Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of God-fearing women in American history. Women have played an important role in our nation’s history and the women in this series represent those who have faithfully, courageously, and humbly served their families, communities, and our nation. Periodically throughout the month of March, we will be sharing some of these inspiring stories. Don’t miss our previous installment on Abigail Adams.
On March 24, 1820, Francis “Fanny” Jane Crosby, one of the most accomplished, well known, and sung poets and songwriters in history, was born. Her parents, John and Mercy Crosby, were devastated when at just six weeks old, Fanny developed a cold that caused her eyes to swell and a local country doctor prescribed a hot mustard poultice that rendered their daughter completely blind. Fanny Crosby never resented her blindness, but later in life she wrote, “In more than eighty-five years, I have not for a moment felt a spark of resentment against him [the doctor], for I have always believed from my youth up that the good Lord, in His infinite mercy, by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do.”
Fanny Crosby’s childhood was not easy, but she was determined to find joy and live life to the fullest. Tragically, her father died before her first birthday. She was not allowed to attend school because of her blindness, and at age five, after visiting an eye doctor in New York, she learned that her blindness was irreversible. Crosby’s grandmother took it upon herself “to be her eyes” and teach her Scripture and how to navigate life without her sight. As a child, she memorized large passages of the psalms and proverbs which would later be the foundation for writing many of her hymns.
In 1835, the New York school for the blind opened its doors and Fanny Crosby was one of the first students. Over time, she was considered one of their best students. When guests came to the school, Crosby was frequently asked to recite poetry. During her time as a student, 22 of the men that she met would serve, or had served, as America’s presidents, from John Quincy Adams to Woodrow Wilson. But her favorite guest was the poet William Colon Bryant who encouraged her poetry.
Upon graduation, she was offered a teaching position at the school. Crosby would go on to teach for 11 years during which time she mastered several instruments, learned musical techniques, and practiced her poetry. In 1843 the school asked Crosby and other faculty members to go to Washington, D.C. to ask for more financial assistant to further the work of the school. Crosby was the first woman to ever testify before the Senate and Congress. Her presentation and poetry moved many to tears, and her testimony increased awareness for citizens with disabilities.
Tragedy struck New York in the Autumn of 1848 when the Asiatic Cholera pandemic reached its shores. Crosby cared for the students in the blind school, even when ill herself. She lost her favorite student to the disease one night while rocking her to sleep, and in the morning carried her to the church for burial. This disease drew many to the church, including Crosby. Her new friend Theodore Camp inspired her to reconsider the gospel and examine her own life. She later had a dream where a friend was dying and asked if he would see her again in heaven. From this experience she realized, “I was trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in another.” At age 30, Fanny Crosby gave her life to Christ.
She married Alexander van Alstyne in 1858, a fellow blind teacher at the school in New York. They were married for 44 years. She became Fanny van Alstyne legally, but was known publicly as Fanny Crosby her whole life. Their only child suddenly died as an infant. In her grieving she wrote, “Safe in the arms of Jesus,” originally a poem that was later put to music.
Crosby worked for the famous composer Mr. William B. Bradberry for four years before he died, at which point she was hired on by L. H. Brigalow and Sylvester Maine at their publishing firm, where she remained for 34 years. Brigalow and Maine became the largest publishing company of hymns and gospel music. Philip Philips approached Crosby in 1866 with 40 hymn titles in need of lyrics for his new hymnal. She composed and memorized all of them in her mind before dictating them in one setting. One of her most famous hymns, “Blessed Assurance,” was written in just five minutes and debuted at the crusades of Dwight L. Moody and Iris Sanky.
In her lifetime, Crosby contributed to “Gospel Hymns” and “Sacred Songs” hymnals which sold over 15 million copies worldwide before her death, and she donated all of her royalties to charities. She was such a prolific songwriter, often writing up to six hymns in a day, that she acquired over 200 pen names to give author variety in publications. By age 43 she had written over 10,000 poems (most of which are now hymns).
Her husband passed away in 1902 and Crosby continued to write and serve for the rest of her life. Even the night before she died, she wrote to a friend who had just lost her daughter, thinking of others to the very end. Fanny Crosby saw her savior on February 12, 1915, and on her epitaph is the chorus of “Blessed Assurance.” Today, a hymnal is often considered incomplete without one of her hymns. Her final hymn points to the testimony of her life, “To God be the glory, great things He has done; so loved He the world that He gave us His Son, who yielded His life an atonement for sin, and opened the life-gate that all may go in.”