One hundred years before Elvis was the King of Rock & Roll, Aunt Fanny was the Queen of American Hymn Writers. She is arguably the most prolific songwriter of all time, having written over 8,000 hymns during her lifetime. Today, one hundred years after her death, over 100 million copies of her songs remain in print and her more popular hymns can be found in most church hymnals in this country. Her accomplishments as a gifted composer, lyricist, poet, and musician are even more remarkable when you know that she never saw the beautiful world about which she wrote.
Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby was born March 4, 1820, on a farm in Putnam County, New York. As a six-week-old baby, Fanny developed an eye infection and the doctor prescribed as treatment a hot mustard plaster be smeared on the baby’s eyes. When her mother expressed concern about the remedy, the doctor reassured her that the mustard plaster was the only way to draw out the infection. However, instead of healing her eyes, the treatment blistered the baby’s eyes resulting blindness. A year later, Fanny’s father died and her 21-year-old mother was forced to hire out as maid to support herself and the baby.
While her mother cleaned houses, Grandmother Eunice kept Fanny and described in detail for her the wonders of God’s creation – the beauty of trees, flowers, birds, insects, sunsets, and sunrises. Eunice also routinely read the Bible to Fanny, who because of an extraordinary memory could memorize scripture passages after having only heard them read a couple of times. By age 12, Fanny had memorized the first five books of the Bible, the four gospels, Proverbs, and many of the Psalms.
At age 15, Fanny moved to the New York Institute for the Blind in New York City. With an insatiable desire to learn, she was taught music, history, literature, religion, and philosophy. After graduating, she became a teacher at the Institute and remained there for 23 years. While at the school, Fanny became quite famous for the songs and poems she wrote. In March 1858, at age 38, she married Alexander van Alstine, a former student, who was an Institute music teacher and 11-years her junior.
Fanny and Alexander moved to a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side near the Bowery, one of the worst slums in the city. It wasn’t until age 40 that she discovered her true calling in life when she signed a contract with publisher William Bradford to write hymns at $2 per hymn. She routinely wrote two to three hymns a day and it wasn’t uncommon for her to write six or seven in a day. Because some publishers were reluctant to have so many hymns by one person in their hymnals, Fanny Crosby published under 200 different pseudonyms during her career.
Many of Fanny Crosby’s hymns were brought to churches across the U.S. and Europe by the Dwight L. Moody’s evangelistic team and her music was an important part of his success. She and Alexander gave their time and most of their money to the Bowery’s Water Street Mission, the first rescue mission in the country, to help alcoholics and those down on their luck. Almost a household name during her time, she often visited with Presidents at the White House and read her poems before Congress. She was asked to play the piano and sing one of her hymns at President Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral.
Fanny Crosby wrote hymns and enjoyed playing the piano and singing right up to her death in 1915, a month before her 95th birthday. Although she could have easily been bitter about the circumstances that led to her blindness, Fanny considered her handicap a blessing as opposed to a curse. According to her, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
“Oh, what a happy soul am I, 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.” Fanny Crosby, age 8