Fanny Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 in Putnam County, seventy-five miles north of New York City in the state of New York. John and Mercy Crosby were blessed with their first child whom they named Francis Jane, but would call her Fanny. Living simply off the land, the Crosby’s were very poor financially, but rich in spiritual matters and Christian principles. Fanny would grow up in a devout Christian environment. Children born into faithful Christian families are blessed indeed.
As an infant of six weeks, Fanny caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes. The family physician was not available so the Crosby’s sought the aid of another country practitioner who recommended hot mustard plasters as treatment. It was a terrible and outrageous recommendation, but John and Mercy Crosby did not know that.
A mustard plaster is a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and normally applied to the chest, back, or abdomen to stimulate healing, but not the eyes. The mustard paste itself should never make contact with the skin. Leaving a mustard plaster on bare skin for too long will lead to burning, blisters, or potentially even ulcers if the fumes are breathed in.
During the treatment, Fanny was blinded by the procedure. The unqualified doctor left town after the discovery of Fanny’s blindness due to his prescription.
When Fanny was a year old, the family was struck by tragedy once again. John Crosby, while working the land, contracted pneumonia and died. His wife Mercy, now widowed, was forced to take a job, leaving Fanny in the care of her grandmother. These godly women were well grounded in Christian principles. They would help Fanny grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord.
Even though she was blind, Fanny was a curious child, taking in the sound and fragrances around her. She would even play hide and seek with the other children, finding her way by the sound of their breathing, or by sensing their shadows. These experiences in childhood helped to develop the imaginative facet of her mind. The wind across her cheeks, the thunder clapping in the distance,
all the sounds of nature sharpened her spirit and molded her vision. Mixed with an incredible power of memory, Fanny had within her soul the basic tools of her adult trade, the writing of poetry.
Throughout her childhood, Mercy Crosby believed that Fanny’s blindness was only a temporary condition. She was wrong. God had other plans for Fanny. The Lord intended to use Fanny’s physical blindness to help millions spiritually see Christ and be saved.
In her youth, the precocious Fanny embraced her blindness. At the tender age of eight she wrote her first composition.
“O what a happy soul am I!
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!
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot, and I won’t.”
With such a spirit as this in her heart, Fanny Crosby would not be locked into the small box society wanted to put her in. Fanny insisted on receiving a quality education beyond typing, sewing, and cooking, though she did not like some parts of her formal studies, such as math of which she said,
“Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad.
The rule of three puzzles me,
And fractions make me mad”.
As Fanny moved through her studies in the Institute for the Blind in New York city, she became a gifted student which is why, upon graduation, the Institution offered her a teaching position. At the age of twenty Fanny Crosby was placed on the school’s payroll and began to instruct young minds on the wonders of rhetoric and history. Her teaching position gave her not only a respected place in society, but a platform to compose and recite her creative verses. One year later, in the autumn of 1843, Fanny was given an extraordinary opportunity.
Hoping to bring attention to the Institute for the Blind, Fanny was sent with some students to Washington, DC to address Congress. Her stated purpose was to raise money for the school, and encourage Congress to incorporate the blind into every facet of society and not dismiss them from public life.
Members in her audience the day Fanny spoke to Congress included John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, and Jefferson Davis, a senator and the future president of the Confederate States of America. In this role Fanny became the first woman to ever formally address the Senate and Congress.
For this special occasion Fanny selected several of her favorite poems. When the time came for Fanny to speak, she recited the poetry with deep conviction. The words spoke for themselves.
After her first poem, there was a prolonged silence in the audience. Unable to see their faces, Fanny was afraid the silence indicated disapproval. She was stunned when a thunderous wave of applause washed over her, overwhelming her keen sense of hearing.
After addressing Congress, Fanny returned to the Institute for the Blind in New York where she would continue to meet many visiting dignitaries who wanted to spend more time with her personally, such as General Winfield Scott, and President James K. Polk.
As the years rolled by, another important change came to Fanny. The year was 1850. The nominal Christianity Fanny held up to this point in her life became a vital personal faith as she was compelled to face the pain in dying and the tragedy of death due to a cholera outbreak in 1854 that ravaged Europe and America. Fanny’s conversion happened like this.
She had been attending meetings at the Thirtieth Street Methodist Church since 1839, but her own recent close call with death caused her to listen more closely to the words that rang out from the pulpit. Mr. Theodore Camp, a well-respected teacher in the school system attended the meetings with Fanny. Mr. Camp and Fanny developed a platonic friendship as Fanny was impressed by the man’s conviction and his faith. One night Fanny Crosby had a dramatic dream.
“The sky was cloudy for days and I felt summoned to the side of my friend [Mr. Camp].
‘Fanny, can you give up our friendship?’ he asked.
‘Of course not,’ Fanny replied. ‘You have been my advisor and my friend. What will I do without your aide?’
‘Then, will you meet me in heaven?’”
The dream ended but it made Fanny determined to reconsider her spiritual state.
On the eve of November 20, 1850, during a revival meeting at a church in New York City, Fanny Crosby finally felt the peace of God wash over her and take charge of her life.
“My very soul was flooded with celestial light. And then, for the first time, I realized I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.”
As a devout Christian, Fanny faced the challenges many Christian women face when confronted with a strained marriage, and the death of a child. In 1855 the New York Institute for the Blind had hired another sightless teacher, Mr. Alexander Van Alstyne who was a gifted composer and musician. Alexander and Fanny’s personal relationship blossomed into love despite the fact that, when they married in 1858, she was 38 and he was 27. The union was to last for 44 years, though not always together. In time they would each pursue their own careers, living separately at times, but always friends.
Together Alexander and Fanny had one child, a baby girl who died in infancy. The parents were devastated, and yet, out of this tragedy came Fanny’s poem which has comforted millions in times of sorrow and grief.
“Safe in the arms of Jesus,
safe on His gentle breast,
There by His love o’ershaded,
sweetly my soul shall rest.
Hark! ’Tis the voice of angels,
borne in a song to me.
Over the fields of glory,
over the jasper sea.
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
safe on His gentle breast
There by His love o’ershaded,
sweetly my soul shall rest.
The song still comforts those who are heartbroken today.
Despite the strained marriage and the death of her child, Fanny found a way to make a living through a song publisher, Mr. William B. Bradbury until his death in 1864. In the providence of God, Fanny transitioned to work with Horatio L. Biglow, and Sylvester Main for the next 34 years. Together, they gave the world some of the most doctrinally sound and inspiration songs we still sing today.
Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
I am Thine, O Lord
Jesus, I Come to Thee
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross
To God be the Glory
and so many more.
While a gifted composer of words, Fanny wrote only a few of the melodies to her songs. Composers would bring their music to Fanny, and she would find words to fit the melody she heard.
Though Fanny did not limit herself to spiritual songs, she was best known for her hymns and so was able to write for the great song leaders of the era including Philip Bliss and Ira Sankey who was the song leader for the great evangelist D. L. Moody.
One day at a Bible conference in Northfield, Massachusetts, Fanny Crosby was asked to give a personal testimony. At first, she hesitated, then quietly rose and said,
“There is one hymn I have written which has never been published. I call it my soul’s poem. Sometimes when I am troubled, I repeat it to myself, for it brings comfort to my heart.”
She then recited while many began to weep.
“Someday the silver cord will break,
and I no more as now shall sing;
but oh, the joy when I shall wake
within the palace of the King!
And I shall see Him face to face,
and tell the story—saved by grace!”
France Jane Crosby died on February12, 1915, at Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the age of 94. The Rev. George M. Brown, pastor of the First Methodist Church of Bridgeport conducted the funeral.
Fanny was interned at the Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Her initial tombstone was inscribed with the words,
“She hath done
What she could”.
In 1955, the citizens of Bridgeport placed on her grave site a more fitting tombstone with these words inscribed in the center,
“Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood”.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long.”
At the end of her long-life Fanny could say as she did,
“I do not know but on the whole, it has been a good thing that I have been blind. How in the world could I have lived such a helpful life as I have lived had I not been blind? I am very well satisfied.”
Anticipating her death Fanny knew that she would not always be blind forever and wrote the following.
“When my lifework is ended
and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning
I shall see,
I shall know my Redeemer
when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand!
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
By the print of the nails in His hand.”