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Frances J. Crosby: Reminiscences

by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945)

Fanny CrosbyThere is no character in the history of American Sunday School and evangelistic hymns so outstanding as that of Fanny Crosby, and it is quite as true that more of her hymns than of any other writer of the nineteenth century have found an abiding place in the hearts of Christians, the world over. So evident is this that there is a fragrance about her very name that no other has.

Miss Crosby was born in New York, in Putnam County, March 24, 1820, and when but six weeks of age lost her sight through improper treatment, which rendered her blind for the remainder of her life.

At the age of 15 she was placed in the New York Institute for the Blind, where she was educated, and became a member of the faculty, having assigned to her the teaching of history and rhetoric.

During the years she was thus engaged, she had the opportunity of meeting some of the famous men in American history; among whom were Presidents Van Buren, Tyler and Cleveland, the latter being connected with the institution.

Fanny Crosby's talent for poetic expression was early manifested and early recognized by Mr. Bradbury, Dr. Root and Drs. Lowry and Doane, as well as others among the musicians of those years, all of whom took advantage of it in the beginning of their careers as composers. She was four years younger than Mr. Bradbury and born in the same year as Dr. Root, hence was contemporary with the early writers of Sunday School music, for whom she wrote extensively.

She also wrote verses for a number of Dr. Root's popular secular songs and cantatas; but her first hymn was written for Mr. Bradbury, of which the first two lines are as follows:

"We are going, we are going
To a land beyond the tide."

This was followed by many others, but her first hymn to attain universal favor was, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," already referred to. Of this beautiful hymn, Dr. John Hall, long famous as pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City, once said at a great Sunday School convention, "It gives more comfort and satisfaction to mothers who have lost children than any other hymn I have ever known."

In the years that intervened between then and the close of her remarkable career she wrote over eight thousand hymns, according to Hubert P. Main, who kept a record of them, many of which have long been favorites the world around and have been translated into many languages.

A few only, besides those already mentioned, may be noted: "The Bright Forever," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,' "I Am Thine, O Lord," "Hold Thou My Hand," "Jesus Is Calling," "Blessed Assurance," "Nearer the Cross," 'Savior, More Than Life to Me," "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," and "Saved by Grace."

A very touching incident occurred while the last named was being sung at the anniversary of Fanny's 93rd birthday in Bridgeport, Conn., where she spent the later years of her life.

A few months previous to this she was a guest in my home in Brooklyn, and while there met and heard a very delightful young lady friend sing, who, like herself, had been blind from childhood, Wishing to have us both present to aid in the celebration of her birthday, she wrote asking that I come and take part in the service and bring the blind singer with me. I did so, and when we arrived there found it was arranged that after the opening service, which was held in the Methodist church of which Fanny was a member, I should take charge, relate the history of some of her hymns, and have the blind friend sing.

Fanny made a ten-minute address in a voice that could be heard by all, frail though she was, that touched the hearts of her friends. The singing, personality, and beautiful voice of the blind girl also made a deep impression.

The service increased in interest until the last number was reached, which was "Saved by Grace." This had been reserved for the close, with the intention of having the congregation join in the singing of it. The history of the hymn, as well as some incidents of interest connected with it, were related, and the congregation invited to join in the chorus, as the verses were to be sung. Fanny was seated behind the blind singer on the pulpit platform, and when the last verse was about to be sung, she stepped to the singer's side and put an arm about her as she sang—

"Some day; till then I'll watch and wait
  My lamp all trimmed and burning bright,
That when my Savior ope's the gate,
  My soul to Him may take its flight."

It was a tense moment and a scene never to be forgotten, to see the two blind singers standing side by side, the one beautiful and fair in her youth, and the other beautiful, though bent under the weight of many years, whose feet were already on the portals of the door through which she would soon enter into the presence of Him whom she had so long sung.

Mention has been made in the sketch of Dr. Doane of the circumstances of her writing for him "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," which, with the incident (which follows) of her composing a hymn at my request, will serve to illustrate how responsive she was, and how ever ready her talent to be at the service of others.

For a good many years she lived in Brooklyn where she was available for help in work upon hymns. I had occasion to call on Mr. Sankey one day at his home in Brooklyn and found her there. I said to her: "Fanny, I have a subject for a hymn, and I would like you to write some verses for me." "Good," she said; "what is it?" "Eye Hath Not Seen, Ear Hath Not Heard," I said. 'Good!' she again exclaimed. I then told her that it had occurred to me that the verse of Scripture I had quoted to her would make a good chorus, and indeed I had already some music for it in mind, and I would be glad if she would give me some verses suitable for it.

As she never composed without a small book or Testament, held open before her eyes, she was given one and retired to an adjoining room. Returning in a short time, she repeated to me the first verse that came to her, which reads—

"They tell me of a land so fair,
  Unseen by mortal eyes,
Where spring in fadeless beauty blooms,
  Beneath unclouded skies."

"Splendid, Fanny," I said; "give me some more like it." She retired again and soon returned with the second beautiful verse—

"They tell me of a land so fair,
Where all is light and song,
Where angel choirs their anthems join
With yonder blood-washed throng."

I repeated my exclamation and asked for more, when she again retired and soon came back with a still more beautiful verse—

"No radiant beams from sun or moon
  Adorn that land so fair,
For He Who sits upon the throne
  Shines forth resplendent there."

Then came the last verse so expressive of her joyous and ever hopeful nature—

"O land of light and love and joy,
Where comes no night of care,
What will our song of triumph be
When we shall enter there!"

While her hymn never attained "popular favor," so-called, it has been very much used and has been a blessing to many.

I may say in passing that this hymn was the last I had the privilege, with Mrs. Stebbins joining me, to sing for Mr. Moody at the last service he held in Northfield, shortly before he began what proved to be his last series of meetings, in Kansas

There was probably no writer in her day who appealed more to the varied experiences of the Christian life or who expressed more sympathetically the deep longings of the human heart than Fanny Crosby. She had been tried in the furnace
of affliction and knew by long experience how to interpret the heart's desires. She possessed, to a marked degree, a joyous as well as a sympathetic nature, which made her kin to youth to the very end of life; no one could laugh more heartily or weep more sincerely, so responsive was she to every experience in life. These traits can be read between the lines of many of her hymns; for unquestioning faith in God's love and His Word, deep spirituality and abounding hope pervaded all her writings.

Hence, the passing of this blind singer was but stepping from the darkened room in which she dwelt into the unshaded glory of the upper world—where her heart had long been.

Fanny Crosby died at her home in Bridgeport, February 12, 1915, and it was my privilege to attend the funeral services. A vast throng, too great by many hundreds to get into the church, came to pay the last tribute of respect and honor to one who had been such a blessing to the great host of the Lord's people in every land.

What must have been her surprise when her eyes, so long closed to the light of this fair world, suddenly opened to behold the face of Him whom she had loved with a joyous devotion all through the years of her long life and upon the faces of loved ones her eyes had never seen!

From George C. Stebbins: Reminiscences and Gospel Hymn Stories by Himself. New York: George H. Doran Company, ©1924.

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