I’ve written before about my background making music for God when I was a child – my church life was my real life, while school and the rest of the world were secondary passions. One of my favorite things to do at church was sing – whether it was congregational worship choruses, The Great Hymns of the Faith out of our staid red hymnals, or musicals in choir productions.
One of the names I remember most from the hymnal is Fanny Crosby. I remember knowing nothing about her except that she wrote a bunch of hymns, so this morning it occurred to me to research the hymnist, whom many in our congregation held with reverence. Wikipedia, in a long article on Crosby’s life and work, reports that she was one of the most prolific hymnists ever to live – writing over 8,000 of them during her career.
Crosby was born in 1820 just north of New York City. Blind from almost birth, she was an important figure at the New York Institute for the Blind, an institution where she spent 8 years as a pupil and many more as a staff member and supporter. Crosby came from a prominent family with roots to the Mayflower, and her connections over the years rendered hers an extraordinary life. Politically connected, she was very good friends with US president Grover Cleveland, for example.
Though it is likely her hymns which have secured her place in posterity, she was a powerhouse of writing during the last half of the 20th century, writing popular minstrel songs with a man named Root, who received most of the credit and monetary reward from the work. The pair wrote many popular works, including a cantata called The Flower Queen, which toured the country. Crosby wrote many poems, publishing them and also reciting them in public on auspicious occasions. Wikipedia reports that she was the first woman to speak in the US Senate, when in 1843 she recited one of her poems to attempt to rally support for educating the blind.
She was extremely politically active, and became a staunch abolitionist and supporter of the Union in the Civil War (she was always a resident of New York and Connecticut). One anecdote reveals her passion for politics – at a restaurant she was brandishing a pin of the Union flag, and a southern woman expressed disgust – Crosby replied, “Repeat that remark at your risk!” and the manager of the restaurant intervened to prevent a physical altercation.
As she aged, she married, but mostly separated from her husband. The two had one child who died in infancy. Crosby lived most of her life on very little money in various places around New York, giving away most of what little money she had and working steadfastly in Christian Rescue Missions. She continued to write and publish poetry and hymns until her death in 1915. By the end of her life various publishers had helped right their decades of taking advantage of Crosby financially, and she consequently became more financially secure.
Crosby’s life is impressive – I’m so glad I took a moment to learn a bit more about her this morning. Some of her many, many hymns that were popular in the church I grew up include Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Calling, Redeemed How I Love to Proclaim It, and To God Be the Glory. I can’t possibly say how many times I’ve sung her songs. But it’s been a long, long time.
Thanks for reading.