"I think it's a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you," remarked one well-meaning preacher to poet/hymnwriter Fanny Crosby.
"Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been [to be] born blind?" replied the prolific writer, who only had sight the first six weeks of life. "Because when I get to heaven, the first [face] that shall gladden my sight will be that of my Savior."
Poet Francis (Fanny) Jane Crosby's love of her Savior proved the inspiration for more than 8,000 hymns, written under 200 pseudonyms so her real name wouldn't monopolize hymnbooks.
Born in Putnam County, New York, in 1820, Crosby became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and another man?pretending to be a certified doctor?prescribed hot mustard poultices for her eyes. The illness subsided but the treatment left her blind. A few months later, Crosby's father died. Her mother supported the family as a maid, with Fanny primarily raised by her Christian grandmother.
Fanny's love of poetry began early?her first verse, written at age 8, echoed her lifelong refusal to feel sorry for herself: Oh, what a happy soul 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!
Along with poetry, Crosby zealously memorized the Bible, often five chapters a week. Even as a child she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many psalms?chapter and verse.
Her mother's hard work paid off. Shortly before her fifteenth birthday, Crosby was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind, which would be her home for 23 years: 12 as a student, 11 as a teacher.
She initially was called upon to pen verses for various occasions. In time the principal asked her to avoid such "distractions" to her teaching duties. "We have no right to be vain in the presence of the Owner and Creator of all things," he said.
A traveling phrenologist (one who studies the shape and irregularities of the skull for insights into character and mental capacity) changed the school's mind and again ignited her passion. Though phrenology is now ridiculed by science, the phrenologist's words proved prophetic: "Here is a poetess. Give her every possible encouragement. Read the best books to her and teach her the finest poetry. You will hear from this young lady some day."
It didn't take long.
Poetry for presidents and paupers
By age 23 Crosby was addressing Congress and making friendships with presidents, especially Grover Cleveland, who served as secretary for the Institute for the Blind before his election.
When Crosby was 30, she dedicated her life to Christ at a revival meeting. From then on, her writing took a spiritual direction.
Another member of the institute, former pupil Alexander van Alstine, married Crosby in 1858. Considered one of New York's best organists, he wrote the music to many of Crosby's hymns. Crosby herself put music to only a few of her songs, though she played harp, piano, guitar, and other instruments. More often, musicians came to her for lyrics.
She was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher but often wrote six or seven a day (for a dollar or two each). When Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey began to use "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" in their crusades, her popularity grew.
Crosby could write very complex hymns, but preferred to write simple, sentimental verses that could be used for evangelism. She continued to write up to her death, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. "You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye," was her last stanza.
Adapted from a CHRISTIAN HISTORY magazine staff article.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
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