Fanny J. Crosby, Blind Hymnodist

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Fanny J. Crosby

Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), blind from childhood, wrote some 9,000 hymns. Despite her extraordinary talent and fame, she was paid little and lived in poverty.

She wrote an estimated 9,000 hymns, using scores of pennames. To Protestants of many denominations, her real name is well known and revered: Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby.

“To God Be the Glory,” “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It,” “Blessed Assurance,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “Rescue the Perishing,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”. . . . The catalog of Crosby hymns seems endless.

What Caused Fanny Crosby’s Blindness—An Illness or a “Cure?”

Born on a subsistence farm in Southeast, NY, in 1820, Fanny Crosby she was stricken with a severe eye infection as an infant. It never will be known which caused her permanent blindness: the illness or the “treatment”—hot poultice applications prescribed by a quack doctor. Her grandmother Eunice Crosby took her under wing, reading and singing to her daily. The child developed a deep sensitivity toward the visual world she could only feel, hear and smell.

When she was 14, her family put her on a stagecoach to New York City, where she was admitted as a resident to the New York Institution for the Blind. She soon became, in effect, the institution’s poet-in-residence. The administration repeatedly called on her as their star pupil to deliver recitations for visiting dignitaries. She accompanied summer tours throughout the state, promoting the facility.

Songs of Abolition, Songs of Salvation

An ardent abolitionist, she devoted much of her early songwriting talent to political satires attacking slavery. During the Civil War, her stinging “Song to Jeff Davis” deemed the Confederate president worthy of decapitation. But it was during the war years that she embarked on a total departure.

Composer/publisher William Bradbury gave her a hymn-writing test, asking her to put Christian lyrics to some of his melodies. She came up with lines far surpassing the work of his other collaborators. Her first effort for Bradbury, “We Are Going,” soon appeared in his new hymnal. She later worked with Howard Doane, Ira Sankey, Robert Lowry and others prominent in American hymnody. She was in great demand as a lecturer and preacher. Astonishingly, wherever she traveled, she insisted on going alone.

Crosby Always Lived in Poverty

Despite her unquestioned talent and prolific pen, Crosby never was paid much for her hymns. She lived in abysmal conditions, first at the institution and later in New York tenements. Rather than strive to rise above it, she perceived there was work to be done serving the wretched lower classes of Manhattan, the Bowery and environs. For years, she served diligently as a social worker among the needy and lonely at the Bowery Mission and elsewhere.

Most of her hymns were written in the wee hours of the morning, after the last of the boisterous drunks living in her rickety building had fallen silent for the night and she could concentrate. Friends and admirers couldn’t understand how she bore such an existence, but she refused to complain, trusting fully in Providence to supply her needs.

On one occasion in 1874, she had no money with which to pay her rent. She prayed. A complete stranger came to visit her and left after pressing $10—the amount due her landlord—into her palm. That night she wrote “All the Way My Saviour Leads Me.”

Hymns of Praise From the Slums of New York

Those who sing and hear her hymns generally don’t realize the depths from which many of Fanny Crosby’s lyrics flourished. They’re unlikely to conjure the visage of a New York slum, for example, when listening to the jubilant strains of “To God Be the Glory”:

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father thro’ Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.

Sources:

  1. Ruffin, Bernard. Fanny Crosby. Barbour and Company [reprint] (1976).
  2. Multiple hymn texts composed by Fanny Crosby.