Throughout the early nineteenth century, faith played a central role in the lives of most American citizens. Men and women relied on the Bible to direct them, and even as the country divided into North and South, their common religion provided the framework for ensuring the ties were not completely torn asunder. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to this unifying theme of American life by observing, “both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Faith allowed many Americans, Lincoln included, to overcome the war’s tribulations. In the war’s aftermath, a new generation of American Christian leaders rose up to heal the country’s wounds, inspire their countrymen, and restore their faith. Among them was a New York woman who refused to be discouraged or angry at the poor hand life had dealt her. Instead, she used the opportunity to remind her countrymen to take advantage of God’s gifts to them. Her name was Fanny Crosby. This is the story of how she became one of America’s greatest gospel songwriters.
Despite suffering a crippling blow as an infant, Fanny Crosby determined to overcome her circumstances. She was born in Putnam County, New York in March 1820 to a family descended from Massachusetts Bay Puritans, but her parents’ joy was soon marred by tragedy. After she developed an eye infection, a local doctor responded by placing hot poultices on her inflamed eyes, which did heal the infection but burned the corneas and left scars behind. A trip to New York City when she was five-years-old confirmed that, except for slight light perception, Fanny was permanently blind. The little girl was unwilling to accept her condition, however, and she set about creating her own world. Walking the homestead, she asked her grandmother to describe the sights around her. Fanny visualized multicolored birds flocking across the sky and dazzling flowers covering the hillsides. Shortly thereafter, Fanny moved to the small community of North Salem where she became a tomboy by climbing trees and riding horses bareback. She even convinced other children to join in her antics, and it was not long before she was known as the children’s ringleader. Despite her independent nature, however, Fanny still questioned why she was blind, but her grandmother told her that God had a plan for her and would guide her path.
As she continued to grow, Fanny relied on her grandmother to instruct her in daily life. The older woman enthusiastically led Fanny to overcome living in literal darkness, but she was even more determined to lead the young girl out of spiritual darkness. Fanny later remembered some of the earliest talks the two had were of a theological nature. Her grandmother impressed on her the conviction that all of nature manifested God’s glory, and God loved everything and everyone living on earth. Fanny, therefore, should not be afraid of approaching Him with her requests — no matter how big or small they might be. Her grandmother also encouraged Fanny to memorize large portions of the Bible, a feat that allowed her to draw upon the Scriptures later in life. At age nine she and her mother settled in Ridgefield, Connecticut and attended worship services at the local Methodist Church. On Sunday mornings she used her high soprano voice to praise God through the rich songs composed by Methodist Charles Wesley. She also began to write and publish poems while at New York’s Institution for the Blind. Although many were secular, some held a profound spiritual message, like “Samson With the Philistines.” Still, Fanny had not yet made a personal choice to commit her life to Jesus Christ.
That all changed in the summer of 1849. A cholera outbreak ravaged the entire country, including New York City, but Fanny remained at the school to help nurse several students. She worked with the doctor to create “cholera pills” by combining calomel and opium. Nursing took its toll, however, and she was forced to leave for Brooklyn for a brief rest. Upon arrival, Fanny became convinced she was infected and took a dosing of the pills. Fortunately, her symptoms were gone the next morning, but the experience chilled her nevertheless. She was forced to fully confront her mortality and question where she would spend eternity when she died. Returning to Manhattan, she joined the Methodist Broadway Tabernacle, but after praying on two different occasions, she continued to feel unchanged. On November 20, 1850 she knelt in prayer at the altar for a third time, but almost immediately she knew this time was different. Her “very soul was flooded with celestial light,” and she was convicted with the realization she had been trying to please both God and herself simultaneously. Now she only wanted to please God. She had finally experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” and her life would never be the same.
In the years following her rebirth, Fanny sought God’s purpose for her. She joined in the revivals sweeping the nation and celebrated as thousands professed faith in Jesus Christ. As she became more involved, however, she became part of the dispute arising between new believers and old-fashioned ministers. Led by Lowell Mason, the ministers rejected the new emphasis on personal faith in favor of traditional warnings of eternal punishment for sin. They also opposed popular songs like “Rock of Ages” and “Shall We Gather at the River.” Seeing an opportunity, Fanny yearned to lend her own contributions to this spiritual revolution. Her chance came when Reverend Peter Stryker asked her to write a New Year’s Eve hymn. Stryker was so impressed he introduced Fanny to William Bradbury, one of America’s most acclaimed hymn writers in early February 1864. Within three days, Fanny provided him with her first composition, “Our Bright Home Above,” which Bradbury published in his new hymnal. The two worked closely together until Bradbury’s death in January 1868 of tuberculosis. Fanny was devastated by the loss, but she determined to carry on in his place.
Soon after Bradbury’s death, God brought another talented composer into Fanny’s life — William H. Doane. She developed an affinity for his simple, marchlike tunes and determined to work solely with him. In spring 1868 Doane asked her to write a song called “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” telling of people’s desire for God to hear them. Fanny was uninspired until she visited a local prison and heard the agonized cry of an inmate. Within days she had not only penned lyrics, but she also led the first performance of the song at the same prison. Prisoners were so convicted by the words that many knelt in prayer and asked God to save them. Fanny herself was so overcome she fainted. She returned home and petitioned God for the opportunity to perform such a ministry again. God answered her by sending Doane back with a tune, which reminded her of how one could find comfort in God’s embrace. Telling Doane not to leave, she rushed to her room and scratched out words for “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” one of her favorites. She also provided lyrics for “Rescue the Perishing,” a song designed to minister to those who had strayed from the faith. As thousands of voices sung her words, Fanny’s reputation spread far beyond her New York neighborhood.
Throughout the 1870s, Fanny Crosby’s talent as a hymn writer swept the entire country, and even the entire world. “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” became so popular in Great Britain Fanny was venerated by royalty and commoners alike. She spoke at meetings across America and became an engaging evangelist as she charged lukewarm believers to rededicate themselves to Christ and led others to repentance for the first time. Each of her songs were aimed at leading others to salvation. She prayed the Lord would bless the effort before putting pen to paper. She ultimately composed nearly 6,000 hymns for her publishers at Biglow and Main in New York — of which, 2,000 were published. She became the “Queen of Hymn Writers.” Even Dwight L. Moody, one of America’s preeminent evangelists, praised Fanny’s work and used hymns like “Blessed Assurance” and “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” in his revival services. Demand for her songs continued to grow, from secular circles as well as ministers. To appease her admirers, she worked with George Coles Stebbins to produce “Jesus Is Calling,” and along with William Kirkpatrick, she wrote “He Hideth My Soul in the Cleft of the Rock.” She further contributed hymns like “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It” to collections written by Kirkpatrick and John Sweney. Her faith in the Lord reverberated throughout each song, and there were countless stories of men and women turning their lives around after hearing one. As the decade ended, however, it was clear the heyday of Fanny’s career was over.
Although her greatest successes were behind her, Fanny determined to serve the Lord any way she could. She ministered to the residents of the New York Bowery slums surrounding her home and lectured on behalf of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). She continued to write, but as the quality diminished, she traversed the countryside preaching to those in need. In 1890 Fanny turned seventy-years-old but still showed no signs of slowing down. She remained active with her missions work, and in 1897 she travelled to upstate New York to speak at a local rescue mission. As happened all over the U.S., crowds flocked to see the woman responsible for penning so many Christian anthems. Her demanding schedule finally caught up with her, however, when she collapsed from bronchial pneumonia shortly after her eightieth birthday, and she had to live with her sisters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Unable to keep still, she immediately joined the town’s Christian Union and spoke at dozens of meetings; once she regained her health, she resumed travelling and giving evangelical messages across the region. She was so beloved that Christian leaders decided to honor her on the Sunday after she turned eighty-five. She retired from public life not long after but continued to host friends and guests at her home. In February 1915 the “Queen of Hymn Writers” went to her heavenly reward — her work on earth finished at last.
Fanny Crosby’s life vividly showed what God can accomplish through a willing follower. Fanny could have turned against God after her experiences as a child, but instead, she dedicated her life to His service. She gave Him glory in all things and sought to draw others to Him by her example. God answered her heart’s desire by granting her the gift for words and allowing her to testify to His name through powerful lyrics. Her hymns served as a unifying balm to a country so divided during her lifetime. She proved a blessing to her fellow Christians and helped transform worship for future generations. Fanny Crosby may rightly be called the mother of Gospel music.
2 responses to “Redeemed, How She Loved to Proclaim It”
wow- great story Jake MAN! Thank you! 🙂
What a great story Jake! Fanny Crosby should be a an inspiration to us all!