The name of Fanny Crosby (Mrs. Frances Jane Van Alstyne) is bound up with the evangelism of the last half century. To hear her name is to think of gospel songs and to remember pleasantly the blind poet who wrote "Blessed Assurance," "Rescue the Perishing" and "Saved by Grace." Yet few, even of those who are especially interested in gospel hymnody, realize the extent of her work. Her chief publishers possess five thousand five hundred of her hymns; and inasmuch as she declares that she must have written at least half as many more, she has the astonishing number of eight thousand religious poems to her credit!
"'Hymns rarely have any serious value as poetry," said the late Professor Goldwin Smith. "There is nothing in them on which the creative imagination can be exercised. Hymns can be little more than the incense of a worshiping soul." Most critical readers will agree with Professor Smith; and if his dictum is true of the work of such great figures in Christian hymnody as Isaac Watts, James Montgomery and Charles Wesley, it applies with yet more truth to the prolific effusions of Miss Crosby. Great poetry her work is not. She is not sufficiently gifted to produce it on any theme, apart from the limitations of hymn-writing. A great facility in rhyming and expressing the emotions of the Christian heart in regular rhythm which can be set to music is hers in marked degree. More for herself than this, she does not claim. But hers is "the worshiping soul" and her hymns are "the incense" which she, and countless thousands of devout worshipers with her, offer to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fanny Crosby was born in the little village of Southeast, Putnam County, New York, [United States], on March 24, 1820. Six weeks later she lost her eyesight. Her eyes became, inflamed; Mr. Crosby called in a local physician who applied hot poultices, with the result that the baby's vision was destroyed. The popular indignation when this malpractice became known flamed so hot that the ill-educated doctor hurriedly left town for parts unknown. Fanny, herself, however, as she grew into girlhood, harbored no trace of resentment against him. She accepted her lot cheerfully, as a part of the will of God for her. Her natural buoyancy of disposition reinforced her Christian faith.
"Blindness," she wrote in later life, "can not keep the sunlight of hope from the trustful soul. One of the easiest resolves that I formed in my young and joyous heart was to leave all care to yesterday, and to believe that the morning would bring forth its own peculiar joy." A wise and fruitful resolve!
Much of this elasticity of nature was doubtless due to her splendid ancestry. Fanny Crosby was well born. She can trace the two lines of her ancestry back to the earliest New England stock. Her mother, who was also a Crosby, was descended from Simon Crosby who came to Boston in 1635 and was one of the founders of Harvard College, from which his son, Thomas, was graduated in 1653. Fanny's great grandfather, Isaac Crosby, was the father of nineteen children. One of them was born while he was serving in the Revolutionary Army; whereupon he asked for a furlough on the ground that he had many children at home and "hadn't ever seen one of them." The furlough was immediately granted. The records do not say whether, on his return to the army, he confessed in what sense his words were true. If he had the sensitive conscience of his descendant, he doubtless did.
Fanny Crosby came naturally therefore by a sense of humor and a playful spirit. She was full of fun, joined the other children in play, and was likely to be deep in any mischief that was going on. Taking the description of natural objects from her young companions, imagination made them as plain to her as sight did to them. She would leap over stone walls, play tag, climb trees with the agility of a cat, and ride the colts bareback across the fields. This vivid imagination was made possible by senses of hearing and touch unusually graphic. Sounds of nature, for instance, were always a "feast" to her.
When a very little girl, a lamb was given to her as a playmate. They soon became inseparable friends. The lamb grew, however, as lambs will, and family necessities were insistent then, as now, though "the high cost of living" was not thought of. One day the lamb was missing; the next, the dinner table supported a savory roast on which the attention of all was ravenously centered. Not so, the little girl; she put two and two together and refused to eat the cannibalistic meat or to receive comfort of her elders. In a day or two her tears were dried; but when a neighbor offered her another lamb for a pet, she refused it. The pain of losing outweighed the joy of possessing. The child had not grown to the wise philosophy:
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
For solace, Fanny turned to the rose garden which she had always loved. She was allowed to pick whatever roses she wanted except from a certain white rose bush "in the midst of the garden." She would probably never have yielded to temptation by herself; but when her companions asked her for a white rose, she picked one for them. Her aunt saw her do it; and later in the day, she called Fanny and asked her if she had picked a white rose. Promptly came the answer, "No," although the child had never told an untruth before. The aunt took down the Bible and read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, without note or comment. But Fanny learned her life-long lesson that day.
At this period of her life, she began to learn Bible verses. Thereby her memory, which throughout life has been remarkable, was trained, and the foundation laid for her knowledge of the Bible, which was of such inestimable advantage to her as a hymn-writer. When there were competitions in reciting Bible verses either at home or at school, she was always victor. Evening after evening at twilight, she would sit on a favorite big brown rock and drink in the sounds of birds, crickets and the near-by waterfall, imagining the hues of the sky and softly repeating to herself all the verses of the Bible that came to her well stocked mind. The scene is a prophecy of the Christian poet that she became.
Although the little girl herself, probably because she did not know the poignancy of contrast, did not fret because of her sightlessness, Mrs. Crosby could not endure the thought of her daughter's blindness, if a cure could be effected. So a journey was planned to New York City to consult the great specialist, Dr. Valentine Mott. It was an adventurous journey to reach the Hudson River; then a trip of several days in the sailboat, where the mother was seasick and little Frances played with the captain and the crew who sang songs and spun "yarns." A young man and his cow were fellow passengers on the boat, the former too full of whiskey and the latter of milk. The drunken owner refused to milk the cow; but the captain ordered it done while the man's attention was diverted, and Mrs. Crosby, now happily recovered from her seasickness, made a custard which all on board pronounced very good!
Thus, after a journey more fraught with incident and excitement than would now-a-days be crowded into a trip across the continent, they arrived in New York; and after a few days' rest, presented themselves to the renowned physician for his examination and verdict. "My child," he said, in tones memorable for their kindness, "you can never be made to see!" The loving mother was grief-stricken, but not so the child. Life had brought her much joy already; would not yet fuller joy come with the years? She could not but look forward with anticipation and courage. In that mood was born her first poem, written when she was eight years old:
Oh! what a happy soul I am!
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 nor I won't.
If the reader smiles at the expressions, he must admire at least the sentiment.
To gain an education now became her consuming ambition. Her father had died when she was less than a year old, and the family resources were meager. At the age of fifteen, she was admitted to the New York Institute for the Blind and a new chapter in her life was begun. She did all she could to show her appreciation of the opportunities of this school. Because of her flow of spirits and ready companionship she became a favorite among her blind companions. Her skill in versifying seemed remarkable to her mates who nearly succeeded in turning her head with their praise. A wise teacher, seeing this danger, called her to his office and gave her wholesome truth about her poetry and herself. "Fanny, shun a flatterer as you would a viper," he concluded.
Among the chief advantages in this school was the opportunity to meet distinguished people. Visitors from foreign lands and American notables paid visits to the Institute and were introduced to the students. William Cullen Bryant read his poems, Horace Greeley was a frequent visitor, President Polk made a pleasant impression, and Gen. Winfield Scott caused a great flurry of excitement. Miss Crosby particularly liked Henry Clay; his voice was so sonorous and persuasive. For a time, the superintendent had a young assistant whom teachers and pupils learned to admire for his ability and strong sincerity. His name was Grover Cleveland; and as they followed his brilliant career from step to step, no one of them was surprised that he should become the President of the United States.
Less pleasant to record was the breaking out of cholera in the Institute. The epidemic raged fiercely in the city, and the hoarse cry: "Bring out your dead!" sounded grimly in the night hours. Many of the blind caught the infection and died. Miss Crosby herself had the initial symptoms one afternoon. Bravely she kept the news to herself, took the medicine, practiced the precautions which had been enjoined, committed herself to God, — and woke in the morning to find herself perfectly well! Those were dreadful days and left their scar upon the memory of those who passed through them.
After seven years of student life, Miss Crosby was graduated from the Institute, to return to it afterwards as teacher for eleven years, from 1847 to 1858. In 1844, she launched her first volume of verse, under the title, The Blind Girl and Other Poems. Many of these poems were autobiographical. Others were the addresses in poetic form with which she had greeted famous visitors to the Institute. Monterey and Other Poems followed in 1849. On the year of her marriage, 1858, she published A Wreath of Columbia's Flowers.
The most significant occurrence in this period of her life was her conversion. Religious she had been from childhood up, but not until she was thirty-one years of age did she have that vital assurance of Christ's love and God's pardon that she called her conversion. One night in a vivid dream, a warm friend of hers, who seemed to be dying, asked her, "Will you meet me in heaven?" It did not matter to find, on waking, that the friend was in sound health. The question had set her to thinking deeply. Shortly after she and her companions were singing, "Alas! and did my Saviour bleed" and and as they came to the line, "Here, Lord, I give myself away," she definitely offered herself to God and a flood of light and joy ensued. She joined the Old John Street Methodist church. This experience became determinative of her inner life, of her lifework, and of the sentiment of her hymns.
Fanny Crosby was married to Mr. Alexander Van Alstyne in 1858. Like herself, he was blind and had been a teacher in the Institute for the Blind. He was musical, also, and their united lives made harmony for forty-four years, until his death in 1902. At his wish, she continued to write under her maiden name by which she was already becoming widely known.
At the time of her marriage, Fanny Crosby was well started on what proved to be her life-career, that of producing religious verse. In 1851, Mr. George F. Root, important in the development of music in America, wrote an air for which he needed words. She supplied them so acceptably that they collaborated in about sixty songs. All of these had a wide circulation and some became the most successful songs of the period. Among them were "There's music in the air," Hazel Dell, Rosalie, the Prairie Flower, and Bird of the North, all sweet, sentimental songs warmly beloved a generation ago and popular now.
Four years later The Flower Queen was produced by them jointly. One day Mr. Root would tell in prose what he wanted the various flowers to say and hum the melody he had in mind; the next day Miss Crosby would have those sentiments expressed in rhyme, to fit the given melody. The Flower Queen was the first American cantata and was frequently produced in widely separated parts of the country. It gave popularity both to author and composer. Mr. Root's fame was still further enhanced by his war songs and Sunday school music.
Another composer with whom she was early thrown in contact was William B. Bradbury. He was a prolific composer for the Sunday school, a devout man who believed in consecrating his talent to religious uses. Such tunes as Woodworth ("Just as I am"), Rest ("Asleep in Jesus")...and "He leadeth me" are a worthy contribution to American hymnology and will preserve his name for many generations. Others like "Jesus, like a Shepherd lead us," "Even me," "The Solid Rock," were immensely popular in their day. Bradbury was a connecting link between the choral style of Greatorex and Lowell Mason on the one hand and the ballad style in sacred music which so soon became popular under the name of gospel songs.
When Mr. Bradbury was introduced to Miss Crosby, he was deeply impressed with her work. "I am surprised beyond measure," he said, "and as long as I have a publishing house, you will always have work." He had long desired such words as Miss Crosby could write. This promise was fulfilled, and her connection with the firm ran for more than forty years. Mr. Bradbury himself, however, did not long survive. When he died, in 1868, his last words to her were, "Take up my life-work where I lay it down." At his funeral there was sung the first hymn they had done together, speeding his spirit to the land—
Where the fields are robed in beauty
And the sunlight never dies.
Though their joint work was so short, she became warmly attached to Mr. Bradbury; and thirty years after his death she said to a name-sake of his: "Of all my friends, I loved him the best. When I get to heaven I am going to ask first for William B. Bradbury."
In these early years, she worked much for Philip Phillips, the singing evangelist, whose songs were collected in The Singing Pilgrim. At one time he gave her a commission for forty hymns. These she did one by one, storing them all in her mind till all the forty were ready; not until then was the amanuensis called in. Not one of them was put on paper until all were done. As a feat of memory, that is truly remarkable, almost incredible. Later she repeated the feat, furnishing him with nearly as many more not one of which was committed to writing until all were finished.
Another of her collaborators was the Reverend Robert Lowry; to his music she wrote one of her most inspired hymns— "All the Way my Saviour leads me." The spirit of trustfulness and joyous resignation in the poem, is aptly conveyed by the music as well.
With Mrs. E. L. Knapp, she has twice collaborated most successfully. "Nearer the Cross, my Heart can say" and the world-famous "Blessed Assurance" are their joint work. The latter was written after Mrs. Knapp had played the melody over several times, asking what it "meant" to Miss Crosby. "It means this!" was the answer; and thus the spirit of the music was caught and put into language. "Blessed Assurance" has been particularly welcome in camp and on the march, although all of Miss Crosby's songs, with their warm sentiment and well-marked rhythm, have been very helpful among soldiers—and sailors, as well. The Soldier's Christian Association of the British Army has made constant use of them. During the South African war, many times when a group of soldiers would pass another, the salutation would be "Four-nine-four, boys," and the response would invariably be, "Six further on! The key to these watchwords is found in the fact that number 494 in Sacred Songs and Solos is "God be with you till we meet again"; and "six further on" is number 500, "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine."
Much work as compelling as that done with Mrs. Knapp, Miss Crosby accomplished in collaboration with William H. Doane. To mention such lines as "Pass me not, O Gentle Saviour," "Rescue the Perishing," "I am Thine, O Lord," "Jesus Keep me near the Cross," "To the Work, to the Work," and "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," is to realize the extent of the popular debt to both of these partners. The composition of the last named hymn is characteristic of Miss Crosby's readiness of achievement. Mr. Doane burst into her room on April 30, 1868, and said, "There are just forty minutes before my train leaves for Cincinnati. Here is a melody. Can you write words for it?" Twenty minutes passed in silence broken only by the ticking of the clock, Mr. Doane waiting, Miss Crosby thinking. Then she turned round to him. "It is all done," she said, and dictated her verses. He caught his train, bearing with him words that were destined to bring comfort to thousands of people.
"Safe in the Arms of Jesus" became popular with great rapidity. That this hymn gave more peace and satisfaction to mothers who had lost their children than any other was the statement made by Dr. John Hall, the pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian church, New York. It has also been useful in causing repentance and a change of life. This incident, reported to Miss Crosby, is typical: "John," said a dying mother, looking up at him through tearful eyes, "sing to me once more 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus."' The young man choked. "Mother," he said, "I can't sing that song. It would be a lie; I am not safe and I can not sing a lie." It is not surprising to know that that confession of his need led him to Christ.
This was one of the first of the gospel hymns to be transcribed into foreign languages. "Once when laboring in London, I went to Basel, Switzerland, for a few days' rest," said Mr. Ira D. Sankey. "The evening I got there I heard under my window the most beautiful volume of song. I looked out and saw about fifty people, who were singing 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus' in their own language. I recognized the tune and spoke to them through an interpreter. The next evening I held a song service in an old French church in that city. The church was packed with people and many stood outside on the street."
Mr. Sankey figures in another typical incident. In 1894, when Miss Crosby was at Northfield, she was asked to make an address. At first she demurred, but finally consented and closed her remarks with the verses, "Some day the silver cord will break." The audience was much moved; and an English reporter who was present took down her hymn and published it in his London newspaper. Some time later, Mr. Sankey, who himself has successfully set some of her poems to music, saw the paper, cut out the verses and handed them to Mr. George C. Stebbins to be set to music. The inspiration came; and soon the world was singing, "Saved by Grace." A dramatic illustration of the effect of this hymn once surprised the staid worshipers of Christ Episcopal Church, Allegheny, Pennsylvania. In the midst of a Sunday morning service, a quietly dressed young woman of intellectual face arose and proceeded rapidly and eloquently to tell of her conversion. As a little girl, she had attended Sunday school there; had married young and been drawn into a life of vanity, frivolity and worldliness; and had been brought back to God by hearing "Saved by Grace" sung at an out-door meeting. The congregation, at first a bit shocked, was visibly impressed with this narration; and the rector, descending from the chancel, took the speaker's hand, welcoming her return.
Very different from the religious atmosphere of Northfield were the surroundings which gave rise to another of Miss Crosby's great hymns. When Miss Crosby was visiting a mission in one of the worst slums of New York, her sympathies were kindled and the yearning of her heart found expression in "Rescue the Perishing"—a hymn which has become indispensable in rescue work of all sorts. Not only did Mr. Moody find it useful, but also temperance workers like Frances E. Willard and Francis Murphy. A drunken man, unshaven and dirty, staggered into this very mission one stormy night. After the audience had sung "Rescue the Perishing," the leader used illustrations drawn from his life as a soldier. At the meeting's close, this man walked unsteadily up to the front and asked:
"When were you in that company you spoke of?"
"Why, all through the war," said the leader.
"Do you remember the battle of Shiloh?"
"Do you remember your captain's name?"
"Yes, his name was Hamilton."
"You are right! I am that man! I was your captain. Look at me to-day and see what a wreck I am. Can you save your old captain?
He was saved that night and was soon helped by some of his former friends to get a respectable position, where his changed life bore eloquent testimony to the power of the gospel.
Of another sort was a man in Sussex, England, who owes equally much to this hymn. "I believe I can attribute my conversion, through the grace of God, to one verse of that precious hymn, 'Rescue the Perishing,'" he says. "I was far away from my Saviour and living without a Christian hope. I was fond, however, of singing hymns, and one day I came across this beautiful piece; and when I had sung the words,
Down in the human heart, crushed by the Tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more,
I fell upon my knees and gave my heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. From that hour I have followed Him who, through this verse, touched my heart and made it vibrate with His praises ever since."
Can work done so rapidly as was Miss Crosby's, and turned out in such profusion be of the highest quality? Undoubtedly not. Most of Fanny Crosby's work is ephemeral. Much of it has already passed into oblivion and much of the remainder will pass away sooner or later. The church hymn-books designed for formal public worship do not contain her verses. She recognized the fact that so large an output would lower the value of her name; and her eight thousand hymns have appeared under a hundred or so different pseudonyms! If the reader comes across the names of Rose Atherton, Florence Booth, Ella Dale, Frances Hope, Ruth Harmon, Victoria Frances, let him pay mental homage to Fanny Crosby; and he will be surprised to learn that the same homage is due when he sees the names of James Apple, James Black, Rian J. Sterling, W. Robert Lindsay, and others. Her achievement, be it noted in passing, is all the greater because she made such a valuable contribution to religious progress with hymns many of which were not of the highest merit.
So large is the progeny of her brain that it is little cause for wonder that the mother can not remember all her children. One morning the congregation at Northfield sang with much gusto, "Hide me, O my Saviour." Miss Crosby, who was sitting on the platform, liked it and turned to Mr. Stebbins to inquire the authorship. But the meeting was breaking up and in the confusion he made no answer. The same hymn was sung in the afternoon and again she asked Mr. Stebbins the author's name. After making sure that she was in earnest, he answered, "You are the guilty one!" For once, the wonderful memory had failed.
The theology of all these hymns is uniformly evangelical. Their author believes humanity to be sinful and in need of salvation; and she magnifies the love of God, the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. The beauty of faith and of peace is painted in alluring tints and the glories of heaven described in glowing imagery drawn from Revelation. Every one of her hymns gives one aspect of the ever-fresh gospel. The central truth of her message in song is, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Thus her songs form an appropriate atmosphere for evangelistic preaching: they produce conviction of sin and conversion. Of their far-reaching influence, only eternity can give the details.
Fanny Crosby has "tasted and seen that the Lord is good" and desires others to enjoy the same bountiful feast. Shut in from the distracting sights of the outer world, she has seen deeply into eternal truth and has put that truth into verse that has influenced countless thousands of lives. Over fifty million copies of her gospel songs have been sold. During the last years of her life, Frances Ridley Havergal kept up a correspondence with Fanny Crosby, though they never met.
In these lines of Miss Havergal is admiration of Miss Crosby for her spiritual insight, her resignation and her consecration:
Sweet blind singer over the sea,
How can she sing in the dark like this?
Her heart can see, her heart can see!
Dear blind sister over the sea!
Sister! what will our meeting be,
From Heroines of Modern Religion edited by Warren Dunham Foster. New York: Sturgis & Walton Co., 1913.
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