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The Life and Ministry of Frances Jane Crosby

by Ed Reese (1928-2015)

Born: March 24, 1820—South East, New York
Died: February 12, 1915—Bridgeport, Conn.
Life Span: 94 years, 10 months, 19 days

"Mother, if I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind...for when I die; the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Saviour."

Fanny CrosbyBlind for all of her life, Fanny Crosby, the greatest hymn writer in the history of the Christian Church, later wrote, "And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story—Saved by grace." She saw over 8,000 poems set to music and over 100,000,000 copies of her songs printed. As many as 200 different pen names, including Grace J. Frances, were given her works by hymn book publishers so the public wouldn't know she wrote so large a number of them. She produced as many as seven hymn-poems in one day. On several occasions, upon hearing an unfamiliar hymn sung, she would inquire about the author, and find it to be one of her own!

Fanny gave the Christian world such songs as: "A Shelter in the Time of Storm," "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me," "Blessed Assurance," "Close to Thee," "He Hideth My Soul," I Am Thine O Lord," "Jesus Is Calling," "My Saviour First of All," "Near the Cross," "Pass Me Not," "Praise Him, Praise Him," "Redeemed," "Rescue the Perishing," "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," "Saved by Grace," "Saviour, More Than Life to Me," "Speed Away," "Take the World, But Give Me Jesus," "Tell Me the Story of Jesus," "The Lights of Home," "Thou Mighty to Save," "Tho' Your Sins Be as Scarlet," "'Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer," "To God be the Glory," "To the Work," "Will Jesus Find Us Watching?" to mention but a few.

Born in a one-story cottage, her father, John, was never to be remembered by Fanny for he died in her twelfth month. When Fanny was six weeks old, she caught a slight cold in her eyes. The family physician was away. Another country doctor was called in to treat her. He prescribed hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes, which destroyed her sight completely! It was later learned that the man was not qualified to practice medicine, but he had left town and was never heard of again. Fanny never felt any resentment against him, but believed it was permitted by the Lord to fulfill His plan for her life. A wise mother set about immediately to prepare her daughter for a happy life, in spite of this great handicap.

When but five years old, she was taken by her mother to consult the best eye specialist in the country, Dr. Valentine Mott. Neighbors and friends pooled money together in order to send her. The dreaded answer came, "Poor child, I am afraid you will never see again." Fanny did not think she was poor. It was not the loss of sight that bothered her young heart. It was the thought that she would never be able to get an education like other boys and girls. Surprisingly, at the age of eight, she wrote her first recorded poetry:

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!

Around nine years of age, the family moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she was to stay until age 15. Mother was kind, but busy making a living for both of them, so it was Grandmother who became an unforgettable influence in her life. Grandmother spent many hours describing the things of nature and heaven to her. Also, she introduced Fanny to the Bible and this book now became more familiar to her than any other. She began to devour the scriptures. It is said, that as a child, she could repeat from memory the Pentateuch, the book of Ruth, many of the Psalms, the books of Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and much of the New Testament! This furnished the themes, inspiration, and diction for her imperishable gospel hymns...

Near her 15th birthday came a happy announcement...Mother could send her to a new school, The Institution for the Blind in New York City. Fanny clapped her hands joyfully and cried, "O thank God, He has answered my prayer, just as I knew He would." So it was on March 3, 1835, that Fanny boarded a stage for Norwalk and then a boat for New York City. She was to spend the next 23 years of her life there, as a student for twelve years, and then as a teacher for eleven years more.

From early childhood the sightless girl had felt the urge to write poetry and several short verses had come from her lips. At the Institution her abilities began to assert themselves with renewed force. Her teachers did not encourage her efforts but strangers did.

William Cullen Bryant visited the school one day and gave her much encouragement, after chancing to read some of her verses. She said afterwards, "He never knew how much he did by those few words." Then one day, Dr. Combe of Boston, examined the heads of the blind students. As he felt her head, he exclaimed:

And 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.

This was the encouragement that she needed. Poetry began to flow from her heart and mind.

In the autumn of 1843, when she was 23, she was the sightless guest of Congress. Endeavoring to secure an appropriation for its work, a group from the school was sent there. She paid tribute to Congress in original verse and then began paying tribute to the Lord. She delivered no stirring oration, nor pathetic story, but simply recited some poems, about the tender care of a loving Saviour. She spoke with conviction, as though she had seen the Saviour face to face. The notable assembly addressed included such men as: John Quincy Adams, Thomas E. Benton, Hamilton Fish, Henry A. Wise, Alexander Stevens, Jefferson Davis, and Robert Toombs. Before long, tears were glistening on the hearers cheeks, for whether great or small, thousands were to find her message a healing balm for the soul.

As a result of this witness, she began to make friends with the great political and religious leaders of her time and no one could forget her once they met her. During her lifetime, she knew all the presidents except George Washington. President VanBuren dined with her and remained one of her warmest friends. She heralded the virtues of William Henry Harrison even though he served but one month. When President Tyler came to The Institution for the Blind, Fanny welcomed him with an original poem. Her friendship with President Polk was close and inspiring. She enjoyed a close friendship with President Cleveland for more than half a century, for at one time he was the secretary of the Institution for the Blind while she taught. He took an unusual interest in her life and work and was often engaged in copying her poems.

Many visitors came to the school making memorable occasions for all. Once, Jenny Lind came. She sang and Fanny Crosby recited her poem called, 'The Swedish Nightingale.' When Henry Clay visited the school, Miss Crosby was elected to recite a poem in his honor. When she had finished, Clay took her by the hand and said, "this is not the only poem for which I am indebted to this lady. Six months ago, she sent me some lines on the death of my dear son." Young Clay was killed in a battle in Mexico. Standing there, the great statesman and the blind poet wept together.

At age 24, her first book was published, entitled "The Blind Girl and Other Poems." Also, she composed several popular songs and assisted in writing what was probably the first cantata published in America. At age 27, she became an instructor at the school, a position which she held until 1858, when she left.

With all of her apparent devotion to Christ, already shared in so many ways, it is hard to believe that she was not converted until 1851, age 31. This glorious beginning happened at a revival service held at the old John Street Methodist Church in New York which she joined. Recalling the incident years later, she said:

After a prayer was offered, they began to sing the grand old consecration hymn, 'Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed?' and when they reached the third line of the fifth stanza, 'Here, Lord, I give myself away,' my very soul was flooded with celestial light.

Romance came into the life of Fanny Crosby, also. As early as age 20 she fell in love with another blind student by the name of Alexander Van Alstyne. He was especially fond of music and was captivated by her poems. She, likewise, was fascinated by his sweet strains of music. Later, he was to write the music of some of her hymn-poems and spend 44 years with her in marriage. One day in June he sang to his beloved, the music of his heart. Fanny tells the story:

From that hour two lives looked on a new universe, for love met love and all the world was changed. We were no longer blind, for the light of love showed where the lilies bloomed, and where the crystal waters found the moss-mantled spring.

He also became a teacher and for over 15 years their friendship bloomed. Finally, on March 5, 1858, she was married at age 37. Life was just beginning for Fanny Crosby, for her life's ministry was still ahead.

The marriage was a happy one with Van Alstyne, who lived until 1902. The couple had one child, only to be taken in death while yet a baby. Perhaps this incident helped inspire Fanny to write, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," which was to comfort thousands of grief stricken parents suffering a similar fate.

Upon her marriage, she intended to use the name Mrs. Van Alstyne, but her husband insisted that she continue to use her maiden name, which was already quite famous. Later, the couple united with the Thirtieth Street Methodist Church, in New York. Fanny Crosby remained a lifelong Methodist.

Through Peter Stryker, the minister of a Dutch Reformed Church, in New York City, she met the well-known composer, William Bradbury. He gave her a most cordial welcome:

Fanny, I thank God that we have at last met, for I think you can write hymns, and I have sought for a long time to have a talk with you.

He suggested that she attempt a hymn for him that week. This was the opportunity that she was waiting for. In three days she returned and submitted her first sacred song, the initial stanza of which reads:

We are going, we are going
To a home beyond the skies,
Where the fields are robed in beauty,
And the sunlight never dies.

This was in 1864, when Fanny was 44. Now, her course was set and this was her first hymn, used as a Sunday School hymn.

Some stories of her most famous hymn-poems follow:

"Pass Me Not" was her first hymn to win world-wide attention. Acting upon the suggestion of her friend, William H. Doane, Fanny composed this in 1868 after a prison service. As she spoke to the prisoners, one cried out, "O Lord, don't pass me by!" She was so moved that she went home and wrote her famous plea. Sankey said, "no hymn was more popular at the meetings in London, in 1875, than this one." One hard-drinking Englishman heard the crowd singing it and whispered to himself, "Oh, I wish He would not pass me by." The next night the service began with the same hymn and he was saved. He began carrying a copy of the hymn with him every day and forty years later, as a successful businessman in America, he met Fanny and gave her twenty dollars.

"Safe in the Arms of Jesus" was considered by some to be her greatest hymn. One day, in 1868, Doane dropped by and said, "Miss Fanny, I have but a few minutes before my train leaves for Cincinnati, but first, will you do me a favor before boarding that train? I want a new hymn which I can introduce for the first time at a convention that will capture the hearts and imaginations of the young people and children. There is to be a great state-wide Sunday School Convention in Cincinnati next month and in addition to the large delegations of adults, many young people and children are expected to be present. We really need this new hymn."

Having the tune already composed, he said, "Listen closely," and turning to the piano, he sat down and played his new tune in a rousing and stirring manner. Fanny said, "Your music says, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus." Going to her desk, she took out a piece of paper, found her pen, sat down, and began to write. As he played, she continued to write. She folded the paper, placed it in an envelope and handed it to her friend. Because his train was leaving in thirty-five minutes, she exclaimed, "Read it on the train and hurry, you don't want to be late!"

On the train, he read the words that Sankey later made famous, and hearts have been singing ever since. The stories connected with this hymn are breathtaking. Once, a hackman, learning that his passenger was Fanny Crosby, took off his hat and wept. He called a policeman and asked him to see her safely to the train, adding, "We sang 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus' at my little girl's funeral last week."

When Bishop James Hannington was brutally murdered by savages in Uganda, Africa, his diary was recovered. In it, he tells of being dragged away to be murdered, while singing "Safe in the Arms of Jesus." He was even laughing at the very agony of his situation.

A strange story is told in connection with the war in 1918. A Finnish engineer tells of besieging a town and taking a number of Red prisoners. Seven of them were to be shot at dawn the following Monday. One of the doomed men began to sing this lovely song, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," that he had learned only three weeks previously, from the Salvation Army. One after another of the comrades fell to their knees and began to pray. The seven asked to be allowed to die with uncovered faces. With hands raised to Heaven, they sang this song as they were ushered into eternity. The Finnish engineer, Nordenberg, a former Army Officer, who tells the story, met Christ Himself that very hour as a result of this witness.

"Rescue the Perishing" was written on a hot July night in 1869. At a Mission, Fanny was addressing a large company of men, in one of the worst sections of New York City, The Bowery. During the service she felt impressed that some mother's boy must be rescued that night or not at all. She made the plea for salvation and a boy of eighteen came forward and exclaimed, "I promised to meet my mother in heaven but as I now am living, that will be impossible." Fanny prayed with this precious soul and he was joyously converted. He rose from his knees, with a new light in his eyes, and said, "Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for I have found her God!" A friend remarked, "Isn't it wonderful what these rescue missions are doing?" While riding between the Bowery and Brooklyn, in a hired horse-drawn hack, she started writing because she could not wait until she got home. In her room, she completed the lines of the hymn before retiring. The next morning, the words were copied and forwarded to her friend, Mr. Doane, who immediately composed the tune to which it has been sung ever since.

"Blessed Assurance" is her most famous hymn, according to a hymn poll taken some time back by "The Christian Herald." It placed twelfth in the poll. Of favorite hymns, "The Old Rugged Cross" was number one. One of Fanny's close friends, wife of the founder of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, was Mrs. Joseph Knapp. On one of her visits to the blind poetess, in 1873, she brought in a melody she had composed. Several times she played it on the piano for Fanny. Then she asked, "Fanny, what does that tune say to you?" Hesitating but for a moment, she replied, "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!" One of the greatest gospel songs of all time was born.

"To God be the Glory" was not really discovered until 1954, when it was introduced to Bev Shea in London. It was first sung by Shea and the Billy Graham Crusade Choir in Toronto in 1955. Since then, it has become a beloved hymn of the faith. Sankey did include it in his first hymnbook, published in England in 1873, but not in later subsequent editions published in America.

"All the Way My Saviour Leads Me" was written in 1874. Fanny needed five dollars one day and she just knelt down and told the Lord about it. Soon after, a stranger knocked at her door as he just wanted to meet her. As he left, he pressed a five dollar bill into her hand. Her first thought was what a wonderful way the Lord helps me. Immediately, she composed this song.

"Close to Thee" was written in 1874, also, as S. J. Vail brought one of his newly composed tunes to her, asking that she write words for it. As he played it for her on the piano, she suddenly exclaimed, "That chorus says, Close To Thee!" Immediately, she wrote the poem.

"Saved by Grace" was written in 1891. At age 71 she attended a prayer meeting at which Dr. Howard Crosby spoke. He talked on the 23rd Psalm using 'Grace' as his subject. That very same week, he died suddenly, and Fanny said to herself, "I wonder what my first impression of heaven will be?" A moment later, she suddenly answered her own question, "Why, my eyes will be opened and I will see my Saviour face to face." A few days later, her publisher-friend, L. H. Bigelow, asked her to write a hymn on 'Grace.' She wrote the four stanzas and chorus of "Saved by Grace" in less than an hour. This poem was put away in a safe. In 1894, while visiting friends in Sankey's home, in Northfield, Massachusetts, she was prevailed upon to speak. Concluding her talk, she read this poem that she had written three years earlier. A reporter, from "The London Christian," took her poem with him to England and published it. When Sankey found this out, he prevailed upon George Stebbins to compose some music for it.

Other hymns had interesting beginnings. "I Am Thine O Lord" was a result of an earnest conversation on the nearness of God, with Mr. Doane of Cincinnati; "Jesus Is Calling" was sent to Stebbins for music upon his return from an evangelistic tour in Scotland, in 1883; "Near the Cross" was the result of Doane stating, "I want a new song to sing tonight in the evangelistic service." "Saviour More Than Life To Me" came as a result of a tune which Doane sent Fanny requesting a song on the theme of Every Day and Hour.

The hymn-poems came...with many composers adding the music. One time Philip Phillips brought her forty subjects for hymns. He returned several days later and surprisingly, discovered that she had completed them all. She dictated all of them to him entirely from memory.

The years that saw her more famous songs first published were as follows: 1867—"More Like Jesus"; 1868 "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" (wrote); 1869—"Near the Cross," "Praise Him"; 1870—"Pass Me Not," "Rescue the Perishing"; 1871—"To the Work"; 1873—"Blessed Assurance," "To God Be the Glory"; 1874—"Close to Thee"; 1875—"I Am Thine O Lord," "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me," "Saviour More Than Life to Me"; 1876—"Tho Your Sins Be As Scarlet," "Will Jesus Find Us Watching"; 1880—"Tis The Blessed Hour of Prayer"; 1882—"Redeemer"; 1883—"Jesus Is Calling"; 1887—"He Is Coming," "Man of Sorrows" (Alice Monteith pseudonym) 1890—"He Hideth My Soul"; 1894—"Saved by Grace," "I Shall Know Him."

For a long period of time she was under contract to write three hymns a week for a New York publishing firm, Biglow & Main. They purchased 5,900 poems from her and in her declining years provided a regular allowance for her.

Her books of poems published were in addition to her 1st book of 1844 mentioned previously, "Monterey and Other Poems" (1849); "A Wreath of Columbia's Flowers" (1859); "Bells at Evening and Other Poems" (1898); and "Memories of Eighty Years" (1907).

Sankey did more than any other single individual to popularize and immortalize Fanny Crosby's songs. The great crowds, who thronged the Moody-Sankey revivals, sang her songs until they became part of the heritage of that generation.

At 90 she declared, "My love for the Holy Bible and its sacred truth is stronger and more precious to me at ninety than at nineteen." Asked about her long years, she said her secret was that she guarded her taste, her temper and her tongue. A famous saying through the years was, "Don't waste any sympathy on me. I am the happiest person living."

Fanny remained active until her death. At age 92, she enjoyed her first visit to Harvard. Her latter days were spent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a Mrs. Booth, who cared for her. Shortly before her death, she penned her last lines..."you will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye." On her last night, she dictated a letter of comfort to a sorrowing friend, whose daughter had recently died. At 3 the next morning, Mrs. Booth found Fanny unconscious. She slipped away to the loving Saviour just short of her 95th birthday.

Her funeral filled the church with friends. The choir sang her favorite song ..."Faith of Our Fathers"...then, her own..."Safe in the Arms of Jesus"...and, "Saved By Grace." Her minister, George M. Brown, of the Methodist church said it well:

There must have been a royal welcome when this queen of sacred song burst the bonds of death and passed into the glories of heaven.

At her funeral was read words from Eliza Edmunds Hewitt, the last verse of a poem freshly written which said:

Good-bye, dearest Fanny, goodbye for a while;
You walk in the shadows no more;
Around you, the sunbeams of glory will smile;
The Lamb is the light of that Shore!

You will find a casual quote on her grave in Bridgeport, Connecticut..."she hath done what she could!" Buried close by is P. T. Barnum, the Circus-tycoon, who laid up treasures on earth while Fanny's treasures were laid up in heaven.

From one of 49 booklets by Ed Reese in the Christian Hall of Fame series. Reese Publications, 7801 Ember Crest Trail, Knoxville, TN 37938.

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