The specialist, after making a thorough examination of the little girl’s eyes, realized there was nothing more he could do. Her parents were so poor that the doctor’s fee had been paid by neighbors and friends. Now, as she and her mother were leaving his office, she heard the doctor say, “Poor little blind girl!” What he could not know was that the small blind girl would turn her handicap into a great blessing for many people.
Francis Jane (Fanny) Crosby was born in New York on March 24, 1820. She caught a cold at the age of six weeks, and a doctor prescribed a mustard poultice for her inflamed eyes. Instead of healing them it damaged her eyes. By the age of five she was virtually blind, although she could distinguish between day and night.
Cheerful and positive about her blindness, Fanny enjoyed a happy childhood. Three years after that specialist’s diagnosis she wrote:
Oh, what a happy child I am,
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.
Commenting on her childhood, she wrote, “I could climb a tree like a squirrel and ride a horse bareback.”
While still young she memorized large sections of the Bible including the entire Pentateuch, all four Gospels, many Psalms, all of Proverbs, Ruth and the Song of Solomon. “The Holy Book,” she said, “has nurtured my entire life.”
At fifteen she entered the New York School for the Blind where the teachers gently discouraged her inclination for rhyming. But when a traveling phrenologist proclaimed her a potential poet, she soon became a prodigy of the school. At the end of her training she stayed on, teaching English and history from 1847 to 1858.
One day the school’s superintendent found his male secretary, Grover Cleveland, writing verses while Fanny dictated. Displeased, the superintendent told them not to waste the school’s time. Believing they were not wasting time, they continued their project. Years later, when Grover Cleveland became President of the United States and Fanny was a noted poet, many times Cleveland set aside affairs of state to take dictation from his always welcome White House guest.
Fanny Crosby appeared frequently on the lecture platform and on several occasions addressed both houses of Congress. There she met many of the literary, political, military, and ecclesiastical notables of the day.
Her fame escalated when several collections of her poetry appeared in print and some popular verses such as “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower” and “There’s Music in the Air” were set to music, selling thousands of copies.
There is scant information about her marriage. We know that she fell in love with a blind music teacher and church organist, who had been one of her pupils. Alexander Van Alstyne and Fanny Crosby were married on March 5, 1858 and made their home in Brooklyn. They had one child, who died in infancy.
In 1864, at age forty-four, she set aside work on secular songs and began to compose hymns. After five years of hymn writing her fame extended around the world. Of her more than eight thousand hymns, her first ones were the best and most liked. Some were translated into other languages, and at least seventy became popular in England as well as America. Her favorite themes seem to have been heaven and Christ’s return.
Since her contract from one publisher called for three hymns a week, she was constantly searching for new material and ideas. Some publishers thought she was putting out too much, so they advised that she write under other names. Among her two hundred pen names were her married name, initials, and pseudonyms.
She felt that her blindness was an advantage rather than a hindrance. Undisturbed by happenings around her, she could more easily write her poetry. There were days, she confessed, when she could not write a hymn to save her soul. On other days she would compose six or seven, some in as little as fifteen minutes.
Though her popularity was enormous, some criticized her work. A judge wrote, “It is more to Mrs. Van Alstyne’s credit that she has occasionally found a pearl than that she brought to the surface so many oyster shells.” John Julian, an authority on hymnology, thinks her hymns are weak and poor, having only the redeeming features of simplicity and earnestness.
There are recorded stories behind several of her poems. One time she need five dollars and could not contact her publisher. After praying she heard a knock on the door. She talked for awhile with the man at the door who then shook her hand before leaving. She felt something in her hand which turned out to be exactly five dollars. Later she wrote, “My first thought was, it is so wonderful the way the Lord leads me.” From this experience came the inspiration for “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”
“Many of my hymns,” she said, “were written after experiences in New York mission work.” One hot night in the summer of 1869 the blind woman called a cab to take her to a mission service. Word got around that the author of “Pass Me Not” was in the audience, and she was led to the platform. As she spoke she felt that a particular boy must be rescued on that night or maybe not at all. During the invitation to accept Christ she prayed with an eighteen-year old who had come to the platform.
Thirty-four years later, when she was speaking at a YMCA meeting, she related the story of the boy. A man came to her after the service and said, “I was the boy…That evening I sought and found peace. I have tried to live a consistent Christian life ever since. If we never meet again on earth, we will up yonder.” He kissed her hand and was gone. Not long afterward she wrote “Rescue the Perishing.”
Probably her most popular hymn is “Blessed Assurance,” having its tune also written by a woman. One of Fanny Crosby’s closest friends was Phoebe Knapp whose husband Joseph founded the Metropolitan Insurance Company. Mrs. Knapp was a musician who published more that five hundred gospel songs herself, and on one of her visits to Fanny she brought a melody she had composed. After playing it through she asked Fanny, “What does the tune say?” The blind poet leaned back in her rocking chair, listened to it a few more times, and responded, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” then continued with the rest of the now familiar words. This method of composing verse to existing melodies became a technique which she used in writing many of her hymns.
From 1870 to her death in 1915 Fanny Crosby wrote more hymns than any other known writer. The majority of the lasting favorites came in the 1870’s, during her mid-life. “Life is not too long,” she said, “and therefore I determine that many people will read a song who would not read a sermon.” Her simple gravestone in a cemetery at Bridgeport, Connecticut is marked “Aunt Fanny.” On the side of the stone is etched the Biblical phrase, “She had done what she could,” which is what Jesus said to Mary when she anointed him with costly perfume.
George Stebbins, himself a hymnist, wrote in his 1924 autobiography, “There was probably no writer in her day who appealed more to the valued experiences of the Christian life or who expressed more sympathetically the deep longings of the heart than did Fanny Crosby.” The poor little blind girl had turned her handicap into a blessing for the world.