Profile of a Hymn Composer: Fanny Crosby

A Young Fanny Crosby

A Young Fanny Crosby

Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 in Brewster, New York. She is best known as Fanny.

At the age of six weeks, Fanny caught a cold that caused inflammation in her eyes. Mustard poultices were applied to treat the inflammation, damaging her optic nerves and blinding her.

Her father died the same year she was born and she was raised by her mother and grandmother, Eunice. Her mother went to work as a maid to support the family. She was very active in the Methodist Episcopal Church where she was raised. She would often memorize long passages of scripture. She would later attribute her deep faith to her Puritan heritage.

Fanny wrote her first poem when she was eight years old. That poem described her blindness. By the age of twelve, she was receiving singing lessons. Shortly before her fifteenth birthday, she enrolled at the New York Institution for the Blind. She continued her studies there for ten years and developed her musical abilities.

In 1841, her poem about the death of President William Henry Harrison was published in the New York Herald. Afterwards her poems were published frequently in works such as The Saturday Evening Post and Saturday Emporium, to name just a few publications. She was reluctant to have her poems published, but hopeful that this would be a way to raise money for the blind school.

 

Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby

While Fanny is best known for her hymns, she also wrote a number of secular songs. She and George F. Root wrote over sixty parlour songs. She wrote music for the popular minstrel shows, usually using a pen name. The duo’s first song was “Fare Thee Well, Kitty Dear” and her first hit was “The Hazel Dell“.

After she finished her education, Fanny joined a group of lobbyists to order for more support for the education for the blind in Washington, DC. She was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read her poem. In 1846, she sang and played one of her compositions at the White House for President Polk and his wife.

Later that year she became an instructor at her alma mater. She continued to teach there until her marriage in 1858. While she was teaching she met and befriended Grover Cleveland, future US President. He often helped her transcribe her poems.

In the summer of 1843, Fanny met Alexander Van Alstyne, Jr. He was one of her students at the blind school. Later he would become a teacher at the school. The couple was married on March 5, 1858 in Maspeth, New York. Fanny resigned from her teaching position three days before their marriage. Most of their friends called him Van. Fanny continued to use her maiden name on her published writing, but used her married name on all legal documents.

Fanny Crosby and husband

Fanny Crosby and husband

Following a cholera outbreak in 1849, Fanny realized she did not have a true love for God in her heart. The following year she attended a revival at Thirtieth Street Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church). On November 20, 1850 she “sought an assurance of her salvation.” In 1854, Root and Crosby worked with Lowell Mason to compose The Pilgrim Fathers

In 1859, Fanny gave birth to a baby girl. Unfortunately the child died in her sleep shortly after birth. The belief is that her hymn “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” was written about her daughter. Crosby never spoke about her child until a few interviews near the end of her life. One such interview she said “Now I am going to tell you of something that only my closest friends know. I became a mother and knew a mother’s love. God gave us a tender babe but the angels came down and took our infant up to God and to His throne”.

Fanny and Van moved frequently and never owned their own homes. Van gave private music lessons and played the organ for two churches in New York City. Van provided the music for a few of her poetry pieces, but preferred to play classical music.

During the Civil War, she was extremely patriotic and wrote a number of tunes. One account says that Crosby “was so patriotic that when the Civil War broke out, she often pinned the Union flag to her blouse. When a southern lady found this offensive and snapped, ‘Take that dirty rag away from here!’ Fanny was incensed and told the woman to ‘Repeat that remark at your risk!’ The restaurant manager arrived on the scene just in time to prevent the two women from coming to blows”.

Fanny Crosby 2She collaborated with William B. Bradbury on the popular “There is a Sound Among the Forest  Trees” and “Song to Jeff Davis.” In September 1908, she was still writing Patriotic songs for the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In 1877, Fanny met William J. Kirkpatrick, with whom she would write many hymns.

One of their best known hymns is “I Am Thine, O Lord.”

By 1880, Fanny and Van had separated and were living in different residences. Van became a recluse after the death of their daughter. There are many theories about their separation but no one knows the reasons for sure. In 1903 she said “He had his faults—and so have I mine, but notwithstanding these, we loved each other to the last”. Fanny once said “when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior”.

By the end of the 19th Century, Fanny Crosby was a household name and “one of the most prominent figures in American evangelical life”. When Fanny wrote her autobiography in 1906, Former President Grover Cleveland wrote the recommendation. Throughout the United Kingdom, she is best known by her married name as Frances van Alstyne. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1875. She is sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers”, and as the “Mother of modern congregational singing in America”.pretty Fanny Crosby

In addition to her well known hymns, she wrote over one thousand secular poems, four books of poetry, a secular cantata and two autobiographies. Some of these songs dealt with the Mexican-American War, American Civil War, and 1840 US Presidential Election to name just a few.

Fanny also wrote at least five cantatas and was well known for her public speaking.

Some of her best known songs include To God Be the Glory, Blessed Assurance, Pass Me Not O Gentle Savor, Saved By Grace, Rescue the Perishing, Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross and Praise Him, Praise Him. It is estimated that she wrote over nine thousand hymns over the course of her life. Often she was paid only $1 or $2 per song or poem.

Her hymns were published by a number of publishers. Howard Doane collaborated with Fanny Crosby on over fifteen hundred of her hymns. Fanny also worked with Ira Strankey who greatly promoted her songs. The two developed a deep friendship and continued to write hymns together until the end of their lives.

Crosby described her hymn-writing process: ‘It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I

Fanny Crosby's good friend and co-writer of Blessed Assurance, Phoebe Knapp

Fanny Crosby’s good friend and co-writer of Blessed Assurance, Phoebe Knapp

never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.’ Sometimes she would compose up to seven

hymns in a day. Fanny could write little more than her name. Her husband and later her half-sister, Carrie, would transcribe the hymns she dictated. She had them developed fully in her mind before dictating and reportedly dictated forty hymns one day.

Because she published so many hymns and poems, she used at least two hundred different pseudonyms throughout her career.

In 1880 she rededicated her life to Christ and serving the poor. Fanny had a great heart for missions and helped many in New York City. This work inspired some of her hymns, including Rescue the Perishing and Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. She supported the American Female Guardian Society, Bowery Mission in Manhattan, Cremorne Mission and Home for the Friendless.

On July 18, 1902, Van died in Brooklyn. Fanny, who was suffering from a serious heart condition, was unable to attend his funeral. Her good friend, Phoebe Knapp {with whom she wrote Blessed Assurance} paid for his burial.

Fanny Crosby monument

Fanny Crosby monument

On her 85th birthday, March 26, 1905, churches around the world celebrated Fanny Crosby Day. In 1906, Fanny published her autobiography, Memories of Eighty Years. Fanny continued her work in missions, writing and public speaking until the end of her life. She often met with presidents, generals and other dignitaries. She is often said to give all she had to those she deemed less fortunate than herself. The last stanza she wrote shortly before her death was “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Fanny Crosby died on February 12, 1915 in Bridgeport, New York. At her request, her family erected a very small tombstone, which carried the words: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could; Fanny J. Crosby”. In 1955, a larger monument was erected with the first verse of Blessed Assurance engraved.

George C. Stebbins stated, ‘There was probably no writer in her day who appealed more to the valid experience of the Christian life or who expressed more sympathetically the deep longings of the human heart than Fanny Crosby.’ And many of her hymns have stood the test of time, still resonating with believers today”. According to Blumhofer, “The popularity of Fanny Crosby’s lyrics as well as her winsome personality catapulted her to fame”.