Frances Jane Crosby was born into a family of strong Puritan ancestry on March 24, 1820. As a baby, she had an eye infection which an incompetent doctor treated by placing hot poultices on her red and inflamed eyelids. The infection did clear up, but the result was that scars formed on the eyes, and the Fanny became blind for life. A few months later, Fanny’s dad became ill and died. Mercy Crosby, widowed at 21, hired herself out as a maid while Grandmother Eunice Crosby took care of little Fanny.
Fanny’s grandmother took on the education herself and became the girl’s eyes, vividly describing the physical world. Grandmother’s careful teaching helped develop Fanny’s descriptive abilities, she also nurtured Fanny’s spirit. She read and carefully explained the Bible to her, and she always emphasized the importance of prayer. When Fanny became depressed because she couldn’t learn as other children did, Grandmother taught her to pray to God for knowledge.
A landlady of the Crosby’s also had an important role in Fanny’s development. Mrs. Hawley helped Fanny memorize the Bible, and often the young girl learned five chapters a week. She knew the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms by heart. She developed a memory which often amazed her friends, but Fanny believed she was no different from others. Her blindness had simply forced her to develop her memory and her powers of concentration more. Blindness never produced self-pity in Fanny and she did not look on her blindness as a terrible thing. At eight years old she composed this little verse:
Oh, what a happy child 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!
So weep or sigh because I’m blind, I cannot – nor I won’t.
In 1834 Fanny learned of the New York Institute for the Blind and knew this was the answer to her prayer for an education. She entered the school when she was twelve and went on to teach there for twenty-three years. She became somewhat of a celebrity at the school and was called upon to write poems for almost every conceivable occasion.
On March 5, 1858, Fanny married Alexander van Alystyne, a former pupil at the Institute and now taught there as a professor. He was a musician who was considered one of the finest organists in the New York area. Fanny herself was an excellent harpist, played the piano, and had a lovely soprano voice. Even as an old woman (Fanny lived to be 95) Fanny would sit at the piano and play everything from classical works to hymns to ragtime. Sometimes she even played old hymns in a jazzed up style.
After her marriage, Fanny left the Institute, and in a few years she found her true vocation in writing hymns. She had an agreement with the publishers Bigelow and Main to write three hymns a week for use in their Sunday school publications. Sometimes Fanny wrote six or seven hymns a day. Though Fanny could write complex poetry as well as improvise music of classical structure, her hymns were aimed at bringing the message of the Gospel to people who would not listen to preaching. Whenever she wrote a hymn, she prayed God would use it to lead many souls to Him.
In her own day, the evangelistic team of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey effectively brought Fanny Crosby’s hymns to the masses. Today many of her hymns continue to draw souls to their Savior for both salvation and comfort: ” Blessed Assurance,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “To God Be the Glory, ” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” ” Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Rescue the Perishing,” “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” and many more.
Though her hymn writing declined in later years, Fanny was active in speaking engagements and missionary work among America’s urban poor almost until the day of her death in 1915. She sought to bring others to her Savior not only through her hymns but through her personal life as well. What happened when Fanny died? Perhaps one of her later hymns tells it best:
When my lifework is ended and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see,
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand!
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
By the print of the nails in His hand.
“It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
If I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind…for when I die, the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Saviour.”