western New York, in which a number of the pupils made exhibition of the kind of work done in the schoolroom. At all these meetings Miss Crosby was put forward as conspicuously illustrating the value of education to the blind. A poetic address delivered at one of these meetings contains the following stanza:

"Contented, happy, though a sightless band,
Dear friends, this evening we before you stand;
We for a moment your attention claim.
And trust that boon will not be asked in vain."

In May, 1843, the Institution for the Blind held its anniversary in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York. The occasion, always interesting, was made doubly so by the recitation of an original poem, of which the following is an extract:

"The smile that decks the human face,
The brilliant eye, the joyous brow,
Are beauties we may never trace;
A rayless midnight shrouds us now.
But why, O why the falling tear?
Why heaves the sad, unbidden sigh?
The lamp of knowledge, bright and clear,
Pours luster on our mental eye."

On June 22, 1843, the Senate of the State of New York visited the Institution in a body. Here again our blind girl was brought to the front, and addressed the high dignitaries in a poem, of which the following is a specimen:

"Yon glorious orb that gilds the azure skies
Sheds not a ray to cheer these sightless eyes;
The dewy lawn, mild nature's sylvan bowers—
To trace these lovely scenes must ne'er be ours;
But education's pure refulgent light
Illumes our souls, dispels our mental night;
Joy on each brow a smiling garland weaves;
Here, too, her magic strain soft music breathes."

In the same year another tour was made through central New York, and, as usual, Miss Crosby was the chief performer with an original poem.

In November, 1843, Count Bertrand was received as an honored guest, and Miss Crosby was selected to address him in poetic form. She subsequently wrote a touching poem on hearing of the Count's death.

On January 24, 1844, seventeen pupils were taken to Washington to give a practical demonstration, before the Senate and House of Representatives, of the good results attending a systematic instruction of the blind. In this august presence, stirred by eloquent speeches and regaled with sweet singing, our gifted poet poured her heart out in words that held all hearers captive. From a poem of thirteen stanzas we select the following:

"What though these orbs in rayless darkness roll?
Instruction pours its radiance o'er the soul;
And fancy pictures to the mental eye
The glittering hosts that 'lume the midnight sky.
O ye who here from every State convene,
Illustrious band! may we not hope the scene
You now behold will prove to every mind
Instruction hath a ray to cheer the blind."

In the same year a company of twenty pupils gave an exhibition of like character at Trenton, N. J., before the Governor and Legislature. The occasion was one of intense interest, not the least feature of which was an original poem delivered by her who had become so important a factor in making the public familiar with the working of the Institution to which she belonged.

While Miss Crosby was teaching she came in contact with many distinguished men. An item of interest which she takes pleasure in recalling is the fact that, during a part of that time, Grover Cleveland was attached to the office of the Institution. Her recollections of Mr. Cleveland are of the most pleasant character, his bearing toward her being such as to impress her mind with a sense of his courtesy and kindness. Among the men whom she met were President Van Buren, President Tyler, Governor William H. Seward, General Winfield Scott, and Henry Clay. Concerning Henry Clay, she tells the story that during his last visit to New York he came to the Institution, and she was appointed to give him welcome in a poem. Six months before he had lost a son in the Mexican war, and she had sent him some verses. In her address she carefully avoided any allusion to his sorrow. When she had finished her poem of welcome he came up to her and said, with tears in his eyes: "This is not the first poem for which I am indebted to this lady. Six months ago she sent me some lines on the death of my dear son." Both of them were overcome for the moment, and although with an effort he recovered himself, it was impossible for her to restrain her tears.

In 1845 George F. Root began to give music lessons in the New York Institution for the Blind. In 1851 it occurred to him that a cantata or musical play might be made useful in his classes, especially those in Rutgers and Spingler Institutes. The floral concerts given by W. B. Bradbury in the Broadway Tabernacle suggested the subject of the flowers choosing a queen, and he finally determined that the little play should be called The Flower Queen. In his autobiography, entitled The Story of a Musical Life, Dr. Root thus expresses his indebtedness to Miss Crosby:

"At the Institution for the Blind there was at that time a lady who had been a pupil there, but was now a teacher, who had a great gift for rhyming, and, better still, had a delicate and poetic imagination. The name of Fanny Crosby was not known then beyond the small circle of her personal friends, but it is now familiar, especially wherever Gospel songs are sung. I used to tell her one day in prose what I wanted the Flowers or the Recluse to say, and the next day the poem would be ready—sometimes two or three of them. I generally hummed enough of a melody to give her an idea of the meter and rhythmic swing wanted, and sometimes played to her the entire music of a number before she undertook her work. It was all the same. Like many blind people her memory was great, and she easily retained all I told her. After receiving her poems, which rarely needed any modification, I thought out the music, perhaps while going from one lesson to another, and then I caught the first moment of freedom to write it out. This went on until the cantata was finished."

The same ready pen contributed largely to Professor Root's cantata of "Daniel," and also that of "The Pilgrim Fathers." Many songs were written by her for Professor Root, among them "Rosalie the Prairie Flower," "Hazel Dell," "The Honeysuckle Glen," "Proud World, Good-By, I'm Going Home," "Music in the Air," "All Together," "Never Forget the Dear Ones," and others. These songs became exceedingly popular in their day, though it was not generally known at the time that she was the author of them. The royalty on "Rosalie the Prairie Flower " alone amounted to nearly three thousand dollars.

Many of Miss Crosby's hymns and songs have gone out into the world, though not by her intent, either anonymously or under some pseudonym. John Julian, in his "Dictionary of Hymnology," says of this questionable treatment:

"The greater part are signed by a bewildering number of initials and noms de plume; including:

"A.; C.; D. H. W.; F.; F. A. N.; F. C.; F. J. C.; F. J. V. A.; J. C. F.; V.; V. A.; Ella Dale; F. Crosby; F. J. Crosby; Fannie; Fannie Crosby; Fanny Van Alstyne; Jenny V.; Mrs. Jenie Glenn; Mrs. Kate Grinley; Miss V.; Miss Viola V. A.; Mrs. V.; Viola."

To this crazy-quilt list may be added, Grace J. Frances, Mrs. C. M. Wilson, Lizzie Edwards, Henrietta E. Blair, Rose Atherton, Maud Marion, Leah Carlton, and others.

Miss Crosby was married to Alexander Van Alstyne March 5, 1858. Mr. Van Alstyne was a pupil in the Institution and a good musician. Strong in their mutual love and sympathy, they were willing to take the risks of a world they could not see. With all the disadvantages and distractions of this independent life the new bride never lost her thirst for knowledge, nor did there come any diminution of that poetic afflatus which made her a queen in her educational home. She lived her life of song through all the years, and finds in it still her greatest pleasure.

The diversity of names by which she is known is sometimes confusing. One editor, with a habit of precision which might well be emulated, inscribes her in his hymnal as Mrs. Frances Jane Crosby Van Alstyne. Another satisfies himself with the briefer form of Mrs. F. J. Van Alstyne. Less precise compilers content themselves with Miss Frances J. Crosby, or Fanny J. Crosby, or, more economically, Fanny Crosby. To the public at large she will probably be known always as Fanny Crosby, while to those who are nearest to her, and who enjoy the privilege of her confidence and affection, she is, simply and sweetly, Fanny.

Three volumes of her poems have been published. The first was issued in 1844, entitled "The Blind Girl, and Other Poems," containing an excellent lithograph portrait of the author. A second volume followed in 1849, called "Monterey, and Other Poems;" and a third, "A Wreath of Columbia's Flowers," was issued in 1858. While these productions are all creditable to the author, it is in no wise on them that her fame is based. It is as a writer of hymns, especially as popularized in Sunday-schools for the last thirty years, that she has made a name for herself wherever the English language is spoken. Nor is her celebrity confined to people of her native tongue; in almost all quarters of the world her hymns have been translated, and are sung by Christian people everywhere.

It was on February 5, 1864, that she wrote the first of that long series of hymns which has run up into the thousands. This hymn was written for W. B. Bradbury, who was then devoting himself to musical service among the young, and was followed by scores of others for use in various books which Mr. Bradbury edited. The relation thus formed between writer and publisher continued till the death of the latter in 1868. At Mr. Bradbury's funeral, this first hymn became invested with a kind of sacredness in being sung in connection with the musical exercises. Its opening lines read thus;

"We are going, we are going
To a home beyond the skies."

After the death of Mr. Bradbury, the relations she sustained to that lamented composer were continued with his successors, Biglow & Main, which relations remain to this day. Biglow & Main have accepted and paid for everything she has written for them during all these years. As a consequence of this arrangement, a large number of her hymns are now in their possession. Some of these may yet be set to music, and, it is hoped, may prove as useful as many of those which have contributed so much to the popularity of Fanny Crosby.

Fanny Crosby delights to recall the dates of her first interviews with musical men. She tells us that she met Sylvester Main on February 2, 1864, and renewed an acquaintanceship which she had formed when a child in Ridgefield, Conn., thirty-two years before. On June 4, 1864, she made the friendship of Philip Phillips in Mr. Bradbury's office. In the same place she met Theo. E. Perkins June 6, 1864. In the same year she met Hubert P. Main, for whom she has written scores of hymns, and who has been in all these years a faithful helper and friend. In 1866 she came in contact with Robert Lowry, with whom she has had many a conference on the phrasing of a hymn, and many a conversation on the phases of Christian experience. About the same time she met Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp, T. F. Seward and C. G. Allen, who availed themselves of her flowing pen. On November 25, 1867, she had her first correspondence with W. H. Doane, for whom she has written a large quantity of songs, besides the words for numerous cantatas, sometimes spending weeks at his house elaborating the material for special work. W. F. Sherwin she met on the day after Mr. Bradbury's funeral, and began a friendship which lasted till his death. In 1877 she was introduced to John R. Sweney and W. J. Kirkpatrick at the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting, who frequently call upon her for verses which they may use in their work. In 1876 she met Ira D. Sankey, for whom she has written some of her most effective songs, and who has recently drawn upon her talent in large measure for songs to be used in Gospel meetings. In 1872 she began to furnish Silas J. Vail with some hymns that became very popular. In 1878 she made some contributions to H. P. Danks, and has continued to do so. In 1879 she met Samuel Alman, and supplied him at intervals with material for his singing service. L. H. Biglow has been her steadfast friend as far back as Mr. Bradbury's time, and has given her every facility for the production and publication of her songs. It would be easy to extend this list. She has hosts of friends, and she is loyal to those who have proved their friendship. She quarrels with none, but she is quick to defend a friend who is attacked. She never forgets a favor, but she takes no revenge for a wrong done to herself. It is her nature to be confiding, and a suspicion once aroused becomes painful to her. She takes it for granted that the world is honest, for she sees no reason why it should be otherwise. She is contented with the things that she has, and carries the sunshine of a quiet mind wherever she goes. The cheerfulness of her childhood remains with her, and her presence is a rebuke to every form of misanthropy. She takes pleasure in a lively story, and is as ready to sympathize in a case of distress. Her nervous temperament keeps her continually on the alert, but, when occasion requires, she can retire within herself, and be oblivious to all her surroundings.

As has already been intimated, Fanny Crosby does not mourn over the fact that she is blind. On the contrary, the writer of this sketch has frequently heard her say that if the gift of sight were offered her she would choose rather to remain as she is. She is firmly of the opinion that her blindness has proved a blessing. "If I had not been deprived of sight," she says, "I should never have received so good an education, nor have cultivated so fine a memory, nor have been able to do good to so many people." This is her consolation and her joy.

She does not seem to need a special inspiration in order to write. She has her moods, and therefore her verses are not of uniform grade. But she is very susceptible to a suggestion from without. One day, while meditating on the leadings of Providence, a friend came into her room and gave her ten dollars. The unexpected gift awakened a train of thought that formulated itself in one of her best hymns, "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me." At another time her attention was called to the sweet sense of security felt by the soul that puts its whole trust in Jesus. Instantly the thought began to take metrical form, and, almost as rapidly as the words could be put together, she had struck off, in the white heat of her own religious emotion, that hymn of faith and comfort, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," which at once she adopted as her favorite. Under a similar impulse she wrote "Rescue the Perishing," a hymn of wonderful usefulness, and which, in diction and sentiment, is scarcely to be surpassed by anything she has ever produced. Multitudes of persons have been aroused to a better life, and multitudes more have been comforted in their time of sorrow, through the instrumentality of her hymns. Her influence over the young is beyond all calculation, and thousands who have passed through the Sunday-school during the last thirty years hold her in the tenderest regard as associated with the brightest days of their childhood. In every community in which her songs have been sung, stories are told of the sweet influence of her lines on life and character. She rarely appears in any assembly without calling forth witnesses to her power for good. Sometimes the demonstration is dramatic. One evening she was present in a mission meeting when "Rescue the Perishing" was sung. A young man arose and told the story of his wanderings: Hungry and penniless, he was strolling through the streets one night when he heard the sound of singing. Entering the hall, he caught the words of this hymn. His heart broke in penitence. "I was just ready to perish," he said, "but that hymn, by the grace of God, saved me." Fancy the scene when the author and the speaker stood face to face, their eyes filled with tears, and the audience thrilled with the pathos of the meeting.

It is difficult to determine what is that element in a metrical composition by which it survives the general wreck. Songs and hymns in great numbers are thrown before the public, and kept afloat for a time by a mellifluous or "catchy" tune. They have their brief day, and then disappear. Evidently there is something more needed than a mere jingle of words in order to give a hymn an abiding life. Not even the highest grade of poetry will secure a fixed place in the service of praise if it be lacking in spiritual quality. There must be in a hymn something which is readily apprehended by the Christian consciousness, coming forth from the experience of the writer, and clothed in strong and inspiring words, if it would hold its place as a permanent factor in Christian worship. The time has not yet come when Fanny Crosby's place among the hymn writers of Christendom may be determined; but it is safe to say that, of the many hymns which have come up from the throbbings of her warm heart, there will be found in the ultimate sifting no inconsiderable number which the world will not willingly let die.

Passing now through the later seventies of her useful life, she preserves all the sprightliness of her early years. Her friendships are fervent, and her hope is strong. She loves her work, and she finds her rest in Christ. In her younger days she joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, and its fellowship is still her comfort and delight. She engages in no doctrinal controversies, but speaks the language of Zion with saints of every name. She sits in her easy chair, holding an open book before her closed eyes, working her vivid concepts into hymnic phrases which her amanuensis writes down. Thus she spends her days, waiting her appointed time. When it comes, she will open her eyes on the glory that shall be revealed, and take her part in the new song.

From Bells at Evening and Other Verses by Frances J. Crosby. New York: Biglow & Main Co., 1899.

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