Home » February 12 — Fanny J. Crosby

February 12 — Fanny J. Crosby

Today’s Bible reading

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”  

Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:46-52

More thoughts for meditation about Fanny J. Crosby

Francis Jane Crosby wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination. She wrote so many that she was forced to use pen names lest the hymnals be filled with her name above all others. And, for most people, the most remarkable thing about her was that she had done so in spite of her blindness. What many don’t consider is that she also did it in spite of her lifelong struggle with depression and isolation.

“I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you,” remarked one well-meaning preacher. Fanny Crosby famously responded, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” Born in Putnam County, New York, Crosby became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and another man—pretending to be a certified doctor—prescribed a treatment that left her blind. A few months later, Crosby’s father died. Her mother was forced to find work as a maid to support the family.

Her love of poetry began early—her first verse, written at age 8, echoed her lifelong refusal to feel sorry for herself:

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, and I won’t!

She zealously memorized the Bible. Memorizing five chapters a week, even as a child she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many psalms chapter and verse.

Her mother’s hard work allowed her to attend the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind, which was her home for 23 years: 12 as a student, 11 as a teacher. She gave herself to poetry and was called upon to offer poems for various occasions. One principal considered her art vanity. But the prophecy of a traveling phrenologist, of all people, changed the school’s mind and re-ignited her passion: “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.”

That day came sooner than later. By age 23 Crosby was addressing Congress and making friendships with presidents. In fact, she knew all the chief executives of her lifetime, especially Grover Cleveland, who served as secretary for the Institute for the Blind before his election. After graduation from the NYIB in 1843, Crosby joined a group of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. arguing for support of education for the blind. She was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read a poem there. She appeared before the joint houses of Congress and recited these lines:

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 1844, when she was 24, she published a collection of poetry titled The Blind Girl and Other Poems (a bestseller which is still in print).  She was inspired to write it when she was speaking about the value of placing blind children in an institution like the one in which she grew up.

The tears, warm gushing on her cheek,
Told what no language e’er could speak;
While their young hearts were light and gay,
Her hours passed heavily away –
A mental night was o’er her thrown;
She sat dejected, and alone….
Alas! How bitter is my lot
Without a friend – without a home—
Alone – unpitied and forgot –
A sightless orphan, now I roam….

But He who marks the sparrow’s fall
Will hear the helpless orphan’s call.
My mother bid me trust his care,
He will not leave me to despair.”…
How changed that sightless orphan now:
No longer clouded is her brow..
If o’er the past her memory stray,
Then music’s sweet and charming lay,
Drives each dark vision from her breast
And lulls each heaving sigh to rest.

In the poem, we can hear the battle she will wage the rest of her life with depression. She seems to be dealing with her automatic thoughts with poetry, music and positivity.

Another member of the institute, former pupil Alexander van Alstine, married Crosby in 1858. Considered one of New York’s best organists, he wrote the music for many of Crosby’s hymns. Crosby herself put music to only a few of poems, though she played harp, piano, guitar, and other instruments. More often, musicians came to her for lyrics. For example, one day musician William Doane dropped by her home for a surprise visit, begging her to put some words to a tune he had recently written and which he was to perform at an upcoming Sunday School convention. The only problem was that his train to the convention was leaving in 35 minutes. He sat at the piano and played the tune. “Your music says, ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus,'” Crosby said, scribbling out the hymn’s words immediately. “Read it on the train and hurry. You don’t want to be late!” The hymn became one of Crosby’s most famous.

Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day (for a dollar or two each), many became incredibly popular. Crosby became known as the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers” and as the “Mother of modern congregational singing in America.” Ira Sankey attributed the success of the Moody and Sankey evangelical campaigns largely to Crosby’s hymns. They are still sung by all sorts of Christians all over the world as this sampling demonstrates: Blessed Assurance, All the Way My Savior Leads Me, To God Be the Glory, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, Rescue the Perishing,  Praise Him! Praise Him!, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross, He Hideth My Soul

At the end of her life, Fanny’s concept of her vocation was not that of a celebrated gospel songwriter, but that of a city mission worker. In 1880, aged 60, Crosby made a new commitment to Christ to devote the rest of her life to serve the poor. She lived in a dismal flat near one of the worst slums in Manhattan until about 1884. In an interview published in  1908 Crosby said her chief occupation was working in missions. She was aware of the great needs of immigrants and the urban poor, and was passionate to help those around her through urban rescue missions and other compassionate ministry organizations.  This was a flowering of her conviction, not something new. She said, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” Throughout her life, she was described as having “a horror of wealth,” never set prices for her speaking engagements, often refused honoraria, and “what little she did accept she gave away almost as soon as she got it”.

She could write very complex hymns and compose music with a more classical structure (she could even improvise it), but she preferred to write simple, sentimental verses that could be used for evangelism. She continued to write her poetry up to her death, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye,” was her last stanza.

Want more?

45-minute bio

A three-minute version from the Methodists:

Suggestions for action

Some people today look back on Fanny J. Crosby from a perspective of “psychotherapeutic holiness.” Their questions have merit, since many Christians deal with their depression with can-do religion, through spiritual bypass and by following examples like Fanny J. Crosby. But casting blanket aspersions might not be fair. Fanny had a genius about her, or a revelation that allowed her to pull health-giving decisions out of the air. Maybe, in her case, depression was just what she needed to perfect trust in God. At least that’s what she thought.

Your genius might present some problems for you, too.  What is your best route to giving your gifts without denying the suffering that might diminish them or just might refine them? Maybe you should write a poem about that and find a musician to make it a hymn.

 

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