Fanny J. Crosby (1820 – 1915)
Born: Putnam County, New York
Role: hymn-writer; evangelist; mercy missions activist
Emphases: closeness to Christ; mercy of Christ; blood of Christ; heaven/beatific vision
Protested against: slavery; intemperance;
Most of this profile is adapted from a biographical sermon on Crosby’s life, as it related to Psalm 71. As a result, it is longer and more detailed than most of the other installments in this series.
Frances Jane Crosby or “Fanny” as she was known, was born in 1820, in New York State, America. At six weeks old, she was permanently and completely blinded by a botched medical procedure to treat an infection in her eyes. Before her first birthday, she also lost her father who succumbed to an illness.
Her mother and grandmother, raised her well – going to great lengths to vividly describe the visual world, so that Fanny could picture in her mind what she could not see with her eyes. She was well instructed in poetry and the Bible. In fact she’s said to have memorised the first five books of the Bible, all four Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Songs and most of the Psalms.
Importantly, she didn’t let her blindness make her bitter or dejected, or hold her back in life. At age eight, she wrote her first poem, expressing her attitude towards blindness and life itself:
Oh, what a happy child 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
So weep or sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot, nor I won’t.
This content attitude didn’t mean Fanny lacked aspirations in life. Her eager prayers for an education were answered when she was enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind, where she earned a reputation as the resident-poetess and worked hard to become a teacher there after her studies. She often read poetry to important people, including Presidents, when they visited the Institute and in 1844 she became the first poet to address the U.S. Congress and arguably the first woman to speak to Congress.
These things make Fanny a remarkable and noteworthy woman – but not really a hero. We get an early glimpse of her heroic potential when cholera swept through New York and several of her students at the Blind Institute were affected. Fanny worked diligently to prepare medicines and risked her life nursing sick pupils and volunteering at the local hospital. She herself had a brush with death, when she began to display early symptoms of the disease.
In God’s kindness she survived, but this event dramatically changed her life. Fanny was challenged by the question – if she had died from cholera – would she have been ready to come before God? She’d had a belief in God her whole life – but she was troubled by the thought that she might not have truly lived for Him and she was unsure of her spiritual state. She needed peace – a Blessed Assurance as her famous hymn would later describe it.
One night as she prayed at a local church service during the hymn “Alas and did my Saviour Bleed?” the line “Here Lord I give myself away” resonated deeply with her spiritually and she had something of an epiphany. In her words: “I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.”
She experienced the conversion or spiritual awakening that she needed, to know she had peace with God. The trajectory of her life was altered, as she sought to live to the glory & praise of her God & Saviour.
Fanny was easily the most prolific hymnist in Christian history. Her life was so devoted to praising God and encouraging others to do so that she wrote anywhere between 6000 and 12000 hymns during her lifetime.
A theme in many of her hymns was Fanny’s yearning for heaven and coming to see Jesus. The connection between her heavenly hope and earthly blindness is beautifully expressed in her comment to a man who remarked it was a pity God had not granted her physical sight.
“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 Saviour”
God also used Fanny’s praises to Him, to transform the lives of others. Her friend Ira Sankey recalls how a young man testified that he became a Christian upon hearing her hymn “Pass me not O Gentle Saviour,” as it resounded from a nearby chapel. He was deeply troubled by the thought of Jesus passing him by and cried out “O Lord, do not pass me by!” The young man confessed that Jesus indeed did not pass him by that day and he was saved.
Another powerful story is that during the Finnish Civil War, seven soldiers had been captured and were sentenced to execution. One of them not long before the execution began singing “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” He had learned it only three weeks earlier from the Salvation Army. Pondering his imminent death had led him to come to the Saviour he had been told of from a young age, but up to then rejected. His co-condemned comrades were all executed after singing the hymn together. One of their captors was so touched by the comfort and peace these men had in facing death that he himself was personally challenged to come to Jesus for salvation.
Fanny Crosby is not a heroic Christian example simply because she lived an inspirational life of great achievements and wrote more hymns than anyone before or since. She’s exemplary because she used her talents, her profile, her connections, her life to reach people for Jesus. And she was active in these endeavours well into her nineties.
Even in her old age, Fanny yearned to tell others of God’s saving power and righteous help and to proclaim His greatness to the next generation. She worked with one of the greatest evangelists of her time, D.L. Moody and his music team to produce songs that could complement the preaching of the gospel. This legacy continued well past the Moody era, with her hymns later accompanying many Billy Graham crusades and other evangelistic meetings.
But it didn’t stop there. Fanny spoke evangelistically at countless meetings and personally encouraged many people to come to Christ for salvation. She became heavily involved with America’s first urban rescue missions – set up in New York and elsewhere to provide aid and the hope of Jesus to the homeless, destitute and impoverished people of the inner-city. She was known as “Aunty Fanny” to many of these men, women and children to whom she gave so much of her time, money and love, while also sharing with them the greatest thing she had – access to a loving Father through the good news of Jesus Christ.
Fanny had moved to a rough part of the city when she was sixty and was still speaking and seeking the lost when she reached her nineties. It’s been reported that her goal was to reach one million people for Christ. Her dedication to this work is well reflected in what I regard as one of her greatest songs “Rescue the Perishing, care for the dying. Snatch them in pity from sin & the grave. Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen. Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
When Fanny Crosby died at almost 95, she had praised God many days and touched lives in many ways. She praised Him with music and song from a redeemed soul and she spoke and sang to innumerable people of the righteous help God had given her and would give to any who came to Him in faith. God’s work of salvation was the subject of her praise and God’s work of salvation was what she longed to see in the lives of others.
If you use the music streaming service Spotify, you can listen to some of Fanny J. Crosby’s best known hymns, including Blessed Assurance, To God be the Glory, Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour and Rescue the Perishing here.