FANNY CROSBY — The Woman Behind the Hymns

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Most of us are familiar with the name, Fanny Crosby, the blind hymn-writer who wrote over 8000 hymns.  What picture comes to your mind when you think of that name?  Do you see a quiet woman with a solemn look on her face, sitting in a chair and dictating the words to hymns to a staff member at the care facility?  If that’s the picture that comes to your mind, you’re looking at the wrong Fanny Crosby!  My eyes were opened as I studied about this woman that I admire so much for her songs.  Now I admire her even more as I see her life and her character more clearly.  So I’d like to share some of those findings with you.

Life didn’t get off to an easy start for Fanny and her family.  She lost the sight in both eyes at six weeks of age, and her father died that same year.  Her mother had to work as a maid in order to support the family, so Fanny’s grandmother, Eunice, took care of her during the day, and the bond between them became very close.  Eunice would take Fanny for walks and sit with her outside, describing to her in great detail all the things she saw.  She also read and explained the Bible to her.  Their landlady, Mrs. Hawley, helped Fanny memorize the Bible.  With their help she memorized whole books of the Bible!

Fanny never considered herself handicapped.  She played with the other kids and was able to do many of the things they did.  Her cheerful disposition won her many friends.  At the age of eight, she composed this short poem:

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!
So weep or sigh because I’m blind, I cannot – nor I won’t!

That has been the motto of her life, and she continued to maintain that positive attitude.  One of the blessings God gave to her was an amazing memory.  By the time she was twelve, she had memorized the first five books of the Old Testament, all four of the Gospels, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon, as well as many of the Psalms.  She was going to put that ability and that information to good use very soon.  Her prayers for a formal education were answered when she was accepted as a student at the New York Institute for the Blind, where her poetic abilities were eventually encouraged.

Let’s turn our focus away from biographical details and look at how God has used this lady, and the impact she has had on many lives.  Historians tell us that Fanny Crosby has written the words to over 8000 hymns in her lifetime, as well as many other secular songs of that time and several books of poetry.  How can you grasp the enormity of 8000 hymns?  How do you conceptualize 8000 hymns?  One writer gives the following illustration:  “Take 15 hymnals [or hardback books about 1″ thick] and stack them up.  Now visualize a hymn on both sides of every page in those 15 books.  That’s about 8000 songs!”  Isn’t that mind-boggling?  It’s even more amazing when you realize that she didn’t start writing hymns for publication until she was 44 years old!  She said, “I liked to write songs that made people want to ask Jesus into their hearts.”  Her hymns were aimed at bringing the message of the Gospel to people who would not listen to preaching.  Sometimes she would write as many as seven of them in a day.  Whenever she wrote a hymn, she prayed that God would use it to lead many souls to Himself.  Many of those hymns have some interesting stories behind them if you would care to look into them further.  One of the statements she made was, “It is not enough to have a song on your lips,  You must also have a song in your heart.”

But Fanny Crosby was much more than a hymn writer.  Her desire was to serve her Lord in every possible way that she could.  She not only believed the things she wrote; she also lived the things she wrote.  While a student, and later a teacher at the New York School for the Blind, she wrote poems for presidents, governors, and others in positions of authority in our country.  Friendships developed and at the age of 23, she was given the honor of being the first woman to speak in the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C.  She was there lobbying for the education of the blind.

Fanny Crosby and her husband, Alexander Van Alstyne, chose to live in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Lower Eastside so that they could give the rest of their money to benefit the poor and needy.  She also crocheted and knitted many clothing items for the rescue missions   Ladies, try doing that with your eyes closed, from start to finish!  After she resigned from her teaching position, Fanny loved to go to the nearby rescue missions and hold services.  She played the piano, organ, guitar, and harp.  She also had a beautiful soprano voice.  Many referred to her as “The Songbird in the Dark”, not only because of her blindness, but because she announced the light of Christ in the midst of their spiritual darkness and emptiness.

One night a week she would go to the New York City Bowery Mission to talk to “her boys”.  On a particular night, while speaking to them, she kept having the thought that there was a boy present who had wandered away from his mother and must be rescued that night, or he would be eternally lost.  She made a plea to each boy that was there that night.  At the end of the service, an 18-year-old boy came forward and said, “Do you mean me, Miss Crosby?  I promised my mother to meet her in Heaven, but as I am now living, that will be impossible.”  She prayed with him and led him to Christ.  As they finished, he said, “Now I am ready to meet my mother in Heaven, for now I have found God!”  Fanny went home that night and wrote the words to the hymn, “Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying.”

I like her philosophy of daily living — it’s very poetic and enthusiastic.  Here are her words:  “Live for the moment and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering.”  Isn’t that a wonderful perspective and lesson for us all?  She followed her own advice!  On her 92nd birthday, she said cheerfully, “If in all the world you can find a happier person than I am, do bring him to me.  I would like to shake his hand.”

Fanny continued to be active with speaking engagements and ministry to the poor until her death in 1915.  Her hymns continue to draw unbelievers to Christ and provide comfort and encouragement to believers.  Evangelist Billy Graham said, “Fanny Crosby, her spirit aglow with faith in Christ, saw more with sightless eyes than most of us do with normal vision.  She could have spent her life in bitterness and defeat, but she chose to give her life to Christ to be used by Him. . . .  We may never have had the songs of Fanny Crosby if she had not been afflicted with blindness.”

All of us have, or have had circumstances in life that have dragged us down, or could have dragged us down, haven’t we?  It is when we are going through the trials and difficulties of life that we are drawn closer to the Lord and can have the most effective witness before the world.  Many people were drawn to Fanny Crosby because of the difference between her physical disability and her spiritual and social vibrancy and enthusiasm.  I’ve shared a quote in a previous sermon.  It has been stated in many different ways by many different people.  I’m sharing it again because Fanny Crosby is a prime example of it’s application to her life.  “Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the ways you can, for as long as you can.”  That was her desire, her prayer, and her daily practice.  It can be ours also by the grace and power of God.

The first stanza and chorus of her hymn, “I Shall Know Him”, describes the longing in her heart and the bright future that awaited her.

When my lifework is ended and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see.
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand!
I shall know Him, I shall know Him 
By the print of the nails in His hand.

If you would like to hear the whole hymn, sung beautifully by Bernie and Carol Paulson, type the words:  “my savior first of all – bernie and carol paulson” into your web browser and their youtube site should be at the top of the first page.

May God ignite our hearts and set our lives aglow as we seek to follow her example of love for God and for others.


PAUL’S CHAINS – Philippians 1:12-14

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The apostle Paul wanted to go to Rome as a preacher, but instead, he went as a prisoner!  In verse 12 of Philippians, chapter 1, he sums it up as “my circumstances”.  He could have written a long letter about that experience alone.  The things that happened to him are written in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 21-28.  It began when Paul was arrested in the temple in Jerusalem.  The Jews thought that he had desecrated the temple by bringing Gentiles into it, and the Romans thought that Paul was an Egyptian renegade who was on their “most wanted list”.  Paul remained in prison in Caesarea for two years.  When he finally appealed to Caesar, as a Roman citizen, he was sent to Rome.  On the way, the ship was wrecked in a storm.  Paul’s courage and faith during that storm makes it one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible (Acts 27).

HIS CHAINS (verse 12)

To many, all of these circumstances may have looked like a failure, but not for this man with a “single mind” to share Christ and the Gospel message.  In verse 12, Paul says, “My circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel”.  The words, “greater progress” mean “pioneer advance”.  It is a Greek military term referring to the army engineers who went ahead of the soldiers to remove obstacles and open the way into new territory.  Paul discovered that his circumstances really opened up new areas of ministry.  If you’ve ever done any sailing, you may have heard this saying:  “We cannot control the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”  Many of us have heard of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous British preacher, but few know the story about his wife, Suzannah.  Early in their married life, Mrs. Spurgeon became an invalid.  It looked as though her only ministry would be that of encouraging her husband and praying for his work.  But God gave her a burden to share her husband’s books with pastors who couldn’t afford to purchase them.  This burden soon led to the founding of the “Book Fund”.  As a work of faith, the “Book Fund” provided thousands of pastors with tools for their ministry.  All of this was supervised by Mrs. Spurgeon from her home.


In verse 13, Paul tells us that the chains attached to his wrists gave him contact with non-Christians.  He was chained to a Roman soldier 24 hours a day!  The shifts changed every six hours, which meant that Paul could witness to at least four soldiers each day.  Paul was proclaiming the Gospel to the praetorian guard; something he could not have done as a free man.  Historians tell us that there were about 9000 men who were part of the praetorian guard.  These elite soldiers were the bodyguards for Caesar and his palace.  It’s very possible that these guards looked forward to the opportunity to guard the apostle Paul.  Being chained to a prisoner for six hours at a time must have been a very boring task, but it wouldn’t be if they were chained to the apostle Paul, because he was filled with joy, and he had something interesting to listen to and discuss.   Eventually, one by one, many of these guards probably became Christians.

Sometimes God has put “chains”, so to speak, on His people, in order to enable them to accomplish something that could never happen any other way.  Suzannah Wesley was the mother of 19 children, and this was before the days of labor-saving devices such a washing machines and disposable diapers.  How could she find the time to share the Gospel?  Well, from her large family came John and Charles Wesley, whose combined ministries shook Great Britain.

Fanny Crosby was blinded at six weeks of age, but even as a youngster she determined not to be confined by the chains of darkness.  In time she became a mighty force for God through her hymns and gospel songs.  She wrote over 8000 hymns during her lifetime!

The secret is this:  when you have a single mind, you look at circumstances as God-given opportunities for the furtherance of the Gospel, and you rejoice at what God is going to do, instead of complaining about what God did not do.


Paul’s chains not only gave him contact with the lost, but they also gave courage to the saved.  Many of the Christians in Rome received new courage when they saw Paul’s faith and determination.  Discouragement has a way of spreading, but so does encouragement.  Because of Paul’s joyful attitude, many Christians began to witness boldly for Christ.

Something within a person responds to bravery in others.  When I was in Air Force boot camp in San Antonio, Texas, I visited the Alamo.  My first response was, “It sure is small!” It was in that little mission church that a small group of men, 180 to be exact, faced a big decision when a large army of Mexican soldiers set up camp nearby.  Colonel Travis drew a line in the dust with his sword, challenging the men to step across if they were willing to fight to the death.  Every man but one responded to the challenge.  Even Colonel Jim Bowie, who lay dying on a cot, shouted to his comrades, “carry me across the line!”

Every man was killed, including Jim Bowie, who fought off the enemy the best he could from his deathbed.  The only survivors were two women and two children.  Was this a waste of lives?  Not at all!  This heroic action stirred up all the Texans to fight.  “Remember the Alamo” was the Texans’ battle cry, and six weeks later Texas won its independence.

Most Americans “remember the Alamo”.  But do we Christians remember the Christians who suffered and even died because of their faith in Jesus Christ, and their willingness to proclaim it?  Our commitment to our Savior and Lord needs to be strong enough to be contagious.  Enthusiasm for Christ is contagious.  Has anyone caught it from you?  We’ll never find peace and real joy unless we learn to live above our circumstances.

What are your “chains”?  If you are confined by illness, or limited in any way by circumstances beyond your control, start looking for, and asking God for, a ministry.  God may have put you just where you are at in order that you might say with the Apostle Paul, “My circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the Gospel”.

We need to get above our circumstances.  That’s where God is waiting to help and strengthen us, so that He can use us, in His way, by His power, and for His glory.  Read on in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and share in Paul’s unwavering joy!