This is a paper I wrote for my Church History class about the hymn-writer Fanny Crosby. I have removed all parenthetical references so future students can learn as much as I did by doing their own researching and I’m fairly certain the assignment is the same each year.
The connection between music and theology cannot be overstated. Even in today’s world where people have unlimited access to every piece of theology work ever written from the newest book or the original papyrus from Jesus day, music plays a role. Christians can rarely have a hard time reciting scripture, yet they can sing songs from the radio from memory. This is why Fanny Crosby, a hymn-writer, is so important to Christian history. Songs form the folk theology of the culture.
Francis Jane Crosby was born on March 24th, 1820 in New York State in a one story cottage, to two faithful parents who were Puritans. Fanny faced tragedy early in her life through two traumatic experiences. Around six months after she was born, Crosby came down with a sickness that made her eyes weak, and due to a doctor being out of town, had to take the services of a man who was unqualified to perform any medical practices. This man applied hot poultice onto her eyes with the hopes of healing them, but ultimately made her go blind. Her eyes were permanently damaged and the man disappeared from their town. This event defined her, and helped her to gain opportunities. If she had not been blind, her accomplishments may not have been as impressive. Although this piece of her story is well known, mostly due to her telling it in length many times, modern medicine questions these claims saying that what happened would not have caused blindness and it was most likely congenital.
The second traumatic event that happened was the death of her father when she was twelve months old. Fanny didn’t remember much about her father but did trace his lineage back and found that his family had been founders of Harvard College.
After her father’s death, Fanny learned much from her grandmother who showed “exemplary piety.” Her grandmother was a devout woman of prayer and taught Fanny from a young age about the importance of God and had the skill of not condemning her when she had done wrong, but could lead her into heartfelt repentance. Since Fanny could not read, her grandmother helped her to memorize scripture and held firmly to the doctrine that everything that happens God could use for good. Crosby said that as the words left her grandmother’s lips they quickly found root within her own heart.
At age fifteen she moved to New York City where she joined the Institution for the Blind and remained a pupil for twelve years where she grew in knowledge. During here time here she was used as an ambassador to show that the blind were just as capable as the sighted. She spent a total of twenty three years at the institute – eight as a student and fifteen as a teacher. During her time at the institute, she became increasingly focused on poetry, to the point of having to be disciplined in order to focus on other areas of her schooling. Through this time she was convinced that all her creativity came from God alone, and this helped her to deal with her pride. Her professors often remarked that she took too much pleasure in the praise she received. Through her time at the school, Fanny was often selected to compose and present poems that she had written for the special occasion. This eventually lead to her being invited to Washington, DC where she got to recite her poetry at the White house for many sitting presidents, including President James Knox Polk, who became a personal friend. Grover Cleveland was also influential in her life and would often let her come to him during times of sadness to cry while he was serving as the secretary for the Institution for the Blind. Being the poster child for the school did have downsides, and she often felt taken advantage of after being constantly called upon to celebrate every event that happened at the school with a poem, including when a teacher woke up to find a mouse in her hair.
Shortly after James Polk’s death, cholera broke out in New York City and Fanny entered into a time of sadness and rarely attended classes. She was having serious thoughts about her eternal security after witness all the death around her from the outbreak. Her grandmother often talked about a conversion experience, but Fanny had never experienced this. She began to doubt if her life was fully given to God. Had she let fame go too much to her head and dishonored her Godly upbringing? She didn’t know. Something was missing and she began to attend revivalist camp meetings, and attended every night during the fall of 1850. She went up to the altar three times, but the first two produced no change. Only on her third trip did her soul begin to be filled with light. She realized she was trying to hold onto God with one hand and the world with another, and since that point on she never refused to pray or preach.
During her time at the institution, they began to have music classes under the teaching of George F Root. It was through this that she gained practice in putting words to music. She was very good at hearing a melody and putting words to a tune that sounded so perfect that it sounded as if the music had been written first for the word. She had known that hymn-writing was to be her life’s work, and after she left the institution she began to take this job on more seriously and wrote her first hymn. At her height she would write up to six to seven hymns a day, and was under obligation to submit three a week to her publisher for two dollars each. Dwight Moody would often use them in his crusades. This would lead to her greatest accomplishment.
The story of Blessed Assurance is similar to how the other hymns were written. A woman named Phoebe Palmer had created a tune on the piano and had asked Fanny to come up with the words. It was instantly known around the world and was published in 1873. When Fanny heard the tune she said the music said “blessed assurance” to her, and she wrote off that. Soon after it was written it was placed in Methodist publications, and into the Methodist Church of Canada’s hymnal in 1889. By 1898, over 1900 hymnals had added the tune to its pages . This hymn’s popularity was increased by revivalist camp meetings and would often lead congregations to get vocal during singing. It was only through Crosby’s dedication to God and her own personal experience of faith that she could be able to write a song that so resonated with the people of the time and with modern congregations.
Why was Fanny important to church history? She gave an incredible gift to the church through her hymn writing, and shaped what it means to be give theology through song. Many of her songs were simple and sentimental, which made them perfect for evangelism. It is a testament to her ability to take complex things and turn them to song. Her blindness could have prohibited her from accomplishing anything, yet through her strong faith she was able to face adversary and become one of the most famous hymn writers in the 19th century. Her songs have brought a multitude of people to Christ through song, and they will continue to do so for years to come.
Blumhofer, Edith L. 2005 Her Heart Can See. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Christian History Today. Fanny Crosby. n.d. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/poets/fanny-crosby.html (accessed 11 03, 2016).
Crosby, Fanny.1906. Memories of Eighty Years. Boston: James H. Earl & Company.
Jackson, S. Travena. 1915. Fanny Crosby’s Story of Ninety-Four Years. Philadelphia: The Blackiston Company.
Ruffin, Bernard. 1976. Fanny Crosby. Ohio: United Church Press.