Gracious Creator, we thank you for your abiding love that gave us life and sustains us along this journey. Let the assurance of this good news fill us, encourage us, and inspire us to lives of praise and service. Amen.
Today we continue our sermon series, Composing a Faith, in which we are exploring some of the great hymn writers of our tradition. And today we are reflecting on the life and work of Fanny Crosby.
Fanny Crosby is probably the most prolific Christian hymn writer of all time. Certainly she is the most prolific American hymn writer who ever lived. She wrote as many as eight or nine thousand hymns over the course of her 94 years of life from 1820 to 1915. It’s hard to estimate how many hymns she actually wrote because many were published under various pseudonyms. Some hymnal publishers were worried that if their collections were dominated by too many Fanny Crosby bylines, they might not sell as well. So they changed her name and published them anyway.
Frances Jane Crosby (known to everyone as Fanny) was born and raised in New York, and later Connecticut, and spent most of her adult life living in and around Manhattan and Brooklyn. As we shall see, the urban northeast proved to be an influential and enriching environment for her, both spiritually and creatively.
Fanny was also blind from infancy. Whether her blindness was a result of a severe infection at six weeks old or from a congenital condition is unclear. But, later in life, when people took pity on her because she was blind, she was known to claim that, actually, her lack of physical sight helped free her from external distractions, which allowed her greater focus. She also proclaimed her belief that one day she would open her eyes in heaven and see for the first time ever, and, in doing so, would behold her Lord.
Fanny’s father died before she even reached her first birthday. And so her mother and maternal grandmother raised her by themselves. Church had already been very important to their family. And I’m sure that the community support that the church offered was of vital importance as they dealt with such difficulty and loss during this brief span of time.
As she grew up, Fanny embraced church and faith with great passion from a very young age. She memorized scripture and apparently knew all four gospels, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Psalms by heart by age 15. I don’t know if that means absolutely word for word, verse by verse, or if that included some more general story arcs too. Either way, it’s remarkable.
Fanny also learned to sing as a child and began composing poetry at a young age too. At age 15 she enrolled in the New York Institution for the Blind to continue her education. She was creative and musical and learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar, as well as continuing to sing. But when it came to composition, her creative passion was poetry (some of it secular and some of it spiritual) and that led to her career in writing hymns.
Fanny never learned to write very legibly. But she didn’t really need to since she had such a great memory. So, she would compose hymns in her head (sometimes several at a time). And when she was satisfied with a composition, she would then dictate it from memory to a scribe.
New York City was a spiritually enriching environment for her creative work. She became involved in many different churches in the area over the years. And she developed a network of creative collaborators including her close friend, Phoebe Knapp, who wrote the tune to Blessed Assurance (which we just sang), as well as Baptist minister, Robert Lowry, who wrote the tune for our closing hymn, All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
Fanny stayed on at the Institution for the Blind as an instructor for a number of years and later married a fellow instructor (who had also been her student several years earlier), Alexander Van Alstyne Jr. (who everyone called Van). Van was also a creative person. He composed music and was an accomplished and well-known church organist.
The couple had one child, a daughter named Frances. Sadly, little Frances died suddenly in her sleep shortly after birth (possibly from Typhoid Fever or SIDS). As often happens, the couple dealt with their grief in their own ways. Fanny kept working and writing and Van became more reclusive for a time. The couple eventually separated, but they stayed in contact and remained friends until Van’s death.
At the height of her hymn-writing career, Fanny was in a contract with a publisher to produce three hymns per week for a flat fee of two dollars per hymn. There wasn’t any real copyright protection for lyricists at the time. And some of her friends later thought her publisher had taken advantage of her and that she was woefully underpaid, especially considering the amount of profit her publisher brought in by her works. Her friends were probably right.
But material things never seemed to be priorities for Fanny. She didn’t care much for money. She gave away a lot of what she had to those in need, organized benefit concerts with her husband, often refused honoraria for speaking engagements, and lived very simply in apartments and sometimes lived with friends.
In fact, though she still wrote some hymns, Fanny’s focus later in life shifted to spending most of her time on mission work in New York City during the immigration boom of the late 1800s. She had a passion for addressing the difficulties faced by immigrants and the plight of the poor in her urban environment. And so she lived in the neighborhood and worked at rescue missions and other direct service organizations. She also spoke at churches and other organizations to raise awareness about these causes.
She did some prison ministry too. One time, having been moved by a prisoner’s comment that he hoped God wouldn’t pass them by and would hear the prayers of the imprisoned, she composed the words to another beloved hymn: Pass, me not O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry. While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.
Clearly all of Fanny’s work (her mission work and her hymn writing) was grounded in her faith. She had an evangelistic passion. She is said to have wanted to bring one million people to faith in Jesus Christ through her songs (and apparently she kept records of this to the best of her ability). Though I can’t claim the same kind of evangelical perspective, I admire her spirit because I think it came from a place of love for her.
She also had a deep compassion for her neighbors, especially those in need. And I really admire that she walked the walk. All of her life’s work was grounded in a deep faith in God and love of God and neighbor.
Clearly Fanny’s hymn writing was a spiritual practice for her. She said that she always began her composition process with prayer. And I would imagine that this form of prayerful creative expression carried her through life’s ups and downs. Some say she wrote the words to another well-known hymn after her daughter died: Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on His gentle breast, There by His love o’ershaded, Sweetly my soul doth rest. That hymn has brought comfort to many in the midst of grief, including parents who have lost children.
You’ve probably noticed by now that most (maybe all?) of Fanny’s hymns are composed in the first person. They emphasize a very personal religious experience and personal relationship with Jesus. They are, in part, reflective of the revivalist, evangelical theological perspective and style that was popular at the time. But they also drew people in.
Part of the reason Fanny was so prolific is because people liked to sing her hymns. They were very popular in her own time. People resonated with their personal and heartfelt messages. And they were usually set to fairly simple, easily sung tunes with repeated refrains. She and her musical collaborators wrote these hymns not for performers and musicians, but for everyday people to sing in worship; so that those everyday people could be moved by the Holy Spirit and experience God’s presence. And some, like Blessed Assurance, continue to be popular favorites to this day.
Not everyone likes Fanny Crosby’s hymns. Over the years, some have called them too sentimental or theologically simplistic. Everyone has their own tastes. That’s fine. But I don’t think Fanny’s point was ever to write a theological treatise. I suspect she simply wanted to help people sing their praise and sing their prayers. And I think Fanny Crosby is in good company with other Christians throughout the centuries who have been passionate about a personal relationship, a personal union, with God. Had she been born in the Middle Ages, I think she would have been at home with some of the creative mystics of that age. Emotionally passionate, creative, mystical people have always been a part of our faith tradition.
And I admire Fanny’s fearless creativity. I mean nothing could stop her. They say she liked to stay busy (no kidding – 9,000 hymns!) And clearly she wasn’t bogged down by perfectionism or she never would have written so many. Clearly she wasn’t worried about what other people thought of her and her work or she wouldn’t have published them all and put them out there for public use. Clearly she was enlivened and fed spiritually by this creative process or she would have burned out. And clearly she wasn’t going to let her lack of physical sight limit her ability to create or she wouldn’t have painted such beautiful images with words.
I think there is a lot for us to learn from her creative process and fearlessness. In fact, it makes me want to try writing a hymn. How about you? Seriously, give it try! You don’t have to share it with anyone (unless you want to). You don’t even have to worry about it rhyming, or following a particular meter, or working with a particular tune (unless you want it to). It might be a fun and spiritually enriching thing to do.
In addition to Fanny’s fearless creativity, I admire her fearless faith. Though she was an imperfect human who surely had her times of doubt, and despair, and grief, and all other human challenges, it seems that her faith carried her through. She persevered. She kept creating. She did the things that helped her stay connected to God and community. And she found deep fulfillment in serving others.
I think her life’s work, especially her work of compassion with the poor and immigrant communities in New York, exemplifies what the writer of First John was getting at in his letter. He was writing to a community that probably felt insecure and uncertain. They likely feared for their very lives under Roman rule. They probably feared that the demands of discipleship would ask them to very literally lay down their life for others. Perhaps they doubted their own abilities. Maybe they felt inadequate to address the challenges of their day.
And so the writer of First John wanted to remind his first readers that God’s love empowers and invites us to love others – not only in word or speech, but in truth and action; that we can be bold and courageous in our faith by loving others and by sharing our abundance with those in need – for that is what Jesus called us to do.
And when we love others, we find that we abide in God’s love; we abide in God’s Spirit. In the words of Fanny Crosby, we are “filled with his goodness, lost in his love.” Though Fanny Crosby’s hymns largely focus on a personal relationship with God, her life is a testament to how that personal relationship empowers and inspires us to love and serve others.
This most basic call to discipleship characterized by love of God and neighbor hasn’t changed through the centuries. John’s first readers had to find their ways to respond. Fanny Crosby had to find hers. And we have to find ours too. And yes, like Fanny Crosby, we too are still called to have compassion for and serve immigrant communities and to care for those who are poor here in our own urban environment. In many ways we have the world’s abundance John speaks of and so we must respond to the needs of our siblings, God’s beloved children, near and far.
So we can take some inspiration from Fanny in this work. And we can take some inspiration from her perseverance in faith, in creativity, and in loving service through all of life’s ups and downs. It seems to me that for the almost 95 years she walked this earth, though she never experienced physical sight, she was able to see with great clarity the spiritual heart of this life of faith and the life discipleship to which we are called.
Praising her savior all the day long – in spirit, word, and deed, grounded in love. That was her story. That was her song. May it be ours too.