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"Oh, what a happy soul I am, / although I cannot see! / I am resolved that in this world / Contented I will be."

Francis Jane Crosby wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination. She wrote so many that she was forced to use pen names lest the hymnals be filled with her name above all others. And, for most people, the most remarkable thing about her was that she had done so in spite of her blindness.

"I think it is 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.

Fanny Crosby responded at once, as she had heard such comments before. "Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind?" said the poet, who had been able to see only for her first six weeks of life. "Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior."

Blinded by a quack

Born in Putnam County, New York, Crosby became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and another man—pretending to be a certified doctor—treated her by prescribing hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes. Her illness eventually relented, but the treatment left her blind. When the doctor was revealed to be a quack, he disappeared. A few months later, Crosby's father died. Her mother was forced to find work as a maid to support the family, and Fanny was mostly raised by her Christian grandmother.

Her 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!

While she enjoyed her poetry, she zealously memorized the Bible. Memorizing 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 indulged in her own poetry and was called upon to pen verses for various occasions. In time the principal asked her to avoid such "distractions" in favor of her general instruction. "We have no right to be vain in the presence of the Owner and Creator of all things," he said.

Timeline

1806

Samuel Mills leads Haystack Prayer Meeting

1811

Alexander Campbell begins Restoration Movement

1817

Elizabeth Fry organizes relief in Newgate Prison

1820

Fanny Crosby born

1915

Fanny Crosby dies

1924

First Christian radio broadcasts

It was the work of a traveling phrenologist (one who studies the shape and irregularities of the skull for insights into character and mental capacity) that changed the school's mind and again ignited her passion. Though his study is now the ridicule of science, the phrenologist's words were to prove prophetic: "Here is a poetess. Give her every possible encouragement. Read the best books to her and teach her the finest that is in poetry. You will hear from this young lady some day."

Poetry for presidents

It didn't take long. By age 23 Crosby was addressing Congress and making friendships with presidents. In fact, she knew all the chief executives of her lifetime, especially Grover Cleveland, who served as secretary for the Institute for the Blind before his election.

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 hers, though she played harp, piano, guitar, and other instruments. More often, musicians came to her for lyrics. For example, one day musician William Doane dropped by her home for a surprise visit, begging her to put some words to a tune he had recently written and which he was to perform at an upcoming Sunday School convention. The only problem was that his train to the convention was leaving in 35 minutes. He sat at the piano and played the tune.

"Your music says, 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus,'" Crosby said, scribbling out the hymn's words immediately. "Read it on the train and hurry. You don't want to be late!" The hymn became one of Crosby's most famous.

Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day (for a dollar or two each), many became incredibly popular. When Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey began to use them in their crusades, they received even more attention. Among them are "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."

She could write very complex hymns and compose music with a more classical structure (she could even improvise it), but she preferred to write simple, sentimental verses that could be used for evangelism. She continued to write her poetry 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.