Fanny Crosby: The Early Years


When Charles I appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in England, the greatest impact would prove to be in the American colonies. Under intense persecution, hundreds of Puritan preachers, followed by tens of thousands from their flocks in the Old Country, answered freedom's beckoning call and headed for America. Governor John Winthrop would describe what they hoped to build as a "shining city on a hill." Among those arriving in Boston were the Rev. Thomas Shepard and Simon Crosby and his relatives. Simon had heard Shepard preach and had undergone a profound religious conversion. The Crosbys would settle across the river at Cambridge (Newtowne).

In the Lord's providence, these settlers found a remarkably well-planned community with well-built homes soon to be abandoned, as many in the congregation of local divine Thomas Hooker chose to follow Hooker on a church-planting mission to Connecticut. The Crosbys would become prominent citizens, whose heirs became pillars of local Puritan and Presbyterian churches, as well as noted soldiers in the War for American Independence.

Fanny-CrosbyIt was into such a community of faith that young Francis "Fanny" Crosby would be born. Six weeks after her birth, she developed an eye inflammation of some type, which an unschooled travelling medical man treated with "mustard poultices." According to the story, this was the cause of her permanent blindness, although modern scientists believe that she was probably congenitally blind. They note that at such an early age her sightless condition may well have escaped her parents. In any case, Fanny herself would always speak of the occasion as a remarkable working of God's providence, opening doors to her which would have not been opened otherwise. Her grandmother Eunice was of particular importance in instilling in young Fanny a love for the Gospel and the Scriptures. Biographer Edith L. Blumhofer describes the home environment as sustained by "an abiding Christian faith."

"At its center stands the Bible in the classic rendering of the Authorized Version. Crosby frequently admitted its centrality in her childhood home, where the family altar found a regular place. Although she could not read for herself, she memorized Scripture under the patient tutelage of her grandmother. Evidence suggests that this Crosby family pegged its understanding of duty, community, and family to the biblical text. Shaped by the Calvinist reading of Scripture that years before had prompted the family's migration to the New World, the Crosbys of Southeast understood that God had a purpose for whatever happened; they clung to the certainty that God was in control. They knew God as the source of true pleasure and believed that all they had—meager or abundant —came from God's hand...As lived out at home—at least in [Fanny] Crosby's recollection—the Calvinism of these sons and daughters of Massachusetts Bay was serious without being dour, joyous without being frivolous. It refreshed the soul while sustaining the body, and so it seemed particularly suited to those who, like the Crosbys, eked out hard, meager livings from the land."Edith L. Blumhofer, Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 16.

At age nineteen, Fanny's family learned of the Institution for the Blind in New York, where Fanny's world would become suddenly much larger. When a travelling phrenologist (a faddish "science" that presumed to discern intelligence and capability by carefully feeling the bumps on one's head) pronounced Fanny extremely gifted, the Institute thereafter gave Fanny every opportunity for learning. She excelled and was soon working as an instructor.

Fanny Crosby's self-styled "primitive Presbyterianism"Ibid. gave her decidedly low-church views, yet she seems to have manifested a very open and warm attitude to all of Christian faith. One incident, in particular, seems to capture the essence of the young Fanny Crosby and dismiss immediately the notion that the Institution was a dour and mournful place.

Alice Holmes, a year younger than Fanny when she arrived at the Institution, was born in England and struck by yellow fever on the ocean crossing to America.New York Times, January 19, 1914. The ship was quarantined for months and when the family finally stepped onto American soil, 9-year old Alice was completely blind. Years later, Alice would remember her first encounter with her new roommate in Lost Vision:

"At a quarter before ten, Miss Crosby announced that she would take charge of the new pupil from New Jersey, as I was to room with her, and at once, with a kind good-night to all, and taking me by the hand, she started off at a pace which rendered me rather timid, every step being new and strange to my 'unfrequented feet.' Which, observing, she told me not to be afraid as she would not let me break my neck; and after crossing one of the main halls and reaching the third floor beyond a long flight of stairs, she remarked, 'Here we are; this is our room.' We entered and closing the door, she said, 'Now Dollie (which was one of her pet names) this is a square room facing Eighth Avenue, and right here on this side is your bed, and here is your trunk, and here is a place to hang your clothes'; in short 'she tended me like a welcome guest.' Before saying our prayers, however, she inquired as to my religious views, and I at once declared myself an Episcopalian, to which she humorously replied, 'Oh, then, you are a churchman,' and made a rhyme which ran something like this:

'Oh, how it grieves my poor old bones,
To sleep so near this Alice Holmes.
I will inform good Mr. Jones,
I cannot room with a Churchman!'

"Then she hoped I would not be offended or feel hurt, as she was only in fun; and with a warm goodnight retired to her side of our apartment."Blumhofer, Her Heart Can See, p. 50, 511.

At the Institution, young Crosby became acquainted with a broad range of evangelical Protestants who served on the board and faculty, and took the opportunity to visit many of the local churches. Her first contacts with Methodism clearly broadened her experience with church music. In her last Presbyterian church before leaving for the Institution, hymns were often written more or less on the spot by the deacons and elders each Sunday, a practice which, to no one's surprise, has not survived in many quarters.

The chief instructor at the Institution was Professor William Cleveland, the son of a Presbyterian minister. When the elder pastor Cleveland died, Professor Cleveland's younger brother was quite depressed and came to spend some time with William at the Institution. As Fanny recounts the story:

"In 1853, our head teacher, Prof. William Cleveland, was called to New Jersey by the death of his father, a Presbyterian clergyman. After a few days absence, he returned, bringing with him his brother, a youth of 16; and the next morning afterward he came to consult me in regard to 'the boy'.

Grover-Cleveland"'Grover has taken our father's death very much to heart,' he said, 'and I wish you would go into the office, where I have installed him as clerk, and talk to him, once in a while.'

"So I went down as requested, and was introduced to the young man...We talked together unreservedly about his father's death, and a bond of friendship sprung up between us, which was strengthened by subsequent interviews. He seemed a very gentle, but intensely ambitious boy, and I felt that there were great things in store for him—although, as above intimated, there was no thought in my mind that he would ever be chosen from among the millions of his country, to be its President.

"Whether the death of his father had settled his mind into a serious view, or whether it was because industry and perseverance were natural to him I do not know but think each of these influences bore a part toward directing his actions.

"He very seldom went out to a party or entertainment with others of the same age; but remained in his room, working away at his books. I am told that during his entire career, this faculty of hard and almost incessant work has been one of his most valuable aids.

"Among other very pleasant characteristics which I noticed in him, was a disposition to help others, whenever possible. Knowing that it was great favor to me to have my poems copied neatly and legibly, he offered to perform that service to me; and I several times availed myself of his aid."Fanny Crosby, Fanny Crosby's Life Story (New York: Every Where Publishing Co., 1903), p.137-141.

Fanny and the young clerk, Grover, became fast friends, a friendship which continued into Cleveland's two terms in the White House. As her fame spread later in life, Fanny's circle of friends and acquaintances would expand to include a staggering range of the political, social and literary figures of her day, including Institution board member Anson G. Phelps, founder of Phelps-Dodge, and a prominent Presbyterian philanthropist. Crosby always held a warm place in her heart for her Presbyterian roots and frequented Presbyterian churches throughout her life, although her church of choice became the Methodist assemblies, as she came under the influence of the perfectionist Phoebe Palmer. While many churches laid claim to Crosby, the simple fact is that she seemed to enjoy Christian company across a broad range of denominations, though later in life she did finally formally unite with the Methodist Episcopal church.

Fanny wrote so many hymns that one can prove almost anything by choosing a verse here and there as to her theology, but it is reasonable to say that she had a strong conviction regarding the authority of Scripture, and a strong desire to see the Gospel preached and sung at every opportunity. She moved freely among well-schooled Presbyterians and circuit-riding Methodists, and though quite averse to speaking early in life, as she grew older she would speak to Christian groups of every stripe. She also often spoke to secular groups that were interested in her story of overcoming adversity, and was championed by suffragettes and abolitionists, yet through it all, she remained faithful to her first love, her Lord and Savior. She lived to be 94, and perhaps because of her trustful nature, was not always treated well by those with whom she had financial dealings. She did not begin writing hymns until the age of 45 and most of her thousands of hymns were copyrighted by her publishers, with Fanny receiving no royalties. Her hymns, e.g. To God Be the Glory and Blessed Assurance have, however, proven to be treasures without price, finding a place in the hymnals of virtually every denomination and assembly of God's people throughout the world. To God Be the Glory, indeed.