by Bob Buchanon
If I told you that today would have been the 201st birthday for Frances Jane Crosby van Alstyne (born March 24, 1820), many would ask, “Who is she?” If I told you that I was referring to Fanny Crosby, many would then reflect on their favorite hymn from this amazing writer and composer.
Born in Putnam County, New York, Fanny became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and a “pretend” doctor treated her by prescribing hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes. Her illness eventually relented, but the treatment left her blind. When the doctor was revealed to be a quack, he disappeared. A few months later, Crosby's father died. Her mother was forced to find work as a maid to support the family, and Fanny was mostly raised by her grandmother. She nonetheless grew up an active and happy child.
When she was five, sympathetic neighbors contributed money to send Fanny to New York to a Dr. Valentine Mott, a noted surgeon, but he only stated, “Poor little blind girl.” She would remember that statement for the rest of her life. At the age of eight, she wrote:
“Oh, 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!”
When her grandmother Eunice heard that her little granddaughter was blind and that nothing could be done about it, she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” Using colorful adjectives, she taught Fanny about the wonderful colors in nature and everything she was missing. She patiently taught her the Bible, and Fanny memorized five chapters a week. At a very early age, she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many of the psalms.
When Fanny was fifteen, she entered the New York Institute for the Blind, fighting her urge to stay under the protection of the family. She was a student for seven years and taught for another eleven, continuing her work until March 1, 1858. She taught English grammar, rhetoric, and American history. In addition to her love for poetry, writing, and singing, she also mastered the guitar, the piano, the organ, and became a noted harpist.
While teaching at the institution she met Presidents Van Buren and Tyler, Honorable Henry Clay, Governor William Seward, General Winfield Scott, and other distinguished characters of American history. Concerning Mr. Clay, she gives the following story: "When Mr. Clay came to the Institution during his last visit to New York, I was selected to welcome him with a poem. Six months before he had lost a son at the Battle of Monterey, and I had sent him some verses. In my address, I carefully avoided any allusion to them, in order not to wound him. When I had finished he drew my arm in his, and, addressing the audience, said through his tears: 'This is not the first poem for which I am indebted to this lady. Six months ago she sent me some lines on the death of my dear son.' Both of us were overcome for a few moments. Soon, by a splendid effort, Mr. Clay recovered himself, but I could not control my tears." In connection with her meeting these notable men, she went to Washington, DC, with others and became the first woman to speak before the Senate and later before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. She spoke about educating the blind, moving many to tears with her poems and winning personality. She would later become a friend to several presidents and would stay in the White House at times. Many of her first poems were published in the Saturday Evening Post and other prominent newspapers and magazines of the time.
In 1858, at the age of 38, Fanny Crosby married Alexander Van Alstyne, an accomplished musician and former pupil at the New York school. He was also blind and took pride in his wife’s genius and insisted that she retain her maiden name. She insisted, however, that she use her married name on all legal documents. Shortly after the marriage, a child was born to them but soon died. In later years, she would never speak about that loss except to say in her oral biography, “God gave us a tender babe and soon…and our infant (went) up to God and His throne.”
Their only child, a daughter, died soon after birth. The marriage did not flourish, and the couple lived apart from 1880. She lived at various locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan across the years and was often on the edge of poverty. Publishers paid poorly for hymn texts.
In all, she wrote more than 9,000 hymns, surpassing Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Some have yet to be set to music. Fanny wrote that each session of writing was always preceded by a prayer. It seemed that without the prayer, the words didn’t flow.
At one point a Scottish minister told her it was too bad God did not give her the gift of sight. She startled him by responding, “If I had been given a choice at birth I would have asked to be blind… Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior."
When she did write a hymn, Fanny received only a few dollars and no further royalties, since the hymns became the property of the composer. Though many thought Fanny should ask for more money she did not agree. She felt her hymns were her work for God and her reward was the effects of the song on those who came to Him. Fanny herself defined a hymn as a "song of the heart addressed to God." She published many hymns under her own name, but, sadly, some book publishers thought that her name was appearing too many times (hey, she did write more hymns than any other human), so she started using many pseudonyms, including such labels as "the Children's Friend" or initials, or even such symbols as asterisks and number signs. Some of her songs also appeared under the names: Glenn, Mrs. Kate Grimley, Viola, Grace J. Francis, Mrs. C. M. Wilson, Lizzie Edwards, Henrietta E. Blair, Rose Atherton, Maud Marion, Leah Carlton, and many others.
Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day (for a dollar or two each), many became incredibly popular. Among some of her most popular hymns are "Blessed Assurance," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "To God Be the Glory," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," "Rescue the Perishing," and "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross." Go through your hymn book and try to decide which of Fanny’s songs is your favorite.
She continued to write her poetry up to her death, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday.