Fanny Crosby: Her Song Goes On

It seems fitting to conclude my series of blog posts on American hymnology by focusing on one of America’s most well-beloved hymn writers, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Even though Crosby passed away over a century ago, she still speaks to us through timeless texts like “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Blessed Assurance,”  and “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.” Crosby is the first female hymn writer I have had the privilege to write about, and her life teaches us some important lessons.

     Everything Crosby did strikes me as productive. She lived to the age of 95. She collaborated with many of the well-known gospel writers of her day, men like William Bradbury, George Root, William Doane, Robert Lowry, Ira Sankey, John Swenney, Philip Phillips, and William Kirkpatrick, to name a few. It is estimated she wrote over 8,500 texts, thousands of which were published before her death. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her hymn texts with the prominent gospel hymn publishing company Biglow and Main (what is now Hope Publishing Company) and wrote with 200 different pen names. What makes this output all the more remarkable is the fact that, by her own testimony, Crosby did not become a true believer until the age of 30 and did not start writing hymns until the age of 44. Any accomplishments before that time—and she had many—she counted as small in comparison to her hymn-writing work.

     It is well-known that Crosby became blind at just six weeks of age due to mistreatment of an illness. When she was fifteen years old, she began attending the New York Institute for the Blind. There she became a grammar, rhetoric, and American history teacher, and remained in that position for 23 years. While at the Institute for the Blind, Crosby began writing texts in collaboration with the institute’s music teacher, George F. Root, and she enjoy considerable success in publishing verse. She had met many important figures such as U.S. Presidents Van Buren and Tyler.

     But in her own words, Fanny Crosby “found her career” when she started writing hymn texts (Blumhofer, 199). Crosby clearly loved writing hymn texts and did not allow her blindness to handicap her. She frequently worked out lyrics in her head, editing them internally, until she had opportunity to ask someone to write them down for her. She could then recite up to 7 different texts at a time, usually with a book in hand, though she did not use the book. She also had an unusual gift for composing texts on the spot.

William Bradbury published Fanny Crosby’s first gospel hymn in his 1864 gospel songbook, The Golden Censer. The above picture is taken directly from the original.

     Crosby’s remarkable life reminds us of the necessity of making the most of the time. Yet Crosby did not do this with an attitude of a suffering victim. Let’s face it—if there was anyone who could have played the victim card, it would have been Crosby. But her faith in God went beyond what she could see. She faithfully wrote hymn texts at a staggering rate and loved every minute of it. She displayed a humble, cooperative spirit in that she was able to collaborate with so many different personalities. From a human perspective, Fanny Crosby was dependent on others to produce her hymn texts; but the real secret to her success was her dependence on God. She bathed the whole hymn-writing process in prayer and faced considerable adversity with joy-filled faith.

     For those of us who know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we would do well to face our trials with this same kind of steadfast, joy-filled faith. We would do well to approach our labors with this same kind of eager willingness. Fanny Crosby reminds us what God can do with a meager five loaves and two fish. We simply need to trust him and do the work he has given us to do, in spite of adversity, until our laboring days are done.

Bibliography

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2005).

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