After a wonderful career of Christian service Fanny Crosby, known and loved throughout the civilized world as "the blind hymn writer," passed away in her ninety-fifth year at her home in Bridgeport, Conn., on February 12. She had long been in failing health, but notwithstanding the weakness of a naturally frail body, her mind was clear and her interest in her great life work of hymnology unimpaired to the last.
It has been said by one who knew her well that "if ever a harp was concealed within a human breast it lay hidden in the heart of Fanny Crosby, where for over fifty years it was attuned to the sweetest melodies that ever found expression in words." Nor was the tribute exaggerated, for the wonderful genius of the woman - whose songs, like those of the blind Homer, were sung in the darkness of her infirmity - has made itself felt wherever the voice of praise is lifter. Of the thousands of hymns she wrote there are many that will long continue to cheer the hearts and brighten the lives of multitudes and to win souls for the kingdom, as they have done in the past.
Frances Jane Crosby was born at Southeast, Putnam County, N.Y., March 24, 1820. Her blindness dated from her sixth week, when an affection of the eyes was subjected to improper treatment, resulting in total loss of sight. But it soon became apparent that the affliction only served to bring out all that was strong and beautiful in the young girl's nature. Her talent for versifying developed in childhood. When only eight years old she wrote these verses, which showed that even in her blindness she had a sweet, contented mind:
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!
She was educated in the Institute for the Blind, where in 1847 she began to teach school among the sightless inmates. Her gentle, patient nature and amiable disposition made her a universal favorite.
Her first "real" hymn, which she often recalled, in looking over her career, began with these well-known lines:
We are going, we are going
To a home beyond the skies.
It was written in New York City for William Bradbury, February 5, 1864, and from that time onward brain and pen wrought diligently, and many of her sweet, spiritual hymns became favorites in all Christian lands.
Before she began her career as a hymn-writer, she had already written a number of secular pieces for George F. Root, the composer, and had dedicated a little poem of welcome to Henry Clay on the occasion of his visit to New York, after the close of the Mexican War. She had the honor of being the first woman whose voice was ever heard in the United States Senate Chamber, where she recited a poem, by invitation, to a distinguished audience.
In the course of her long career as a hymn-writer Fanny Crosby attained, in a degree seldom equaled, the faculty of moving the heart and the religious emotion by her verses. Her sense of rhythm was absolutely perfect. The slightest incident afforded her inspiration, and her productions were the means of softening the heart of a sinner. Occasionally she wrote both words and music, for she had received a good musical education and could accompany her piano-playing in a clear soprano. As she grew older, however, she devoted her efforts wholly to the literary work, dictating to an amanuensis.
Her first volume of verses, entitled "A Blind Girl and Other Poems," was published in 1844, and was followed by others, including "Monterey and Other Poems," and "A Wreath of Columbia's Flowers," and in comparatively recent years, "Bells at Evening" and "Memoirs of Eighty Years." While she was a teacher of rhetoric and history in the Institute for the Blind she produced a number of secular pieces which had a wide popularity, among them being such well-known songs as "Hazel Dell," "Proud World, Good-by," "Honeysuckle Glen," "There's Music in the Air," "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower;" also two cantatas: "The Flower Queen" and "The Pilgrim Fathers."
Fanny Crosby numbered among her friends many of the best-known musical composers in America. This acquaintance was the means of stimulating her poetic talent to increased activity. Many of her hymns were composed to suit the measure and spirit of their musical productions. Dr. W.H. Doane, in April, 1869, spoke to her of a new melody he had just finished, and at her request he played it over. She listened with deep attention and evident appreciation, her poor, sightless eyes turned toward the player. Before an hour had passed she had dictated to an amanuensis her famous hymn, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," which perfectly expressed the spirit of Dr. Doane's beautiful music, and their united product has been translated into many languages and is sung throughout the world today.
Another of her collaborators was Mr. Hubert P. Main, the veteran composer. Mr. Main is said to be the most prolific writer of sacred music in his day and generation. He has written the scores to many of the most beautiful and best known of Fanny Crosby's hymns. Occasionally the order would be reversed, and the composer would play over to his blind auditor some new piece, explaining as he did so what thought, feeling or emotion it was meant to convey. Sitting with hands clasped she would listen quietly, asking him to repeat certain passages, so that she might get them fixed in her mind. Before the impression faded her wonderful talent would unfailingly succeed in producing verses which perfectly expressed the musical theme in language so beautiful and appropriate that it was a marvel to all who knew of her methods. To a keen ear and a retentive memory she added a delicate and true musical perception, which gave her a remarkable power in such tasks.
During the long and active career of the late Ira D. Sankey, he many times collaborated with Fanny Crosby in the production of Gospel hymns. The two were frequently in correspondence over a new piece. Fanny would have an inspiration that would result in a new poem, which she would ask Mr. Sankey to set to music; or the "singing evangelist" would have some new composition for which he would request the blind poet to supply a literary setting. This partnership was productive of hundreds of new hymns, many of which may still be found in the church hymnals. It was at this period of greatest productivity that Fanny Crosby employed a number of different pennames, including Mary J. Frances, Mrs. A. Van Alstyne, as the author of the new productions.
For upwards of twenty years Fanny Crosby was the warm friend and patron of the Bowery Mission. On more than one occasion she visited the Mission hall in New York, and such visits were marked by great outpourings of the unemployed and destitute, who almost worshiped the blind hymn-writer, and sang her songs in her presence with an energy and earnestness that she used to say "almost carried me off my feet." Regularly as her birthday came around, the men of the Mission remembered her with some kindly souvenir, to which she would respond with a helpful letter or a poem. When she spoke at the Mission, which she did at times, the rough audience was hushed, so that they might not miss a syllable of the feeble voice they loved to hear.
She was married in 1858 to Alexander Van Alstyne, a teacher, blind like herself, and who died in 1902. She made his acquaintance while at the Institution for the Blind.
Among the best known of Fanny Crosby's hymns are the following: Saved by Grace, Safe in the Arms of Jesus, Blessed Assurance, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour, Rescue the Perishing, The Bright Forever, I am Thine, O Lord, Jesus, I Come to Thee, Just a Word for Jesus, So Near to the Kingdom, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross, Through the New Jerusalem, and Saviour, More Than Life to Me.
There are probably more of her hymns sung today in the churches, in missions, at evangelistic gatherings, at camp meetings, and elsewhere than any other writer in the domain of American hymnology. Her words have been wedded to the best productions of over a score of composers. She never wrote a hymn that did not breathe the spirit of Christian faith and helpfulness, and her consecrated talent has been the means of winning many souls from sin to salvation.
Coming of a long-lived family, Fanny Crosby inherited those peculiar physical qualities that tend to longevity. She was of a cheerful and contented mind, a bright and pleasing conversationalist and unobtrusively helpful to all with whom she came in contact. In talking, her whole face would light up and her smile would so irradiate it that the colored glasses which she constantly wore were forgotten by the visitor in the charm and old-fashioned grace of her manner. During her long life she had met many prominent Americans and she counted among her friends Presidents Tyler, Van Buren, McKinley and Cleveland, Secretary William H. Seward, General Winfield Scott and Henry Clay. In recognition of her spiritual value to the Christian Church at large, the Methodist Church honored her by observing yearly a day which was known as "Fanny Crosby's Day," when special services of a musical and evangelistic character were held. Her last public appearance was in May, 1911 (she was then ninety-one years old), when she attended a mass meeting held by the Evangelistic Committee in Carnegie Hall, New York.
Perhaps the whole lesson of Fanny Crosby's wonderful life has been interpreted by herself more clearly and simply than could have been done by any other. She said: "I do not know but on the whole it has been a good thing that I have been blind. How in the world could I have lived such a helpful life as I have lived had I not been blind? I am very well satisfied."
Her life was a benediction. The blind hymn-writer, whose sweet songs have cheered so many, and who never in all her ninety-odd years saw the sunlight, or had the pleasure of looking on the faces of those she loved, has gone to that land where there is neither blindness nor sickness and where, with wide-open eyes, and ears attuned to heavenly melodies, she may witness the full realization of the dream for which she struggled so bravely and so faithfully while here on earth.
The funeral services were held in the First Methodist Church of Bridgeport, Connecticut, on February 15, when many hundred friends assembled. Delegations from various organizations of women were in attendance. White violets, the favorite flowers of the poetess, almost hid the casket from view. The Rev. George M. Brown officiated. The interment took place at Mountain Grove Cemetery.