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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Remembering Fanny Crosby

I never remember knowing the name Fanny Crosby or who she was until I came across an article about her recently. In reviewing it, I was struck by how much I had been influenced by her over my lifetime. As you’ll learn if you take a few moments to continue reading, Crosby is the composer of more than 5,000 hymns. Much of her music is well known and, in fact, I was exposed to and have been singing her hymns for more than 60 years. The following summary is from Perhaps she’s influenced you as well in your lifetime. If that’s the case, please let me know.

Fanny Crosby was the only child of widower John Crosby and his second wife, Mercy Crosby. She had a half-sister from her father’s first marriage. According to her autobiography, she lost her sight to an eye infection and medical ignorance at the age of six weeks, though some modern scholars have suggested that she may have been born blind.

Her father died when she was only six months old, and she was raised by her devout mother and maternal grandmother. Despite these early tragedies, she grew to be an active and happy child. From 1835 to 1843 she attended the New York Institution for the Blind in New York City. At that time Braille was just being developed, and it would not become widespread until many decades later; Crosby never used the system. Her inclination to versify (write and think in verse) was encouraged by a visiting Scottish phrenologist, who examined her and proclaimed her a poet. Thereafter she was the school’s chief ornament.

She contributed a poetic eulogy on President William Henry Harrison to the New York Herald in 1841 and subsequently published verses in other newspapers. In 1844 she published her first volume, The Blind Girl: And Other Poems, and in 1851 her second, Monterey: And Other Poems.

In 1851 she began writing verses to be set to music. With George F. Root, music instructor at the school, Crosby wrote a successful cantata, The Flower Queen. She also wrote lyrics for scores of songs, some of which, such as Hazel Dell, There’s Music in the Air, and Rosalie, the Prairie Flower, were widely popular.

After her graduation, Crosby remained at the New York Institution for the Blind as a teacher of English grammar and rhetoric and of ancient history until 1858. That year she married Alexander Van Alstyne, who was also blind and was also a former pupil and then a teacher at the school, and she published her third volume, A Wreath of Columbia’s Flowers. The couple’s only child was born in 1859 and died in infancy. Although the two eventually lived apart—ostensibly to follow their own career paths—they remained married until Van Alstyne’s death in 1902.

About 1864 Crosby began writing hymns. Like her poetry, her hymns suffer generally from cliché and sentimentality, but they also display an occasional gleam of more than ordinary talent.

In all, Crosby wrote between 5,500 and 9,000 hymns, the exact count being obscured by the numerous pseudonyms (as many as 200, according to some sources) that she employed to preserve her modesty. The best known of her hymns included Safe in the Arms of Jesus, Rescue the Perishing, Blessed Assurance, The Bright Forever, Savior, More Than Life to Me” and Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Her hymns were especially popular in the Methodist church, which for a time observed an annual Fanny Crosby Day.

Most prominent among her many musical collaborators was Ira D. Sankey. In 1897 she published a final volume of poetry, Bells at Evening: And Other Verses, and she later wrote two volumes of autobiography, Fanny Crosby’s Life-Story (1903) and Memories of Eighty Years (1906). Crosby died of a stroke following a prolonged illness. She was 94 years old.

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